Sunsets and Adrenaline
18.10.2010 - 28.10.2010
Well, I've been in Bolivia for almost ten days now, and it's been a fun mixture of laid back chilling and action packed adventure. My time in Bolivia got off to a good start when we were welcomed across the border from Peru by the friendliest border staff ever, instead of the usual dour expressions and fierce stamping of passports, we got smiles and jokes cracked about living in London. Definitely some other countries could learn a thing or too about making a good impression on visitors (not least the USA!).
I headed straight to Copacabana, a small town on the banks of Titicaca. Although this good impression was slightly spoiled by experiencing the worst service ever at my first meal in Bolivia (rude, slow, incompetent and whatever else), this was more than compensated for by enjoying the best sunset of the trip so far from a hill overlooking the town. The sun set behind the mountains on the far side of the lake, and the colours just got better and better as the sun sank further below the horizon.
The next day I awoke to heavy rain, which fortunately turned into sunshine in time for me to catch an early afternoon boat across to Isla de Sol, a small island in the lake, which the Incas believed was the birthplace of the Gods. It's an amazing place, which although over-run with tourists still feels relatively unspoiled, with the local inhabitants mostly still sticking to a traditional lifestyle of farming and agriculture. I arrived to be met by a horde of local kids, each jostling with one another to advertise accommodation. One got hold of me, and took me along to one of the many small hostels, however this one had the most amazing view looking out over the fields and the lake, towards the mountains in the far distance. I was immediately smitten, and got a room, which had this view out of the window. Almost immediately I started thinking about staying more than the one night I had originally planned.
I had time to go for a walk to the nearest end of the island, enjoying the sunshine and the views of the amazing terraces which cover most of the island, before finding a bar with a terrace to enjoy my second consecutive stunning sunset, although this one was improved by the cold beer.
The next day, I set off to walk round the island, visiting various sites of Incan ruins along the way. It was a beautiful walk along the ridge along the centre of the island, then back following the coast passing through several small villages. Whilst the ruins themselves weren't that impressive at least compared to the sites round Cusco), the beautiful weather and scenery made it a really memorable day.
After another night on the island I returned to the mainland and got a bus to Sorata, a small town known for it's hiking. I had originally been intending to do a 3 day trek there, but a combination of bad weather, lack of time and being unable to find anyone else to trek with resulted in a decision to change plan and head straight for La Paz after just one night in Sorata. So all I gained was an impression of a pretty unexciting town (I didn't take a single photo!) and sore legs after 6 hours cramped in tiny minibuses.
Still I arrived in La Paz looking forward to a few days of relaxation and some more exciting activities. The first couple of days were spent wandering around seeing a few sights and organising the various trips I had planned. La Paz has a spectacular location climbing up the sides of a huge valley, with snowcapped peaks visible in brief glimpses down certain certain streets and from the higher areas. As well as few pretty areas of old building and squares, La Paz has some of the best Zebra crossings I've ever seen, using live Zebras (well people in costume actually, but near enough!). These "zebras" act as traffic ladies do in the UK, stopping the traffic to let pedestrians cross safely. All the time they're clowning around and generally entertaining evereyone passing by. I'd say this is a brilliant invention we could do more of in the UK.
My first adventure activity was mountain biking down "The World's Most Dangerous Road", a steep, narrow road which runs from Coroico to , losing over 3600m altitude as it goes. The nickname of the road is well deserved - more than 25 vehicles a year used to be lost over the edge and down some of the precipices up to 600m high. Apparently the worst accident involved a truck carrying over 100 passengers plummeting off the road with no survivors. Some of you may also recall the road featuring with a fairly nervous Jeremy Clarkson in the Top Gear South America special. These days a new road has been built, so the old road is used mainly by mountain bikers and the odd local. It's still dangerous though, we were shown the wreckage from the most recent fatality when a car went off the edge in August, killing the driver. In addition, about 15 bikers have been killed doing the route over the last few years.
So it was with as much fear as excitement I turned up early in the morning ready to risk my life. After an hour driving out of LaPAz, we arrived at the start of the trip and put on out protective gear. I had paid a few extra dollars to go with one of the best operators (B-side if anyone's interested) and therefore out kit included full suspension mountain bikes, full protective gear and excellent guides. After getting ready we set off on the first stage, a descent on tarmaced road through stunning scenery. It was nice easy riding and we aere soon flying along, overtaing the occasional truck along the way. We were all getting pretty confident when our guide pointed out that this wasn't the death road proper, just the normal road.
All too soon though we reached the real start of the death road, to be greeted by thick cloud concealing the extent of the precipitous drops to one side. Nervously, we set off down the steep and rough road, winding our way down the mountain. It didn't take long to start to build up some confidence, and we were soon racing along, taking the bends at speed and generally having a great time. It wasn't long before we came out of the clouds and could see some of the huge drops we were passing. The scenery was spectacular and it was hard to concentrate on the road rather than the views. I was having a great time whizzing down, just about managing to keep up with our guide, although I was pushing quite hard to do so (our guide said later he was riding at about 60%!). It was at this point my one near-miss happened, coming into a sharp bend I suddenly realised I was going to fast, tried to brake, lost the back end and only just managed to get it under control and stop about half a metre from the edge. Whilst it wasn't one of the huge drops, it would probably have hurt, so after that I eased off a bit.
Gradually it got warmer and more humid until we found ourselves in the jungle proper and near the end of the trip. After a couple of flat sections (we actually had to pedal!) and some river crossing we arrived at our destination at the end of the road, where we celebrated with a cold beer and a relaxing lunch before driving back up the road. It was only driving up, which took several hours, did we realise just how far we had come.
Sunday morning saw me out and about in La Paz, and more by luck than judgement stumbling across a huge parade celebrating something to do with the anniversary of the city (I never quitefigured out what). There were hundredsof people parading dressed up in beautiful traditional costumes, some with quite franklyscary masks. It was a stunning spectacle and I had a happy couple of hours taking photos and enjoying the experience.
That evening came a slightly differentform of entertainmen - Wrestling Cholitas. This is billed as WWF style "fake" wrestling, but starrring Cholitas - local women in traditional costume. The evening startedoff with a couple of all-male fights, with plenty of the anticipated slapstick. Things took a turn to the bizarre however with the next match, instead of girl vs girl, the poor cholita had to take on a guy, who proceeded to throw her round the ring, and even over the barriers at our feet at one point. Whilst she got a few good shots in, the guy comprensively won, leaving the girl lying in the ring covered in (fake) blood. We were all a bit bemused by this, and were even more so after the next match, which followed a similar pattern. The third cholita proceeded to beat theliving daylights out of the poor guy, which made us feel slightly better, but it was all a bit strange, even if it is supposedly faked.
Monday morning I set off on my next big adventure, climbing Huayna Potosi, a mountain near La Paz. The summit is at 6088m, so it is a pretty serious undertaking and a whole 100m higher than my previous best on Kilimanjaro. I had been lucky enough to bump into a couple of people I had met on Isal de Sol in La Paz and I had managed to persuade Simon to come climb the mountain with me. So we set off with our guide Osvaldo and cook Simon for the drive to the mountain. It wasn't long after leaving La Paz that we got our first good view of the mountain - covered in snow and looking pretty intimidating for the two of us, having never done any serious climbing before. Fortunately we had an amazing guide in Osvaldo, who filled us with confidence.
After dropping our kit off at base camp and grabbing a quick spot of lunch, we walked the 40minutes up to the base of the glacier to get some practice in with ice axes and crampons. Osvi explained the basic principles, then took us up and down all over the glacier on increasingly steep slopesto give us confidence in the gear. The final challenge was scaling a proper 6m high ice wall using crampons and ice axes. This was great fun, although incredibly hard work, particularly on the arms. We returned back down to camp feeling more confident, althugh still pretty apprehensive about what was to come.
The next morning we left base camp at 9.30 for the 2 hour trek up to the advanced camp at 5100m. The cloud had settled in and we spent most of the journey trudging through thick mist. We were carrying all of our own kit as well as crampons, ice axes, harnesses etc. so we were pretty well laden, making the climb fairly hard work. We made it to the hut by lunchtime and had a couple of hours to relax and recover before Osvi took us out for a look at the route. We climbed the glacier for half an hour just to get a feel for the snow and the type of terrain. It was a lot less technical than the practise we had done on the glacier, which gave us some confidence. Then it was back to the hut in time to enjoy spectacular views as the sun set behind the mountain and the clouds parted, followed by an early dinner and an attempt to get some sleep.
After lying awake for 6 hours with countless thoughts racing through my head we were back up at midnight to get ready for the final ascent. We left the hut at 1.30am to find the weather conditions were perfect - clear and relatively warm (a mere -5 degrees celcius). We set off up the glacier, a series of small pinpricks of light visible further up the mountain showing where other groups had got to. We trudged upwards at a slow pace, roped together for safety and our crampons biting into the frozen snow. We were both feeling pretty good, with no symptons of altitude sickness and enjoying the experience. Gradually as we got higher, the lack of oxygen began to kick in more and more, with each breath coming in gasping, heaving sobs as we desperately tried to suck in enough oxygen.
The pace slowed and we could only focus on trudging upwards, putting one foot in front of each other. After 3 and a half hours, we reached 5900m the point where most people who turn back hae had enough. Whilst knackered, we were all still feeling determined and continued on, heading on towards the final ridge. We got here about 5.15, just as the first rays of light appeared on the horizon.
As we climbed the ridge, trying to ignore the huge drops on each side, we were treated to a stunning sunrise, as the sky went from black to blue to orange. We eventually made it to the summit and collapsed to the ground, trying to suck in enough oxygen to appreciate the amazing 360 degree panorama. We had just enough time for a few photos before we had to head down, needing to get past an area of potential rockfalls before the sun start to melt the frozen rocks.
The journey down was even more challenging as we had given almost everything just to get to the top, but now had to summon the energy to get safely back off the mountain. We trudged down,at least able to enjoy the stunning vistas in the early morning light. Eventually we made it down to camp 2, absolutely shattered, and had the luxury of a lie-down for an hour and a bowl of nice hot soup. Then we had to pack up and carry our heavy packs back down to base camp, arriving there on weary legs craving a hot bath and comfy bed. All that was left then was the drive back to La Paz and a very early night. I'll finish this entry now, with more to come soon.