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The city divided : La Paz and the plague of minibuses

Everyone from the motorbiking club members to the German-speaking Argentinians who gave us water on the tortuous road from the national park warned us against Bolivia, albeit for very different reasons. Note: we discovered the sand pit road is actually in a national park (below) other bikers beware, it’s a long long road of sand and gravel after Tarata.

The bikers said quite seriously that Bolivians don’t sell petrol to foreigners and they would refuse to fill our spare jerrycans. This massively impacted our route to La Paz as we had been planning on traveling via Uyuni (the salt flats) but were warned that the road wasn’t in great condition for motorbikes (usually frequented by 4×4 cars) and that there were literally zero petrol stations for up to 600km of roadway.

The Argentinians, on the other hand, darkly mentioned that our bikes were worth killing us for and that we should stop for no one on the side of the road. They went on to say that La Paz wasn’t worth it and we should consider turning back (this was after Alex had slipped on sand three times and already collected an impressive suite of bruises on the road we’d just suffered). We decided to ignore their advice and had enough petrol to get us to La Paz so we would continue.

It was worth the risk – the city was unlike anything we’d seen before. La Paz seems to be divided on many levels. The city is spread within two valleys with sharp rocky mountains cleaving through the spread of houses. You enter the city through Alto which is at the summit of one of the surrounding mountains and all roads plunge down into La Paz proper. Homes cling to the sides of the steep mountains, unbelievably exposed to the elements and the unforgiving angles of the valley. 90% of the buildings are made from brick giving the illusion of a terracotta sea lapping up the mountains. The occasional highrise punctuates the red and only makes the buildings look stranded, or drowned.


La Paz from El Alto

The winding roads and difference in height from one part of the city to the next (the difference in altitude between the extremes is approximately 650m) make the modes of public transport available ideal for the geography- the teleferique is the best way to cross the city, offering front seat views of the bowl.

Another clear difference is in the affluence or lack of it in discrete areas of La Paz. The south west feels European with its modern apartments and wide streets, the higher reaches towards El Alto feel definitely less so with shabby houses and a small army of strays patrolling the rubbled roads.

After a few days of rest, we were ready to head to Peru. Alex was still traumatised by the memory of the road in and insisted on taking the long road out of La Paz (the highway circumnavigates the entire city, thus adding 45 minutes more to the journey). The downside of this plan is that the highway serves the airport and every minibus and coach insists on using the same road. The minibuses ignore most of the road rules and muscle in to your left or your right regardless of space available. Once the airport was behind us, the trial of minibuses ended but we soon discovered that every main road out of La Paz was closed for roadworks. Eventually, we eked a way out to be met with a temporary diversion  through what looked like a football pitch of hard sand dunes with cars and minibuses crossing at all angles and directions. After falling over once and being beeped at irritably by a taxi, Alex managed to exit the pitch towards the remaining main road out. We eventually escaped the mayhem and reached tarmac and the continuation of the journey towards Peru.

We did eventually manage to convince a petrol station to sell us some fuel but it appeared that as non-Bolivians, we were charged 300% of the advertised price. The funny thing was, the receipt stated the expected price per litre but the till said otherwise. We definitely saw the pump attendant slip the extra 200% into his pocket as we pulled off.

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