Mountains, jungle, desert and rum = fun!

Trip Start Dec 29, 2011
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Trip End Jan 20, 2013


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Where I stayed
La Paz
Coroico
Rurrenabaque
Potosi
Uyuni

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The border pass was quite interesting and very strict. We bussed over what seemed to be farm properties before hitting the small town of Copacabana- first issue was to get money but for some reason no atms would give anything more than 100 BS.  Locals were saying we will have to wait until the morning to see the banks.  Luckily we finally found one atm spitting out 500 Bs- which is only about 70 dollars.  We finally ate and called it a night.  Adam and I decided to take off to La Paz a day early and skip Isla Del Sol (birth place for Inca gods).  It's and Island just off Copacabana.  We had heard it was pretty average and decided not to go.  Shell and Dave still went, and they said it was a bit of a let down. 
What we didnt realise was that about 45 mins into the bus trip to La Paz they make you get off, and board a ferry and cross part of the Lake- we had taken Valium about 30 mins prior to this crossing so as it kicked in we were told to get off etc.  We had no idea what was going on!
 
La Paz is a pretty nice looking city situated between two large hills and mountains beyond.   We basically partied for the next 4 nights on Rum and checked out La Paz during the day.  La Paz nightlife is amazing. 

After we went on the famous Death road which was really good fun.  I ended up with two flat tyres which was annoying but the company we were with fixed them quite quickly.  When you're on the bike it doesn't seem too bad as the road is about 3 m wide and you really concentrate on what your doing, but when you stop and take photos you realise that there are sheer drop offs up to 600 m where the road ends!  The scenery is amazing.  

I cant believe it used to be used as the main road to the north from La Paz.  No wonder so many cars would go off the edge, there is hardly any room to move for one car!  They say at least one tourist goes off the road at least once a month on these bike tours, and every year 2 people die generally from loss of concentration or over confidence.

From the Death Road we ventured into the Amazon via Coroico. We spent 6 days in the amazon.  First we canoed three days to where they do the Pampas tour in Rurrenabaque.  So we had three days of jungle tour first.  It was good but pretty disorganized.  We would always arrive late as the boat driver seemed to want to conserve fuel.  We were given tours through the jungle and swam in a nice water hole, but often the jungle treks would end half way as the tracks were washed out.  A highlight was definitely seeing a jaguar which just happened to be grabbing some sun on the river banks.  We almost stumbled across about 300 wild pigs, until they awoke, screamed and ran off into the jungle- sounded like thunder! 

The pampas tour after was pretty fun.  We saw a bunch of alligators, cayman, capybara (big rodent things that look like giant guinea pigs), anaconda, pink dolphins, squirrel monkeys, birds.  Had another night on rum in the jungle which got a bit wild as well.

After we headed back to La Paz on an interesting aircraft and unfortunately Adam's time was up and had to head off home.  Not without going off in style- we bought another bottle of Rum and got absolutely annihilated!  I'm not sure how he made his flight, when he said goodbye in the morning (after about 2 hrs sleep) I could barely even move! 

Michelle and Dave headed south, and I stuck around in La Paz and arranged to climb two mountains.  The first was called Alpamayo, 5350 m high.  I found the overall climb very hard.  You start at 2 am on a glacier and climb 500 m in one hour which was super difficult,  Then you climb a smaller peak, before heading down to Alpamayo and climbing that for another 150 m.  Climbing on snow really takes it out of you.  At one stage we were actually climbing by pulling ourselves up with an ice axe and hoping the crampons (metals spikes on your shoes) would hold!  It was just me and a Bolivian mountain guide.  The views from the top were awesome.  Getting down, we had to repel the really steep parts as it was too dangerous to climb back down.  Repeling was really fun, and also made the decent easier- I was just about dead and would have to stop regularly to get my breath back..

After getting back to La Paz and falling into bed, I awoke at 8 am and headed off for mountain number 2. As with Alpamayo, It took 2 days to summit Huanya Potosi, 6088 m.  I was still tired from the first climb of Alpamayo but determined.  It was me, a swiss german couple, Thomas and Anke and a canadian girl, Amy (who met us at high camp).  Driving into base camp served up some very spectacular views of the Potosi.  It is quite a nice looking mountain, snow capped.  We arrived at base camp and then loaded up for the walk to high camp (4700 m up to 5200 m).  We had to carry all of our gear which weighs up- snow pants, jacket, balaclava, gloves, ice boots, crampons, ice axe, harness, helmet, thermal sleeping bag, plus all of our clothes and water we had brought along.  It took about 1.5 hours to reach high camp.  I found it not too bad and I put that down to the previous climb.  We arrived at about 3 pm and the clouds were rolling in covering the summit.  High camp was pretty nice,  a brick building with mattresses in the roof, and tables below.  We ate dinner at about 5 and then went to sleep.  There were a dozen other companies there also.  At midnight we woke up, geared up and headed to the snow which was about 1 min walk from the refuge.  I teamed up with Amy, and Thomas and Anke took another guide (2 people per guide for safety). At the snow, you put on crampons, helmet, and tie on with rope to your harness so everyone is connected.  Then you start trekking.  Its very cold at this altitude and at this time of morning.  Even with 3 pairs of socks, my toes felt like they had frostbite!  The trek wasn't physically tough like Alpamayo, but mentally it was.  It was longer, and I was tired from the other trek so I had to keep telling myself to keep going.  A few people were suffering from alt sickness- 3 people didnt make it out of high camp.  I passed one girl who was walking sideways and about to keel over.  Anke had quite a bad headache and shortness of breath.  Amy went ok with me, but she did stop a fair few times to gain her breath back.  I felt slightly sick, but managed to persevere ok.  For about 5 hours you trek blindly in the dark following the rough footsteps of others, all the time climbing up.  As the sun broke through we finally saw what we were climbing.  We were very close to the summit and only had to push a bit further.  It was an amazing feeling as you trek and push your way to the top- almost had tears in my eyes as I was so happy and had put so much effort into doing it.  At the top the view was amazing.  You could see La Paz, the jungle and all the way to Lake Titicaca.  I could even see Alpamayo which I climbed only 48 hrs prior.  We met up with Thomas and Anke who came about 20 mins later.  Anke was very stuffed.  We all took some nice photos and then Thomas pulled out some schnapps to celebrate! 

Then we started the decent.  By this stage I was absolutley stuffed from the two climbs, a large headache came in from lack of eating in the morning, and probably lack of water.  We slowly went down which seemed to go forever.  Looking back at what we climbed in the daylight was very cool.  There were massive crevices everywhere and large glaciers.  We arrived back at High camp and rested for about an hour before heading back to base camp and going back to la Paz. A couple more people hadnt made it to the top.  One guy pulled out at the 6000 m mark, only 88 m to go! but he said he was very sick.  It was a really great climb and I'm super glad I made it but I cant believe some people take altitude climbing with a whatever atitude- one girl flew into La Paz the day before she attempted the climb and said "i thought I'd be fine' she made it about 1 hour in and turned back- complete waste of money.

From there I caught an overnight bus (which I slept the whole way!) and met up with Michelle and Dave in Potosi.  Potosi is known for its silver mines.  We went on a silver mine tour.  It consists of first visitng the miners market where they shop for there various items.  They can buy anything from a hard hat to dynamite to their drink of choice: 96% alcohol brewed from sugar cane.  We were told that the miners like soda drink or dynamite as a gift so Shell Dave and I all bought some drink and a stick of dynamite.  For just over 2 dollars you get fuse, detonator, dynamite stick and a bag of ammonium nitrate for extra boom!  We were told everything is ok to carry, but be very careful of the detonator as its quite temperamental!  I was quite nervous carrying it around after he said that. 

We then went to the refining factory.  It looked very 'do-it-yourself' but seemed to work.  There were multiple baths and rotating parts and one guy adding chemicals to each one.  Then at the end of the line silver sediments into baths and is scooped out, bagged and shipped off around the world, but mainly to Asia.  Each miner basically works for himself or in a group and what they mine is judged by eye as to the cost of the silver they extracted.  We were told some miners make millions of US dollars, some make very little amounts and it varies from month to month.   Our guide (who used to work in the mines) said his friend did very poorly for 15 years, and then the last 3 years he has bought 5 houses in Potosi, one in Argentina which he rents out for 2000 USD a month, 6 cars.  The Bolivian football team is owned by a miner.  Its quite interesting to walk around and see the various effects the mines have had on certain people.  Brand new Hummer cars driving around, and then a really old 4x4. 

Following the refinery we drove to one of the many mine entrances on the mountain which overlooks Potosi.  The mines are Co-op run, and actually run quite well in terms of a Co-op.  We walked 3 km through the tunnels and exited on another side of the mountain.  The tunnels varied in height from standing up, to crawling on all fours in very cramp conditions.  We met a few miners under there and they all seemed quite happy when we gave them their gifts.  One miner said he has been working under there for 25 years and he calls himself strong chest.  Our guide went on to tell us more facts about the mine:

- A lot of tourists dont want to go into the mines as they dont want to see  sad poor people working in such dangerous conditions, underage workers.  In reality about 16 people die per year in the mines, 10,000 people work in the mines.  This is quite eye opening when you see the conditions.  The underage miners are illegal in terms of the law but no-one stops it- our guide started when he was just 10 years old, but he like all the other miners actually choose to work there, and now the older guys see our young ex miner guide and tell their kids- dont go to the mines, go to school and be like Pedro and get into tourism, so the the young popuation of the mine is decreasing.  When people say they dont want to see sad people- the miners in there are quite happy and proud to work in the mines.  And poor- well it varies, everyone in there will earn differently.  He said the 'poor' people still earn enough to feed and supply for their family and so they are still better off than the beggers on the street.  As an ex miner it was good to learn what actually occurs in the mines- other companies falsify tales to make the tour more interesting or shocking to tourists.   

Its really quite strange how it works- as a miner you go into the mine, choose an area where you see part of a silver seam, and start digging.  Other miners know its your area and wont dig there.  You could do everything yourself, or form a group of 2 or 20 and share the load (and the profit).  They have no geologists or engineers, all the supports, the directions they dig etc are all done based on their own experience which is really quite amazing.

After the tour we went back to town.  We were going to go on a city tour but thought it was too expensive, but our guide decided to take me, Michelle and a Chilean girl on part of the tour for free.  He took us to the cemetery-  we were lucky to be there on a Monday.  Each Monday the people from Potosi go to the cemetery to remember their loved ones.  Its called a day of the souls.  We walked there and the cemetery was huge.  We bought a bottle of Chicha- Inka beer (non alcoholic) out the front and went in.  The cemetery is arranged in work profession order- as no-one can generally buy some land of the cemetery, the profession form together to buy a large part i.e. all teachers are buried together, miners, doctors etc.  Most are buried in tombs which are stacked several people high.  Those who believe they should be buried in the ground can be done so also.  We went to the miners co-op section which was very large.  Pedro our guide knew about 12 people who lay rest here.  Many of his friends were there drinking the strong alochol, chatting and remembering their friends.  A lot of widows were there as well.   We went down and they were playing a coin throwing game- whereby you have to throw a coin and try and land it in a brick with a small hole in it.  We watched a couple of times and the loser has to drink two shots of the alcohol and then kneel down and pick a third glass up with his mouth without his hands while his mate smacks him on the bum with a stick.  It was quite funny and everyone was enjoying themselves.  His friends offered us to play and I lost twice, its quite a hard game but fun!  After saying goodbye and sharing the Chicha we had bought, we went for more of a walk through the cemetery.  The cemetery gives the family 5 years to pay for the grave/tomb.  If they dont pay, they dig up the body and cremate the deceased.  The family never receives the ashes and so for many the last known resting place is the cremation building- there were dozens of people staring at the building and preying, drinking and remembering.  We saw a few more sections of the cemetery before leaving.  It was quite a unique experience and we thanked Pedro very much for taking us there for free on his own accord. 

After Potosi we went to Uyuni and went on a 3 day tour to the border of Chile.  The first day we visited the famous Salt Flats- the highest salt flats in the world.  They cover an area of about 12,000 km squared so they are absolutey huge.  We visited an old train cemetery first which was quite interesting to see many old rotting trains.  Then we drove over the salt flats.  The white landscape extends vastly in all directions.  We stopped in one area to take the usual depth of vision photos which is kind of hard to get right.  Then we took off to a cactus ridden Island in the middle of the salt flats.  After we drove out of the salt flats and spent the night in a salt built hotel. 

The next day we drove a lot, we stopped at four lagoons which were full with flamingos.  The last one was coloured red which looked quite nice during sunset.  Along the way we entered the Dali Desert.  Very dry landscape with volcanoes popping out everywhere.  Again we stayed in salt built accommodation.  The final day started very early to catch sunrise but missed it driving out to where we needed to be.  We stopped finally at some geysers - these are natural vents pouring hot sulphur steam from the volcanic ground.  Boiling mud pits were also dotted around.  The whole area reminded me of the moon or mars surface.  After that we made our way to the border where we hopped on a bus and headed into Chile.  We dropped from about 4500 m to 2400 m in about 1 hour and arrived at a small but touristy desert town called San Pedro.
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