Friday, 22 April 2011

La Paz, Bolivia - I heard it on the grapevine

Big foreign cities by bicycle frighten me a little but back in November I found the courage and Juan to cycle out of Buenos Aires and a week ago I found the courage and Rodrigo to cycle into La Paz!

After bussing my way across southwest Bolivia, it was great to be back on the bike cycling north from Oruro, even though the route was pretty dull. It crossed a featureless high plain with a few scrawny villages where people were bent double in the fields working small plots by hand. Latterly snow-capped volcanoes appeared on the western horizon - the same chain of volcanoes that I first cycled across back on New Year´s Day. How time flies!

The road north may have been dull but there was always something to see in the towns. Take, for example, the two days I spent in Oruro. On the first day, taxis and buses blockaded the city centre, angry protestors waving banners and exploding dynamite marched on the main plaza and armed police were out in force. The next day, hundreds of happy kids in fancy dress gathered on the plaza to celebrate children´s day, brass bands played cheery tunes ... and armed police were out in force! Mind you, they do look quite sexy in their little combat-style uniforms.

And the dogs always keep me on my toes. I love dogs but those in Bolivia are not endearing themselves to me. As soon as they see the bike, the chase is on. On one occasion a dog actually got its teeth into my rear tyre and on another occasion I just withdrew my ankle in time. As a single woman in my 40s, there are occasions when I might enjoy hot, slavery breath on my skin - this was not one of them! My technique for dealing with the dogs is -

1. stop pedalling and get off the bike - this switches off the "chase" instinct and you can´t out-run them anyway.
2. march towards them shouting and waving your arms in a dominant, top-dog manner. Thank goodness I watched all those episodes of "It´s Me or the Dog".
3. if 1 and 2 fail, throw some rocks at the muts. I actually hit one only once!
4. if 1, 2 and 3 fail . . . just be thankful you had that rabies jab before you left.

This little performance will often be watched by the owner who seems not at all concerned that his charge is trying to chew my leg off!

Surprisingly, I´d make a good meal for a dog just now as I´m eating reasonably well in Bolivia. Each day I have one or two meals out in a restaurant and even in tourist places I can get a decent meal for a few pounds. I supplement these meals with fruits and vegetables from the markets and with Snickers and M&Ms from the USA! My favourite meal is "lomo montado" - steak with a fried egg on top layered with rice and potatoes. I´m also enjoying quinoa, the traditional cereal of the Altiplano, either cooked so it´s bit like rice or as a delicious breakfast cereal.

Powered by a pannier-load of quinoa, I cycled towards La Paz. I´d been unsure about cycling into the city on my own - the British Embassy webpage makes it sound as dangerous as Baghdad . . . or Ballingry! But I had an amazing stroke of luck when south of the city I pulled into a roadside motel on the same day as Rodrigo who was cycling from the very tip of South America back home to Mexico. We agreed to cycle into La Paz together.

La Paz is not a beautiful city but it is a spectacular city. It is built in a vast, deep canyon surrounded by rocky mountains. The huge sprawl of houses is stacked precariously on the hillsides and overlooked by the stunning, snow-capped Illimani. You approach the city from above, cycling around the rim of the canyon, with the city spread out below. The top of the canyon is at 13,000 feet and I spent three days cycling up to this altitude only to lose what I´d gained in the 3-mile, 15-minute descent into La Paz!

From Alaska through North and Central America and onto Ushuaia at the very tip of South America, there is a steady stream of cyclists. Some are travelling north and some south but all are bound together by a "grapevine" where information about routes and places or news of joint acquaintances made, is passed up and down the line. It was on this grapevine that Rodrigo and I heard about a Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz. These Casas are houses that have been opened up to touring cyclists as a cheap, safe place to lay your head for a night or two. We decided to hunt it out. By the time we had the address from the "Bike Cafe" in the city centre, we had been joined by a third cyclist, Araitz from Spain. Our little convoy made a mad dash across the night-time city to the Casa - it was dark, the traffic was crazy, the horns were deafening, the smells of street food wafted in the evening air and on the mountainsides all around twinkled the lights of a million homes. It was a magical ride!

As I´m spending a bit of time in La Paz sorting out a visa for the next leg of my trip, I´ve moved from the Casa to a more comfortable hostel. A beautiful, old colonial house and the former home of a Bolivian president, it has pretty, cobbled courtyards with wicker chairs to relax in and rooms set around wooden balconies. I feel like a spoiled foreign dignatory - all I need to complete the scene are some fat Cuban cigars!

I´m not a fan of big cities and La Paz is a big, busy, noisy, congested, modern city with only small pockets of charm and colonial architecture left. And yet I´m really enjoying being in La Paz. It´s exotic . . . it has a certain "something" . . . it has the only supermarket in Bolivia and it sells cheddar cheese and Cadbury´s Fudges! And every time you turn a corner, the narrow streets afford you a slim slice of a view to the surrounding hillsides with their tightly-packed, gravity-defying houses. Then here and there, in a delightful juxtaposition, modern blocks will artfully frame a beautiful old church. These last few evenings, I´ve wandered round to the little square in front of La Merced Church, one block away from my hostel. In the run-up to Easter, there have been rows of stalls selling beautiful handmade cakes and gorgeous breads, barbecues sending flames up into the night air, a saxophonist playing Simon and Garfunkel tunes and hundreds of people streaming out of the church and mingling amongst the stalls. The city lights sparkle on the surrounding hillsides and people are wrapped up in warm coats and woollens against the chilly Altiplano evenings. It´s simply delightful. Then this evening I watched the Easter procession through the city - religious icons were paraded through the streets in front of crowds of thousands as choirs sang melancholy songs. The city clock chimed the hour and incense filled the air - it all gave me goosebumps. Then, of course, the brass bands passed through - nothing happens in Bolivia without a brass band. It´s quite superb.

In the Indian quarter near-vertical cobbled streets are adorned with colourful textiles and woollens on sale to tourists who fall easily into the trap of going home with a poncho. Also in the Indian quarter is the Witches´ Market where you can buy llama foetuses. Sealing a llama foetus into the walls of a new home is said to ward off evil spirits. They are really quite gruesome but I couldn´t help staring at them. Llama foetuses are also still used today by the Aymara Indians for ceremonies each solstice at Tiahuanaco, Bolivia´s most important historical site. It lies 45 miles west of La Paz and I took a bus trip out there to explore the ruins.

The Tiahuanaco civilisation was the longest surviving South American empire, thriving from 1500BC for 3000 years. The ruins at Tiahuanaco represent a ceremonial complex at the heart of the empire and contain sophisticated solar calendars. The intricately-decorated monoliths and gateways of the complex were perfectly aligned so that on each equinox the rays of the sun would pass through the most important part of the temple, the Puerta del Sol, or the Sun Gate, with its inscriptions representing each month of the year. It´s absolutely fascinating and as the guide drew diagrams in the dirt to explain this, I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie!

The Tiahuanaco civilisation eventually collapsed, possibly due to flooding of its productive raised field system. However, its collapse gave birth to the Aymara Indians that today still inhabit Bolivia, southern Peru and northern parts of Chile and Argentina, and to the most powerful and possibly most famous South American civilisation . . . the Incas.

When we think of the Incas we probably picture the majestic ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru. But the most important site in the Inca empire was the place of the Inca creation legend, further south in Bolivia. In a few days I´ll be pedalling north from La Paz to cycle to that very place . . . a place I´ve always wanted to see and my final destination in South America . . . Lake Titicaca.

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