One of the last books I read before escaping to South America was the true story of one of the most famous British drug smugglers in history who operated out of Bolivia.
However, Marching Powder isn’t simply a success story championing a man from Liverpool who went years flawlessly herding tonnes of cocaine between South America and Europe.
Instead, Rusty Young describes how a young Thomas McFadden was set up, betrayed, caught, and eventually found himself in one of the deadliest prisons in South America without a trial and speaking hardly any Spanish.
In case you’re wondering why this is relevant, San Pedro prison is located in La Paz, but is no ordinary place of confinement where prisoners form an orderly queue for a cold bowl of soup and look upon their prison guards as superiors.
In San Pedro, prisoners need an income to survive and purchase their own prison cells, some of which can be as luxurious as a hotel room.
Some prisoners open shops or restaurants, others continue to sell drugs on the inside, while McFadden became one of the prison’s most notorious inmates for starting up a tour business.
Money talks in Bolivia, and by slipping a few extra Bolivianos in the back pockets of his prison guards, McFadden was able to show tourists his side of San Pedro, and visitors were even able to party into the night drinking and sniffing whatever they pleased.
To cut a long story short, it’s for this very reason that arriving in La Paz is greeted with fluctuating emotions of intrigue, wonder, and uneasiness.
A lot of people will tell you that you never know what you’re going to get with La Paz, but you can be sure that it will throw things at you completely different to any other South American capital city.
If the city prison is like a Butlins resort, you can’t help but wonder what the law abiding citizens can get away with.
Indeed, La Paz functions as the perfect microcosm for the weird and wacky nature of Bolivia, which is far and away the most interesting of countries to travel through.
Rather than wide, well built highways, Bolivians buses are forced to bump and wind in and out of narrow roads and high altitude hills, dipping through canyons marked only with ‘mind the llama’ signs, while every now and then you’ll pass a lonely farmer failing to round up hundreds of alpacas.
Whenever a bus pulls into a remote village, it’s swarmed by street sellers trying to flog anything from a stale bread roll to strawberry jelly to voodoo dolls, and upon arriving in La Paz you’re greeted by one of the most bizarre cities you’re likely to come across.
For a start, La Paz is pure market, and a cable car up to El Alto elevates you 4000 metres above sea level and, on Thursdays and Sundays, bang in the middle of the biggest street market in South America.
Wild elephants, giant marquees, and strawberry flavoured eucalyptus trees are just a few of the things that you can’t buy at this market, but it’s lined with football kits faker than Katie Price’s teeth, and you can buy almost anything useful for just a handful of Bolivianos.
Wandering through the market I couldn’t help but be reminded of the phrase: “don’t eat too many carrots or you’ll turn into one”, as some of the sellers had clearly been working in their stools for so long that they’d become one with their threads.
More bizarre, however, is the eery witches market in Sagarnaga, where dried llama fetuses hang from market stools and you can find remedies for anything from the common cold to dangerously low libido.
And if you go to watch traditional Cholita wrestling, you might even catch on of the so called witches in a scrap. Middle aged women literally fly from the top rope of a ring in the middle of a warehouse that doubles as a car garage while a bemused audience awkwardly applauds having had their perception of the WWE shattered.
But being caught up in the hustle and bustle of La Paz can blind you to the city’s unique setting.
La Paz is essentially a red brick crater in the middle of a mogul field of Bolivian hills, and is also home to the most dangerous road in the world.
Roughly two hundred people die each year trying to navigate Death Road, and given that I haven’t owned a bike for over ten years, I decided now would be the perfect time to reignite my cycling career and see what all the fuss is about.
The cycle starts in a valley just outside of Death Road in a place that looks a little like something out of a Disney movie. At this stage the ride feels like plain sailing, given that it’s all downhill, the roads are smooth, and there’s some incredible scenery to boot.
However, embarking on the main event is a little bit like jumping from amateur to legendary difficulty mode on Fifa. Starting above the clouds, it’s a lot harder to keep control going downhill on uneven gravel while desparately trying to ignore the uninterrupted three hundred metre drop below.
There is, however, something adrenalin inducing about cycling down stretches of road just two metres wide, ploughing through waterfalls all the while being in charge of your own welfare in the middle of one of the most impressive rainforest valleys in South America.
In fact, La Paz is very much an adrenalin inducing place. A lot of backpackers are attracted by the city’s ‘look the other way’ policy, and don’t leave disappointed by the underground clubs (some legal some not so legal) that result in dazed tourists stumbling back to their hostels as the sun rises over the city.
Fundamentally, the city is a bit of a hole, but La Paz is Bolivia’s weird and wonderful hole that is so very bizarre that you might never be able to bring yourself to leave, and not just because the hangovers are so bad in the highest capital city on earth.
Next stop, across the border to Peru and Arequipa. Until then.