I am in La Paz on what is very likely my last leg through Bolivia before heading west to Peru. I ended up spending four more days in Cochabamba after being seduced by a young Boliviana, Danidza. I tried my hardest to fight her off, but when I found out she was a basketball-playing law student whose favourite films were Indiana Jones, how could I resist? She showed me around the city for a few days and then, Monday, took me to see the Festival of Urkupiña, a local dance&drink celebration that is one of the largest in all Bolivia. People from around the country practise for over 3 months to dance in the festival, wearing elaborate costumes and parading through the streets for days, virtually non-stop. Like almost all festivals in South America it was a religious celebration, but sponsored by a beer company, Taquiña. Children and adults alike danced through the streets as approximately the entire population of Bolivia tried to cross the street through the middle of the dance troupes; lots of fun, but massively over-crowded. We left after a couple of hours, and I went to the bus station to catch my bus to La Paz.

After a few too many exciting bus rides in a row, I decided to treat myself to a Cama Bus, or overnight sleeper bus. There are far fewer seats on the Cama Buses and the seats stretch out into near horizontal position so that you can lie down flat for the ride. It was exceptionally comfortable, at least all things being relative in a Bolivian standard.

I arrived in La Paz at 5am on Tuesday and, realizing that no hostals would be open, figured I would walk to my accomodations in order to take up some time. I took up more time than I had planned, originally by getting terribly lost and winding up spending 25 minutes walking on the freeway out of town until I realized my mistake and turned around. I walked back and got lost again before finding the hostal, only to see the entire block that it occupied on fire. Now 7 o'clock, I found the first open hostal, grabbed a room and passed out.

I spent Tuesday in La Paz just wandering around. I stumbled across a local street market that sold vermin chunks, dried llama foetuses and various children's toys - something for the whole family - before heading to the Coca Museum. The museum tells of the history of the coca leaf and its transformation into cocaine, or a least I assume that is what it was talking about; the English guide book I was given to read had hilarious and incomprehensible translations that didn't seem to match any of the displays in the museum. One such pearl, when speaking of the chewing process of coca leaves, read:

"The Deglutition of the juice so gotten, and it has goods anesthetics in the intestinal low roads and to sistemic level."

After a few paragraphs of this, I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't accidentally sniffed some of the good stuff when I walked through the door. I ended up reading the Spanish booklet instead.

Wednesday, I took a local microbus and went to the nearby ruins of Tiwanaku, the largest pre-Inca ruins in South America. I had been lucky enough to be sitting beside a Mexican archeology student on the bus and she spent the day with me, explaining the significance of the ruins. I thought the site was fascinating, though I heard the occasional rumblings from tourists who had already been to Macchu Picchu and didn't find Tiwanaku nearly as impressive; kind of like people who read the book and then see the movie - if you do it the other way around, you will end up enjoying both. If not, the latter will always pale in comparison.

Thursday morning, I went to visit San Pedro prison, the largest prison in all Bolivia. For a fee, you can be taken around the inside of the prison by a guide, who is actually one of the inmates. My guide was William, a convicted drug trafficker from Santa Cruz. He told me the price - 50 Bolivianos ($12CDN) - and when I asked for a discount, he told me he couldn't because he already has to split the price with four prison guards. The guards let me in, though I knew no one inside - I didn't even know William's name at this point - and William greeted me on the inside. Immediately, he took me up to a room in one of the quadrants of the prison.

"So," he asked me, "You want to buy some cocaine?"

I guess old habits die hard. He explained to me that the prison is the easiest place in the country to buy drugs as the guards help the prisoners import the cocaine inside the walls, for a fee of course. He assured me that it was perfectly safe to buy drugs from him and that the police would not arrest me as soon as I left the prison. I tried to explain to him the irony of being assured perfect safety by someone who was in prison after being caught for selling drugs, but he wasn't having any of it. The funny thing is, I am sure he is right, and that it IS perfectly safe.

The prison itself is the ideal place to witness the insanity of South American corruption. San Pedro is like a city inside La Paz - money can get you anything you want inside the prison and most people have set up businesses inside the prison in order to make more. The rooms in the prison are bought, not given, so rich inmates buy two or more rooms, set up some kind of shop in one and live in the other - I bought a toothbrush as a souvenier. William and I were escorted around by an enormous bodyguard who was protecting me from being robbed inside the prison, as my money was as valuable on the inside as on the outside, if not more. The rooms that you could buy ranged in quality, as did the quadrant of the prison that you lived in. William had a room with a television and stayed in a quadrant that had its own pool hall. Lots of children live in the prison, too, with their fathers, then go outside to school and return to the prison at night to sleep. As well, because the cells, if bought, are for life, many inmates just commit crimes immediately upon release to reutrn to the prison. The prisoners are seldom bothered by the police, except for check-up once a day, which is really just done in order to split up the drug money the inmates have made. The prison commonly has inter-quadrant soccer games reugarly, with uniforms that are sponsored by Coke (anyone else see the irony here?). The games are dangerous, though, and virtually always someone is stabbed during the games as they, of course, are always played for money, too.

I wandered about the prison for a few hours, sitting and talking to lots of inmates - it seems they are all in for drug trafficking - and turning down numerous offers to buy drugs. Eventually, I left and headed back to the realm of sanity, again all things being relative in Bolivia.

I spent the afternoon at Valle de la Luna, an area of badlands and eroded rocks that looks amazingly like the surface of the moon, only with a few more cactuses. I hiked my way through the valley for a couple of hours and then went to the city zoo, which is surprisingly nice and spacious. I returned to downtown and met up with Erez, the Israeli guy from my trip through Uyuni, who is also staying in La Paz.

This morning, he and I and a group of 6 others took a mountain bike ride from La Paz to Coroico on what is called "The Most Dangerous Road in the World". Every year 500-1000 people die on this road, and over 20 died just 2 weeks ago when a bus went over the side. The problem is that the road drops over 3700 metres in a distance of 40 km and on one side of the road is nothing but a straight drop of over 200 metres the netire way. There are no barriers, the road is often covered in fog, it is composed of loose gravel or dirt and no pavement, it winds uncontrolably, and, at almost every point, is only a bus and a quarter wide. And, because of the age of the buses in Bolivia, most of the buses here are also a bus and a quarter wide.

Because the ride is so steep, it is easy to ride Eyour wrists get more exercise from the constant braking than your legs do from pedalling. The thing is, it is the only road in Bolivia where traffic has too keep to the left, which meant that, when cylcing, we had to pedal on the cliff side of the road. Combine this with my minor but occasionally acute fear of heights and the fact that I never rode a bike until I was 16 and I figured I was in for a good time.

The road was unimaginable - at numerous points we all just had to stop and laugh at how crazy and dangerous it was. There was so bank on the side and it was just sheer face of well over 600 feet at points. I wandered to the side, once, and peeked over the edge; there was absolutely nothing between a vehicle (or cyclist) and a 200 metre plummet. I didn't peek over the edge again. It was a stunningly beautiful ride though and is extra cool in the fact that you actually are riding your bike from the Andes to the Amazon. You cut through mountain passes of monstrous peaks capped in white snow, while down below you enter through dense and humid jungle vegetation. The four-hour ride down was exhilarating and overwhelmingly impressive. The ride back up was fucking terrifying.

The ride back was in a jeep with our guide, Bernardo, who insisted on driving as fast as he could back up the mountain. He was very concerned that we would be trapped in the fog if he didn't get back to La Paz quickly, which left us with the choice of driving way too fast on The Most Dangerous Road in the World or not being able to see on The Most Dangerous Road in the World. Bernardo opted for the first and sped as fast as he could around the winding corners. He tried to soothe us by telling us he used to be a race car driver, which really didn't help whatsoever. It was dark already, as well, so the road was difficult to see. My toes cramped up from being clenched so tightly in my shoes and I sliced my way through a layer of skin on my thumb, which I could not stop biting with my molars through as I gnawed on it, hard and nervously.

Bernardo, being an efficient guide, continued to point out various points of interest such as the fact that we were presently on the most dangerous part of the road and, oh, this is the area where 22 people died three weeks ago. I wished I was deaf. Then the fog came, and made vision near-impossible. In order to cut down the effects of the fog, Bernardo put red gels over the headlights so that as we passed over the most dangerous area of cliffs and the road disappeared beneath our tires, we were led by a bright crimson light through the darkness; it was my vision of Hell. Luckily, there was not much fog, so we made it back and safe in only a few hours, which allowed my thumb to still be connected to my hand, lest it be bit right off. Both there and back were an unbelievable adrenaline rush and I am so glad I did it and I will absolutely never do it again.

And now, 2 more days of relaxing in La Paz, and then... Peru...