Hangovers and Altitude Sickness - A Killer Combo

Trip Start Mar 08, 2005
Trip End Mar 29, 2005

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, March 24, 2005

I can't believe this was just yesterday. It seems so long ago.

We wanted to go up to Chacaltaya, which is this amazing mountain outside of the city. It is home to the highest ski lift in the world at 5300 meters and it also has a number of mountain lakes which reflect its snow capped peaks. I think it should be the number one destination of any tourist in La Paz. Unfortunately, we went to a dozen agencies and no one had even a single person interested in the trip on either of the days we were there. So we paid $30 to have a guy come pick us up at our hotel and take us up to the mountain. It was expensive for Bolivia, but it's really an amazing deal. In any major city you'd pay $30 to take a cab to the airport.

Well we were smart and set the time for 10 a.m. so we could sleep our night off. Well, 10 wasn't late enough. We both hurt. But we had a little breakfast and hydrated ourselves.

So the guy picked us up and we headed out. The first four minutes of our drive were on pavement, then a couple of hours on the bumpiest dirt and gravel road I've ever had the pleasure of traversing. I didn't feel fantastic, but Bev looked horrible. This entertained me enough that I could ignore my own predicament.

We drove up and up and up. We went through a few little villages and then got to the base of Chacaltaya. This was at about 4100 meters. Roughly 12,000 feet. Now altitude sickness causes nausea, headaches, vomiting and can kill you. You can chew coca leaves which is supposed to help. The other option is the head to a lower elevation and get some oxygen in your blood. The problem with these symptoms is that they mirror another illness that is much more common. It's called drinking four liters of Bolivian beer. So Bev excused herself to vomit behind a rock. The driver looked concerned. I laughed a lot.

But we all regained our composure and head up the mountain. We reached an elevation of 4800 meters and stopped to take pictures. It was gorgeous. Little ponds dotting the landscape, mountains in all directions. It was SO LOVELY, that Bev decided to vomit again. Now I have some fantastic pictures that I have been told are not travel pod material. So I will be mailing them out individually to all that request them.

Again, I didn't feel great, but I was okay. I was chewing coca leaves and had coca mate with breakfast. So I had a little air in my lungs. But then we went up to the top and were at 5300 meters. That's almost 16,000 feet or so. I think some planes fly at 18,000 feet. And their cabins are pressurized. We ordered some more tea to try to cure our ills but it was no good. Bev had to lay down in the back of the cab (after vomiting again. That's 3 if you're keeping count). Now sleeping in the back of the cab couldn't have been pleasant because at this point it started to snow pretty hard. I just sat in this little building on the top of the mountain trying to pull some warmth from my tea cup. But then Bev started seeing stars, which I read somewhere is bad. So we immediately descended. But it had snowed pretty hard so it was slow going. It took almost two hours to get back and we both were on death's door.

We passed out for several hours and somehow survived. It was fantastic to be able to breathe again.

OK, so there's a prison in La Paz called San Pedro, and it's largely considered the most corrupt prison in South America. I've read about it and here's the deal. It's like a little city inside. They have it all. Richer inmates can have their families actually move in with them. Visitors are constantly coming and going. You can walk by and look into the courtyard and it doesn't even look like a prison. People are just hanging out chatting, waving to people in the plaza. These guys were jumping around and yelling at me as I looked in. The looked less like prisoners and more like puppies begging to be adopted.

I talked to one of the guards the day before about going in and interviewing an American citizen. My guide book says that this happens pretty regularly and is a really interesting experience. It costs a little money to get in the door, but the guard never mentioned that. He said sure to go right in. The ease of this made me a little hesitant. So I put it off to the next day.

So the next day, Wednesday, I went back to take a few pictures. I didn't think I wanted to go in, but a few photos would be nice. I got some great shots. There was a Coca Cola truck unloading out front. I asked a man in the plaza what it was for. He smiled and said it was for the stores in the prison. It really is a city. He said they have stores and houses and restaurants. It's nuts.

So after snapping a few photos a guard with a shiny gun came up to me and wanted to chat. He told me pictures were not allowed. I apologized. He indicated that my apology was not good enough. He wanted my camera. Well, I wasn't going to give him my digital that I took the shots with, so I handed him a one-time use camera. He turned it over in his hands a few times, obviously his first contact with such sophisticated equipment. He demanded the roll of film. I told him it's not that type of camera. He didn't get it. So he threatened me with various things, demanded my ID and wanted to know where I was staying. And every couple of minutes he'd ask what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to leave. He laughed. A man with a suit who also worked at the prison approached. He was playing good cop. But after another 10 minutes or so they were tired of waiting for me to offer them money so that I could leave. The guy with the shiny gun wanted "plata". I stared at him blankly. "Dinero pendejo." I got that. I told him I was a student and that I didn't have any money. He suggested I go to my hotel and get it. I told him there was nothing there either. I pulled out 20 bolivianos (less than $3) and he rolled his eyes at me like that little girl in Cusco. He finally told me to leave. I left. In a hurry.

So Bolivia is a little shady. A little dodgy as the Brits say. But I thought it was pretty cool. You can buy an empanada for 12 cents. Can you beat it?

So that night we had some more Chinese food. By now the owners absolutely loathed us. But it was nice and we packed up for our trip back to Peru.

And that's where we are now. Lake Titikaka (local spelling). I also want to point out that a friend emailed me to chastise me for spelling it "busses" on occasion. This is, of course, an accepted spelling so he can go to hell. Plus all the busses here say BUSSCAR. And any other errors or omissions should be ignored.

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