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Inside the quirky and charming Angelo Colonial restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia

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It was the best of days, it was the worst of days…

After a painfully sleepless night (the La Paz street noise was so excrutiatingly ferocious that, at one point, I actually laughed out loud – surely this MUST be a joke!) I struggled out of my sleeping bag at 6am. I was greeted by the dull dawn, the icy cold, the endless ache of period pain, my nagging head cold, and (oh yay!) the runs!!
“Oh no,” my travelling companion sympathised, “What are you going to do?”
“She’ll be right.” My optimism may have been foolish but it was all I had.

Early morning in La Paz: a rare quiet moment

I arrived at the cafe meeting point after a brisk “just look confident” walk through the half-deserted 7am streets of La Paz (alleged to be one of the most dangerous cities on the planet) loaded like a pack mule with all my belongings.

Grateful to have arrived in one piece (and with all my gear) I ordered a coke – the magic, never-fail, stomach-trouble remedy that my friend picked up while in India.

It failed.

Four emergency evacuations later and all optimism had been flushed down the toilet.

I was seriously considering pulling the pin on this whole “world’s most dangerous road” thing. I mean who needs to risk public humiliation on top of life and limb? I had this oh so vivid picture of me shitting my pants in front of a pack of strangers while riding a mountain bike down a big-ass hill… I didn’t like that picture.

It was then that I met my guardian angel – a kind stranger who, on overhearing my predicament in the bathroom, offered me her “magic pills”. I thanked her profusely, popped two, and sped to the awaiting van with a “wish me luck!” and a frazzled smile.

On Yer Bike, Michelin Man!

By the time we reached our launch site, almost 5000m up in the heavens, the pills were working their synthesised magic. For the first time in my life I was all “go pharmaceuticals!!” The gurgling in my stomach had now been replaced with bubbling excitement. I got my kit on (looking remarkably akin to the michelin man owing to the thousand and one layers mandatory for a comfortable temperature at that altitude), got some instruction, and sat there bouncing (literally – my bike was dual suspension) with excitement. A few words of encouragement and some safety tips and we were off, racing down the first 25km of paved road at glorious speeds – a few times we hit a wind-roaring 50-60km/hr.

The views were spectacular – epic mountains, snow-crowned peaks, drug check points… at one time we even passed a small village which, although it was tiny, was famed for having 21 different fish restaurants. Bizarre!

After an hour or so on that road we reached the purpose of our jaunt. This was it, for the next 45kms: the world’s most dangerous road.

We were instructed the following:

The World's Most Dangerous Road, Bolivia

1. Contrary to all other road-rules in Bolivia, when you ride this road you MUST stay to the left, the outer edge, the cliff face. This has something to do with drivers on the way up being able to see you. It sounded like suicide to me.
2. When a vehicle passes you MUST dismount, you MUST keep your bike on the outside of you.
3. You MUST keep your eyes on the road and off of the glorious views and the wildlife.
To make sure we obeyed his musts or guide told us a few of the stories of how riders had died or maimed themselves on this road. The girl next to me was from La Paz; she told me this road was in the papers all the time, trucks and buses where constantly driving off the edge.

Remind me again, why was I doing this? That’s right, for a laugh. Dumb.

We set off. It was crazy. At times I honestly thought I might die, but I (somehow) made my peace with that and had a ball. For several hours we hooned down the rocky, windy, dusty, wet, blind-cornered, cliff-edged, magical road. Periodically a bus would drone past us, or a heavy truck swaying from side to side and brimming over with dozens of Bolivians with standing room only in the tray.

Dangerous Beauty

On our numerous stops I soaked up the view, the atmosphere. I don’t know how to describe it to you (it was beyond description) but, needless to say, it was pretty special. After a couple of classic water crossings (one with water half way up our calves, peddling like mad) and even a ride under a waterfall, we arrived at our ultimate destination – Coroico, about 1200m high. I didn’t know it at the time but Coroico would become my “home” for the next two weeks, and forever go down in history as the place in which I firmly re-prioritised my life and where my friend shat her pants. But those are other stories…

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llamas

Llamas grazing in the fields of southern Bolivia

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I find myself in Bolivia at last. The people seem far more timid than the Argentinians but very kind once they warm to you. The food is much better than expected although I’ve been sick in some way almost every day since crossing the border – alternating between screaming headaches and a nauseous belly. My discomfort is owed primarily to the altitude which is an absolute bitch.

The first few days we spent in Tupiza where I came to terms (painfully) with the initial jump in altitude (to about 3000m) and did a bum-smacking short horse trek. Now, after much umming and ahhing over which company to choose, we set off on the much-anticipated and very famous 4-day jeep tour of southern Bolivia which culminates in the bizarre Salar de Uyuni (the worlds largest and highest salt flat). This part of the country ranges from 3500 – 5000m AKA bloody high!!

I jot notes in my journal in stationery moments or as I am bounced around the back seat of the jeep:

Day 1
6:30pm. Day one of the tour was a mix of breath-taking scenery, struggling-for-breath altitudes, and gut-twisting cold. We arrived in San Antonio about an hour ago and went for a short stroll around the tiny pueblo as the sun set. The town consists of a handful of mud-brick houses with thatched straw rooves at the base of an impending snow-capped volcano, 6-hours drive from nowhere.

Forgotten Daughter, Bolivia

From the central “plaza” (nothing more than a small dusty square of street) a loudspeaker barks information periodically. This is the only mechanism for communication with the outside world in a town without telephones, newspapers, or even electricity.
The children are friendly and grubby, with frozen-snot noses and cheeky smiles. They have such age in their eyes, in their faces – it’s disarming. One boy in a turquoise sweater and roman sandals shyly approached as we chatted with his outgoing young friend. He must have been no more than 13 but somehow looked closer to 40 – his eyes were knowing, his skin aged.
A delightful family of hermanas let us take their photo… for a price of course. I have never before met such charming hustlers.

Day 2
11:08am. I am sitting in paradise – Laguna Hediona, in the deserted bottom end of Bolivia. I sit on a shore of tiny volcanic rocks looking out across the small, perfectly formed lake to snow-capped peaks and rose-coloured mountains. Flamingos congregate in the shallows.

The shore of Laguna Colorado, Bolivia

This landscape is epic. It makes you feel utterly tiny and yet completely a part of this magnificent planet. I feel as if I am seeing the world for the very first time, wondering at the exquisite beauty of it all. Like this morning, when the world was frosted in the most magnificent jewels. Whole mountains sparkled. The ice shines like diamonds, all the more precious for their impermanence.
12:44pm. I have a killer headache, from the altitude. It feels as if my head is about to explode. I am chewing coca, a leaf that is very popular with the locals. It tastes like grass, unpleasant to say the least, but seems to help.
4:34pm. Mobs of hot-pink flamingos dancing across a ruby-and-white swirled lake, skirted by emerald and gold moss banks, and watched over by earth and rock mountains. …

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Young girl in San Antonio, Bolivia

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bones

On the road to nowhere, Southern Bolivia

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