Biking, Ballads and Breakdowns: Potosí and La Paz
October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
In Potosí – one of the highest cities in the world – we saw the sun for the first time in almost two weeks. It was beautiful. Down to the very depths of my rucksack went the abundance of llama socks and out came the summer dresses and shorts that I had stupidly packed without so much as a thought for which season it may be south of the equator.
Though we had been warned that the night life was dire, a couple of bottles of what tasted like dessert wine later and we were off on the hunt for a karaoke bar…
Our initial attempt was entitled ‘Taboo’, which was fitting, given that it most definitely should have been outlawed. Inside the front doors was a long, dingy corridor which was covered in something which looked and smelled suspiciously like urine. And at the top of a perilous-looking staircase was the ‘bar’ – or rather, an enormous kitchen/food hall with white plastic tables and chairs, of which only three or four were occupied. The ‘karaoke’ was a minuscule television buried in the corner, which had been muted and which everyone was either ignoring or were perhaps completely unaware of its existence. The microphones had made a desperate bid for freedom a long time ago.
The final straw, however, came when we realised that there was a man hunched under one of the tables, head to his chest, vomiting all down himself. We left fairly quickly after that.
Instead, we selected another karaoke place just a couple of doors down, which was evidently a former strip bar and was doing nothing to deny it. The room we occupied, with its red velvet curtains and heavy-duty LED lighting was unmistakably where the private shows would have once taken place.
Potosí’s finest karaoke menu – with such classics as ‘The Beathles’ – caused much amusement. Nick, our favourite Canadian, kicked off with an incredibly horrendous version of ‘The Final Countdown’ and it all went downhill fairly rapidly from there. We also all took part in an absolutely terrible rendition of ‘Summer of 69’, which would have definitely had Brian Adams smashing that old six string repeatedly into his own face, and ended the night trading Line Dancing for Scottish Caleigh Dancing and failing quite extraordinarily at both.
Potosí lies at the foot of Cerro de Potosí – a mountain commonly understood to be made of silver ore – and was founded in 1545 as a mining town. On our second day here, we got an early bus to the Silver Mines, stopping first to get kitted out in full on mining gear.
I’m not sure exactly what I thought the mines would be like, but I think I may have been expecting something just a little bit wider! The entrance was just a small hole in the side of a hill, and we all had to bend over to follow our guide down a dark tunnel of doom. It soon transpired that our mine guide was just there to get high and party; sharing information and knowledge of the mines was simply an accessory. All the way through, he chomped on coca leaves like they were going out of style and even demonstrated the benefits of mixing them with some sort of ash, exclaiming: ‘This will give you an amazing euphoric effect!’
The miners, and indeed a large majority of the indigenous people of the Andes, worship the goddess Pachamama – usually translated as Mother Earth. The local people usually toast to Pachamama’s honour before meetings or festivities by pouring a small amount of their drink on the ground before drinking the rest. In the mines, the miners had built a kind of statue/shrine to represent their God.
The empty bottles that can be seen lying around are, in fact, bottles of 96% alcohol which the miners drink daily. The guide, of course, had some, before passing it around for all of us to try. Many smelt it and declined, looking horrified, but Nick decided to try some. He attempted to keep a straight face, but looked like he might drop dead.
The mine got smaller, tighter and hotter as we continued onward. I was trying to convince myself to keep going, but the walls were closing in fast and I could feel the claustrophobia setting in. The final straw came when we ducked inside a tiny hole and the heat got much thicker. We then all had to back into a smaller corner to let some men pass with a wheelbarrow and I just couldn’t do it! I was on the verge of tears, shaking and I couldn’t catch my breathe. One of the other girls was in a similar state of panic, so Kim (who works in the mines back home) offered to walk us both back out. The guide had just jammed another handful of coca leaves into his cheek, and was far from being concerned for our well being.
Even when we resurfaced, it took me a long time to feel normal again. I kept reflecting on the fact that we were only on the top level of the mine, and there were people working so much deeper in the unfriendly darkness, often for 12 hours straight. The others in the group (who hadn’t succumbed to their claustrophobic breakdowns) continued further in, and took a photo of a 15 year old boy, who was working in the mines in order to take care of an ill family member. They commented that it was one of the most heartbreaking things they had ever seen.
From Potosí we bussed it up to Sucre, and then took our first night bus of the trip into La Paz. This fun-filled ride featured a family who must have been getting a free jaunt, as they had no seats and were camped out outside the toilet. That poor, poor family. I have no idea how many of us stood on/fell over them on our way to the toilet in the pitch black. I certainly did it at least three times.
We arrived in La Paz at 7.30am, only to be told that the bus for Death Road was picking us up at 8.30am. To make matters worse, our transfer was extremely late so we had to catch a taxi and arrived at the hotel with about 20 minutes to spare. We barely had time to grab a clean pair of pants before we were whisked away again!
Death Road is one of the world’s most dangerous roads, and at least 18 cyclists have died on the ride since 1998. It starts of at 5000 metres above sea level, there are some snowy mountains in the distance and it is bloody freezing! We got all our biking gear on – trousers, jackets, gloves and a full-face helmet – got on our bikes, were given a couple of simple instructions, and off we went!
Despite our guide, Vlad, heavily insisting “It’s not a race, guys, it’s NOT a race!”, it instantly became a race. You had to lean really far forwards to make the bike speed up, and we were going pretty fast, zooming past speeding buses and cars! There was a freezing cold wind, and my eyes were streaming behind my beautiful, stylish combination of both sunglasses and normal glasses. I was satisfied with my position as first girl; attempting to overtake the three guys in front would have been nothing short of a death wish.
The first part was fine because it was mainly flat (albeit car-filled) road. The second part, however, got a little crazier. The rest of the way down was more of a rough, dirt track than an actual road and, to the left, there was an unobstructed 600 metre drop of the side of a cliff. For someone with little or no mountain biking experience (such as myself), one quick tyre slip on a solitary rock could have sent me instantly flying off the cliff edge.
Fortunately, it was too misty to see much over the cliff face, so we weren’t completely aware of the potential death which lay in wait and even if it had been beautifully sunny, I doubt I would have dared take my eyes off the road. The majority is downhill and you drop 11,800 feet in total, which means your hands are constantly gripping the brakes in terror.
At one point, I somehow ended up completely on my own for over half an hour. I was totally killing it – standing up in the saddle, gliding round corners, even bike-hopping over some of the bigger rocks – and, of course, no one was around to witness it. Thus, no one believed me!
At another point, I completely misjudged a corner and ended up in a ditch, dangerously close to the cliff edge. One of the guys who I had overtaken on my descent cycled over but, instead of lending me a helping hand, he simply waved, laughed and shouted ‘Yaaas! Taking back over!!’. The race continued.
Overall, in the race that we weren’t supposed to be having, I came fifth (though held my first girl position, which I was particularly proud of!). We all got a celebratory Red Bull at the bottom and I don’t think I have ever appreciated that horrible drink more.
In spite of the very bumpy, rocky track, the cold that numbed your entire body, the aching hands after hours of panicked braking and the ceaseless fear of impending death (oh, and did I mention it was pissing down with rain the entire time?!), Death Road was certainly an experience and, if you ever find yourself in La Paz, it’s a definite must-do. You even get an ‘I survived Death Road’ t-shirt which you can then wear for the rest of time. I haven’t taken mine off yet.
After much needed food and beer in an English Pub (shameful travelers), it was onto yet another bus and off to cross the Peruvian border…