05.08.09

Loco Bolivia

Posted in Bolivia at 4:30 pm by Jackson Lee

Bolivia’s fascination with unusual entertainment is hard to explain. Perhaps this mindset comes from a life of living amongst the exoticness and impossibleness of the Andean mountains, or maybe its more psychological and derives from the character of the large, historically oppressed, indigenous population. What ever the case, the upside for travellers is the chance to indulge in a wide range of unique tourism activities.

Wildly popular amongst backpackers are ‘tours’ of San Pedro prison – located conveniently in down town La Paz. Unless the local media are roving the area attempting to expose the corruption of the jails wardens, access to the prison is found via a lovely town square located directly outside the front gates. Tours, guided by English speaking inmates (sometimes incarcerated foreigners), pass through most parts of the prison, including locations where inmates have reported been murdered.

Word of mouth – via the adrenaline junkie backpacker trial – created the initial impetuous behind the steady flow of inquisitive travellers who first ‘visited’ the prison. Further notoriety came after the publication of Rusty Young’s book, “Marching Powder”, in 2003. The book tells the story of a black Englishman named Thomas McFadden who spent time in San Pedro after being convicted for drug smuggling. Stories about  inmate lynchings, cocaine parties and frivolous indulgence mingle with details of the prisons ‘economy’ and other oddities – such as the existence of live-in families (200+ children) and explanations of the in-house (in-cell) laws and codes of conduct. How many prisons in the world require new inmates to ‘buy’ their prison cell and tourists can sample and buy “world class” cocaine at the tours end?

As the many T-shirt wearing, proud patrons of the South American backpacker trial attest, mountain biking down what is euphemistically called “the worlds most dangerous road” is another popular adventure activity in La Paz. Before being replaced by a safer road, Bolivia’s ‘death road’ claimed more lives than any reliable source can accurately state – one source states 300 lives per year.

Descending steeply from the freezing Andea’s (4000 meteres) to the humid Amazon (1500 meters)  the road is often shrinks to the width of a single vehicle and is bordered by drops of up to 600 meters. Professionally adventure sports companies make daily trips down the road, taking between 7-8 hours to reach the bottom. Sadly a young British backpacker fell to his death, having misjudged a corner, a few days after I left La Paz.

Tinku is to fight club what war is to Americans.  Being a Andean tradition native to the Potosi region, Tinku began as a form of ritualistic combat – where blood or even death are considered a sacrifice to the goddess Pachamama – in pursuit of good harvests. Participates, both male and female, literraly punch each other into blooded dazed states.  The festival is held in the first weeks of May in Potosi.

The Potosi mine tours involve clambering around centuries old, hand dug, mine shafts while breathing semi-toxic air through damp cloths. Gifts are given to miners and their children (who often work in the higher levels), and whenever possible tourists are encouraged to get their hands dirty by helping the miners dig holes or help push carts down railway tracks. The tour finishes, literally, with a bang. First photo sessions are taken with TNT sticks between the teeth before fuses are lit, ears plugged, heart rates adjusted and a huge explosions, complete with dirt spray, satisfying ring out over the Potosi mountainside.

A few other highlights: –

  • Anaconda safari. Smile with a 8 meter anaconda in your arms – mosquito’s are so thick in Madidi national park that face screen are needed during the ‘searching process’.
  • Working with Puma’s, Jaguars and monkeys at Inti wara Yassi (See my posts from April 2009)
  • Jeep tours in the Salt plains – as close to Mars as you’ll ever find yourself. Includes driving up to 5000 meters.

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