Bolivian Adventure: Don Hans' Cabaña and More

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 28, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Daylight broke slowly that morning. I checked the temperature inside the tent: +1C. Brrrrr....
After Piter (with whom we had been reunited the night before) and Ruben had delivered the daily "bed tea" to my tent (yes, the luxury of organized adventure...), I threw on an extra fleece and my down vest, put on my boots, and crept outside to visit the "baño" tent. Wow... what a morning. Snow all around, more heavy snow clouds in the sky, muffled sounds, every step "creaking" on the cold and snowy ground. Awesome!

We got going after breakfast. The plan for the day: head down towards the mid-point lodge, known as "Don Hans's Cabaña", located significantly lower in the valley, near the infamous village where the porters had been "arrested" two nights before. We were supposed to stop at a curve in the road before the village and be picked up by Don Adolfo's bus, who would then take us to the lodge.

The scenery as we walked was as beautiful as ever. We crossed a pass, and then soon left the snow behind as we went down. The vegetation changed, we saw those famous Puyu Raimundi (I think that's their name!) again, and of course, the temperature went up.

Tully made a comment to me at some point, saying that the film in his camera was lasting an awful long time... Pause... I said, what do you mean? He answered, it's not a digital camera, it's an old SLR, and I don't remember the last time I put a film in it...

We kept walking until we hit an old mining road that zig-zagged down the mountain all the way to the village and beyond. After a few minutes (including another bit of rocky, hairy descent...), we came to an old abandoned mine, from where a railroad track emerged, split and ended abruptly about 50m later, on the edge of a cliff. Marcus, a railroad engineer back in the UK, was jokingly complaining that he didn't want to see any railroads on his vacation. The tracks had obviously not been used for several years, and walking into the entrance of the dark mine, it was evident there too that no mining had taken place there in a quite a while.

We stopped for a snack (lunch was supposed to be waiting for us with Juan and his wife Rosa at Don Hans's). Tully grabbed his camera, stared at the back for a second, and showed it to me. No film in it. We looked at each other: he had spent nearly a week on his vacation in Bolivia, taking loads of pictures, with no film in his camera. Poor Tully.

With his implacable British sense of humour, he proceeded to tell a story to the whole group, starting with "There once was a guy from Britain, who now lives in the Cayman Islands, and who went on vacation to Bolivia..." By the time he announced he'd been taking photos without a film in his camera, the whole group was moaning in "sympathy pain" with him - we of course all promised to send him all our pictures soon... Sadly for Tully (and predictably), he would be teased for a while longer yet...

We resumed our walk down the mining road after the break. You would think that after crossing high snowy passes, walking on "ankle-breaking" rocks, and struggling uphill on spongy moss, one would appreciate the ease of walking on a nice dirt road. Hum... It's fine for the first 100m, but then it gets boring. We zigged and we zagged down, until Kate announced that we were at the right "corner" where the bus would pick us up. Huh. That's funny. Not sure how THIS corner was any different from THAT corner. There were no coordinates, or markers, or even landmarks to rely on. The porters had assumed a different "corner ", stopping a bit higher than us -- it could be that they were still too terrified of the villagers to come much lower...

We sat down by the road at the "corner" and started to wait. The porters eventually joined us, and even started kicking a little soccer ball around, teasing whoever was downhill on the road by trying (successfully) to make him chase the ball down the road.

After 45 minutes of waiting, and much beyond our expected lunchtime, someone (I can't remember who) suggested to Kate that maybe we should just walk to Don Hans'. Piter did confirm that the bus ride there was only going to take 15 minutes, so surely we could walk there in an hour. After much humming and hah-ing, Kate said, "I suppose we could", and we got going. Funnily enough, Jeff and Judy, usually at the front of the race, fell back quickly -- apparently, they had programmed themselves to walk only as far as the bus. They were tired now.

The walk was easy, and we soon entered a Eucalyptus forest. Great smell, beautiful trees. Not native to South America, as I had been told many many times during my trip already...

We heard, and then spotted in the sky, a flock of gorgeous green parakeets flying overhead. I had never seen them in the wild - how beautiful!

After walking about one hour, we asked Piter, how much further? Ten minutes was the answer.

Forty-five minutes later, I finally saw a tiny sign that said "Cabaña de Don Hans, 200mtrs". Good, I thought.

Five hundred meters further, we came up to the gate of the "estancia". We could hear a TV blaring in the background, but all the signs that said "¡Bienvenido!" were for naught until someone finally came and opened the gate for us. Don Hans - Bolivian now, originally from Switzerland or Austria or Germany - came and let us in, saying he'd been expecting a bus. We told him the long story of the bus never showing up, and he showed us where we'd be staying.

There was a room for four up in one building, then the "house" down below (we couldn't see it yet), where the rest of the group could stay. The porters would pitch a large tent outside for themselves. 

Marcus, in a bid to secure the best roommates, right away stated that Catrina, Tully, he and I would take the room for four. That was fine with me. We walked in, and it was... ok. A bit damp, a bit smelly, with the walls covered with old Ricky Martin (????) posters, and empty carton egg crates for a ceiling.

The rest of the group had gone down to the house, but then Jeff showed up again, and came to inspect our room. "Not bad! I guess it's pretty good!", he said. Clearly, he was trying to determine whether he'd gotten the better or worse room by staying down below...

We eventually went down there as it also had a dining room and living room complete with fire place.

I went and sat by the fire place, and realized after a while that Marcus, sitting on the couch in front of me, was staring intently above my head, with a slight grin on his face. That's when all the boys (Marcus, Tully, Jeff) finally started commenting on Don Hans' artistic taste. The painting above my head was of a man and a woman having sex. Interesting artwork, and potentially controversial art, for the living room of a touristic establishment. But since no more than about 10 tourists a month stop there (it's WAY off the beaten path...), I suppose Don Hans' own pleasure takes precedence.

The first 4x4 carrying resupplies finally showed up, followed by the second one. The bus would come much later that evening. Apparently, the Rio La Paz had flooded the day before following a storm in the area, and the bus hadn't been able to cross it as easily as the 4x4's.

With Rosa (Juan's wife) arrived, the cooking started in earnest, and while all of us took turns in the less-than-hot but not-quite-cold shower (the first in five days!!!), we had pizza for snacks, and later, lasagna for dinner, with beer and wine.

Sometime between snacks and dinner is when Catrina announced, after seeing the bedroom "loft" upstairs, that she would move to the house for the night, as it was much warmer here, compared to our egg-crated humid room in the other building. Kate looked at me, and suggested I do the same - she was concerned about my cold. I agreed - I actually found the house much nicer than the other room. It was a pain to move all my stuff, and take it up the very rickety ladder up to the loft, but it was warmer there.

Marcus soon followed, leaving Tully the odd man out. He went up the ladder, checked the loft out, and... also went to grab his gear in the other building. So in the end, the loft was occupied by Catrina, Kate, Marcus, Tully, and me, while Ro chose to sleep by the fireplace in the living room, and Jeff and Judy shared a bedroom by the side of the house. Piter would also crash on the living room floor.

The evening was also filled with talks of tips for the porters. As on any trek, the porters earn much of their living from the tips that clients give them, perhaps as much as from the salaries they are paid. In this case, with the extraordinary effort they had put in for Bo's evacuation, the subject of tips became even more difficult than it normally is. Kate was unable to give us any guidance without first consulting Piter. We eventually determined that the daily tip rate per porter was B20 -- twenty Bolivianos, or about US$2.50. Five days = B100. After a brief conversation and some strong suggestion by Kate, we all agreed that we should put in more in view of the extra work they had done for Bo, and the consequent extra effort they had put in for us. We were pretty sure Bo had also tipped, and probably very generously, but we didn't know for a fact, and didn't know how much.

So we threw in a bit more money. It may sound like very little -- and it is -- for the hard work these guys do. However, to keep things in perspective, the cost of living in Bolivia is very low, and the extra we threw in was a fair bit more than they would normally get. We didn't have any qualms about upping their tip by 50%.

At some point, Nemesio, Felix and a couple of other porters came and asked to speak to Kate. We could overhear parts of the conversation -- it had to do with the fact that porters had been given US$20 bills, but that three had not (for whatever reason). Nemesio was asking for an extra US$60 from Kate. This whole conversation, overheard in bits and pieces, wasn't too clear, and Kate refused to elaborate after, saying we didn't need to worry about it. Fine...

We wrapped up, with Catrina's help (get the banker involved!), the whole tipping preparation, and headed up to bed as the fire slowly burned itself out in the fire place.

My bed was hard as nails - harder than my camping mattress. Every time anyone of us moved, up in the loft, it felt as it the whole house was shaking. I didn't sleep much, although, for the first night in a week, I was warm without wearing 5 layers to bed.

The next day started with breakfast (as usual), packing and repacking of gear (a bit out of the normal "inside the tent" routine), and the distribution of tips to the porters assembled outside. Kate made a little speech, telling them all of our appreciation for their hard work and pleasant dispositions (very true, outside of Nemesio), and telling them that they had essentially saved a man's life. All true - we all concurred, and the farewell to the porters was a bit more meaningful for me, in a way, than it normally is.

We started going around from porter to porter to shake their hand in thanks. Well, apparently, the custom is to give a quick bear hug. Holding our breaths, we smiled, shook hands, and gave bear hugs to all the porters. I say, holding our breaths - not being a snob or anything, but these poor guys hadn't showered or changed their clothes in quite a while, and let's just say that "Essence of Porter" is quite a special perfume. No disrespect intended.

The porters piled into the bus, and we clients piled into the 4x4's for a change. Marcus once again was quick to get the "Brisith+Canuck" 4x4 organized, and so it was Tully in the front seat with the driver, Catrina, me and Marcus in the middle seat, and Pancho and Kate at the back.

Jeff and Judy took the middle seat of the other 4x4, while Ro took over the front seat, and Piter was relegated to the back with Ruben. We found the seat assignments amusing, since both Jeff and Piter are significantly taller than Ro and would have no doubt enjoyed more leg room.

The drive of several hours (no one dared predict how many hours anymore!) was to take us from the Quimsa Cruz area, down to the Rio La Paz, and up the other side on the Cordillera Real side, for the second half of our trek. It was a spectacular drive once again, not quite as treacherous as the long bus ride of the previous week, but certainly equal in thrills and beauty. Don Adolfo's bus, with the porters, was a few kilometers behind us, but with various twists and turns in the road, we could get occasional glimpses of the bus. It became a little game for Marcus and I to spot the bus and try to take pictures... not very successfully, I might add.

The La Paz river, swollen from the earlier storm, was the colour of a nice Cappuccino, and swept down the valley ferociously, strangled between the cliffs on either side.

On the other side, we started climbing, and the 4x4's quickly again reached cloud-level. The American 4x4 was ahead of us, and we saw it come to a road block, and cross it. We came to the same road block: a crowd of Bolivians, carrying shovels and pick-axes, some - both men and cholitas - working by the side of the road, others just standing around and appearing somewhat agitated. Hum.....

There was a large local bus in front of us, also stopped. Interesting. We of course did what only tourists do: we lowered the windows and took pictures.

One guy approached the driver's window, and we knew, of course, that there would be a discussion of a "toll" to let us through. I did distinctly hear someone else, outside, say something about "they have cameras". I quickly hid mine, and my iPod, behind my back, as did Marcus next to me.

I heard the man outside say "Cinco Bolivianos", and our driver argue back with him. I said, not too loudly, "Five Bolivianos, that's it? That's all they want? I have it in my pocket...". Kate at the back said, no, don't move, let the driver take care of things. The driver was pissed off, because the driver of the other 4x4 had told the road crew that OUR driver would pay the toll... Well, enough haggling already. Tully pulled a 5 Boliviano coin from his pocket, gave it to our driver who paid the road crew, and we were on our way.

Five Bolivianos. One Boliviano per gringo. A total of US$0.75...

We stopped in the hopping village of Cohoni, where we stocked up on crackers and snacks, before hitting the road again.

Not much later, we pulled off the road near another little pueblo. Lunch. Trail head. ...And a joyous reunion with the Tom's, who had just been driven there from La Paz!

It was great to see them both again, looking healthy and happy to be out in the wilderness again (maybe...). Catrina and I chatted with Tom Jr., who told us the rest of the story of Bo's evacuation. I hope I'm relaying this correctly, Tom - if not, please let me know...

It was pretty much as Felix had already told us, except that the porters had carried Bo only up to the pass. Afterward, the combination of their fatigue, and the treacherousness of the terrain, had made it too difficult for the porters to carry him, and he had walked the rest of the way -- essentially, about 8 hours of the total 13 hours of walking the group had done that day...

Bo, William, the Tom's, had spent that night (after the arrest of the porters) at Don Hans' Cabaña -- two nights before we got there -- and had then been driven to La Paz by Juan in the morning. Bo was indeed feeling much much better, especially since Don Hans's place is actually lower than La Paz. Tom Sr. monitored him very carefully as they got to La Paz, but he was still doing ok.

While they were in La Paz, the city was hit by a nasty storm, with 15cm of snow in El Alto which closed the airport, and loads of rain down in the city proper. Bo and William tried to fly out, were turned around, and had to spend another night in La Paz. They finally flew out the morning that the Tom's came back to join us.

As a tip to the porters, Bo generously offered each of them $20 (it goes a long way, in Bolivia). Somehow, in the confusion of the distribution, 3 bills were "lost" in somebody's pocket -- there is no telling what happened, but that is what led to Nemesio's request to Kate for another $60, since apparently three of the porters had not received the intended tip. What we do know is that, in the end, the matter was settled by, and amongst, the porters themselves. What we also know now, is that Kate was aware of Bo's tip to the porters, but did not mention it to us in our tip discussions - instead, she kept insisting that we should put in more, since they had worked so hard... Anyway - we gladly rewarded them for the effort they put in, end of story. 

We closed off discussions of Bo's evacuation, knowing he was officially on his way home (he planned to go to the beach for few days...), and we finished lunch before once again hitting the trail.

We started walking around 3pm, with an expectation of a couple of hours walk into camp. We didn't have porters anymore; instead we had a few horses, mules and donkeys, driven by Pedro (one of our previous porters) and his family.  Walking way at the back with us laggers were Pedro's dad (we thought his name was Alberto - it wasn't), and his "emergency mule" -- the mule we could ride if one of us got sick or too tired. The old man kept looking at me, waiting for me to collapse, so someone would ride his horse. Keep waiting, old man... This girl is NOT going to need your horse!

The pace at the front quickened that day, and even Tully left us at the back of the group (deserter!), as he chatted with Tom Jr. closer to the front. So Marcus and I closed the march once again. While we enjoyed going our own pace, we got a bit annoyed that the group was marching so fast -- there was no need to go without stopping, so fast. But Kate slowed down, joined us, and we stopped to take pictures once in a while, as we headed towards beautiful Ilimani.

As we got closer to the campsite (we could now see it, at the base of Ilimani), the weather got ugly: the wind picked up, hail started, and the sky got very dark. The "mule people", including the two little boys, were desperately trying to put up the tents quickly. The rest of our group was scattered around: some trying to help (Ro), while others watched. I jumped in to help, but quickly realized that those of us trying to help were in the way, and slowing things down. The mule people, plus Piter, Pancho, Ruben, knew how the tents worked (mostly...) and were at first much faster than us. After a while, though, it was too painful and too cold to just watch, and we all did help. We finished putting the tents with a full-on blizzard raging around us, and that night, Catrina and I decided to once again share a tent, as it was bound to be much warmer that way.

We huddled in the mess tent - I sat between Marcus and Tully, and we had to be in physical contact (down jacket to down jacket, knee to knee) to stay warm. Everyone around the table was huddled that way, with no space between any two people. I didn't check, but it must have been about -10C outside, windy and snowy.

After dinner, the storm lifted, and we were treated to an unexpected display: the lights of La Paz, about 40km away, were lighting up the whole valley down below. Absolutely beautiful.

Hopeful that the next day would dawn clear, we drank our last Toddy and dove into our sleeping bags...
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