Bolivia isn’t exactly a fresh addition to the Latin American gringo trail – it features heavily in countless itineraries (indeed, I even ran into an old Felix editor whilst there) – yet it’s managed to retain an essence of individuality whilst neighbouring countries have started to subside. The population of the entire country is barely larger than London’s, with 60% of the population calling themselves indigenous: it is a vibrant place bursting with culture and epic, Martian landscapes. Close to the northern border with Peru sits La Paz, the world’s highest administrative capital. The city is situated in a crater, the surrounding hills of which are sprinkled with suburban dwellings, and framed by massive, snow-capped peaks, which one can climb if one is so inclined. As with most cities, La Paz gets an incredible range of reviews, depending on who you’re asking, and how bad the weather was when they were visiting. Personally, I found that it sucked me in, until I eventually had to throw myself on a bus just to get out and see more of the continent. A discussion of the city would be impossible without at least a passing reference to cocaine. San Pedro Prison, situated in a beautiful plaza in the centre of the city, rose to notoriety thanks to Rusty Young’s book Marching Powder, which outlines the life of convicted trafficker Thomas McFadden, highlighting the extreme levels of corruption, as illustrated by the fact that he was able to offer tourists excursions inside the jail. More recently, Route 36 has been dubbed “the world’s first cocaine bar”, allegedly offering backpackers the sort of service you could expect from any of the pretentious west end London clubs, but with even more cocaine. But one would hope that for the seasoned traveller, the endless legitimate attractions on offer would be incentive enough to visit.
I feel obligated to go beyond a glowing TripAdvisor review and give the guys at Urban Rush a special mention here. If you’re in the neighbourhood, put this on your to-do list. And if you’re not in the neighbourhood, get rerouting. The concept of Urban Rush is simple: dress up in a ridiculous costume, clip yourself to a rope, and throw yourself face first from a seventeen storey building. The owners assure me that nobody has sustained any injuries to date, but I’d highly recommend getting your eight hours before giving this one a go. The costumes on offer cater to most tastes, whether you fancy yourself as Spider-Man or a deranged patient from Amityville, but if you’re not fixated on travelling light you could even pack your own and add a bit of variety to your photos. After a quick but informative training session, you suddenly find yourself dangling from the building, about to embark on your forward-facing abseil. And when you get to the tenth storey, it’s time to leap out from the wall and let go of the rope, putting your life in the hands of a stranger as your plummet to your death. The sensation is pretty bizarre, but it’s perfectly safe and makes for some pretty sweet photos (as well as boring stories to share with strangers in the smoking area of your next night out).
### The death road
Of course, no trip would be complete without mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road. Dubbed so because of the hundreds of travellers who would fall and die annually whilst using the road, it now mostly serves as a tourist attraction that still has its fair share of fatalities, which is why again it’s important to get your eight hours, and even more important to identify a reputable company with solid equipment that won’t fail you as you zip along the cliff’s edges. The whole trip takes a day, starting with an early morning bus ride that dumps you at the top of a huge, continuous downhill stretch that begins in the cooler altiplano before descending into rainforest. The majority of the route is single-lane, and runs alongside drops of hundreds of metres, all without the protection of guardrails. That said, most people who avoid excessive recklessness manage to complete the route without as much as a graze. Most tours conclude at Senda Verde, an animal refuge where volunteers can work with a variety of animals including several species of monkey, and/or a booze-fuelled pool party where revellers bask in the fact that they’ve actually managed to survive the day.
### Huayna Potosi
If jumping out of buildings or downhill biking isn’t your sort of thing, then you probably won’t be keen to tackle Huayna Potosi, the 6110 metre mountain situated just north of the city. The peak has been dubbed “the easiest 6000er in the world”: not a reflection of a lack of technical difficulty, but due to the ease of acclimatisation thanks to La Paz’s staggering altitude. In any case, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. The only reason I bothered was because I was waiting on a custom-made leather jacket from the blue market and had three days to kill. Not that I regret it, but I definitely should have looked into what it entailed a little more. The entire excursion takes three days. Day one is strictly for training: getting accustomed to using your crampons and pickaxe on a glacier close to the lower base camp. Day two involves lugging all of your equipment (travel light) to the upper base camp in time for sleeping at the upper base camp at 6 p.m. Day three begins at midnight, when you wake up and climb in order to summit for sunrise. The views were spectacular, and there’s a certain credibility about completing a 6000 metre peak at a time when too many people are raving about Kilimanjaro.
### Stannum Boutique Hotel
One of the fantastic perks of visiting an up-and-coming destination like La Paz is that there are still priceless gems to be found at ridiculous prices. Forget the hustle and bustle of the city’s dingier hostels and opt for Stannum. Despite being in its infancy it’s already the top rated hideaway on TripAdvisor, and boasts elegant contemporary design combined with classical details, not to mention outrageous views over the beautiful city from its endless glass panels. The rooms are comfortable, the staff are friendly, and the bartenders serve up some truly lethal concoctions (especially at that price). Check out stannumhotels.com for more details.
La Paz rocks. Too many people marginalise it as a stopover between Uyuni’s salt flats and darkest Peru, but it’s great in its own right. Admittedly the handful of activities described here are a limited selection: I haven’t even discussed the colourful markets offering everything from high quality crafts to llama foetuses, or the availability of Michellin-starred restaurants that’ll set you back as much as an Orange Wednesday at Pizza Express. Get it on your list, and give it the time it truly deserves.