Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012, 13th – 23rd October: La Paz & Environs, Bolivia

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

My time in La Paz and its environs was an opportunity to spend some time with that someone special from Medellín and explore the area with her, using La Paz as a base.

La Paz – The City

I was not taken with La Paz. It is a chaotic mix of steep and dirty streets and terrible traffic fumes. Passages of vehicles and pedestrians are constantly slowed by the innumerable stalls set up in the inside lanes of the streets. Streets are poorly lit at night (giving the place a grungy feel) and there is little to say about the place architecturally. Hence, we got out to the countryside as much as possible which is where the charms lie. The three excursions we made were a day on ´La Carratera de la Muerte´ (´The Death Road´), a two day trip to the Sajama National Park and a three day trip to Lake Titicaca (including Copacabana and Isla del Sol).

View of the Steep Sides of La Paz From Hotel Window

´La Carratera de la Muerte´ (´The Death Road´)

Until around six years ago, there was only one route from Yolosa and Coroico to La Paz along a precarious gravel mountain road. For the vast majority of this crash barrier-free route, one´s options for manoeuvring were limited by the wall of the cliff on one side and the drop of the cliff on the other. Those descending had the roughest deal as the obligation was that those travelling downhill were to take the outside (drop side) lane. With the extent of the road being frequently little more than the width of a vehicle, passing oncoming traffic would have been a death-defying challenge – even at the wider passing points. Often drivers did not do a particularly good job of the death-defying bit and they (and any passengers) met their maker at the bottom of the cliff. In fact, it is reported that the road used to be responsible for several hundred deaths a year. With such statistics, the ´death road´ name was apt in the days it was the principal vehicular route.

´La Carratera de la Muerte´ Tracking down the Valley

The following web page gives a very good personal account of the harrowing history of the road when it was used extensively by vehicles:

Around six years ago the crazy road was replaced by a modern alternative in the next valley; and now the death road is predominantly a tourist´s playground. We joined one of the numerous agencies offering an exciting day to descend a total of 3,500 metres / 11,483 feet in altitude (from 4,700 to 1,200 metres) along a distance of 63 km (39 miles). With such an incredible height change, one feels like one visits two countries in four hours as the change in temperature is remarkable. Since it is all downhill, one can ride 63 km virtually without pedalling, so even circumferentially challenged people could enjoy the day.

The Precarious Death Road
Since a man on a bike is not very wide and pretty much everyone on the road these days are tourists travelling in the same direction, the death road tag is now predominantly tourist industry hype as, in my opinion, there is no great risk. Reportedly some cyclists do project themselves towards the valley floor, but I suspect that they might have forgotten that excessively fast cornering, gravel and a cliff edge are a bad mix. As long as you do not go at too crazy a speed, it is all relatively gentile.

Sajama National Park

As my last blog entry on Arequipa, Perú attests, I am a fan of the intoxicating blend of landscape, light and colours of the altiplano (high plain). One volcano-scattered part accessible from La Paz via a two day trip is the Sajama National Park. It is named after Volcán Sajama (the highest peak in Bolivia) and lies next to the frontier with Chile.

Upon leaving the centre of La Paz which lies in the valley floor at around 3,600 metres (11,811 feet), one climbs to El Plano at around 4,000 metres (13,123 feet). From there, the journey across the altiplano is eventful as there are many visual niceties worthy of a photo stop. These include red and yellow rock strata upended by shifts in the earth´s crust as well as vistas with wide planes and vast skies.

Altiplano View En-Route to Sajama

Rock Forms En-Route to Sajama
with Volcán Sajama in the Distance
The Sajama National Park is spectacular and while staying in the remote pueblito (village) of Sajama, the immediate plain is ringed by the snow-topped peaks of Volcánes Sajama, Anallajachi, Pomerape, Parinacota and Acotango, which draw one´s eyes skyward to the azure canvas flecked with sunlight-stratifying clouds. Though the volcanoes are now inactive, the fissures in the earth´s crust are evidenced by the mineral deposits on the surface of the ground and the geysers. In many places the earth is turned white by the natural saltpetre (potassium nitrate) deposits. Near to the pueblito are geysers (no dramatic skyward gushes just bubbling), and thermal baths where one can enjoy a hot open-air bath with views of snow-capped volcanoes.

Volcán Sajama

Volcánes Parinacota & Pomerape

Geyser Near Sajama

Tim Enjoying the Thermal Baths
with Volcán Sajama in the Distance
Near to Sajama village there were plenty of opportunities to see llamas and alpacas, (alpacas are a shorter more-furry cousin of the llama). Alpacas ´son muy bacanas´ (are very cool). We were highly entertained and amused by the way they happily look at you with their fur-ringed faces. They seem to consider you for a moment as if you are vaguely familiar to them, like they know you from some time back, but do not have the time to stop and say hello as there is just so much grass to be eaten.

Alan Alpaca

Alpacas ´Recognizing Us´ with Volcán Sajama in the Distance

Lago Titicaca

Would Lake Titicaca be quite so famous were it not for the rather cool and memorable name – who knows? Straddling the border between Perú and Bolivia, it is certainly large at around 165 km (103 miles) long and 280 metres (919 feet) deep. The town of Copacabana is the main launching pad for exploring the lake on the Bolivian side. For a town centred round tourism, Copacabana is not too bad and is not gratuitously touristy.

Lago Titicaca: En-Route to Isla del Sol
For a more peaceful connection with the lake we travelled the 1½ hours by boat to the south of Isla del Sol (Sun Island). The views from the top of the ridge that runs the length of the island are beautiful. Viewed from above in the bright high altitude sunlight, the blue of the lake is intense and is set wonderfully against the sun-baked earth colours of the island and the nearby mainland. I can appreciate why the island was the birthplace of the Inca Empire as it is an inspiring place.

View from Isla del Sol with the Snow-Capped
Cordillera Oriental of the Andes in the Far Distance

Elevated View from Isla del Sol


  1. Hey Andean Adventurer,

    I just finished my stay at La Casita de Edith in Cusco. I saw your entry in the book. You left here the same day I arrived. There is a lot of convergence in all of this. I will be heading to La Paz next, and though I already went to Lake Titicaca, I will be returning to it on the Bolivian side for a festival that starts december 12th. And I plan on going on the death road as well. Great post I love the views of the volcanoes you provided.

    my blog is here if you want to check it out,

    Viva Aventura

    1. Hi mostlyirishjuggler, and sorry for the slow response to your message. Well I am not mostly Irish, just half. What a great country Ireland is - I look forward to visiting my relatives there when I am back in England - a matter of weeks now after 15 months in South America, what an amazing continent!

      So I hope that you enjoyed Lago Titicaca from the Bolivian side (is it better than the Peruvian one as I hear that it is overly touristy there)? I also trust that you enjoyed the Death Road ride, that is such a great day out.

      At the moment I am In Buenos Aires which is my final place (and it was my first too as I have done a big figure of eight around the continent). Buenos Aires is a fantastic city - a great place for the finale to my travels.

      Enjoy the rest of your exploring.