For a crash course on Bolivia, start in the 1-million-person capital of La Paz, ride the cliffs along the Death Road down to the jungle town of Corioco. Chaos, beauty, and character collide for quintessential Bolivia.
At 11,975 feet above sea level, La Paz is one of the highest cities in the world with incredible mountains and canyons circling the urban sprawl. Downtown has Spanish Colonial charm with a few grand plazas and churches but really it’s the people that makes La Paz so interesting.
La Paz is the country’s business center but you would hardly know with virtually anything and everything being sold on the street—underwear, cactus fruit, llama fetuses, root beer floats, yarn…you name it. This is Mercado Uruguay which is a crazy maze of food stalls like these where you pick your fish raw and they grill it up on the spot.
The main highway leading out of La Paz is fondly called the Death Road and its narrow, windy, dirt cliffside existence used to claim 200-300 lives a year until they converted it to a bike path. Careening down the 40 miles down Death Road by bicycle is a right of passage as a visitor to Bolivia so, naturally, we signed up.
Though the road is safer than the days of two mini buses speeding head on, it still no yellow brick road. Skid on some gravel and it’s a long way down.
Needless to say, we weren’t scared one bit.
It turned out to be a gorgeous ride with misty mountains, lush greenery mixed with bursts of purple, and tons of waterfalls intersecting our path.
We toasted our survival with fellow bikers then parted ways as they returned to the city and we stayed on in the Yungas. Perched on an Andean foothill, the town of Coroico has lush vistas in every direction and their charming town center is bustling with little kids playing soccer, grandpas chatting in the square, and ladies selling their fruits and vegetables.
Our little-old-lady-run hostel, the Bicentennial, had million-dollar views for eight bucks. We actually had one of our only rainy days in South America here but we were totally content just relaxing to the sights and sounds out our window.
On our last morning we took a hike to the series of waterfalls outside of town. We thought it was strange that everyone kept telling us to take a guide on this easy 10k hike, but as we meandered our own through the coca fields with suspicious drug-lord lackey types staring at us, we realized that may have been worth-while advice.
We weren’t too worried on the hike but we felt infinitely better with our “Wolf Pack” at our side. For some reason this incredibly friendly bunch of stray dogs (Rudolf, Maverick, Caboose, and Rasta, as we named them) escorted us the full 10k, leading us down the barely marked trail, growling at any strangers that crossed our path, and helping make this one of our most memorable hikes.
Mercado Uruguay, La Paz: Quiet possibly the most rugged and authentic market in South America. If you have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure, you will love this tented land of food stalls.
Coca Museum, La Paz: Very interesting history on this controversial but deeply cultural plant.
The Pot Colonial Restaurant, La Paz: Cool woodwork and funky antiques make this place a great spot for a bite (it’s also conveniently located next to the Coca Museum.)
El Solario Bike Tours: We did a lot of research on Death Road outfitters and these guys seemed the least likely to kill us and charged a fair price.
El Bicentennial Hostel, Corioco. It’s way up the hill and very basic but, as mentioned, the views are some of the best we have encountered in all of South America.
Would any of these Bolivian adventures toot your horn?