Sunday July 11, 2010 continued... (FYI the photo uploader is being ornery again today, my apologies...)
Sergio sped away and I paused a moment to take in my surroundings. The main street was bustling with morning activity: colorful awnings overhung wide sidewalks, protecting the plethora of candies, crackers, fruit, soaps, toilet paper, and other wares that spilled out of a string of stores lining the road. Large iron boxes housed row upon row of roasting chickens that slowly spun over an open flame, and families sat around crisp table settings as their boisterous voices raised over the hum of the street. My eyes drifted across the road and rest upon a beautiful red and yellow building that somehow didn't look quite right. Aaaahhh I thought to myself and laughed as I realized what the problem was; Windows!? Who needs windows? ...I want flags.
Beyond a handful of visual curiosities (see creepy mannequin in front of restaurant, right), as it turns out Mallasa is not terribly exciting. I quickly made my way through town and up the large hill on the far side, heading towards the park. I knew from driving through this area that the entrance to the park sat about half a mile from the top of the hill and that the thin winding road between here and there was not the safest to walk on. As I pondered what I was to do about this I came upon a small trail that ran behind the chain-link fence on the side of the road. Perfect, I thought as I ducked behind the fence (right in front of the police station) and happily walked away from the danger of the road, snapping photos of the park nestled into the valley to my right. Large sandstone spires shot up from the ground below, into which deep ridges, crevices, and caverns had been carved by occasional rain and the constant wind that gusts through the mountains of La Paz. Cacti, grasses, and squat bushes gave life to the dust here and there against a string of red mountains on the far side of the valley.
My trail led me up and over a cluster of sandstone hills from which I could see the hazy outskirts of La Paz. It led me down a questionable set of earthen stairs that had mostly been washed away, and—by this point barely perceptible—it led me sharply to the valley floor. I rounded a massive group of shaggy spires and found a much nicer trail that wove around the edge of the cliff and into the more groomed parts of the park. The sun beat down hard and the chill of my calamitous morning was nothing but a memory. As I walked through the strange, enchanting surroundings I realized that I had yet to see another human being enjoying the park. How unfortunate that this is not utilized, I thought.
I wandered on for the better part of an hour, stopping here and there underneath palm-leaf gazebos to momentarily get out of the sun, always wondering why there weren't more people taking in the perfect day and breathtaking scenery. As I made my way towards the exit on the far side of the park, I found my answer: both entrances were locked up tight. Well that's going to make it difficult to get out, I thought, checking my watch. It was 2:45; I was meeting Katy at 4:00 in El Prado and wanted to leave an hour to get there because I hadn't the foggiest idea where it was. Though my time in the park had been leisurely, it had still taken me over an hour to walk (downhill) from one side to the other. Hot, sunburned, and still struggling a bit with the altitude, I had no desire (and no time) to retrace my steps back up the hill to my point of entrance. I also had no phone or other way of getting in touch with Katy to let her know I would be late; that option was out. I surveyed the perimeter of the park, which sat about 200 feet above me. Four strands of barbed wire fencing traced the edge of the cliff along the road for no apparent reason: the hill was far too steep for rogue visitors to wander down (and realistically why do that when there was the completely passable, wide-open back entrance that I had taken...), and the wooden posts-plus-wire were certainly not going to keep any vehicles from driving off the cliff. I'm thin, I thought...and checked the edges of the two entranceways to see if there was any space between the doorway and the fence that I could flatten myself through. Coils of barbed wire wrapped loosely around both...that's out too. I continued tracing the park's round perimeter with my eyes, looking for any break in the fence; on the far side of the horseshoe they found what the sought: the road passed through four tunnels of sandstone and in between the middle two tunnels there was a fifteen foot section without fencing. Score.
A low buzz hit my ears as I worked my way across the landscape. I looked up to see a cardinal-sized hummingbird clumsily hovering above as he drank from large red flowers on a nearby tree. I sat transfixed as I watched the bizarre bird zip from flower to flower. The familiar pause, hover, inch forward, slide backward, zoom away movements of a hummingbird were all there, but they were lethargic and exaggerated under the weight of his comparatively massive body. He disappeared with hummingbird speed and I resumed my pace toward my exit.
|(NOT what I climbed up, for the record...but close by)|
I stood below the tunnels gazing upward over the mostly barren slope that I was about to ascend. Though I was once an avid rock climber, the hobby has gotten away from me since my arrival in Boston. As I planned my route, my mind recalled climbing classifications that designate rope usage. Though the slope was not straight up, my climb would definitely be a four-limbed endeavor, and given its height I gave it a YDS Class 4 rating: rope strongly recommended. So ridiculous I said out loud and laughed as I took my first steps. Twenty feet up the sandstone gave way, sending my feet out from under me amidst a mini landslide of dust and pebbles. I regained my balance and searched for another route, which I found along the red ridge of sandstone from which one of the tunnels above was carved. Trying to be both safe and inconspicuous I moved slowly and deliberately, careful not to put too much weight on any one of my four limbs lest I send myself and half of the unstable sandstone mountain crashing to the valley floor. I laughed again as I imagined the headlines the next day: Gringa Dies in Mallasa while Escaping Closed National Park. At 3,200 meters climbing is more difficult; I had to stop a handful of times to catch my breath. As I neared the summit I became more focused on the inconspicuous goal of my ascent. I would be emerging from the slope beside a busy road and didn't want to A) have a run-in with a passing policeman who would love to get his hands on a misbehaving extranjera or B) startle an unsuspecting motorist into running me over. I grabbed onto a solitary bush with my left hand and stuck the fingers of my right hand into a crevice in the sandstone while I squatted just below the top of the hill, listening, peeking, and waiting until the coast was clear. My opportunity finally came, and with the scrunch of sliding earth beneath my feet I leaped up to the road, quickly dusted myself off, and tried to look as casual as possible. Hooo-aahh...success.
I checked my watch: 3:05; my lips curled to a self-satisfied smile. I walked down the road for five minutes before hearing the rumble of a mini-bus; as it approached I saw PRADO on the list of destinations that were stuck to the windshield. I stuck my arm out and the driver slowed to let me in; finally a little bit of luck! I jumped in the front seat and we raced around the horseshoe, approaching the main entrance to the park I had just escaped. I laughed out loud as we passed signs directing visitors to the ticket counter (whoops...) and laughed even harder as I cast my eyes across the valley to the slope I had just climbed up.
Frozen mornings, flaming fuse-boxes, and perilous escapes; just another day in the life...