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BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 12 BOLIVIA — LA PAZ

La Paz

La Paz is not a particularly attractive city but it is notorious with travellers for a number of reasons — mainly drugs, the world’s most dangerous road and the San Pedro prison.

There was once a scheme where people dressed as zebras help children to cross the road in La Paz, this was a relatively successful project until one of the zebras got run over and killed.

The clock on La Paz’s Congress building goes backwards (anti-clockwise) and the numbers the other way. Defending his decision, the Bolivian foreign minister said: ‘Who says that the clock always has to turn one way? Why do we always have to obey? Why can’t we be creative?’

He said it was because they lived in the South, but locals claimed they had just though the clock was a ‘mistake’. Clock or no clock, La Paz will struggle to shake off its insalubrious reputation.

Unless you live on the moon then I’m sure that you are well aware of South America’s most infamous export, I’ll give you a clue that it isn’t coffee, beef or soya. A regular topic of conversation that is inevitable between travellers is where they have been so far on their trip and if you meet someone coming from the opposite direction then you can usually glean vital information on what to expect, what to do and most importantly where to drink.

The South American twist on this conversation if your new buddy is travelling down from Bolivia is the hushed question ‘do you like coke?’. Following this, there is usually a story of coke-fuelled carnage from some of the local product in Colombia/Ecuador/Bolivia etc.

I had never used cocaine before arriving in Bolivia, however, curiosity got the better of the pair of us and we had our first experience in La Paz. We were definitely not the only tourists to partake and we met many other backpackers who had done the same and some who became addicted to it. I have not used cocaine since leaving Latin America as the ethical argument against it is very strong and something I will outline later on.

There are some highly dubious tourist attractions in South America as you will have gathered by now, and that is especially the case in Bolivia. The first of these attractions is the San Pedro prison in the centre of La Paz and the second of which is the ‘Death Road’ downhill bike ride. The death road is also known as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, with good reason as it had the highest death rate of any road in the world, claiming 200–300 lives every year. It is now out of action and is only used by tour groups who offer the macabre cycle ride to backpackers.

The second most dangerous road is in Afghanistan and goes through Taliban territory but that it is not the reason it is so dangerous, it is followed by Alaska and then Pakistan and Chinese roads take the fourth and fifth place. Not entirely surprising given the rugged territory of these countries.

Bolivia’s North Yungas road bike ride is almost obligatory so we went along and did it. I couldn’t complete it due to a problem with my bike because we went with the cheapest company of all for only £25. The only company with a safety procedure in place offered it for £80 which shows that our provider was pretty dire. Everyone had to wear a puffy boiler suit, boots and a helmet for ‘protection’.

The official provider is trained to rope you out if you go over the edge, I’m not sure if that would help if you’d broken all the bones in your body but still better than nothing. There are loads of cowboys out there, one of the wheels of the Argentinian’s bikes came off and they gave him my old bike with the busted brake which he also rejected. Luckily they had one more bike but if that had broken he would have to have sat in the back with me.

Apparently, the downhill driver did not have right of way and had to move to the outside edge to let others pass. I just don’t know how any cars could have passed each other on this road as it is so thin. When I was in the van behind the cyclists there were times when we were inching along as there was barely anywhere to manoeuvre and the tyre was over the edge of the road. Some of these tight spots also had small waterfalls down the rocks making them slippery and more perilous.

There are so many horror stories about the road as you go along the Gringo trail, I heard that an Israeli girl went over the edge on purpose after a break-up and I did see a Jewish gravestone (amongst others) on the route. I also heard about people breaking wrists and arms, including an Australian bloke who went over his handlebars and broke both his arms. Someone I used to work with knocked her front teeth out.

The good news is that they take you to a guest house at the end in the village of Yolosa and you get to have a beer, a swim and a buffet before heading back to the cesspit of La Paz.

Now for our next infamous attraction. The San Pedro prison experience was made famous in the biography of English drug trafficker Thomas McFadden who was incarcerated there. His story was told in Marching Powder which was written by the law graduate Rusty Young, who befriended Thomas in the jail.

Incarcerated may not be the right word as it is an open jail where due to poverty families have no choice but to live with their convicted partners, the inmates can also bribe the guards to let them go on a night out of they wish. The great irony of the story was that Thomas was caught smuggling cocaine and when he was put in solitary confinement he still had balls of cocaine still in his stomach. He kept on swallowing the coke balls each time they worked their way through his digestive system in the hope that he could sell them to the inmates when got out of his lone cell.

This unsanitary situation proved to be rather futile as when he was free to roam he discovered that the prisoners manufactured their own cocaine and that the product was also the purest in the world. For anyone familiar with Breaking Bad this is Walter White quality gear.

After seeing some coked up backpackers sitting in the prison canteen, I can believe that it is the purest in the world as they were obviously very, very high. We were offered cocaine at the end of the tour but taking cocaine in the prison didn’t have a massive appeal, especially as it was full of men who were potentially dangerous.

Our tour guide cheerfully informed us that our two security guards were murderers which bizarrely meant that they were better qualified to protect us from violent inmates. The situation became more bizarre when Steph offered one of the murderers a cigarette as a goodwill bribe and he turned it down and asked for a sweet instead, which of course made it all the more confusing.

As you will have gathered, you can go on a tour of the prison if you pay a bribe, this is a very lucrative business for the guards and tour guides alike as it seems that every backpacker wants to see the awful cocaine spewing hellhole that is San Pedro prison.

The entry fee was about £20 and you went armed with cigarettes for prison workers and sweets for the armies of kids that in highly unfortunate circumstances are brought up calling the jail their home. Luckily for us the South African women who was the unofficial tourist receptionist on the door had melted her brain with narcotics years earlier and she completely forgot to charge us for the privilege of the San Pedro experience.

It was only a matter of time before a journalist did the obligatory undercover ‘expose’ on the San Pedro tours as with the favela tours despite the jail being an open secret often spoken about by travellers on the circuit. As Marching Powder explains what happens on the inside in vivid detail, it was an odd choice of story and meant that the tour was shut down. As far as I’m aware it hasn’t been reopened since. Whilst it caused less harm than the favela report that endangered the lives of the tour guides it was much less worthy than other major events that often go unreported internationally.

That evening Steph and I sated our curiosity by trying cocaine under the duress of our three Aussie roommates. We trailed around various bars in La Paz until we got to the infamous cocaine den of the capital which I will not name but suffice to say that it was full of coked up tourists. We were thrown out for bringing our own cocaine and not buying their product from the bar which was lovingly served to you on a CD case with a straw. A major issue with the underground bar was that tourists did not know their limits and having no prior experience of using the drug had the tendency to overdo it and exhibit symptoms of overdose.

This creates a panic with other tourists as the security men will not allow somebody who is foaming at the mouth to leave partly because of the police and partly because of the death risk. The staff have to wait until the person’s heart rate slows down to a safe level before they let them go which is not easy when they don’t speak much English and are being shouted at by wrecked tourists.

I found it frustrating and slightly scary that there were travellers who used to take such big risks that they wouldn’t dream of if they were at home. Being in a foreign country does not make you suddenly invincible and I wish more people would remember that. I heard that a traveller in Brazil walked into a favela alone to buy cocaine and was subsequently robbed, this behaviour utterly confounds me and was a constant cause of concern to me during the trip.

There was an oxygen bar in our hostel on the top floor so we went up to try some, being at such high altitude, oxygen is no joke and you definitely miss it. We made the mistake of sharing our apple flavoured oxygen (others are available) so we didn’t get that much of a buzz from it. I think if we’d both had a tank each we would have done. Compared to some of the other shit that went on this was about the most well-behaved we were on this trip.

We made friends with an American/Colombian brother and sister who were weirdly close. They loved the dark tourism and they took loads of photos of themselves in the prison and loved it when we got thrown out of the cokeden for bringing our own. We went out with them on the second night and we were going to get coke again but then we didn’t and I got in a bad mood because of it and went off and smoked by myself in the club. It just shows how it can get a hold of you so quickly. Steph later visited them in the US and they were smoking weed but out of face masks which must be a trend over there. I’m glad I didn’t go as I thought they were deeply odd.

Another worrying event that happened in La Paz was the kidnap of a Swedish couple in an unmarked local cab. I heard they were kept separately for two days until the mother of the male captive sent over money to ensure their release. They carried on with their trip as they didn’t want the criminals to spoil it for them, which must have taken some courage.

It is certainly a rite of passage for anyone who has been travelling for any length of time to develop quite a catalogue of scare stories, given the amount of tourists in South America, it is a relatively small portion that end up being robbed. One precaution that we took in particularly notorious cities was to carry our purses in our bras and to not carry a bag around, if you aren’t carrying anything then the likelihood of an unpleasant encounter is reduced to an extent.

After all those lols in La Paz we headed off to the more peaceful banks of Lake Titicaca, our last stop before Peru as we were racing now to get to Macchu Picchu before the Inca trail closed.

We bumped into Diego the Argentinian on our way who told us that the bus he’d got from Peru had been pelted with rocks as the farmers were protesting. Luckily we missed them coming the other way but I really caught up with similar protests later on in Northern Peru.

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