Monthly Archives: July 2006

A Blessing In Disguise

July 17, 2006
Day 292

We were told that a bus would leave for Pelechuco from El Alto at 6:00 this morning, but we couldn't buy tickets in advance. It was not a good situation to be in, but we didn't have a choice if we wanted to leave for the trek from Pelechuco to Apolo today. We had to leave the hotel at 5:30 to make it to El Alto by 6:00, and doing so meant that no buses would be running so we would have to take an expensive taxi.

El Alto is a city built on one of the plateaus outside of La Paz. As the name implies, it's very high at nearly 4000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level. It has recently earned the distinction of being the fastest-growing city in South America, as Bolivia's large native population migrates there to look for work. Because of this, El Alto is even more run-down, impoverished, and dangerous than La Paz, which is already a dodgy place.

Luckily the taxi took us to the place from which the buses leave without any issues, and thus began the waiting game. Craig and I got some coffee and a fried egg sandwich (the standard Bolivian breakfast) and started watching for the Pelechuco-bound bus to show up on the chaotic street. Just before dawn, temperatures hit -6 Celsius (21 Farenheit), so waiting was far from a pleasant experience.

The bus finally showed up at 7:30, but as the masses converged and stormed aboard, it became apparent that the bus was already sold out. Craig tried to grab an empty seat and was informed that all the tickets had been sold yesterday. It wasn't clear who sold them, but it definitely wasn't the lady at the office we went to.

There was nothing we could do other than take a bus back to La Paz and wait until tomorrow. We went back to the same office and bought tickets, so at least we know we'll get to go tomorrow. The tickets were only $4 each for a 12-hour ride, but in a country like Bolivia, sometimes it doesn't matter how much money you have. You're going to have to waste a day here and there.

Back at the hotel, I felt too weak to move. The illness had been building up for a few days, but now that I was lethargic and began belching acid, I was pretty sure I had Giardia. One good thing about Bolivia is that pharmacies are everywhere and they'll sell you just about any drug you can think of without a prescription. Ten minutes and $1 later, I had a week's worth of metronidazol, the anitparasitic that would kill the single-celled bastards spawning within me. I spent the rest of the day sleeping, so I guess missing the bus was a blessing in disguise.

Resting Before The Big One

July 15-16, 2006
Day 290-291

I spent this weekend recovering from my blisters and my fallen toenail from last week's trek. Before I begin my long trip to Ecuador, Craig and I will do one last trek. It will start in Pelechuco, a full day's journey from La Paz, and end in Apolo, a remote jungle community. The 8-day trek will start in the mountains and continue through Madidi National Park, the most biodiverse national park in the world, deep in the Amazon basin. Not many people do this trek, so we will have to get a guide to show us the way and bring our machetes to hack away at the large amounts of vegetation covering the trail. The trek has seven river crossings, many of which don't have bridges, so we'll have to wade across them. Craig tried to do the trek last year, but the rivers were higher and none of the guides were willing to take him. It should be more manageable this year, though. This trek will be a great last challenge to end my trip.

"The World's Most Dangerous Road"

July 14, 2006
Day 289

Picture of truck.

A truck passing a cross on the road.

Going down "The World's Most Dangerous Road" on a bicycle is a popular tourist attraction in La Paz, but most people go with an expensive tour company that provide guides and lots of safety. However, Craig, Louise, and I decided that we could do the trip on our own for less money and not have to worry about being told to slow down by an annoying guide. It was a scary proposition at first: I had rented bikes four times in South America and there were major problems each time. However, I felt a lot better when we picked up our bikes from Coroico this morning and gave them a test run. They were the best mountain bikes I had ever seen with wide tires, strong suspensions, and disc brakes. They were each easily worth several thousand dollars.

After riding around town a little bit to get a feel for them, we loaded the bikes onto a local bus bound for La Paz. We had trekked down to Coroico, so this was my first experience on "The Road." I could immediately see why it was so dangerous. At only one lane wide and with a descent of nearly 4000 meters down the side of a mountain, the gravel road was an absolute nightmare. The only consolation was that the laws on this road had been modified such that traffic going uphill had the right-of-way and could hug the wall on the left.

At one point, we stopped behind a long line of traffic. Speculation was that we had to wait for a large truck to pass us on the way down the narrow road. When I got out and walked to the front of the long line of vehicles, I saw the horrible truth. Splattered on the side of the cliff were hundreds of mandarins and at the bottom were the remnants of a truck that went over the side last night. The real reason we were waiting was for the authorities to pull up the parts of the truck that could be salvaged. The bodies of the ten who died had already been removed on a rudimentary stretcher that was still sitting on top of the cliff. The sight was a dose of reality of just how dangerous the road really was. I thought about not continuing, but I convinced myself that it wouldn't be nearly as dangerous going down the road on a bicycle. After all, a truck could barely fit on the track, but a bicycle had a lot more breathing room. So the logic goes...

About three-quarters of the way to the top, we reached a much safer paved area. We had to go downhill for awhile, so I learned that there would be a bit of actual exercise involved in the ride. We had to stop for two drug checkpoints on this section of road. About three hours after leaving Coroico, we reached La Cumbre, where we had begun the Choro Trail trek three days ago. It was freezing cold at the 4700 meter pass, so we quickly unloaded the bikes, strapped on our helmets, and took off.

The trip down the paved road was an absolute blast. All of us bombed down the hill without ever using our brakes. I managed to pass two buses and several of the tourists who were riding with one of the tour companies in their neat uniforms and single-file lines. Before I knew it, I was being waved through the first checkpoint.

Next was the uphill section. It was a lot of work on a mountain bike, but I managed to get to the top without too much trouble. Unfortunately, I lost track of Craig, who flew ahead of me, and Louise, who was somewhere behind me. I started flying down the paved road again thinking I'd catch up with Craig later.

When I got to the end of the paved road, there appeared to be some chaos in the street. There was a gate covering the paved road, which continued up a small hill to the left, and the gravel road branched off to the right. A policeman with a bloody nose was manning the gate and lots of people were running around outside their cars and shouting. I saw a few other bicyclers go to the right with a guide, so I figured I should follow them.

I passed the tour group right away and started flying down the road. I tried to stay to the right as much as possible, but had to move to the cliff side on the left when ever a car came uphill. Every now and then, there was a small space on the left where I could safely wait for a semi moving uphill to pass me on my right. I used these spaces to my advantage and overtook the trucks going downhill when they were stopped.

The rest of the ride down was fun, but very dusty. Every time a car passed me going in either direction, a huge cloud of dust was thrown in the air and I was temporarily blinded. While waiting for a dust cloud to clear, Louise caught up with me. She was better prepared than I with sunglasses over her eyes and a bandanna over her mouth. She did have a little drama of her own, though: While waiting for a truck going uphill to pass her, the locals decided it would be funny to throw rotten oranges at her. Her shirt took on a citrusy smell for the rest of the trip.

I went ahead of Louise again and raced the rest of the way to the bottom. The whole trip took one and a half hours, but it felt like less than half that. It was freezing cold at the top, but nice and hot at the bottom. I rode around the little village, but couldn't find any sign of Craig. I didn't think there was any way I could've passed him, so I decided to wait for Louise. Nearly half an hour went by and she didn't show up, either. The best theory I could come up with was that Craig decided to ride the 600 meters uphill to Coroico and Louise got a flat tire.

Suddenly, Craig and Louise both showed up together! Craig had an interesting story to tell. He got to the beginning of the dirt road a few minutes ahead of me, and there was a riot going on. The gate leading to the paved road was up, and some guy punched the policeman who was manning it in the nose. This caused him to lose control of the gate and it started coming down. Craig wanted to get out of there, so he went under the gate and almost got hit by it. A car wasn't so lucky as it got smashed. In the mass confusion, Craig went the wrong way and didn't find out until 7 KM later when he was told he had to turn back. So he had to ride an extra 14 KM, which explains why he fell behind me. He eventually caught up with Louise and they rode the rest of the way down together.

We all shared our stories, loaded our bikes onto a truck, and rode the rest of the way to Coroico. All of us looked pretty pathetic, but it was a great time. We got lunch and bragged about how fast we were going. This was Louise's last day before heading back home to the real world, so after turning our bikes back in, we got in another bus and made the four-hour journey back to La Paz together. It was a great way to end one's stay in the wild country of Bolivia.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Choro Trek Day 3

July 13, 2006
Day 288

The only walking we had to do today was an easy two hours downhill to Chairo, an old mining town with only a few dozen residents. From there, we rode in a truck up to Coroico, a nice little town, which at 1600 meters, is a relaxing weekend vacation destination for La Paz's middle- and upper-classes. The Choro trail wasn't a very difficult trek, but my feet took a lot of punishment. I got big blisters on both ankles and one of my tonails fell off. I guess it's time for me to get some new hiking boots.

We decided to stay overnight in Coroico and planned to ride mountain bikes down the road from La Paz to Coroico, which has been billed as “The World's Most Dangerous Road." The bikes will be ready tomorrow morning, and we bought tickets on a local bus back to La Cumbre, where our bike ride will begin.

Tonight we went out to a huge pizza buffet dinner at a nice restaurant. The meal was a splurge at $3, but I had built up a big enough appetite after three days of trekking to make it worthwhile. We were joined at the restaurant by several backpackers going to Rurrenabaque for their jungle and pampa tours. Besides catering to the residents of La Paz, Coroico is smack dab in the middle of the Gringo Trail.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Choro Trek Day 2

July 12, 2006
Day 287

We knew we had a long day ahead of us, so we set out before sunrise to try to get to the other side of the valley before it got too hot. The first few hours of our trek were downhill, but once we got near the bottom of the valley, the trail turned steeply upward. The rest of the day was filled with ups and downs and was almost never flat. Overall, we walked for seven challenging hours.

We ended our day at a Japanese man's house. He was a farmer who decided to move to Bolivia when his country's population became too large 47 years ago. He spends his days tending to his large gardens and only asks people to sign his guestbook as a fee for camping in his yard. Considering the view from his house, I can't really blame him for living there all these years.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Choro Trek Day 1

July 11, 2006
Day 286

Picture of me.

I get back to my mountain roots.

Craig, Louise, and I started our trek of the Choro Trail today. The trail was an old Inca road that was largely forgotten until the 1970's when Hilary Bradtt found and popularized it. To get to the trail head, we took a bus to La Cumbre, an area about an hour from La Paz that sits at 4700 meters above sea level. From there, we followed Jesus' left arm to the pass at 4850 meters. On the way up, we saw llamas being herded over the pass, an extraordinary site considering how high we were.

After the pass, it was all downhill for the rest of the day. At first, there was only minimal grass vegetation and no wildlife at all, but by the end of the day, the tree line that marked the beginning of the cloudforest became visible. We camped in a local's yard where the temperature was cool enough that there were no mosquitoes. Sand flies did become a problem toward the end of the day, but they were gone by dusk. Overall it was an easy day full of old Inca resupplying stations and settlements that were still being lived in. The mountains weren't the most impressive I've seen, but the fact that the path was built over 500 years ago made it worth seeing.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Too Sick To Trek

July 10, 2006
Day 285

Craig and I were both sick today, so we decided to take the day off and start our trek tomorrow. I was feeling really run down all day, but I finally got some drugs in the afternoon and felt much better.

A Head-Butt For The Ages

July 9, 2006
Day 284

Craig and Louise got into La Paz this morning, and we met at a backpacker bar called Oliver's Travels to watch the World Cup final between France and Italy. There were a few early goals, but after that, the game wasn't too interesting for me because I felt so run down with my cold. However, in the second overtime, Zidane laid down a head-butt that will be talked about for generations. What was he thinking? That was the single most interesting occurrence I had seen in a sporting event since beginning my trip.

We were going to do a trek tomorrow, but Craig and I both have head colds to deal with. The good news is that Craig's health problems that were plaguing him during the canoe trip a week ago seem to have dissipated. We'll get together tomorrow morning to see if doing the trek right away will be possible.

Back In The Cold

July 8, 2006
Day 283

I fell asleep sweating, but I woke up in the middle of the night shivering. The bus had gone from steaming hot to freezing cold within a few hours as we reached high altitude. My jacket, which had served as a nice pillow, became necessary to keep myself from freezing. The entire night, the bus traversed switchbacks as it climbed the side of the mountain to the altiplano. By the time we stopped for breakfast, I could see my breath and felt a chill in my bones that I hadn't felt in a long time.

Previously, I couldn't remember what the bus station in La Paz looked like, but as soon as I saw it, I had a flashback of the ill-fated saltena I ate there last time I was leaving the city. Maybe I mentally blocked it out until now, but suddenly, I remembered the entire city, including the location of the Solario, the hostel where I was supposed to meet Craig. All of the streets that I walked down seemed familiar, and the big, scary city that I remembered seemed quite friendly this time.

I think the sudden change in altitude and temperature was a large shock on my immune system. As soon as I sat down, my nose started running, my chest was congested, it felt like someone punched me in the gut, and my heart rate wouldn't slow down. I'm going to have to take it easy for a few days to acclimatize to the dizzying 3700 meter (12,000 ft) altitude before doing anything strenuous like trekking. At least there's no mosquitoes here.

Goodbye Lowlands

July 7, 2006
Day 282

Today I took the long bus ride to La Paz. It was another nice bus on a paved road, but the windows didn't open and the driver wouldn't turn the air on, so it was like riding in a portable sauna. I was sweating nonstop in the tropical heat. The movie selection was interesting: King Kong II, but I was so tired (the heat was probably to blame) that I fell asleep and missed out as the movie's incredibly complicated plot was revealed.