Thursday, November 27, 2014

Biking the Death Road


The Death Road. 

It's actually called Ruta de la Muerte, that's not just a description. 

And it deserves it. The 64km route (40 miles) has as many as 300 deaths per year. It's even been immortalized on BBC's Top Gear. Despite (or because of) this, when Karen asked what our number one thing we wanted to do in Bolivia was, we answered: "biking the death road".


This route through the mountains used to be really busy (see the Top Gear episode), but they've built a bypass highway in recent years, and now the upper part is paved and wide, and the lower part (now redundant) is basically for tourists on bikes (or buses if your are really lazy). We went with Vertigo because they had good reviews, good safety, and smaller groups. We recommend them, and will go with them again anytime we're near La Paz.

The group was 6: Three of us, a random stranger, the guide, and the van driver. We piled into the van in La Paz (13,000 ft), and drove up to La Cumbre Pass (15260ft), where we got out to start the tour. This place felt like the top of the world, and it was cold. "I'm glad I have gloves but wish I had a good toque" cold.
We suited up, got used to the bikes, and got ready for the first leg of our trip, which would be on paved wide roads (not the official death road, just the route to get to it) and at a faster speed. 

We thought that sounds fun.


It's important to know that Karen probably didn't think it sounded as fun. She had not been on a bike since she visited Steve and Colleen in Ottawa (probably 7 years ago) when she rode once, on mostly flat paved bike paths, for the first time "in a while". It took Colleen 8 months to convince her to come biking with us ("They built a bypass so there's no more cars", "The company is really good with safety", "A van follows you the whole way down in case you think you can't finish), but she was there, and was going to power through. Steve stayed with Karen as she got her wheel legs (this is a term I've decided to try to coin), while Colleen went further ahead with the random stranger and kept pace with the insane speeds of our guide.

Check out the brand new white shoes
to replace the ones that fell apart
 on our 10 km hike.

The views were phenomenal, 
and biking down means optional pedaling. It also means fast. 

The wind got really cold sometimes, and it was almost too easy to never brake and get up to ludicrous speed


With a brand new road and gradual turns though, it was amazing. 
While there was more than 0 other cars, the traffic was still pretty low. Karen got used to biking pretty quick, and even passed a transport truck.


At a checkpoint, we switched up and Colleen stayed back with Karen while Steve tried the "go way too fast down a mountain" part.

We reached a thing. I guess "pit stop" makes the most sense, but it was a row of shops barely clinging to the edge of the road. Maybe it was a town.
We ate lunch here, bought our passes to be allowed on the real death road, and piled back into the van. They drove us a couple miles (because it was slightly uphill, and tourists are lazy) to the top of the next phase.

The van turned off the paved road to a path of hard-packed gravel, with no side rails. We were here.



We pulled the bikes back off the van, and got a quick safety summary. The cars drive on the left side of the road here (not in Bolivia, just on this part of the road) because the drivers must be able to open their door so they can see the edge of the cliff on their side. That's how thin it gets at some points (again, see the Top Gear episode above).


The views went from long vistas to pea-soup fog and back as we rode. During the foggy parts, it was damp, but we were already starting to notice the warmth. It was now cool, not cold, and getting warmer with each foot we dropped.

Our guide would arrange photo stops for the places that would look especially good (and dangerous). It looks like we're on the edge of the cliff, but we're really at least 6 inches from the edge of the cliff.




Karen pointed out that she had never biked on gravel in her life. Luckily this wasn't gravel. It was a bunch of stones that were wet, sometimes with an active waterfall hitting the middle of the road.


Side note: One thing that sold Karen on joining us was the van that always follows along if you need help, and that the guide is certified for cliff rescue if you go over the side but manage to survive and grab a ledge or a fern on the way down.


With no side barriers between us and the huge drops, you'd think it would dominate our minds. Nothing takes your mind off the danger 6 feet away like speed, and large wet rocks right in front of you. As you can see, the road was just packed rocks. As you can't really see, some of the rocks were as big as a grapefruit, and needed to be dodged.


The trip was split up into legs. The guide would give us advice on the next 10 or 15 min of biking (watch out for the waterfall, stay inside on some of the turns since they're steep, watch out for lazy dogs and crazy chickens) and we'd regroup after that. One of the stops had a little pavilion where we snacked and the guide checked our bikes. Apparently the massive change in altitude affects the brakes, and he likes to adjust them.

For this picture, Karen had determined that she had already met her fill of excitement for the day and was not risking climbing up on a tall fence to pose for a photo.

By this point, we were low enough it was getting hot. We took off our raincoats/wind breakers leaving only the safety pads. Setting off on the final push, we turned off the normal road and took a side road to our lunch destination.



This last side road was thinner, and much less smooth. Bigger rocks, bigger troughs eroded by the rain, and lots more vegetation.

Karen came into her own on this last bit, letting off the brakes, gaining speed and weaving for the most solid path.


Finally being finished, Karen started to come down from the adrenaline that had kept her performing, and said "Colleen, for the first time in my life I know what people mean when they say 'I need a drink'"

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Air Sick Lowlanders

Our bodies, it turns out, love oxygen. A lot.


Red blood cells are those handy little helpers delivering oxygen all over your body. It doesn't matter what shape you are in, when you ascend to a higher region with thinner air and less oxygen, your body needs time to make extra red blood cells to compensate. 

When you ascend too quickly, you get altitude sickness as your brain is deprived of oxygen. Fun symptoms include:
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion
  • difficulty walking
  • rattling breath
  • feeling generally extremely ill
While researching travel in Bolivia, Colleen also read about High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).  Needless to say we were not interested in having a severe enough reaction to altitude that we suffered BRAIN SWELLING or FLUID FILLED LUNGS.


Understandably, we took a number of precautions before we went to the altitude of La Paz. 

  1. Iron: We ate 100% of our recommended amount of iron for two weeks before travel. Red blood cells need iron so having enough iron in our system should help make more. 
  2. Prescription Altitude Medication: We took that, starting a day before our ascent to Sucre as prescribed
  3. Ascend to 8000 ft then adjust: we spent three days at 9000 ft
  4. Only ascend a further 1000 ft per day after 8000 ft: This we did not do. We ascended 3000 more feet to La Paz in a day
We still experienced some of the normal reactions to altitude.
  • breathing faster
  • peeing a lot
  • diarrhea
  • interrupted breathing while sleeping (hold breath for up to 15 seconds then rapidly breath in deep)
  • headache - rule out more serious symptoms by drinking a gallon of water and look for secondary symptoms of more extreme reaction

Colleen didn't sleep well the night before. Despite the "sleep music" she played to drown out the constant honking that seems completely normal for how drivers get around in Bolivian cities, and the drunken masses on the streets below, she would wake up gasping for breath any time she started to achieve sleep.

Also Imodium is your friend. We learned to deflate our sunscreen and shampoo before ascending otherwise you get a pressurized bottle of doom waiting to explode once uncapped. Imagine what happens to the gases in your bowels. That's right. We went there. 

Needless to say we spent most of our first day in La Paz eating and drinking (non alcholic drinks). Lower air pressure at higher altitudes also means moisture evaporates faster. We were thirsty, coughing and our noses were so dry they started to bleed when we blew them. 

Colleen eventually had the genius idea of shoving Aquaphor up her nose to simulate mucous. 

Aquaphor was a hero on our trip. We all became addicted to it for our dry, chapped lips. If you ever go to high altitudes, bring Aquaphor. And sunscreen. High altitude equals less atmosphere. The amount of sunscreen we slathered on every day makes it look like we are constantly sweating in our photos. Worth it. 


Between our eating and drinking we did some serious shopping...at an airsick lowlander pace. The markets of La Paz are filled with a variety of textiles, silver jewelery, and ...dried llama fetuses. The last was found mostly in the Witches Market which, other than the llama fetuses hanging all over the shop, looked to be filled with herbs, and candles.

We did not take photos of the llama fetuses. La Paz is considered a dangerous city for tourists and not just for the high pick pocket and opportunistic theft rate.

Local scams include:

  1.  "Fake Tourist Police" in which locals will pretend to be police, bring you to another location and a group waiting there will steal what you have if your are lucky, otherwise they beat you until your give them PIN access to any accounts you hold.
  2. "Fake Taxi", where you get in what you think is a taxi and they drive you to another location and the end result is the same as the Fake Tourist Police
  3. "Friend Share" is an extension of "Fake Taxi" where a local you've made a connection with suggests you share a taxi. This ends, as you guessed, the same as above
Or some child or older woman will drop something and if you pick it up, you are arrested for theft. Or a child or older woman will spit on you and when you pause to wipe it off, you get pick pocketed by their partner. You get the point. 

We didn't bring our camera out much and one of us would watch the street while the other two shopped. Since shopping was involved, the one who watched was Steve. 

By the end of the day, we deemed ourselves adjusted enough that we booked our Death Road biking adventure for the following day.

One the way back to our hotel, we bought some street bananas, and shiny new white shoes for Karen. Shiny new shoes that could get nice and dirty on the "World's Most Dangerous Road."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On Top of the World. Mostly.

Waking up sore from the hike, we caught a cab to the airport to leave Sucre and flew to our next destination: La Paz.

A combination of a short flight, starting at 9,000 ft and going to about 13,000 ft meant we were flying closer to the mountains than any North American flight we've ever been on. At some points, we seemed to be flying down the valley between two mountain peaks (at a lower altitude than the summit of either mountain). It made for some great views (and so great pictures).

A glacier sitting on top of a mountain, with two valleys it was running into. It was kind of bizarre to see the lake system on the right so green when the one on the left (just one ridge-line over) so blue.

A road winds along a ridge, showing the deep red soil in some parts.

 Some of the extremely windy roads that turn a 1 hour flight into a 12+ hour drive.



























More of the deep red soil (left), and the mountain right outside La Paz (right), as we descended to land.

As we came in for our landing, we saw for ourselves the difference between La Paz, which sits at 12,000 ft in the bowl-like cauldera of an extinct volcano, and El Alto, a sprawling city on the plains above at 13,600 ft (which also contains the airport).

One part of El Alto had a hexagon layout, with seemingly nothing in the center of each zone. 


Being an "airsick lowlander", it's hard to mentally take in the global perspective of where we landed. El Alto looked like any semi-urbanized sea-level farming region. Sit back and think about it however, and the mountain peaks remind you that these plains are over 13,000 ft above sea-level. Mind blown.


After landing, we loaded a cab up with our bags, and drove down into the city. After winding our way down the side of the cliffs, we pulled up to Hotel Milton. After hiking up to the 7th floor (the ancient elevator could only handle 3 people, or 2 people with gear), we collapsed onto our beds for a bit.

After resting for a  bit, we went for a short walk to get some dinner. We were famished. About a block away we came to a street with a Mexican place, an English pub, and a Swiss fondue place. We talked to the owner of the fondue place (a Texan), who said that the whole street's businesses were run by expats, "all Gringos". The problem with Gringo food is that it is more expensive than Bolivian fare and we weren't looking for pub style food or Italian. At this point Colleen is starting to get kind of shaky and complainy about hunger and we had to trudge back up out of Gringo Alley (as we dubbed it) because the Mexican place didn't open for another half and hour. 

And trudge we did. The air was thin. Any incline seemed excruciatingly difficult. And La Paz is full of inclines. 

We grabbed some Salteñas and bottled water for snacks later, went back at 4 for Mexican food then back to our hotel.

It was time for some heavy-duty laziness resting and adjusting to altitude. If we couldn't adjust, the hotel had oxygen service at about $3 for 10 min. Honestly haven't seen that service before.


Steve wanted to complete the laziness package by watching TV, and found Star Trek: Generations in Spanish. He settled in, figuring that he knew the lines of the movie well enough to learn Spanish by watching it. 

Ultimately Steve remembered no new words but Colleen picked up "penetrado" when a photon torpedo was to "penetrate" the shields. Karen said that's not the kind of word you want to pick up. 

Instead of resting like an intelligent person, Colleen took the Spanish Star Trek viewing opportunity to make use of a 7th floor view of the city (and the safety of being in our room), to take out her fancy camera and see what she could see.




After capturing some of the city, which grows up the walls of the basin on all sides, she realized she could finally take photos of the street without being worried that showing off a camera would mark us as a target for thieves.

Then she realized that she could get of people without the awkwardness of obviously taking a stranger's picture. 

Time for some secret stalker photos from above!






The sun sets quickly on a city in a valley, even while there's plenty of light on the surrounding mountains.

As it got darker, the tripod was attached to get some night photos.


After draining a camera battery or two, it was put away. We watched the end of Star Trek, browsed the channels for a bit, then went to sleep for the sleep of altitude adjusting.

The thing about adjusting to altitude, it gets worse at night. As your heart rate slows, so does your blood flow with precious oxygen...