Deathly roads and witches markets

Children parade in traditional dress in La Paz

Fully recovered from our lengthy battle with intestinal parasites, we were finally ready to leave our hotel room and explore La Paz. We spent a sunny afternoon wandering the hilly streets with Ana of the local tourgroup Downhill Madness as our guide. Walking just a block from our hostel Ana explained many of the mysterious objects for sale in the witches market – llama fetuses for good luck, pottery effigies for curses, and herbs for ailments of any kind. We walked through narrow streets lined with crumbling colonial facades and choked by the jankiest looking electrical wiring. Afterwards, a quick taxi ride up to the ‘mirador‘ (look-out) provided a great view of the city. Tall skyscrapers clustered in the middle of the valley were surrounded by brick houses with sheet-metal roofs climbing all the way up the steep cliffs. As a random but fun addition to the tour we visited the zoo and rented 4x4s to roar around the dusty trails surrounding the zoo – another ‘would never have been able to do this in the US’ moment. No waiver, no down payment, and no rules. We drove around for 15 minutes, which cost us 20 Bolivianos or $3 USD.

Witches market in La Paz

We also braved one of the ‘must-do’ tourist trips for those visiting La Paz – biking the ‘Death Road.’ Named the Yungas road, this narrow dirt road snakes its way down from La Paz to the jungle town of Coroico. Until 2006, the Yungas road was the only connection between La Paz and the Amazonian rain forest of northern Bolivia. In 1995 it was dubbed the most dangerous road in the world by the Inter-American Development Bank due to many factors including its death toll. One estimate is that 200-300 people were killed every year on this 40 mile stretch. Once on the road, it is easy to see why the road is so dangerous. The road is cut into sheer cliffs that drop 2000 ft (600m) to the narrow river valley below. Waterfalls pour off the cliffs above and onto the gravel roadbed over large sections. Mudslides and low visibility due to thick fog are common along the route. There are no guard rails, and most of the road, at 10 feet (3.2 m) wide, is barely wide enough for one vehicle. Because of these extreme conditions, unique driving rules apply – vehicles drive on the left side of the road. Since the cliffs plunge off the left side of the road, drivers can stick their heads out the window to see how many inches they can spare without having their wheels slip off the edge. It also forces the drivers heading downhill to slow down, as they are risking their necks driving on the outer edge. In the past, this road was filled with trucks and buses causing even more danger. A new paved road that takes an alternate route complete with two lanes, bridges, and tunnels was finished in 2006, so today very little vehicle traffic travels the Death Road. After battling some hairy roads in Peru, we were hesitant to take this trip until we talked to Adam, a tour guide we met at our hotel. After he explained that this was a highlight of the trip for most people on his tour and that we wouldn’t be competing with large trucks and buses trying to pass each other, we decided to brave the trip.

Getting ready to start at La Cumbre

The bike ride down the Death Road starts at the breathtaking (literally) height of 15,000 ft (4,600 m) at La Cumbre. Here a giant statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, looks down the valley and the deadliest road in the world. Truck and bus drivers about to take the plunge stop here to make offerings for a safe trip. We suited up in helmets, windpants, and every available layer as it was windy and below freezing. The road is paved for the first 18 miles (30 km), so we sped down through the brittle sunlight, passed only by a couple of trucks. The wreckage of a bus was visible 1000 feet below after one sharp curve in the road. The barren mountains slowly turned green and the sun was obscured by fog as we split off from the new paved road and headed down the old Death Road. We only passed one foolhardy car the entire way down to the bottom of the valley – oddly enough an old BMW with a blond in the passenger seat. Stopping every 20 minutes to regroup, eat a snack, or shed some unnecessary layers of clothing, the air grew humid and the vegetation wildly fertile. While the road was comfortably wide for mountain biking, it really was incomprehensible to us that buses and trucks used to form traffic jams on its narrowest sections.

Whizzing down the 30 km paved stretch of the death road

Two malfunctioning rear brakes and one broken chain later we made it to the bottom without major incident. We gratefully changed into bathing suits and lounged around the pool of a local hotel that hosted our group for a couple of hours. We then sadly left the warmth of the Bolivian jungle and drove back to frigid La Paz on the new highway. We head for the colonial city of Sucre at the end of the week.

Not much room for error

The website has a great article on the old Yungas road, which recounts some people’s stories about the road. Here are some of my favorites:

-The bus I’m riding in slides to a stop. The driver asks us not to move. We realize that the front right wheel of the vehicle is hanging over the edge of a fathomless drop. We vacate through the driver’s emergency door and fifteen of us help to pull the bus backwards onto the road again.

-A friend of mine loses concentration for a moment at the wheel and rolls his car and its occupants 700 feet to the bottom of a gully. Some are badly injured, but, fortunately, all survive (this time, seatbelts save lives).

-Another friend gets out of her car to relieve herself and steps into thin air. Her body must be recovered by rockclimbers.

Down and out in Bolivia’s hills

The grinding poverty, begging mothers, and street children we encounter on our travels constantly remind us that we are incredibly lucky. While traveling through Peru we found a successful organization that educates street children and helps their mothers to become more prosperous. Bruce Foundation has opened 57 schools in 6 countries in South America, and continues to ambitiously expand its operations to help the most desperate children. Teams of social workers are sent into the poorest communities to look for children who are not in school. The children are either working to provide for their families or have been abandoned altogether. With community and parental cooperation, the children are educated in Bruce Foundation schools to bring them to the educational level of their peers so they can enter the government-sponsored schools. Bruce Foundation then pays for their registration, buys their uniforms and school supplies, and continues to support them to ensure they stay in school. Of the children who enter a Bruce Foundation school, 93% stay in the government-sponsored school for the first year. We contacted Bruce Foundation to see if we could volunteer by working in one of their schools and redesigning their website (their old website needed some work). They responded enthusiastically to our offer, so we met Bruce and his wife Ana Tere in the high-altitude capital of Bolivia.

Children in the Ciudad de Dios School, Trujillo Peru
(photo courtesy George Houk,

La Paz feels like many other Latin American cities we have visited, except there are women selling dried llama fetuses on the street outside our hotel. These fetuses are burned and mixed with cement for good luck when Bolivians are building a new house. Apparently if you’re really wealthy, you sacrifice a full grown llama. Not that we considered buying one, but we heard that any tourist offering even double or triple the price for one of the dried llamas will be denied. The indigenous saleswomen only sell to serious buyers. The streets of La Paz swarm with aggressive cabs and combis (small vans that serve as public transportation), shoe-shine children follow tourists down the sidewalks, and women selling wool sweaters and finger puppets sit next to their wares spinning thread.

View from our hostel in La Paz, Bolivia

Socioeconomic status in La Paz reflects elevation – the lower the altitude, the more money you have. The wealthy enjoy the warmer climate in the bottom of the valley while the poor live in earth dwellings on the cold windswept plains high above the valley. This area above La Paz was incorporated in 1987 as a separate city named El Alto (The Heights). Currently El Alto has one million residents (as does La Paz), and is the fastest growing city Bolivia due to people moving from rural areas of Bolivia looking for work. The living conditions for most people living in El Alto are depressing:

  • Only thirtyfour percent of the city’s residents have access to all services, including paved streets, garbage collection, and public telephones.
  • Twenty percent lack potable water and electricity
  • Eighty percent live in earthen dwellings
Bruce Foundation has recently expanded into Bolivia, and its first school has been successfully operating in El Alto for several months.
Children in the Ciudad de Dios School, Trujillo Peru
(photo courtesy George Houk,

We visited the school with Bruce and Ana Tere twice over two days. The school was much further away that I thought – after a long winding accent out of the La Paz valley, you arrive one one of the few paved roads in El Alto. After turning off onto a dirt road it is a slow drive navigating around potholes and debris along the dirt road. When we arrived, we were excitedly greeted by the 20 children in the new school. Despite their harsh lives, they smiled and happily shouted out their names and crowded around us to sing songs and show off their multiplication skills. Unfortunately Chris and I were both battling a nasty stomach bug so couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted talking with the children. While I was sitting outside the school clutching my stomach in agony, a small group of 8-10 year old girls sat quietly around me. One patted my back while another offered me a chocolate bar that Bruce had recently given her. These are children who rarely get candy and have probably been hungry most of their lives. Here I was in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Bolivia, the poorest country of South America, and these children were comforting me and offering me their food.

View from our hostel in La Paz, Bolivia

Between bouts of food poisoning and (possibly) giardia, we have made ourselves comfortable at the homey Hostal Estrella Andina in La Paz Bolivia. We have been working here for 2 weeks redesigning Bruce Foundation’s website and will be setting of to explore more of Bolivia in September. It is a truly deserving organization, so if you are inspired, please donate to support their work. Every bit helps.