Monthly Archives: July 2006

Trouble At The Border

July 29, 2006
Day 304

I picked the perfect day to leave Bolivia. I started out my day by getting a bus to Copacabana, near the border on lake Titicaca. Several people stopped there, and the rest of us were told that we had to change to another bus, but it was still in Peru, so we would have to wait. Suddenly, the driver told us to jump aboard and he would drive us to the border. Something seemed out of place. Why hadn't the other bus crossed the border yet?

For the next several minutes, we had to drive around several piles of rocks in the middle of the road. They were obviously placed there deliberately. Suddenly we were stopped behind a long line of cars and were told to start walking with our stuff. I didn't hesitate and began walking toward the border, which I didn't realize was still several miles away. While walking, I passed a large group of Bolivians who appeared to be assembling for something. There were also a lot more piles of rocks in the street which prevented traffic from moving.

After ten minutes of walking I reached the next bus along with several other backpackers. We were told to wait for everyone else to get to the bus. It was a strange situation, but I was used to being in strange situations in Bolivia, so I started reading a book in the shade. All of a sudden, we were told to board the bus. It wasn't even half full, but we started heading toward Peru anyway. Then we stopped and I looked behind us. At least a dozen backpackers were running toward us, and behind them was a mob of angry protesters. The backpackers got to the bus and started pounding on the door and begging the driver to open it. Finally, the driver complied and yelled at everyone to jump on quickly. Meanwhile, more protesters started throwing rocks into the street a few hundred yards in front of us and swinging chains in the air, threatening to hit anyone who came too close. We were blocked in.

For the next fifteen minutes, more and more backpackers began to break free of the crowd and ran toward the bus. We picked up a bunch more people, but none of them knew which bus they were actually supposed to be on. The bus was overflowing with people in the chaos. We drove up to the roadblock in the street and the Bolivians started gathering around the bus, waiting for the violence to break out. The driver acted quickly and threw a bribe to one of the protesters. They temporarily moved the rocks away and we were free. As we pulled away, there were still a lot of other backpackers running around and begging to get on buses while simultaneously trying to avoid getting hit by a flying rock or chain. I'm not sure what happened to them because we drove away so quickly.

When we got to the border, I noticed a surprising lack of of military personnel. It seems that the military are stationed everywhere in Bolivia except at the locations of violent protests. We appeared to be outside of the violence at least. The rumor was that the protest was happening because the government refused to pay the participants of a festival in Copacabana like they had in previous years. I guess their way of recuperating their losses was to set up road blocks and look big and mean so the tourists would bribe them.

Going through customs, I couldn't find the piece of paper in my passport showing that I had nothing to declare. I was supposedly given it when entering the country, but considering that I entered through Paraguay where there were no border controls, I don't think I was ever given such a paper in the first place. I started to get mad when I was told that I'd have to pay a fine to leave the country, but I calmed down and payed it when I found out it was only 10 bolivianos ($1.25).

I walked across the border to Peru and met up with the bus once again. However, amidst the chaos before the border, the bus had become overloaded with backpackers and the driver had taken my ticket. I was eventually able to convince the driver that he had my ticket and was allowed to stay on. A lot of the other backpackers got kicked off and were forced to wait for their respective buses to break through the protests and cross the border.

We finally got to Puno several hours later, but there was more confusion. Most of the passengers were continuing to either Cusco or Arequipa (I was going to Arequipa), but nobody had a ticket anymore. We all had to write down our names so the bus employees could search for our tickets which had disappeared. Eventually everything got straightened out and I had my ticket to Arequipa.

I was supposed to get to Arequipa at 7:30 PM where I would jump on a bus to Ica and arrive early in the morning. However, the bus didn't get to Arequipa until 11:30 PM because of the chaos and confusion. All the buses to Ica were already gone for the night. I had to stay in a motel and will try to move to Ica tomorrow. Some girls on my bus were really unlucky because they had paid to go to Lima tonight but missed all of the connecting buses. Not only will they have to pay more money tomorrow, but they will probably miss their flight home as well. The two biggest things I learned from my three months in Bolivia were that Bolivians love to protest and to expect the unexpected, both of which applied today.

To The Top Of The World

July 27, 2006
Day 302
Huayna Potosi Climb Day 3

Picture of me at the summit.

Me at the summit of Huayna Potosi, 6088 meters above sea level.

I barley got any sleep last night. Technically, it was still the middle of the night when I got up at 1:00, but I still barely slept. Shortly after I went to bed, the wind picked up and started whipping through the tent, which was clearly not designed for mountain weather conditions. On top of that, a dog was barking in the middle of the night! In South America, it doesn't matter if you're on the remotest island, in the biggest city, in the smallest town, in the middle of the jungle, or on the highest mountain. The number one rule of the continent is that there will always be a barking dog at night.

When I got up, I couldn't eat anything, but Gervacio was kind enough to heat up some water. I had a cup of coffee for energy and a mate de coca to help with the altitude. While I was drinking my mate, a group of French climbers walked past me and got started up the mountain. Seeing them gave me a surge of adrenaline and my headache instantly went away. I got all of my gear together and was stoked to start climbing.

From the beginning, the pace was painfully slow. When I'm trekking, I like to walk fast, but Gervacio assured me that we'd get to the summit in about five hours (just in time for sunrise) if we kept this pace. I figured he knew what he was talking about and just followed him. Indeed, when we got to the top of the first ridge, we passed a few other people who were resting, so I knew that the slow pace was normal for ascending a mountain.

We kept going up and up in the dark, often using our ice axes for support on the steeper parts. After awhile, we passed the French group, who started about half an hour before us. There was nobody in front of us anymore. We only stopped for short water breaks a few times, so I didn't get too hot or cold during the entire climb.

There was one slightly dangerous climb up a steep cliff where I had to use my ice ax to pull myself up. Gervacio and I were roped together the entire time for safety, so he went up first and we kept the rope taught between us. That way if I fell, he'd hopefully be able to hold me up. After we scampered to the top, we lost sight of the other climbers' head torches for good.

After several more hours of walking, Gervacio announced that we were at the last push, a 200 meter wall before the summit. Dawn hadn't even begun to break yet, so we took a fifteen minute break where I downed some chocolate and lots of water. Once again we kept the rope taught and made an explosive effort to the top. It wasn't a problem for me to find safe footing because my stride is so big. Before I knew it, Gervacio stopped, and when I caught up with him, he announced that we were at the summit.

I couldn't see much at first, but it was obvious we had awhile. I was originally told that I could only stay at the summit for five minutes to allow the next group to get to the top, but the next group was just getting to the bottom of the wall. As the sun started to come up, I began to see El Alto, Illimani, and the rest of the Cordillera Real. Seeing the sun come up over the world was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. There was nothing higher than me to block my view, so I could see forever. We stayed on top for half an hour or so, then began our descent when it got too cold.

From the bottom of the last wall, we watched the others struggle to make it to the top. The sun had been up for about an hour, so I got a clear view of what I just climbed. I'm glad I made it to the top in the dark because the last part seemed like a very difficult task. In fact, Gervacio told me that when a lot of the people he takes on the mountain see what they still have to do to reach the summit, they decide that they can't take anymore and turn back. I had no such worries, though, because I couldn't see anything that was still ahead of me.

The walk back to high camp was long but beautiful. I finally got to see the entire area during the day. Back at high camp, I had lunch and got ready to go the rest of the way down. That's when the fatigue and tiredness from not sleeping last night hit me. The last two hours to the bottom were more difficult for me than the five hours to the top, but I eventually made it. I got one last look at what I had accomplished and jumped into a taxi back to La Paz.

My first mountain climbing experience was a great one. The view from the top made the whole thing worthwhile. Huayna Potosi isn't a very difficult mountain to climb, but the altitude alone keeps a lot of people from reaching the summit. This was a great test for me as I realized that I can handle high altitudes as long as I give myself time to acclimatize. Mountaineering may just become something I do more often in my future travels.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Resting At High Camp

July 26, 2006
Day 301
Huayna Potosi Climb Day 2

Picture of High Camp.

Camping above the clouds.

I had a long sleep last night, and we had a leisurely start today. One problem that became apparent right away was that I didn't have enough room for all of my stuff in the small backpack that was provided for me. I'm still kicking myself for not bringing my full-sized backpack. I made due by carrying the tent, my crampons, and my harness on the outside and wearing my mountaineering boots (which aren't needed for today) and leaving my regular hiking boots behind.

We didn't start hiking until about 9:30, but that was OK because we only had to get to the next camp today. Gervacio set the pace slow on purpose, and I'm glad he did. The weather should be fine at the summit, so the main reason people fail is because they didn't wait long enough to acclimatize themselves properly. Slow and steady wins the race.

On the way up, we met two Spaniards going up without a guide and a few groups of people on their way down. When we got to the top (no problem at all), we were greeted by several other groups of climbers. It seems that I will be joined by about twenty others in my quest for the summit. The climbers look like a mixed group of experienced mountaineers who don't even need a guide, newbies with expensive tents and gear, and people sleeping in a tent held up by nothing more than two trekking poles.

I sat around all afternoon, ate as much food as I could get down my neck to build up energy for tomorrow, and listened to the guides talk to one another in Aymara. Yesterday I heard Gervacio speak Aymara and I figured that he was a special example, but today I learned that everyone from this region (except La Paz) speaks Aymara as their native language. They don't speak Spanish until they learn it in school.

It was surprisingly hot all afternoon. Temperatures probably reached 18 C (65 F) with no wind and almost no clouds in the sky. The view of the base camp, glacier, and summit were picture-perfect. The base camp looked very far away but the summit didn't look any closer for some reason. By 3:00, the daily winds and their accompanying clouds wiped away all fantasies that this was a relaxing picnic on the beach.

I started to feel a slight headache late in the afternoon, but maybe it was psychosomatic. I didn't have a novel to read, so I foolishly brought my trekking guide with me for entertainment and started to read about altitude sickness, which can eventually lead to cerebral and pulmonary edema, both potentially deadly conditions. Coincidentally, as soon as I started reading about altitude sickness, my headache started up. I don't exactly want fluid to fill my brain and lungs, so I might have to turn back if the problem gets much worse toward the top.

I did nothing all afternoon while people shuffled in, set up camp, and practiced climbing with their crampons. Just watching them made me tired. It seemed pretty crazy that people without any previous experience climbing mountains would get rushed to this altitude, practice with their equipment, then be expected to climb to the top, all within about twelve hours. I attempted to go to bed by 7:00, knowing that I'd have to be up by 1:00 for the long walk to the summit.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Learning How To Climb

July 25, 2006
Day 300
Huayna Potosi Climb Day 1

Picture of Huayna Potosi.

Huayna Potosi from the taxi.

I was supposed to get picked up at my hotel at 9:00 today. Someone showed up at 9:30, but there still was no car. Instead, I had to walk up the hill to a tour agency office and wait some more. About 11:00, a taxi finally showed up and explained that traffic was really bad. What more can I say? This is Bolivia.

On the way to base camp, I got to know my guide, Gervacio. He's been a mountain guide for five years. Before that, he was a cook, and before that, he was a porter. This year alone, he's climbed Huayna Potosi eight times. It's good that I'm going to be with someone who knows what he's doing.

When we got to base camp at 4700 meters, we ate lunch and discussed the plans for the next few days. Today will be a practice day where I'll learn how to use an ice ax and crampons. More importantly, it will give me an extra precious day to get acclimated to the extreme altitude. Tomorrow we'll climb to the high camp at 5130 meters. I'll be able to relax most of the afternoon and adjust once again to an even higher altitude. I'll have to go to bed quite early because on day three, we want to start walking by 1:30 AM to reach the summit by sunrise. Then we will begin the long walk all the way back to base camp to catch a ride back to La Paz.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was carrying a lot of stuff. I thought I would only have to carry my own clothes, but Gervacio and I are going to split what we carry because there are no porters. It's not a big deal except I only brought my daypack which isn't nearly big enough. Luckily, one of the guides lent me his pack, but it's still not very big. Hopefully I'll find a way to squeeze it all in tomorrow morning.

After lunch we loaded up all of the climbing gear and did a practice run. We walked over a dam that generates electricity for the area and up about one-third of the way to the high camp, where there is a glacier. There I got to test out my mountaineering jacket and pants, boots, crampons, and ice ax. We walked up and down the ice a bit until I had a feel for it, then we started using the ice axes on small walls of ice.

When I was ready for a bigger challenge, Gervacio climbed up the side of a cliff and rigged up a safety rope system. Then I proceeded to climb the sheer face to the top. Afterwards, I repelled down to the ground. I was surprised how well the ice axes and crampons stuck to the ice, making the climb easy and fun. We won't have to do much difficult climbing to reach the summit, but the test run was still a great introduction to ice climbing.

After our practice, we returned to base camp for dinner and bed. So far, I feel great. We went up a few hundred meters today and I barely got winded. I feel really good about my chances of reaching the summit in two days.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Preparing For Huayna Potosí

July 23-24, 2006
Day 298-299

I had to spend a few days preparing for Huayna Potosi and getting ready to leave Bolivia. Getting all my gear organized (I accumulated a lot of stuff in Bolivia that I no longer needed) was no easy task. I also signed up to go to Huayna Potosi with a guide on the 25th. I haven't been in a very cold environment since Antarctica last February, so I jettisoned most of my cold weather gear a while back. Temperatures are supposed to reach -15 C at the summit, though, so I had to roam around town looking for a cheap fleece and thermals that I'll probably only use for this trip.

Twin Lanes Bowling

July 22, 2006
Day 297

Since the Apolo trek didn't pan out, I wanted to find one last challenge before heading home. I had wanted to climb a mountain for a long time, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity. Even though Huayna Potosi is 6088 meters (20,000 feet) high, it supposedly can be climbed with no previous experience. I went around looking for guides that would take me and got a lot of information, but a lot of the tour companies were closed because it was Saturday. It seems like every time I'm in La Paz it's the weekend and it's hard to get stuff done. I'll try to leave for the mountain on either Monday or Tuesday.

The big highlight of my day was that I went bowling for the first time in South America. Craig found a bowling alley called "Twin Lanes Bowling," and we decided to check it out. At home, if a bowling alley doesn't have automatic scoring it is primitive, but in Bolivia, it would be quite modern. As the name implied, Twin Lanes Bowling only had two lanes, and not only was there no automatic scoring, but the pins didn't even get set up automatically! Instead, a guy sat behind the pins and jumped out of the way when the ball was bowled. Then, he'd set them up manually and roll your ball back to you on a track next to the gutter. I was barely able to break 100, but it was a lot of fun trying to bowl the ball before the guy could get out of the way. It added a whole new element to the game. Maybe bowling alleys in the States should consider hiring a teenager to set up the pins manually. It would give the game a newfound rustic appeal.

The Stangest Market Ever

July 21, 2006
Day 296

Our bus out of town left today at 3:00 AM. I'm not sure why it left so ridiculously early, especially considering that the ride was only twelve hours, which meant that we would get back to La Paz in the middle of the afternoon.

After a few hours, when we were near the border with Peru, we stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch black outside at first, but when the sun started coming up, I noticed a fair amount of activity outside the bus's frosted windows. I asked around and learned that every Friday at sunrise, there was a market for all of the neighboring communities in the middle of nowhere at nearly 5000 meters. I walked around for awhile, but it was so cold, my fingers and toes quickly became numb. The most interesting thing I saw was a bunch of guys melting gold with blowtorches, and Craig bought a poncho right off a guy's back. I'm not sure if it was for a souvenir or just for warmth. The market at that time and place was the most bizarre thing I've seen in a long time.

The ride back to La Paz was long but beautiful once again. After we got into town, Craig got the drugs he needed. I wasn't able to sleep much on the bus, so I was too tired to do anything else today. I'll work on my plans for the next few weeks tomorrow.

The Trek That Couldn't Happen

July 20, 2006
Day 295

Yesterday we learned from the owner of a truck that he would be leaving for Queara at 4:00 AM today. The info seemed more reliable this time. We told him we'd go with him and went to bed early.

By 4:00, another problem had arisen. Craig started to feel the same symptoms of nausea and fatigue that had plagued him two weeks ago during the canoe trip. He didn't have any drugs with him to fix the problem, either. For the record, I felt like a million bucks.

Even though Craig still felt OK, it wasn't worth the risk. We were told that there were no pharmacies in Queara but there was one here in Pelechuco in the hospital. We would have to try to get the drugs needed today and leave tomorrow. It's too risky to venture into the jungle sick with the potential for getting worse. Incidentally, I walked to the truck at 4:00. Nobody was around (not a big surprise considering it's Bolivia), but on the way, I spotted the bloodshot-eyed man with his friends wasted on the 95% booze that's all too common here. I knew I shouldn't have listened to a word that guy said.

After the town woke up, we walked to the hospital only to receive more bad news. An assistant was there, but she didn't have the key to the medicine cabinet. The only people with a key were the doctor and the nurse. Normally one of them is in town, but today they were both tending to sick people in another town. We were told that there was a chance they would show up later in the day, so we waited some more.

We did take a hike down the river that leads through town and into the beautiful countryside. There were mountains and valleys everywhere, so the scenery was spectacular. I hope I get a chance to return to this area for more trekking at some point.

We went back to the hospital later in the day, but learned that the doctor and nurse wouldn't be back for two more days. I didn't have much spare time anymore, and Craig didn't want to risk getting worse in this remote community, so we decided that we'd have no choice but to cancel the trek and go back to La Paz tomorrow. It's too bad we had to miss out on the trek, but it just wasn't meant to be. Last year, Craig had to cancel the same trek due to high river waters. This year, we lost a day because the bus was to Pelechuco was full and another day because we didn't figure out when the truck left for Queara. On top of that, first I got sick with parasites, then Craig's previous parasitic illness returned, despite taking loads of antibiotics. We tried not to harp on the issue and bought a ticket out of town for the bus leaving at 3:00 AM tomorrow.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Untrustworthy Bolivians

July 19, 2006
Day 294

Craig and I got up leisurely today wanting to catch the truck to Queara at 10:00. After a bit of asking around town, we learned that the truck wasn't there, but nobody seemed to know exactly where it was. We sat around the plaza, played a few games of chess, and waited for the truck to show up.

Finally, at around noon, someone told us that the truck already left for Queara before sunrise. The bloodshot-eyed man we talked to last night had lied to us. We should have known better and talked to the driver directly. The day was a waste. At least it gave me another day to rest, and I was feeling pretty good by the time I went to bed.

A Beautiful Trip

July 18, 2006
Day 293

Today started the same as yesterday. Another early wakeup, another expensive taxi to El Alto. We bought tea from the same lady as yesterday and waited in the freezing pre-dawn cold for the bus to show up. While waiting, I met an interesting man from Puno, Peru who said he was a nurse but occasionally made trips into La Paz to buy the ridiculously cheap second-hand clothing imported from the USA to resell at home for a profit.

My ticket said that the bus left at 6:00. It pulled in at about 7:00, just as dawn was breaking. There was a mad rush to jump aboard, and we weren't sure if we'd get seats, despite the fact that our tickets said we would. Craig took our backpacks and waited for them to be hoisted onto the roof while I forced my way through the calamity to board the bus. A member of the Bolivian army was in my seat, but he politely gave it up and sat in the isle.

By the time the bus finally left at 8:00, it was starting to get warmer, but worries of frostbite soon turned to worries of my stomach problems. I was felling a little better, but was still too weak to carry a 20 KG backpack through the mountains and into the jungle for a week. I figured I'd just wait it out and see how I felt. If I wasn't feeling better tomorrow, I could always hire a donkey to carry my stuff.

I slept on and off throughout the bus ride, but what I did see was beautiful. Outside La Paz, the great peaks of the Cordillera real like Illimani at 6462 meters (21,201 feet) became clearly visible. Next, we rode across the Altiplano past Lake Titicaca, where I became reacquainted with the Isla del Sol, which I walked across early last November when I first entered Bolivia. Finally, we went past the Cordillera Apolobamba, where we will be hiking. Craig vividly recalled his journey over the peaks and through the valleys where he trekked with his donkey for three months last year. At the end of the trip, we went over a pass at about 4900 meters (16,000 feet), one of the highest points reachable by bus in Bolivia. It was freezing, but the surrounding snow-capped peaks and glaciers were stunning.

When we reached Pelechuco, we went to a guesthouse and tried to organize a guide and a ride to Queara, where our trek will begin. A seedy character with bloodshot eyes claiming to be a guide met with us and asked how much we would normally pay a guide. We told him that we didn't know; the guides themselves should determine their own asking price. We didn't want to pay a guide for transportation to Queara, so we asked if there were any guides there. He said there were several, so we agreed that it would be better for us if we waited till Queara to find a guide. He also told us that a truck would leave for Queara tomorrow at 10:00, which was great news for us. Too bad we trusted him.