Vino, vidi, vici

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
Trip End Jul 19, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, August 18, 2006

My unplanned extended time in Peru had been just spiffing. After spending three weeks more than planned in a fantastic country it was time to head back to Bolivia, where I had made another unplanned stop almost three months beforehand. The border guard between Venezuela and Brazil only gave me two months to visit which was fine with my original plans. But as I have learnt since, always add a bit more time to allow for unexpected delights that come your way. I could have extended my visa but decided not to, Brazil's loss, Peru's gain, and exited to Bolivia.

Now I was back except coming through Copacabana this time (the Bolivian one rather than the Brazilian one, no scantily clad men in speedos at this place!!). The standard time permitted at this border is apparently thrity days to visit. My sweet talk and fluttering eyelids worked this time and the border guard gave me ninety because, within the space of five minutes, we had suddenly become "amigos". I didn't mind, at least it didn't mean I had to rush around like a hare. Things were looking good from the start! I decided to go for the required stopover in Copacabana and visit Isla del Sol, on Lake Titicaca, which I had heard so many people raving about. After seeing all the ruins in Peru, the ones on the island weren't too impressive but the walk from north to south with the Bolivian Cordilleras in the background made up for this. I couldn't help but think that soon I would be at the top of one of those mountains.

Lake Titicaca in itself is quite fascinating. I'm not sure if the plane circumnavigated the lake or not but when I flew from La Paz to Quito, it took at least half an hour to get from one end to another. Just the length of it alone is 165km (102 miles), something similar to going from Reading to Peterborough or Dublin to Rosslare. It's widest point is 60km (37 miles) and deepest point is 274m (899ft). It is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world at 3812m (12507ft) and, despite being a landlocked country, is used by the Bolivian military for naval exercises.

I had had enough of the cold and it was time to head down to warmer parts. Well, maybe not that much warmer naturally but at least warmer by heat retention in the buildings and pollution. Yes, it was the capital city of La Paz. It would act as the base for a lot of what I planned to do as well as a bit of wandering around in the city itself to see the witches market (with dead llama foetuses for sale!!) and the Mercado Negro which reputedly has dodgy goods for sale amongst the kosher stuff.

First off was Huayna Potosí at 6088m (19974ft). In order to maximise my chances of getting to the top, and an excuse to see more of the countryside, I wanted to do a trek that went to at least 5000m (16404ft). The main problem of being the single traveller reared it's ugly head again and I couldn't find anyone for the Condoriri trek. After much failed searching I decided to just go for the climb.

And what do you know, but just after emptying my account of more money and handing it over to the agency, there was one of the other agencies I had asked about Condoriri waiting outside to say they had found another person to do it! What bad luck! Carlos, the other trekker, was doing his best to convince me to go but now that I had paid I couldn't. So, thinking the worst they could say was no, I asked my Huayna Potosí agency if I could delay my climb and surprisingly they said yes. They even said that rather than coming back down to La Paz that I may aswell stay up there (the Condoriri trek ended at the first camp of Huayna Potosí) and meet my group the next day.

Nights on the Condoriri trek averaged 4700m (15420ft) and were cold! The second morning I woke up to find the inside of the tent had become frozen! The agency had given me a sleeping bag but I had also brought my own and even with both sleeping bags I needed to wear everything I had brought. Bed time was as soon as the sun went down as it was too cold to do anything else. The main thing that comes to mind about this trek is llamas, they were in their thousands, everywhere! Along the way I tried to convince Carlos to do the climb up Huayna Potosí but he just wasn't budging on it, despite convincing me to do the Condoriri with him he would not reciprocate!!! Boo-hiss! So he left to head back down to La Paz while I stayed to head upwards.

By the way, if you're wondering about the llama song, it is one of the first songs I found that inspired me to give it all up for a life of fun, frolicks and madness. And what a good choice that was if I do say so myself!

While recuperating that evening from the three 5000m passes I had the delight to meet Sue and Jack who were here for a few weeks to acclimatise for some major climbs (one being Sajama (6542m / 21463ft) with Al, a good oul' Yorkshire man, as their guide. As the evening wore on, I found out that Al has actually climbed the odd mountain here and there. I lie. He has climbed quite a lot of them. In fact, he has even climbed Everest to around 8000m without oxygen! Not only that but he is well known in the mountaineering world along with his twin brother. So I chatted to him about my plans to do Aconcagua and it looks like I will have to leave it out of this trip unless I return in January. Excuses to not go home seem to be finding me quite easy these days!!!

The group of six more arrived next day and we got to know each other over lunch and a training session on the old glacier below Huayna Potosí. Next day we headed up to the base camp with a bed time of 5.30pm! I needed as much rest as possible before leaving at 1.00am next morning for the six hour climb.

Good news obviously travels fast and Huayna Potosí had heard of my affair with Cotopaxi and wanted in on the action. I do believe the first time is always harder and this was no exception. Huayna Potosí wasn't as steep as Cotopaxi and only had some short difficult sections between the longer easier sections. By the time I was at "the wall" I had almost reached the equivalent of Cotopaxi's summit. With the climb being easier than expected so far I had some energy left to tackle the last 250 metres of snow and ice. This was more like what Cotopaxi had felt like to me, but at least this time it was much shorter and the end was visible. So I made it to the top with my climbing partner, Ian, and four others from the group. My, and their, first 6000m peak but unfortunately not my first 20000er. Having said that, if you round it up I could easily see it being a 20000er!!! Looks like Aconcagua might be on the cards, or maybe return to Ecuador to find some other fools for Chimborazo? The descent was delightfully easy and my legs had not turned to jelly this time. My three months in the mountains had served me well and I didn't feel any effects of altitude on the way up or down. Lunch was waiting at the refugio.

I arrived at the refugio only to hear a familiar voice shout out my name and who was it but David from the Roraima trek! We hadn't heard from each other for months and had a chance meeting just as he was about to head off for his glacier training session. After a quick chat, he headed up and I headed down back to La Paz.

A day of rest and relaxation was on the cards and I planned to see Tihuanaco although having seen the ruins on Isla del Sol I was a bit wary about going to see these ruins. I wanted to head out under my own steam but after all the horror stories I had heard about the cementerio area of La Paz and the infamous white van I opted for an organised tour. After a whirlwind visit to the museum where you could not take any photos the group headed out to the site. Watching the guide handing over bribes to the officials was actually more interesting than the tour itself. Of course, it was very subtle by way of a newspaper folded up that the official would just put directly into the desk drawer rather than even reading the headlines! No-one would ever notice that! A stroll around La Paz followed in the evening and imagine my surprise when I bump into Noam who I hadn't seen since arriving in Peru!

Ian and I decided next day it was time to brave the Death Road by bike. This road is notorious for having at least one accident every two weeks. On the day I went down, there had been an accident two weeks before and one more recent, only two days before. One of them was a beer truck who's brakes had failed. I'm sure anyone who could helped clear up the mess left by the supplies of beer!!! Luckily in both cases the driver had managed to escape before the truck went over the edge! Even more scary were the stories of the tourists on bikes who had gone just that little bit too fast around a corner so I decided to hold back from the front and came in around third most of the time, enough people in front to know if a truck was coming the other way and to slow down. By the end of the five hours my arms were absolutely killing me from all the vibrations on the dirt road. Not only that, but I was filthy as a pig with all the dust aswell! Luckily they include a shower and big buffet feast at the end of it so you can resemble normal again and replenish energy supplies.

On our way down Ian and I got talking about doing another trek in the lesser known Cordillera Quimsa Cruz. Ian had done a lot of work on this and arranged to meet up with someone who normally guides the route. He gave us a quick map, the very detailed hand drawn type ;-), and we got our heads together and started planning. Unfortunately, despite all the planning the trip was not to happen as a bug of some sort hit Ian hard. But as I have learned on this trip, when things happen or don't happen it is for a reason. And this time it was because I was destined to meet up with David again. I was getting a bit suspicious now as I had already bumped into him again a second time in La Paz and now again in Tupiza. I have since concluded that these are not chance and he is in fact stalking me!!!

And as things always happen in three, when I turned up next morning to load my bag onto the jeep for my four day jeep ride around the infamous Salar circuit, who did I see waiting there but Kris who had been on the Tour of Bribes to Tihuanaco!! This trip to the Salar was quite a break from the norm for me as it involved no walking what-so-ever! Instead of the usual eight hours walking a day it was eight hours cooped up in a jeep breathing in dust all day! It didn't help that our radio / cassette player broke down only hours into the first day. I offered to sing instead but it didn't go down too well.

Not only that but we had the classic jeep from hell which kept breaking down and we even ran out of petrol at one point! Luckily we had spare reserves sitting on top of the jeep but it had run so dry that Carlos the driver couldn't get it started again! I couldn't help but think of two songs that fitted the moment so well: "Are you right there Michael" (or in this case Carlos) and "It's a long way to Tipperary" (or in this case Uyuni).

"Are you right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before it's light?"
"Tis all dependin' whether
The ould engine howlds together -"
"And it might now, Michael, so it might!"

Are you right there Michael are you right?
Do you think we'll make it home before the night
Ah, with all the stoppin' and startin'
Sure you never can be certain,
So we might now Michael so we might.

The whole trip is quite funny really if you think about it. You are driving along, in the desert, along a "road" that snakes along despite there being no enormous obstacles either side and with a speed limit of 60kph despite there being no other vehicles within viewing distance! That is, until day two, when suddenly all cars seem to have joined the Wacky Races in an attempt to be first to get to the accomodation which is apparently scarce. Despite having a jeep of dubious quality, we somehow managed to arrive second and so secured a bed for the night.

Most people head out from Uyuni and finish in Tupiza but while trying to fill in time where the music was lacking we found many reasons why it was so much better to do it starting in Tupiza. Not only do you leave the best for last with the scenery getting better each day but the last night is also the warmest night so you can actually animate yourself to stay up past sunset and not feel like your fingers are about to fall off with the cold! And you can also finish the circuit and still end up in Tupiza to do a horse ride around the spectacular canyons in the area.

I did a seven hour horse ride and had the most fantastic time ever on a horse. Tupac was wonderfully calm and while we were just walking along he would follow but as soon as I gave him the signal to go like the wind he left all the others behind, even the guide! He had this thing about following the train line but every now and again would have to move in and out to avoid water channels. Maybe it was because he was like a bullet train where you could feel the curves every time he changed direction. The whole thing reminded me of sculling or coxing what with the blisters and bleeding knuckles, and of course, the smells of last night's dinner coming from behind (from the horse not me)!

It felt like I had spent only a really short time here but when you add up the time spent here on the first trip it actually totalled almost six weeks. And what better memory to end Bolivia with than the sampling of some fine wine. Tarija is the capital of the wine growing region of Bolivia and is now claiming status of highest vineyards in the world which add to the flavour. I must say I really liked the town for some reason, I can't quite put my finger on it but the people were nice, there were songbirds again which I hadn't heard for a very long time and the weather was decent again! It had a Mediterranean feel to it with the wine and orange trees lining the streets. Why more people don't visit I don't know but because it isn't so much on the gringo trail I had more problems encountering a group to go wine tasting with. I wasn't going to let this beat me and I went out and done gone and bought myself some samples! The lone wine-o, that's me! Ho hum...

When I could tear myself away from the wine tasting I tried to get some information in crossing over into Paraguay by land. No-one in the area seemed to be able to offer any enlightenment on this subject so it looked like it was going to be a bit harder than expected. To be on the safe side, I had changed my Bolivianos for Dollars back in Tarija although locals insisted that I should be able to change for Guaraní in Villamontes.

Isn't the internet a wonderful thing! It would seem the border control in Boyuibe, my original route, has been closed for some time and since been replaced by one in Ibibobo along with a brand spanking new asphalt road. So I bought myself a ticket to Villamontes with plans to find out further information there. Silly me to think that such information would be so easy to find! So while trying to warm myself up in the morning after an overnight trip from Tarija on a dirt road, I had the pleasure in meeting Rosario who worked with the local artisans over a mug of piping hot api morado.

So as I sat in an internet café in Villamontes trying to get more information on how things work on this little used border front (exit / entry stamps etc), Becky and Phil, my matchmaking pride and joy, have just got hitched!

Lucky I'm not planning to head into Ecuador just yet, it would seem Tungurahua has finally blown it's top! News from the BBC and la Hora tell it all. Typically the whole time I'm there, Tati keeps telling me of how they can feel the tremors as far away as Ambato but when I'm there, nada, nowt, nothing is happening. Now that I have left the country it's all stations go!


Travel, what more reason do you need than...
...the fact that it is actually cheaper than living in Reading? Rent and food alone cost at least GBP500 a month (and we're talking shared houses here, not the luxury of having a place to yourself) which equates to how much you spend per month over here travelling!

Peru was so cheap that it cost just over that for six weeks travel. Bus fares in Bolivia border on the ridiculous. The fare from Tarija to Villamontes was 35 Bolivianos (USD$4.50). If you take away the price of accomodation (average 25 Bolivianos (USD$3)) then it amounts to 10 Bolivianos for a twelve hour overnight bus journey! This works out to be just over USD$1!!!!

The only problem with travelling is that your bank balance is constantly going down and is never topped up. But as long as you budget accordingly there is no reason to

Bolivia is everything that I expected the Gringo Trail to be. There were people from all nations and it seemed to be a crossroads for many. I bumped into three people without planning and what a surprise that was! Of all the nations I have met, it would seem strange that Ireland is a little underrepresented on the travel scene while all those from France seem to be from Les Alpes with Paris being a strong runner-up, from Spain is Cataluña while the States is most represented by California.

The country itself seems to come in with the least wealth of those I have seen so far although they do seem to make the most of what they have and despite rubbish being thrown anywhere and everywhere rather than into a bin (to be fair though, this occurs everywhere down here, I even saw people throwing things into the Amazon when I was lounging around waiting for the boat to go from Manaus) they do seem to recycle some things. To put the "western" world to shame Coca Cola and other brands still sell in deposit refundable glass bottles and they recycle vehicle tyres to make sandals!

While they seem to be the least well off financially, they seem to be quite a happy bunch of people. Smiles are not lacking although you will find the odd vendor who tries to con the tourist although this is mostly in big cities. One such mandarin seller in La Paz gave me a price of 5 Bolivianos for twelve mandarins, yet when I checked the bag there appeared to be only seven. Asking to add five more, she added three and said "there you go, twelve mandarins" at which point I simply asked for my money back. On the opposite end of the scale, another mandarin seller in Tarija wished me luck on my travels to Paraguay and invited me to stay with her next time I was in Tarija.

Should I not be able to get rid of the travel bug soon, La Paz will be on my list of places to return to and maybe see if there are any other mountains that I can conquer in the area!
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