La Paz

Who is Colonel Wilhelm Taboada?

On our first walk in La Paz, we encountered police officers in full heavy gear blocking protesters from entering the square in front of the Congress-House building.  We struck up a conversation with a policeman standing a bit back, and to the side, it turned out he is the man in charge.  Colonel Wilhelm Taboada spoke good English, which is not common in Bolivia; he told us about the demonstration, the country, himself and his family origins, apparently his grandfather immigrated from Germany, which immediately made me see blinking light: might have been one of those Nazis who found refuge in Bolivia after the war, just like Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, see: The Butcher of Bolivia.

This was our introduction to the fascinating country of Bolivia.  It was also a blessing to directly connect with the Colonel, who knows what might happen during a month traversing the country.  He kindly offered any support necessary during our journey.  It’s always good to have that kind of connection.

Bolivians are known to voice their discontent whenever they feel they have been wronged or an injustice has been committed.  There have been countless revolutions in Bolivia, governments have fallen, and laws enacted due to people’s indignation.  It seems chaotic, but there is a very precise order behind it which is: syndicates and unions.  In Bolivia, it’s natural for any group of people to form a syndicate, whether it is a neighborhood or any type of street vendors.  Everyone is part of a union that efficiently mobilizes its members.   Even the current president, Evo Morales, was the head of the coca farmers union.  He is the first indigenous president in South America and was well admired for his nationalizing industries’ initial policies and other socialistic reforms that resemble those of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.   Initially, people were happy, and the country prospered; now, however, people say he has been tainted by corruption.  Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and is faced with difficult problems of deep-seated poverty, social unrest, and illegal drug production.

Mi Teleferico: La Paz’s Cable Car System

La Paz is not a modern city by many standards, but its aerial cable car urban transit system feels very futuristic.  Each of the eight lines has a bright, distinct color and stretches above the city and its suburbs in a total length of 21 miles (34 km).  The cost per ride is $0.33, and in many expert’s opinions, it is considered one of the best public transport systems in the world.  Gliding through the sky with Mi Teleferico, at a steady 11mph, allows plenty of time to survey the city’s neighborhoods and the mountains’ lunar rock formations surrounding it.  The cable car system was designed to run on electricity, part of which is provided through solar power.

Who is Crazy Dave Boliviano?

The book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young tells the story of Thomas McFadden, an English drug trafficker who spent eight years in Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro Prison.  ‘Marching Powder’ is a cult classic, especially among travelers to South America, and is one of the strangest and most captivating prison stories of all time.  Thus, we had to see the prison from closeup, and that’s how we met ‘Crazy Dave Boliviano.’  Originally from Queens, NY, Dave tried to smuggle cocaine out of Bolivia and went to prison for 16 years.  We spent an hour with Dave in the park in front of the prison.  He’s a very entertaining storyteller and musician.  Now out of jail and living on the streets of La Paz, working on his documentary of prison life and speaking about his experiences at San Pedro Prison and the characters from the book ‘Marching Powder.’

In Bolivia, prisoners must pay for food and buy their own jail cells.  The alternative is to sleep outside and die of exposure.  Prisoners’ wives and children often live inside the prison too.  Prisoners must find ways to make income; one way is making and selling the high-quality cocaine manufactured there.  Thomas McFadden ended up making a living by giving backpackers tours of the prison – he became a fixture on the backpacking circuit and was named in the Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia.  This is now all history, as Thomas runs a chicken farm in South Africa, and the prison warden is serving time for corruption.  Bolivia is quite a complex country.

Cycling the World’s Most Dangerous Road

North Yungas Road is known as ‘Death Road’ for all the reasons you’d guess.  The road connects Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, located up in the Andes mountains to the town of Coroico, down in the Amazon forest.  The road is 43miles (69 km) long and marks where the Andes drop down into the Amazon.  It is situated amidst a lush raincloud forest rich in vegetation.  Its switchbacks are extremely dangerous due to fog, landslides, cascades, and cliffs that drop 2,000 feet (610 meters) at every turn.  The road seldom gets wider than 10 feet (3 meters), but until 2009 there was no other way.  Thus, it was not uncommon for merchants to squeeze into trucks and buses to try to sell their wood and crops in town.  However, the hairpin turns weren’t big enough for every vehicle, and many trucks went down with people and their livelihoods.  It’s no wonder it got the nickname.

Today the route is used mostly by bicycle excursions organized by outfitters in La Paz, who provide everything from the bikes, gear, food, and escort.  All want well without any hiccups, but for Danna bailing out at the last moment.  She joined the van that escorted us and had a great time watching us from afar.  The real challenge was on the drive back to La Paz.  I think our driver had a few beers too many and compounded with the low visibility due to the heavy fog, he lost control, and the car slid backward and bumped the car behind us.  That was Danna and Rae’s farewell day in Bolivia.