Bolivia

September 7th, 2000

On 7th September I got the bus from Salta up to the Bolivian border town of Villazón and a potential border crossing problem. Why ? Because I no longer even vaguely resemble my clean-cut, short haired passport photo ? No, it was because my passport was too clean.

It was only after washing my clothes in Salta that I realised that I couldn’t find my passport – oops. I thought that it actually looked pretty good considering it had gone through a full wash cycle, and the time spent ironing the pages dry and sticking the cover back on with Pritt-stick had been well worth it. A lot of my passport stamps had run and some were unreadable which was a bit of a shame but I’d always said that the trip wasn’t about collecting passport stamps – just as well really.

So it was with trepidation that I approached the Argentine / Bolivian border crossing not sure if I’d have to get a bus to Buenos Aires to find a British consulate and a replacement.

I needn’t have worried, at the border they looked at it, laughingly asked if I’d washed it, stamped it and let me pass. Thank God for that !

Tupiza
After a night in Villazón (one night is enough !) I headed off to Tupiza, a small town in a beautiful setting of arid semi-dessert and strange rock formations. It was in this part of Bolivia that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise. The similarities with the wild west were uncanny: From riding horses through the arid, cactus strewn landscape to watching the locals attempt bull-riding, at which they were quite successful, until the bull managed to escape that is. It was last seen heading off down the dry river-bed hotly
pursued by around 30 locals.

When it came to leaving Tupiza we started to hear stories of imminent strikes and blockades all around Bolivia. The news was pretty sparse and no-one seemed overly concerned and so we didn’t pay it too much attention.

There was supposed to be a train, apparently through spectacular scenery, that we could get but after a couple days of ‘maybe it will come’ it became apparent that it wasn’t going to and so we finally had to take a bus to Potosí. The 8 hour ride took 16 and is definitely up there with the worst bus-rides of my life. It included stopping at least 3 times to change a wheel which seemed determined to disassociate itself from the rest of the vehicle !

To Oruro
In Potosí rumours of strikes and roadblocks were, again, rife and on the bus to Oruro I finally experienced my first. About 200 people had blocked the road with boulders and tree’s and were demonstrating about student grants. Standing nearby were a large number of police in riot gear.

There was already quite a build-up of vehicles when we arrived and no-one knew quite how long we would have to wait. We were in luck though, and after 10 minutes the vehicles started driving around the roadblock with the demonstrators shouting but doing, thankfully, nothing more.

Oruro & Chance Meetings #1
As a town I would put Oruro in the class of “Non-Offensive” – Nothing special but then again not particularly bad either.
It was here that I decided to change my route through Bolivia. I was going to go from there to Santa Cruz, then Trinidad and then on to Rurrenabaque in the north but for some reason gut-feeling was saying to head straight to La Paz and, in my experience, it’s usually best not to ignore your gut-feeling. That’s when strange things started to happen.

The following day I was heading into town when I saw some backpackers and their gear by the side of the road. As I got closer I recognised them as Carey and Susi, two American girls that I’d met in Salta, Argentina, a couple of weeks previously. They, and their friend Heather, had got stuck in a roadblock just outside of Uyuni and, through different circumstances, had unexpectedly ended up in Oruro and just happened to be there as I passed. We chatted a bit and soon discovered that we were all heading to La Paz and so we arranged to meet up that evening.

La Paz
The journey from Oruro to La Paz was uneventful but memorable for two reasons:

  1. The road had asphalt, which in Bolivia is a bit of a novelty and
  2. The first view of La Paz is simply unforgettable. The main highway travels across the vast, flat and barren
    Altiplano with no real suggestion of what is about to appear. Suddenly the ground drops away and there, nestled in a huge canyon that is 5km rim to rim, sits the city of La Paz ! Absolutely amazing !

Chance Meetings #2
If meeting up with the girls had been a coincidence then the following day was even more bizarre. We decided to go to a museum and were wandering around when who did we meet but Karen and Alex, two Aussies that I’d originally met 3 months before whilst trekking in the Torres Del Paine National Park in Southern Chile and with them was an American guy called John – the group expanded.

Doing time in a Bolivian prison
On our first ‘group’ adventure we all ended up in prison ! I’d heard about San Pedro prison when I was in Santiago and thought that it sounded fascinating. The only information we had was the name of the prison and that we should go up to the gate and “ask for William”. A tad vague but worth a try, so off we went.

We found the prison without too much trouble but felt a bit stupid just going up and asking to see a prisoner called William. One of the guards saw us looking a bit apprehensive and motioned us over. We said that we were looking for William and he pointed to a well dressed man on the inside of the gate and with that they opened the gate and let us in, no checks, no ID, nothing !

As soon as we entered William took us to one side and we noticed two other prisoners had stood behind us – “Who are they ?” – “Bodyguards !” – What had we let ourselves in for ? We were taken to one of the cells and told the price for the “tour” – apparently the price included the bribing of the guards – bargain !

We spent over two hours being taken around and chatting to people. It’s an amazing place, like a city within a city. It has shops, dentists, food stalls, hairdressers. It even has several football teams that are sponsored by Coca-cola to the tune of $10K a year ! It is a male prison but their families are allowed in pretty much when they want. Some children actually live in the prison and go out each day to go to school. The only people, it seems, that aren’t allowed in are the guards ! They go in twice a day to count the prisoners but as soon as that is done they find it wise to leave. The prison is, for all intents and purposes, self-regulating.

All types of criminals are held there, William, our guide, happened to be a drugs
trafficker from Santa Cruz serving a 4 year sentence. In the prison it all comes down to money – You’re not given a cell but instead you have to buy one. If you have money then you can have a “nice” cell in a good wing complete with whatever you can afford – cable TV, Nintendo, cook, cleaner etc. If you don’t have money then you end up sleeping on the kitchen floor ! It’s ironic that the only coverage of the Sydney Olympics that I saw, was whilst watching Cable TV in a Bolivian prison cell !

Choro Trail to Coroico
The Choro Trail is an old Inca Trail that runs from the La Cumbre Pass (@ 4800m), just north of La Paz, down to Coroico (@ 1500m). Although we’d all originally had our own plans we decided to do the 4 day trail together. We were joined by an English girl Sarv and, with packs bursting at the seams, headed off. Little did we know then that six of us would end up spending the next 5 weeks together.

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The Choro Trail is beautiful. It starts off high in a stark landscape of snow and ice and slowly leads down a valley passing through several distinct layers of vegetation: from snow to mosses, to grass, to small bushes, to small trees, larger trees, and eventually to jungle. It was fascinating to see it change so much in the course of a single trail.

Coroico
We arrived in the hill town of Coroico and a very different Bolivia from what we’d seen before. The cold, desolate, dusty
Altiplano had been replaced by warmth and thick vegetation and the llamas by parrots. We decided to chill for a few days in Coroico (our hotel had a pool) before heading north to the Amazon but things were about to change.

Things get serious
As we’d been doing the trail the situation that we’d encountered before with roadblocks had been getting progressively worse and had now spread throughout the country. La Paz had, apparently, been effectively cut off by the demonstrators and around the country no goods or people were being transported. We were marooned !

The demonstrations seemed to be caused by several different issues. One was a change in the law concerning Land Rights, another concerning Water Rates and, probably the most serious, were problems caused by the eradication of Coca.

The Coca Leaf

The Coca leaf is a fundamental part of the culture in Bolivia and has been used for centuries for almost every aspect of their daily lives and traditional religious ceremonies. Often it is chewed, or drunk as an infusion for it’s “perk-up” properties, similar to the West drinking coffee.

“The juices extracted produce a feeling of well-being, giving a high degree of insensitivity to hunger, cold, fatigue and pain, and indifference toward hardship and anxiety.”*

Unfortunately, it is also these “juices” that form the basis of the drug Cocaine. Many western governments would like Bolivia to reduce it’s production of Coca leaves as this production obviously has a link to the amount of Cocaine available in those nations. America seems to have taken this one step further and has “requested” the Bolivian government to totally
eradicate the Coca plant. This “request” come with the threat to withdraw all US Loans, Aid and Funding if they don’t comply. The Bolivian farmers have asked to keep a small crop of Coca to satisfy the cultural side of Bolivia but America refuses to listen. It seems perfectly content to destroy another nations culture rather than to address issues within it’s own. There is, not surprisingly, a growing anti-American feeling growing in Bolivia as America effectively bullies the Bolivian government to take action.
I think that everyone acknowledges that there is a problem with Cocaine and other hard drugs but surely the action of the western nations should be to support and encourage nations, such as Bolivia, to find alternative means of income within a partnership rather than to use our more fortunate position unfairly.

Meanwhile, all we could do was to wait, drink lots of Bolivian wine, and sit it out. Suzi and John managed to get back to La Paz in a minibus that took the risk of trying to cross the roadblocks. We stayed a few days longer but time and visas were running out and we needed to get moving. There were still no busses getting through from La Paz but we decided that we had to try to get north – there must be a way, and besides, how bad could the roadblocks be ? And so on a Saturday morning we headed off to below the town to the junction with the main road to try our luck.

The Journey North
There were quite a few locals trying the same thing and we only had to wait a couple of hours before a bus arrived. The driver told us that he could take us to the first roadblock. It was a start.

The first problem we encountered wasn’t actually a road block but a small landslide that had covered the road. The road was only a little wider than the bus with the hill on one side and a steep 300m drop to the river on the other. Some people got some shovels and started to clear the slide with one person keeping a lookout. From time to time he would shout out “Rocks !” and everyone would get out of the way as more debris fell from above. We decided that walking across was probably the wiser option although the bus did eventually make it to the cheers of it’s passengers.

After another hour or so we finally reached the first roadblock. No-one was there but there were plenty of rocks and trees to prevent the bus from going any further. There was nothing for it but to get our stuff and to hike until we could get another ride. It should only be 20 minutes or so. So off we went and the 20 minutes turned to 40 minutes, then to an hour. Four hours of walking later, it was pitch black and we’d seen no sign of any vehicle. We ended up sleeping by the side of the road in a small village as did some of the other people that had been on the bus – much to the bemusement of the locals.

Day 2 started with the sunrise and a primus stove coffee. We headed off again and after only 3 hours we reached another landslide and finally a bus that had been seconded by our fellow travelers and was coming back to pick us up. The 20 minutes had turned out to be 20km !

This bus was able to take us only a few kilometres before hitting another roadblock. This one was manned and a very different proposition from before. They had fires lit and a burnt out car and as we walked past it they shouted and threw rocks to scare us. We just ignored them, kept walking and hoped that nothing serious would happen. Around the corner our bus “re-grouped” and we waited together for a pick-up that could take us into Caranavi, the next town.

Once there, we discovered that the road north had been dynamited by demonstrators and that it was a no-go area. There was, however, a bus going north through the mountains to Rurrenabaque in an attempt to avoid the roadblocks. We quickly got a few provisions and piled aboard along with several other people from our original bus.

It was beautiful scenery as we wound our way up steep, narrow roads and into the hills. After a couple of hours our driver stopped and talked to some men by the side of the road who said that there was a roadblock up ahead. On their advice our driver decided to go back to a small village, that we had just passed, and to wait.

The village was called Villa Florida and consisted of about 13 buildings situated around an open grassed area. We have since looked for the village on several detailed maps of the area but have never found it. We sat around playing cards, sleeping and chatting to some of the locals who were curious about having 6 gringos in their village which was way off of the beaten track. By late afternoon it was looking as if we would be there for a while and the village decided that it was time for a Locals vs. Gringos game of volleyball. We lost badly but had a good laugh. That evening, as we sat around chatting and trying to find some food, the village children decided that I would be a good play companion and “Uncle Iain” as I then became, spent all night running around the village pursued by a throng of local children.

It was soon obvious that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that evening and prepared ourselves for another night of sleeping in the open.

On our bus were a traditional Bolivian band (trumpets, horns and a big bass drum) and as it was
Sarv’s birthday the following day we asked them if they could play “Happy Birthday” to her just after midnight. Midnight, however, came and went quietly and so, assuming that they had forgotten, we settled down to sleep.
At 4am we, and probably the rest of the village as well, were awoken by a rapturous version of “Happy Birthday” which sounded as if it were being held in an arm lock and severely beaten. The band, who were now totally drunk, hadn’t forgotten after all !!

Day 3 and the morning was spent still waiting to see if we would be able to continue or would have to turn back. At midday our driver returned from the roadblock to say that things were moving – it was time to go.

Everyone got their gear together and we were soon off and tooting some lorries that were coming in the opposite direction. We got to the village where the roadblock was only to find that it was back in place, only this time they blocked the road behind us as well and so we didn’t even have the option of going back. We were well and
truly stuck !

The feeling on the bus had changed noticeably. Instead of being individual groups of passengers the bus had gelled into a single entity with a common purpose. Our fellow travelers were very kind to us and very protective. They knew that we were at a disadvantage in these situations and did their best to help us.

When we were stopped everyone started to disembark but we were asked to stay on the bus and out of sight as it might make things more difficult if the villagers knew that there were gringos on-board. We did as we were asked but it was soon obvious that the quick solution that everyone had hoped for wasn’t going to happen and that we were going to be there for a long time. Someone came to tell us that we could leave the bus and there was a genuine sense of surprise in the village – we could have been space aliens as far as the locals were concerned.

We were told there would be a meeting of all the camposinos (farmers) that evening and that the fate of the bus would be determined then. In the meantime all we could do was wait.

It was late afternoon when the bus was challenged to a game of 5-a-side football by the locals and we began to wonder if they were holding us just to have a team to play against ?! We got a team together and I was the gringo representative.

We asked if we could leave if we won – “Maybe, but if you lose then you’ll never leave” – It didn’t seem like particularly good odds. The game was quite serious but good fun and we ended up beating them 6-3. Probably not the best result under the circumstances.

As time wore on it became dark and the village meeting started. We got something to eat and the 6 of us stayed out of the way, thinking that keeping a low profile was probably the best policy. There must have been around 40 Camposinos in the meeting and it went on for quite a time. Finally some of our fellow passengers approached us and told us that we’d been summoned to appear before the council. They’d taken the decision to let the bus and the Bolivian passengers go but, unless we could persuade them, they weren’t going to let us leave.

We were all stunned. Suddenly we had been thrown into the centre of the debate.

It was suggested to us that Carey and Heather lie about their nationalities as being American wasn’t considered an advantage – We told them that we couldn’t lie because if they found out then we would be in even deeper than we were already. We passed out fellow passengers as we made our way to the hall. They gave us words of encouragement but couldn’t hide their worried expressions.

We entered the meeting and had to stand at the front, facing the camposinos. It felt as if we were on trial which, in a way, I guess we were. Fortunately for us Carey and Heather were fluent in spanish. We had to explain who we were, where we were from, where we had been, where we were going, what we were doing etc, as well as having to answer their questions.

After what seemed like an eternity, they thanked us for speaking with them and asked us to leave as they needed to discuss it further. We waited outside with the other passengers, our minds and emotions in turmoil you could have cut the tension with a knife. We’d done all we could and now just had to wait for the “verdict”.

Five minutes later the meeting finished and our driver appeared – we could leave…ALL OF US ! The feeling of relief was huge and we all hugged each other and shook hands with the other passengers and the locals, who were now
noticeably more relaxed.

It was 10pm by the time we eventually left. When we were under way we were told that they’d only decided to let us leave because we were predominantly female (4:2) – the other way around and it could have been a very different story. We didn’t really know how much trouble we’d been in. What did “not being allowed to leave” mean ? Were we to be held captive ? We didn’t know and we didn’t want to think about it – it didn’t matter any more.
By 2am we were stuck again, another roadblock ! We all used it as an opportunity to sleep and this time our driver was able to bribe the village leader to let us pass.

Day 4 and after some interesting driving we finally reached a military checkpoint at the junction with the main road heading north. It was now time to start saying goodbye to our companions as they reached their destinations. When the band got off they even played a goodbye tune. Soon we were the only ones left on the bus along with our driver and his two helpers. He suggested that we stop at a waterfall for a refreshing swim, we were already “late” and so why not.

We finally pulled into Rurrenabaque late on the Tuesday afternoon. Our “12 hour” bus ride had taken 4 days and I don’t think that I’ve ever been so glad to arrive somewhere.

Rurrenabaque and the Amazon
The town of Rurrenabaque lies within the vast Amazon Basin and the surrounding area has two distinct types of habitat: The traditional Jungle / Rainforest and the Wetland Savanna or Pampas.

After recovering from our travel adventure we organised a joint trip that included 3 days in the Pampas followed by 4 days in the Rainforest.

The Pampas
The Pampas is an area of wet grassland where it is possible to see many different types of animals and birds. We took a 4WD to Santa Rosa and then a 3hr ride in an open longboat down the Rio Yacuma in the pouring rain. We camped by the side of the river in a very simple tarpaulin shelter, went for day walks and boat rides and provided a “Meals on wheels” service for the local mosquitos. We actually saw lots of different type of wildlife while we were there including:
Alligators, Caiman, Turtles, Piranhas, fresh water Dolphins, Capybara (huge Guinea Pig type animals), Squirrel Monkeys, Toucans, Kingfishers, Jabaru and many other types of
bird life.

We did a boat trip in search of some fresh water dolphins and when we found them our guide said that it was OK to get into the muddy river water and to swim with them. “What about the
alligators, caiman and piranhas ?” – “No problem”. Not everyone was convinced though and in the end only Carey, Alex and myself ventured into the water. It was great until Carey suddenly let out a scream: “What is it ?” – “Something bit me !” – “Yes, very funny” – “No really !” She swam over to the boat, got out of the water and, sure enough, there were two bite marks on her thigh ! It was at this point that Alex and I, who were still swimming, thought it wise to get back into the boat !!

“The car in front is a Toyota !”
The weather had improved and it was a hot sunny day when we took the boat back to Santa Rosa. We were picked up by a 4WD and we all piled in for the 3hr ride back to Rurre. On the way back a car passing in the opposite direction caused a dust cloud on the dirt track and our driver slowed down with the lack of visibility. What happened next will be imprinted on my memory for a long time.

There were ten of us in the 4WD: 3 in the front, 4 in the middle and 3 on the small bench seats at the back. I was sitting with Hector, our Bolivian cook, and Carey in the back and distinctly remember looking down the vehicle when suddenly the 4WD seemed to explode ! There was an enormous bang, the shattering of glass and the vehicle contorted like an animal that had been shot. The whole world seemed to stop and an uneasy quiet descended upon us.
Alex was the first to ask if everyone was OK and slowly our senses returned and tried to work out what had happened.

We had slowed down to go through the dust cloud but a 4WD behind us had just kept going at full speed and had slammed into the back of us. Hector, our cook who was sitting opposite me, was in obvious pain and the rear window on his side had exploded, showering him with glass. He in turn had been thrown against Carey and had hit her cheek.

As we started to get out of the vehicle we realised how lucky we had been. The 4WD was still drivable but effectively written off. The large steel bumper at the back had been bent to the point of breaking and had only been stopped by the spare wheel under the vehicle.

Apart from Hector and Carey, Heather suffered minor bruising and Karin whiplash, the rest of us escaped remarkably unscathed. Everything had happened so quickly that we didn’t have time to brace ourselves and that had undoubtedly kept the injuries down. I’d somehow escaped without even a scratch even though I’d been leaning against the backdoor at the moment of impact.

The Jungle
We decided to postpone our trip to the jungle for a day and simply slept and relaxed in hammocks at our hostel. We’d gone with our driver to the police station that morning and the official had ruled that the other driver was 100% responsible for the accident. Also, news had come through that the roadblocks were over and that life in Bolivia was beginning to return to normal.

Our trip to the jungle was to last for 4 days. We were to be taken by boat 5 hours upstream to a drop off point, would then spend 3 days trekking and camping in the jungle before being picked up from a different spot, staying in a local village and then heading back to Rurre the day after.

It was an interesting trip and our guides showed us lots of different plants and trees and told us of their uses. As a demonstration an infusion was made from some tree bark was given to Karin for here whip-lash – within days she had made a full recovery !

As is usual for the jungle we didn’t see too many animals (they usually keep their distance) although we did see macaws, monkeys, fresh water stingrays, even a tortoise, and Carey and I were lucky enough to see a mother and baby Tapir as we collected our muddy drinking water. We fished and ate Piranha and our guide told us of large bloodsucking caterpillars. We weren’t sure whether to believe him or not but when I woke in the middle of the night to find one by my head I decided not to take any chances.

Blue or Red
We’d noticed a trend. In our eventful time together we had noticed that whenever we took transport that was predominantly blue in color then it would inevitable break down, crash or for some other reason, somehow not reach it’s destination. If, however, we took red transport then we seemed to be a little luckier. On returning to Rurre we were booked to fly back to La Paz on a Bolivian Army plane and the issue did come up of what we would do if the plane turned out to be blue ?! We needn’t have worried as it turned out to be camouflage green and even had a red-stripe. The only worrying thing about the flight was the Bolivian woman sitting next to me who was obviously a nervous flyer and spent the whole time praying and counting her rosary !

La Paz & Huanya Potosí
Back in La Paz we said farewell to Heather who had to return to the States and the rest of us prepared for our last adventure before going our separate ways.

At 6,094m (20,000ft), Huanya Potosí is one of the worlds highest non-technical mountain
climbs. We went with a specialist company for the 3 day climb and were joined by Günter and Tina from Germany and Marcos from Switzerland.
On day one we travelled by van to our starting point of 4,800m (15,840ft) where we set up our first camp. To put things in perspective this is at the same height as Mt Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe.

After lunch it was into our thermal gear and waterproof boots for a walk up to the glacier where we learnt how to use an ice-axe and crampons and got the opportunity to try something that I have always wanted to do: Ice-climbing !
The ice wall chosen for us was 20m high and vertical ! Climbing was extremely hard work, partly due to the altitude but mainly due to technique, or lack of it. The tendency was to be a bit over-zealous at the beginning, only for the ice-axe blade to become stuck in the ice. It was then a delicate task of using enough force to extract it without throwing yourself off of the ice-face when it did eventually become free.

The next day we packed up camp and climbed to our second camp at 5,200m (17,160ft) and above the snow-line. The altitude was making itself known and progress was slow but everyone seemed to be coping OK. We erected our tents and fitted as many people as we could into one for warmth before getting an early night.

At 1am we were woken to begin our summit attempt. It was just after the full moon and the moon reflected off of the snow creating a magical scene. It was totally still except for the crunching of our boots in the snow and to one side you could see the lights of La Paz glistening in the distance. It was also bitterly cold – They’d boiled water for us to take with us and within an hour my bottle had frozen solid.

We’d been split into three groups and, within each group, were all roped together for safety.
At one point we crossed a narrow snow bridge across a crevasse and shone our torches into the abyss – we didn’t see the bottom. As we slowly trudged, ever upwards, through the snow the colours slowly changed and the dawn appeared.

At 5,500m (18,150ft) we reached our first challenge: a 30m ice-wall. It was, thankfully, not too steep but still hard work with the altitude. It was here that we had our first problem. Alex, Sarv and their guide were in the group behind us and Alex was in trouble. He had developed a bad headache, his vision was going haywire, he was dry-retching and finding it hard to stand up. Apparently you can’t tell in advance who will be affected by Altitude Sickness but when the symptoms develop you have to stop – It’s no exaggeration to say that it can kill. Their guide had no choice and decided to turn back, their ascent was over.

We really felt for them as they headed back to camp, but there was still a long way to go. In our group Karin and I were the worst affected, not by altitude sickness but by exhaustion caused by the thinness of the air. I would never have thought that it would be so hard. We would rest, feel fine and then head off again only to be out of energy only 30m further on. At one point we had to make a decision, to go on or to turn back. We were extremely tired but had our minds set on a goal besides which we didn’t want to let down the others. We knew we could make it, we just needed time.

We kept climbing and the path became steeper and more precarious with huge drops on either side. We stopped and secured ourselves to admire the view. It was spectacular with amazing views of Lake Titicaca on one side and an ocean of cloud below us on the other.

The summit was in front of us along a knife-edge but it was here that our guide told us that we would be turning back. He said that we need another 30 to 40 minutes to reach the summit from there and that we had to turn around by a pre-arranged time which was fast approaching. Besides which, the weather was about to change for the worse and we needed to get down from our exposed position.

There were mixed emotions of frustration and relief. We all knew that, given the time, we could have made it to the top but that this time it wasn’t to be. We’d reached a height of 6,050m (+/- 20,000ft).

It wasn’t over yet, though, as we still had to get down. We were able to reach a less exposed spot and within minutes we were enveloped in thick cloud and snow, reducing our visibility to less than 15m. By now I was so tired that I kept stumbling and falling, my brain just couldn’t react quickly enough to keep my balance. After what seemed an eternity we reached the ice-wall back at 5,500m. Myself and Marcos descended first and then sat in the snow to wait for the others. It was bitterly cold and a blizzard was blowing into our faces. The next thing I remember was Carey stirring me – I’d fallen asleep ! You hear stories of climbers that die and part of you wonders why they couldn’t keep going until help arrived. Now I knew.

We kept heading down and with every metre we lost in altitude it became a little easier to breath and my mind became a little clearer. We got back to our camp and it was good to see that Alex was fine. We rested a little and shared stories before our final descent to our pick-up point, 3hrs further down the mountain.

Climbing a mountain wasn’t actually something that I’d really thought of doing bwfore but I was glad that I had, and the experience is something that will stay with me for a long time.

Time to say “Goodbye”
We’d travelled together for 5 weeks and to say that it had been an “adventure” is as huge an understatement as you could make. It was time, though, to say “Goodbye” and to go our separate ways. Sarv was heading off to Sorata, Carey and Karin to Lake Titicaca whereas Alex and I had decided to stay in La Paz for a time to do a few odd jobs and to catch up with emails and websites. It was sad to leave each other but it had been a lot of fun and we had a lot to be thankful for, not least that we’d all survived in one piece !!

La Paz
We ended up staying almost 2 weeks in La Paz before finally moving on. During that time we spent a lot of time in Internet Cafés, shopping and did a day trip to Tiwanaku, an ancient
pre-Inca civilisation whose city rests near the shores of Lake Titicaca. I’d read about it many times and to actually see it “in the flesh” was fantastic.

I really like La Paz. Like most cities it’s a busy, noisy place but, in my experience, its also very friendly. It also has a collection of many things that I will forever associate with Bolivia:

  • Roadside food stalls selling all kinds of great food like Salteñas
  • Carts full of oranges where you can buy freshly squeezed juice
  • Liquardo stands in Markets. A liquardos are liquidized fruit with milk and are to die for.
  • Shoe-shine boys. In Bolivia there is no excuse for having dirty shoes as shoe-shine boys are everywhere and for less than 30 cents US your shoes can look like new. One particular group in La Paz is quite memorable as they all wear matching combat jackets and black balaclavas and look like an arm of a terrorist organisation.

As with most capital cities, La Paz is a city of contrasts. From the market area, close to where we stayed, you can see the high walls of the canyon rising all about you with thousands of simple dusty houses clinging impossibly to it’s steep sides. It’s still quite traditional and market stalls abound selling all manner of things from batteries to dried Llama foetus’. As you move down the canyon then things begin to change. The streets become wider and cleaner and McDonalds and “nicer” hotels begin to appear. If you keep going to San Miguel, a little way out from the centre, then you enter a different world. It’s here that the better off Bolivians and ex-pats live and it’s an area of nice restaurants, appartment blocks, supermarkets etc which is so far removed from the rest of Bolivia that it’s hard to believe that you are in the same country.

We met some great people in La Paz, both backpackers and locals and had a fantastic time. Time was moving on, though, and so we eventually headed out of the city and into the mountains.

Sorata
Sorata is a quiet town situated in the green mountain valleys to the north of Lake Titicaca. It’s memorable, not only for the sheer beauty of it’s location but also because it has to be the first mountain retreat that I’ve ever been to where you have to loose altitude to go there.

It’s a great place to go hiking or simply to chill and catch up on some diary.

Lake Titicaca and the Isla Del Sol
Lake Titicaca sits at 3,800m (12,500ft) and covers an area of 8,000sq km (5,000sq miles). It straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru and is one of the worlds highest navigable waterways.

On it’s southern shore is the small town of Copacabana, reputedly the town that the famous Rio beach was named after. It’s a relaxing place and was great for sitting on the balcony of where we were staying, sipping a beer and watching the sun go down across the waters of the lake.
Probably the most famous of the islands in Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of the mighty Incas: the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). It is a very special place and you can understand why it was sacred to the Incas. On our first evening there, Alex and I sat in awed silence for over 40 minutes as we watched the sun sink into the still, deep waters of the lake, setting fire to the sky as it went.

Moving On
After 4 days of hiking around it was eventually time to leave the Isla del Sol, and not only the island but Bolivia as well.
I’d originally envisaged being in Bolivia for only 4 or 5 weeks but actually ended up staying 2½ months. It’s diversity is astounding : the cold barren Altiplano with it’s salt lakes, flamingos and volcanoes; the green mountain valleys that are reminiscent of Switzerland; Lake Titicaca which is in a league all it’s own; the huge snowcapped peaks that rate second only to the mountains of the Himalayas; and the lush tropical jungle of the Amazon basin – Bolivia has it all.

Getting around Bolivia can be an adventure in itself but it’s people are always helpful and, in my experience, incredibly friendly. It’s a wonderful place ! If only the American government would support and encourage it instead of bullying it and using it as a scapegoat ?!

It was with a definite feeling of sadness that I walked through the archway that marks the border with Peru and into a new country and new experiences.

’till next time,

Iain


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