la paz Archive

Romp through Bolivia

We cross into Bolivia at such a high altitude that we have to drive downhill to reach the world’s highest capital city, La Paz. Descent becomes a running theme for our romp through Bolivia. From our point of entry at the backpacker’s oasis of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca to our official exit at the delightfully named Ibibobo military outpost in the dusty Chaco lowlands, we drop a whopping total of 12,306 feet. In between, we drive through five major ecosystems – the high Andean altiplano or puna, the woodlands and savannas of the Cerrado, Bolivian montane dry forests, the southern Yungas evergreen forests, and the hot, semi-arid Chaco thorn forests – over asphalt, cobblestone, raised gravel, dirt, and riverbed, and with veggie oil from hamburger stands, Bolivian criolla joints, pollerias, and Chinese restaurants.

Mango boards raft to cross Lake Titicaca, domain of the Bolivian Navy

The only match for Bolivia’s diversity of climate and landscape may be its people. We stay in four historic colonial cities jammed with indigenous street vendors, ancient, rainbow-colored buses, serious men in button-down suits and stout women in bright ponchos and smart bowler caps. In the highlands we visit dozens of Quechua and Aymara villages, adobe and thatch-roof huts surrounded by open fields where stoic, copper-toned Indians herd llama and sheep. In the lowlands of Bolivia’s southeast we drive past lush fields of corn and rows of peach and mango trees, and take a detour to the wine-soaked Valle de la Concepcion, which feels more like Argentina than Andean Bolivia. We get a glimpse of Bolivia’s vast forests in the southern Yungas on our way out of the mountains, before dropping into the empty, foreboding thorn forests of the Chaco.

Big sky in the alitplano

Spending so much time in descent, we find out that Mango has a fifth gear: neutral, downhill. She tops out around 53 MPH on flat ground but she’s such a tank she easily clears a heady 65 MPH on a downslope. We also discover she has shitty breaks. No mechanic seems to have a solution, so we try to replace breaking with downshifting. It’s a hair-raising combination, but we have to make up time and conserve fuel somehow. Of course, Bolivia isn’t all downhill. The Andes are too indomitable for that. From Cochabamba to Tarjia we ride the cordillera’s spine up and down like mad men, pushing our rolling tank uphill when she stalls due to lack of oxygen and screaming down mountain passes with the engine off on the other side. Mango comes out worse for the wear, and by the time we approach the lowlands she’s seen her fair share of mechanics. We camp under spectacular night skies on the side of the road and survive on crackers, tuna cans, and the last of our scotch whisky when she strands us in the middle of nowhere. On the open road we pack fist-sized wads of coca leaves into our mouths to keep up energy levels and morale. Perhaps Mango’s best trick of all comes on the way out of Tarija, when she decides to sporadically shut off her headlights as we’re driving through forested mountain passes, at night. Yes, at times we are sure Mango and the Andes are conspiring to kill us, but it’s a helluva ride.

Bolivia, land of street markets
Bolivia’s elite import Europe at Cochabamba’s Palacio de Portales

Get your cow heads here!
Delicious homemade gelato – mango and strawberry
Conquerors get no mercy in the indigenous village of Tarabuco

Coca leaves by the sack full at Potosi’s miner’s market
Andean fashion
Rockpile #3 at roadside campsite on highway to Tarija.
Andy contemplating the sunset during a Mango hissy fit
Wine-tasting at eclectic Hostería Valle D’Vino part hostel, part organic vineyard

Valle D’Vino’s treasure trove, always under lock and key.
The road out through the unforgiving Chaco

High-flyin’ La Paz

The first thing you notice walking around Bolivia’s high-flying capital is your lungs. They are working twice as hard to pump half the oxygen you are accustomed to into your brain.  Just ask FIFA, which once banned high-altitude soccer over games like this. The concept of flat doesn’t exist in the old city, built up the sides of a deep canyon that runs down from the Bolivian altiplano. Walking a few blocks up and down the city’s tangled cobblestone streets is a workout. La Paz, like the country it administrates, is worth the effort however. As a traveler, you’ll be hard pressed to find another city, country, or culture that makes you feel further from home in all of South America.

For two weeks, we cruised the city’s endless street markets and rubbed elbows with locals over 30 cent stews while investigating Andean glaciology and attempting and failing to summit imposing Huayna Potosi peak (more on that later). Among our best finds were Eddie and Cecilia Valdez, who adorned Mango’s backside with a crusading Pachamama, and the quirky Coca Museum, which recounts the history of the sacred Andean leaf and recreates a modern-day artisanal cocaine laboratory. Besides the headaches and traffic jams caused by Mango’s inability to climb the most banal of La Paz’s soaring streets, our lowest low may have come at the hands of one of the city’s famously tempermental cholita street vendors, who employed a banana projectile to remind Elliot that the act of taking a photograph can be lost in translation.

After 9 days we were ready to high-tail it out of La Paz, only to find the road blockaded for three days by striking bus drivers. Their quarrel with Big Brother Evo? A new law cracking down on bus drivers who drive drunk.  I couldn’t make this stuff up. The hiccup gave the crew just enough time to stare down the Grim Reaper on Bolivia’s famous Death Road.

-Andy, Photos by Elliot

La Paz, city in a bowl

Your average La Paz street corner. Handbags and mustaches are so 2010.

Plaza San Francisco under the bright lights.

Red Hot Chili Peppers. Making great music since 1984.

Bananas can be weapons. A vendor threw one at Elliot for taking this picture.

Bowler hats. The lynchpin of cholita fashion.

Golf-ball sized hail. Summer is the rainy season in the Andes.


Rubbing elbows with locals and eating well for 30 cents at the public market.


It goes on and on and on…

The cup spilleth over: here reside more than 20% of all Bolivians

La Paz’s death road enclosed in fog. All the better for contemplating impending doom.

The death road crew. Andy biked the road in 2008 and is too cool (poor) to do it again.

Pachamango

Mango is a fruit. No, Mango is a fish or a cat. Mango’s a supersonic boxship. Discussion’s over. Mango is a canvas.

In La Paz, Bolivia, we met Eddy and Cecilia owners and creative minds behind Mama Coca, a shop selling masks and other artwork made by the two owners.  We had been toying for a while with the idea of some Mango adornment. The idea of getting local artists in the cities we visit to add a design to Mango was appealing. Impressed by the amazing masks the couple had created, we decided to inquire further.

Eddy and Cecilia’s design came back and was spot on. The video above is the full description of their vision for our car, but to give a sense, the idea was Pacha Mama, the Bolivian vision of Mother Earth, shielding the two main ecosystems of Bolivia, the highlands of the Andes mountain range and the forested lowlands, under her flowing dress. Behind her, a scorched a devastated landscape expands outside her protective fold. Yes! Hippy-correct? Check!

We dropped the car off on the top of an absurdly steep street in La Paz. Five days later we returned to claim our Mango in her revised glory. She has taken a new full name: Pachamango.

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