We spent our first day in mad organising mode booking the various tours that we were going to do with Claire and Richard (or Clairee and Ricardo as they would become known) when they arrived
. Having signed contracts for all of them and paid deposits we were feeling very pleased with ourselves and our organisational skills, looking forward to an action packed and fun first 10 days of their holiday. We then went back to our hostel to check their flight was on time before going to pick them up. At which point we discovered that their flight was indeed on time, but a day later than we'd thought. Whoops. Cue a mad dash back round all the agencies we’d just left begging them to let us change the dates of our trips and not pay the ludicrous change fees the contracts stipulated – happily they all laughed at our stupidity and obliged.
And so it was that the next day after an unexpected walking tour of La Paz that we finally did go to the airport (by now thoroughly overexcited) to meet them for the start of their month travelling with us through Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil – complete with massive welcome banner and much girly screaming. We were planning to fit a lot into that month but perhaps most excitingly was our plan to climb Huayana Potosi mountain (all 6,088m of it) in just 3 days time. There was no time for jet lag therefore as we started them on our tailored fast-track acclimatisation program and so their very first morning saw us dashing across town for a bus to Lake Titicaca at over 3,800m above sea level for two days of walking.
We were a little surprised to find a bus, buy a ticket and get our seats with very little trouble or hassle in about 10 minutes and began to wonder if all this stuff about Bolivia being "hard" travelling was nonsense. Then the bus driver declined to pay the 50 cents charge for the toll-road that takes you up and out of the city onto the Altiplano in minutes, and opted instead for the very windy circuitous back street route. This decision then back-fired on him about five minutes later when we came upon a protest (the first of many we would see in Bolivia) blocking the road. This necessitated a U-turn followed by a navigation of a third route which involved spending about an hour bouncing along dirt tracks at 10 mph all the time looking down on (and occasionally crossing under) the toll-road and its lovely asphalt and dual (both fast moving) lanes. Once out of the city, we had a 20 minute stop whilst wooden planks were loaded onto the roof and then had to execute another U-turn 10 minutes later when they realised they had left the ladder they used to put the wood on the roof behind. We knew fairly early on that the 2½ hour trip we had been promised when buying the tickets would be more like 4.
Anyhow, eventually we arrived at Titicaca which is known for its’ lovely scenery and the trout that is farmed in the lake and didn’t disappoint on either count
. Our first day we got a boat to the Isla del Sol where we then walked the length of the island (all of it over 4000m with lots of ups and downs!), stopping at some Inca ruins along the way. Unfortunately some of the scenery was a little wasted on us as we hadn’t accounted for how early it would be dark (or on Gordon dropping his jacket and having to puff back up the hill for 45 minutes to retrieve it whilst the others waited) and spent the last half hour walking in the pitch dark by the light of our head torches. As Claire & Richard had survived their first walk at altitude the next day we hired a boat to the nearest point of the mainland for a walk back along the lake shore, via some beautiful scenery, friendly locals and one very random floating reed island/restaurant/trout farm where we ordered the only dish on the menu (trout and chips) and then watched them fish 4 massive trout out of the lake, kill, gut and cook them in about 5 minutes flat and shove them on the table in front of us. Never has trout tasted so good. Sitting there eating them on the lake in the sunshine (next to a random straw llama) after having already walked 4 hours was not conducive to more hiking though and having stuffed ourselves we got a lift in the trout man’s boat back to town and the bus back to La Paz. The Beard sisters even had the unheard of pleasure of laughing at someone else’s sunburn when we realised on the way home that Richard’s shoulders were turning a vibrant shade of puce. It turns out that the sun at 4,000m is quite strong - who would have thought?
Next morning was again no time for lie-ins as Claire, Richard & Gordon were booked to cycle the 'World’s Most Dangerous Road’ and thus had to be up and 6:30am to start the trip
. The Beard sisters also had to face up to the fact that while overnight Richard’s sunburn had faded to a mere crimson, their shoulders were now looking like serious burn victims. Sarah had done the bike ride in 2003 and having declared it the most uncomfortable day of her life had opted to be photographer from the van instead. Since 2003 a new road has actually been built which means that old road is now empty of traffic other than cyclists, as opposed to being full of two-way traffic on a one-lane road as it had been. Technically this means it is no longer actually the world’s most dangerous road as there are now aren’t buses driving off it every fortnight which meant Sarah was able to sit in the van and talk to anyone who would listen (and some who weren’t interested) about 'how much harder it was in her day’. Ironically there have actually been more cyclist deaths on the road since there has been no traffic because of people going too fast round the corners as they no longer have to avoid buses and dust, as the driver of the van merrily told Sarah as he was driving across a precipitous landslide which left the remaining road about a metre wide. . Happily there were no mishaps, if you don’t include the bus containing our suncream and insect repellent having to turn back due to a landslide leaving us at the mercy of the scorching jungle sun and ravenous mosquitoey things, and we had a blast cycling from 4,700m to 1,100m at speeds that must have been approaching 60 km/h
. They even put the bikes on the bus for the only uphill bit – which they didn’t do in 2003 when it was much much harder (alright Sarah we get it, it was much harder then).
After much needed showers at the end it was time to head back to La Paz for a final night’s sleep before embarking on our Huayna Potosi climb. We had made a big deal of climbing this mountain: abstaining from going out late and drinking any booze, trying to eat easy to digest food, acclimatising ourselves by staying high and getting used to walking at high altitude, taking altitude sickness prevention drugs (even an accidental overdose) and, most of all, talking it up to everyone for the previous weeks or even months. Despite this, it was quite clear that the chances of bad weather and 1, 2 or all of us getting sick was very high, which would be a massive anti-climax having planned around it for so long. We think it is safe to say that all 4 of us, while excited, were also slightly nervous about the whole thing and had a rather fitful sleep.
After a long but pretty bus from Chile we arrived into La Paz which is as noisy, busy, mad and fun as we remembered it, full of ancient Dodge buses, shoe shine boys in menacing balaclavas (we never did work out why) and ladies in the traditional Bolivian dress of massively layered, multi-coloured knee-length skirts, shawls and bowler hats – which varied from the "normal" sized ones right into great big tall things that were to a bowler hat as a giraffe is to a deer. Again, if anyone knows why let us know! La Paz is also the world's highest capital city but also built right up into the hills with huge rock formations cropping out everywhere; usually with red-brick unfinished looking houses poking out everywhere and right up onto the rim. All of this makes walking around fun but also a challenge even without the crazy drivers or the tons of protests that were going on when we arrived.