La Paz is the defacto capital of the Plurinational State of Bolivia (the constitutional capital is Sucre), the third biggest city in the country (after Santa Cruz and El Alto – though El Alto is the city which sits 400m above La Paz on the flat altiplano and they basically run into one) and La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world. La Paz is built in a valley surrounded on all four sides by mountains, with a number of 6000m peaks behind those and Bolivia’s highest peak, Illimani, can be seen from all over the city. Every inch of marginally flat space was built on, extending all the way up the hillsides. It reminded us of Valparaiso in Chile but rather than stopping at the sea, La Paz continues up and up on the other side of the valley.
We don’t usually like large cities because they are busy, dirty and a nightmare to cycle around but La Paz was different, we actually really enjoyed it. It helped that the area where our couchsurfing host lived was out of the main downtown area in the upmarket neighbourhood of Achumani. This meant that we didn’t need to ride the main road into the city, finding a quieter back road with amazing views instead.
Samai was an amazing host. She helped us make the most of our time with recommendations about where to go, what to see and how to get around. Although she was busy with work she made some time to share some meals with us, discuss the political situation in Bolivia and learn about her work as a medicine woman.
We are terrible when we get to a new place, we always want to explore and make the most of our time there, neglecting the need for rest. We spent the first two days travelling around the city using the network of teleféricos (cable cars) and micros or trufis (minibus taxis), seeing the city from different viewpoints, which is great as public transport is so cheap here (30p for an hours bus ride!). The city is a sprawling mess built on so many different levels and to see it all at one time is almost impossible so travelling through the air, seeing it from a teleférico helped get a good sense of the scale of the city.
Día del peaton (Day of the pedestrian, or “No car day”) happens twice a year in La Paz and is quite an ambitious undertaking, but somehow it works. So what happens in a city of a quarter million people when vehicles aren’t on the road?
Children and adults alike take to the streets armed with anything that will roll and the roads become cycle paths, barbie kart racing tracks for the brave (often down some crazy steep hills!) and football pitches. On the main dual carriageway through the city it was like a festival with not a car in sight. It was incredible to see families playing outside together without having to worry about cars, food sellers everywhere and everyone was having a great time. Obviously some people still had to work and go places, which is where the teleférico system comes into its own and was busy transporting pedestrians and cyclists around the city all day.
When 5pm came around and the first vehicles were back on the road it took a while to realise what was going on. Walking in the middle of the road was no longer safe and the onslaught of car engines and beeping car horns started to assault our ears again. Although everyone honoured the pedestrian only day, you could tell that the Paceño population like their cars just as much as we do in the UK with people in a rush to go somewhere and taxi drivers and micros trying to make up for lost business.
Although it didn’t seem like a very touristy city there is definitely a main tourist centre where you will find a tour company, artisanal tat store, gringo food outlet and hostel, and repeat. Most tourists that visit Bolivia will travel through La Paz at some point and as such there was a lot going on. We attended a Couchsurfing event at AntiCafe (a place with good food, music, beer and nice atmosphere) to play the werewolf game. It is similar to “The Resistance” game that we have played the last few years at Christmas, and basically you have to lie and try to convince everyone that you’re a good guy, not a werewolf that’s trying to kill everyone. It was a fun few hours and definitely a game to play at family events in the future!
We later found out that the guy who owned the cafe (and hosted the event) also lived just up road from where we were staying with 3 other couchsurfers from the game. The next evening they kindly invited us for a meal with them and to play another game. It was a really nice two nights of socialising and meeting new people, which is why we love couchsurfing.
Speaking of socialising, the next day we met up with Henry. We hadn’t seen him since Sucre so when we learnt he was also in La Paz we arranged to meet up for food and a beer. It was good to hear where he’d been and what he’d been up to for the last two months over tasty Mexican food, a gigantic fruit salad and a good locally brewed beer.
Our four days in La Paz quickly turned into eight as we did eventually take some much needed days to rest, relax and plan what we are going to do in Peru. With the 90 day expiry date on our Bolivian visa rapidly approaching we used the teleférico to get out of town and we were back on the road. First though we had some dull altiplano riding to contend with. To start off with there were some nice views of the Cordillera Real mountains but it wasn’t long until it was back to the windy, flat and uninteresting riding that we associate with the altiplano.
We chose to ride the route around the northern/eastern side of Lake Titicaca and then follow the main road to Cusco because we had heard that there was a lot of unseasonable snow in the mountains, something we weren’t keen on cycling through. Ausengate and the Tres Cordellas route would have to wait until the next trip, already being planned!
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in world and while the road doesn’t follow the lake, we did have some nice views over the massive expansive of water. It was also much quieter taking the eastern route because the tourist buses go to Copacabana and Puno on the western shore.
This meant that camping near the road wasn’t a problem because the only traffic after sunset were farmers heading home with their animals after a day in the fields and the odd local vehicle.
It was the most hassle free border crossing of the trip, with the officers more interested in our bikes than doing the admin work. We felt quite sad to say goodbye to Bolivia after three months of travelling, studying and doing our workaway in the country. It is a very underrated country with so much to see, especially if you head away from the usual La Paz to Uyuni tourist trail and see what life is like in the rural communities. Again, we have a list of places for the next trip and we are already looking forward to it.
Finally… we have made it to Peru. Country number 7! There are a few noticeable differences already, for example rather than “Evo, Si” propaganda painted everywhere, here in Peru the people have different candidates for the local mayoral election to vote for (and there is still a lot of propaganda surrounding this). There is less litter. Bolivia was the worst for litter, with rubbish strewn everywhere in the countryside and cities alike, but as soon as we crossed the border the towns and rural areas have been so much cleaner. Finally Peruvians beep their horns a lot more and maybe it’s because we’ve only been on the main road from Bolivia to Peru, but the drivers seem worse here in Peru especially the minibus drivers. However it’s only been a week so we’ll reserve judgement until we’ve spent a bit longer in the country.
Whilst the riding wasn’t particularly enjoyable we had some nice encounters with the locals, either when buying supplies at the tiny grocery store, entering a small rural village or cycling past them as they walked along the road. One old lady absolutely cracked up as we rode by. It was so funny, she just couldn’t stop laughing at us and we have no idea why. It’s nice that people are entertained by what we are doing. It’s these random meetings and interactions with the locals that you just can’t buy and are entirely possible because we travel by bike as the regular tourist won’t come to these places.
It was two days ride from the border to Juliaca, one day on really quiet pretty roads and the next on a busy road without a hard shoulder, dodging minibuses. We decided to have a rest day in Juliaca, something we never do if it’s not the destination we’re heading for, usually we push on but get worn out. We’ve realised that we ride like everyday is a mountain bike ride so we go out, ride until we’re hungry and eat, then ride until we’re tired and stop. Probably not the best approach for cycling day in day out, so we’re trying out having a rest day every few days even if it’s not the final destination we’re heading for.
It was a good place to spend a day off because Juliaca is an industrial town with little of interest to a tourist. It was a nice treat to have a plush (but still cheap) hotel room, plan our route to Cusco (and beyond) and figure out how to do Machu Picchu on a budget. Food was cheap too and we had new choices available such as Chinese food. The chifa is a Peruvian/Chinese hybrid with a soup as a starter then egg fried rice, meat and chips for your main course, and for £1.50 it’s a huge meal. The second night in Juliaca was spent at the Casa de Ciclista, a free place for cyclists to stay and with basic facilities, it was a nice place to rest. We had met Alec a few days earlier, a cyclist from London that had cycled from Alaska 16 months ago, and he had told us about the place so we wanted to visit it. There were no other cyclists there sadly but Giovanni, the owner, was really helpful and it was a nice place to relax. If we weren’t chasing the dry season north we would have happily stayed longer.
Leaving Juliaca we rode 360km in four days to Cusco. Although the main road was pretty dull and we listened to podcasts most of the day, we made good time and managed to ride two 100km+ days each separated by a shorter 60km day. We stayed at some amazing hot springs for one such short day and relaxed in them all afternoon and evening. It was a proper locals only place as the tourist buses don’t stop on the road between Lake Titicaca and Cusco, which suited us fine and the price reflected this. We got a room and access to all the hot outdoor pools for £6.60 for the both of us. Bargain!
We were glad to arrive in Cusco at 12:30pm on the fourth day which meant we had all afternoon to explore and get our bearings. It was also a Sunday so the traffic was considerably less than any other day of the week and this made cycling into the city more bearable (a consideration when you don’t have a teleférico to ride in on!). We stayed at Hospedaje Estrellita for one night as we arrived a day earlier than planned and our couchsurfing was arranged for the following day. The hospedaje though is renowned as being the cyclists hub in Cusco and whilst not the fanciest place, it was clean and had everything we needed for a night (hot shower, private room, kitchen and bike storage). This time we did get to meet some other cyclists which meant getting information about the road ahead and sharing our knowledge of where we’ve been. It’s always useful meeting cyclists coming from the other direction for this reason.
We have a few days off now to purchase some much needed new bike parts from the better stocked bike shops here, buy our Machu Picchu tickets and have a rest before we go and explore the famous Incan ruins. That will be the next blog…
Until next time,
Steph and Ben