Aymara New Year
June 21 was the solstice (summer in the north but winter here in the south). It was also Incan or Aymara New Year. We heard that the best place to celebrate the new year was in Tihuanaco, a town and the site of pre-Inca ruins including a small pyramid outside La Paz. So Thursday after work a few of us caught the late night flight from Cochabamba. We had heard it would be cold because of the altitude in La Paz – just under 4,000 meters or 12,000 feet – but still we assumed it was just cold by Cochabamba standards meaning slightly chilly so we were not prepared. I wore layers but I hadn’t brought any winter clothes at all.
There was ice on the ground as we made our way through the crowds huddled around bonfires at Tihuanaco. Using some dry brush and random objects laying around like old sweaters we started our own fire but with no wood it burned out very quickly.
We were freezing terribly from about 3 am to 7 am watching traditional music and dance performers parading by in the large open field outside the walls of the main site, and waiting for the sunrise above the ruins when there would be a llama sacrifice and a speech by the president, Evo Morales, to mark the occasion. By 7 we were still standing in line to get into the site of the ruins when one of our companions collapsed with hypothermia. At that point we realized she needed medical attention and the rest of us might too if we stayed any longer. So we decided to leave without having even seen any of the ruins, never mind the rituals. The sun was just rising as our hired vans left the town and hit the road back to La Paz. I couldn’t even take any pictures because my camera was “unable to use flash due to low temperature”. I at least got this poster as a memory.
Much bigger than Cochabamba, La Paz is the unofficial capital and is much more touristic which also means more expensive. The layout of the city is incredible though. Situated along mountainsides, it is one of the highest altitude cities in the world. (The highest, El Alto, is part of the metro area of La Paz). The air is thin and cold so you lose your breath very quickly and it takes a few days to get adjusted. Walking the city means going up and down hills much of the time – similar to San Francisco. Add in the cold thin air and you’re gasping for breath after just two blocks.
We slept all day Friday before checking out the nightlife; somehow we ended up in bars and clubs full of tourists. I had fun but after the freezing night, I was sick and didn’t have much energy for partying. But I do love to dance so I ended up even more exhausted and slept much of the next day as well.
Saturday I got up briefly to explore the neighborhood around my hostel. There were at least ten different travel and adventure agencies within a couple of blocks including the one we would go to for the Death Road. I enjoyed some coca tea at a small cafe before going back to bed.
Sunday we got up bright and early to take on Death Road. The agency took us in 2 vans to the start of the trail. Most of us were a little hungover from the night before especially me but the anticipation of speeding down a winding mountain path on a bike outweighed anything else I was feeling. Our first ride was mainly a warm-up. For about 15 minutes, we rode along an asphalt road; we were going fast but nothing too crazy except for the dense fog below us making it difficult to see very far down the mountain. Probably that was better since we couldn´t see how far a fall would take us. After the asphalt ride, we loaded the bikes back on the vans and drove further down the mountain to the real trail.
I was not feeling well at all – except when I was on the bike just flying down the rock-strewn dirt and mud path. All along the way as the fog lifted we got beautiful views of the valley and rivers beneath us. For about four hours we went on with a few minor crashes but nothing serious. I skidded a few times but that´s about it. We had a few stops every so often and every time we stopped I remembered how bad I felt and I would go off to the side to puke. I just needed to stay in motion to feel better. My only close call was towards the end – I was going as fast as I could when suddenly a car approached from around a turn. We both hit our brakes and I shifted to the left hand side of the trail which was the side you could fall off if you went too far. Luckily, the car stopped completely and I safely swerved by it and kept going. Besides that the Death Road was not as dangerous as it sounds. It´s just a thrill to go that fast knowing that if you do lose control, you will practically be skydiving without a parachute.
After one weekend hiking in Toro Toro and then the weekend in La Paz, most of us wanted to take it easy this past weekend. So we threw a house party at Casa Bolivar (our house) on Friday night complete with a bonfire and beer pong. On Sunday we decided to get our adventure fix by hiking up to the Cristo statue. Even though I have been here for over a month and I live only a 15 minute walk away, I had not yet gone up the hill to the Cristo. So it was about time I climbed the 2,000 steps to the statue. Going on Sunday also meant we could climb up the spiral stairs within the statue up to about his neck. Inside there were holes all throughout from which we could see the city below – I was even able to fit my head through one of them. It was a fun hike and it was cool trying to identify landmarks from so high above the city.
I also took a couple of days this week to help out with a mural outside one of our partner organizations which is a day care center. The kids and adults at the center made paintings on large tiles which we put up on the wall outside with cement. We surrounded the paintings with broken colored tiles to fill in the space. It came out really nice and while we were making it many neighbors passing by told us how beautiful it was. Some even thought they would do one outside their own workplaces. For me it was just nice to do some work outdoors in the sun.