Being Bolivian

Gran Poder Festival La Paz Bolivia

Bolivia is known for being a country of extremes – the highest capital, the wildest jungle, some of the poorest people, the most indigenous population. We got to experience the largest salt flats, our highest mountain climb, our longest downhill bike descent, but we enjoyed the people just as much as any of that.

First off, it’s the first country where the Spanish spoken there was even close to the Spanish I grew up learning (Chilean and Argentine Spanish is very different). Plus it seemed like Bolivians really wanted to communicate, even if my Spanish wasn’t great and Spanish was probably their second language (Quechua is many people’s primary language), so many strangers went out of their way to communicate with us.

After the salt flats and the silver mine, we made our way to Sucre. Sucre is known as The White City because of it’s gorgeous all white colonial architecture.

As soon as you arrive there, it’s feels like you’re at home there. It’s smaller and calmer than the addictive, high altitude madness of La Paz. I wish we could have stayed there longer. Sucre is known for language tourism now – so you go there to take Spanish classes or lessons, and they’re super cheap.

We laid low most of the time in Sucre, just wandering the city, or getting our 14 Boliviano (less than $2) lunches at the market and talking to the people selling produce, cakes and meat.

We did go on one hike there. It was a bit of a failed hike… after taking a public minibus to the end of the line, we followed directions from some kids playing in the dirt. We ended up seeing a really cool canyon and some small waterfalls, but we later learned that either we didn’t go far enough or went the wrong direction and missed the seven waterfalls we were supposed to see.

hiking around sucre, bolivia

After Sucre, we made the overnight bus ride to La Paz that goes through 16,000 ft mountain passes. Sleep was pretty much hopeless at that altitude and on those turns. So we arrived in La Paz a bit disoriented, blurry eyed and out of breath (from the altitude), but managed to find a hostel pretty quickly. We noticed a lot of excitement going on outside our hostel and set off to explore what was going on. We quickly found ourselves in the middle of a parade. But this isn’t your standard American 8am-11am parade… no… this is an all out, put Mardi Gras to shame, all-day-all-night parade. And we were there just in time to get a seat.

The costumes were unbelievable. The music was infectious. We were sucked into the spirit of Gran Poder immediately.

We hung out with new Bolivian friends and celebrated until late in the evening, but we bowed out well before the festivities ended around 3am.

Because Bolivia has the highest percentage of indigenous people and many continue living out their traditions, the clothing in Bolivia is very striking. First off, HATS! Hats, hats and more hats. Of all shapes and sizes, but my favorites were the bowler style hats worn by women on the very tip top of their heads.

Bolvian women in hats

We spent one of our days in La Paz being typical tourists and did a bike trip down “The Deadliest Road in the World”. While it is still the same dirt and rock road with hairpin turns and steep drop-offs of thousands of feet, it’s much less dangerous now because most traffic takes the new road, at least that what I tell myself as we ride down. It’s the 18-wheelers and crazy drivers, combined with the roads characteristics that made it truly the deadliest road. Now it’s slightly safer, but as beautiful as ever. We went with a group of about five others for a 64km downhill ride and “survived.”

And of course we spent some time browsing through the Witches Market. You read that right, a market for witches. Need a remedy for that rash? A good luck charm to help to find the love of your life? This little block of stores selling all kinds of herbs, oils and amulets and… llama fetuses. Yep dried unborn baby llamas; from little tiny to practically huge. The llamas are used by locals to bring good luck to their home, by burning them and burring the ashes under their house.

And before we left La Paz we tackled Huayna Potosí.

Climbing Huayna Potosí

Summit of Huayna Potosí

Huayna (pronounced Why-Na) Potosí hits 6088 meters (that’s 19,980 feet!) above sea level in the Cordillera Real, about 2 hours outside of La Paz. It’s considered by many to be the first technical mountain above 6000m that most people will ever climb. That seemed like a good enough reason for us to try and tackle it. With La Paz acting as a base camp of sorts for acclimatization at almost 3500m it’s only a 3 day trek to the top. With this being our first technical climb, we went with a guide.Huayna Potosí

After meeting our Guide we went by the Altitude6000 depot to get outfitted with a few things we didn’t bring on the trip, specifically mountaineering boots, ice axes and crampons! Unfortunately I had sold my crampons in a garage sale before we left – you know, since I only got to use them on one trip down the drive way in Dallas during an ice storm.

Llamas on the way to Huayna Potosí

After driving up to base camp at 4700m we ate lunch and then took a short hike to Glacier Viejo to familiarize ourselves with our gear. This turned out to be more like an Ice Climbing 101 class and was awesome. Liz was a natural.

The next day we hiked up to high camp at 5130m with all our gear. After reaching high camp we dropped our gear, ate lunch and then climbed a little higher to try and help us acclimatize a little more. Then it was rest, rest and rest the rest of the afternoon; We would be waking up at midnight for our six-seven hour push to the summit.

With a full moon and headlamps we strapped on our crampons and started up the mountain. Huayna Potosí doesn’t mess around. It starts off steep right out of high camp and didn’t let up. As we climbed we were entertained by cloud-to-cloud lightening off in the distance. It’s something else to see lightening when you’re eye level with the clouds.

We got to practice our newly acquired ice climbing skills in the dark on a 15m wall that marked the halfway point.

From here on out it seemed like every step was twice as hard as the previous. Our guide was a huge help at this point as he was constantly motivating us to keep slowly moving up the mountain. After our Kilimanjaro experience we we’re to big on racing up the hill and were more than happy to the few other teams on the mountain pass us up. The only prize for getting to the top first is that it’s still dark and freezing cold!

Climbing Huayna Potosí

As the sun started to peak over the horizon we could see the summit with in reach and that was just the encouragement we needed for our final push.

The summit was glorious… and tiny. I mean just enough room for the three of us, which made us thankful we were the last one to summit as there was no one to rush us off for their photo opp. We hugged, danced, cheered and took a couple of sips of our celebratory cervezas and attempted our now signature “Airplane” move only to realize it was going to take a lot more practice before we can do it with crampons. We made to the highest we’d ever been – 19,980 feet – just 20 feet short of 20,000 FEET!

The Silver Mines of Potosí, Bolivia

Silver Mines of Potosi, Bolivia

Silver Mines of Potosi, Bolivia

After the Spanish conquistadors made their way to South America the silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia floated the Spanish economy for over 200 years. Now thousands of Bolivian men (women are bad luck in a mine) support their families in the free-for-all that the mines have become. The mining rights are extremely loss and when mine shafts cross they often result in physical fights over who owns what. The labor is extremely physical and life expectancy for many of the jobs in the mine is 10 years. That being said, we jumped at the opportunity to go into the mine with an ex-miner.

After dawning some “protective” clothing, helmets and a headlamps, we went to the miners market for coca, dynamite and some 96% alcohol, a miner favorite; all gifts for the miners we would be visiting. Chewing coca leaves is supposed to help with the altitude, low oxygen levels, as well as increasing alertness among other things. The alcohol is basically cheap Everclear, which is a lot easier to carry hundreds of into the mine than a case of beer (though we saw plenty of beer cans inside as well). And the dynamite… it’s for blowing things up.

Inside the mine was a labyrinth of tunnels, ladders, shoots and rails all to extract every last mineral in the mine. It went from dark and cold, to dark and steamy, to dark and dusty.

Silver Mines of Potosi, Bolivia

Our guide, who’s father still worked in the mine, kept us from getting lost as he gave us some of the history of the Potosí mines. One of the interesting stories was how he explained the religious beliefs of many of the miners. When Christian missionaries came to South America, they introduced the miners to Jesus and the devil… which the minors add to their list of things to worship. Inside the mines to can find many alters to both Jesus and Tios (a mispronunciation of of dios, the Spanish word for god) who is a form of the devil. They miners figured the closer to hell they got the more they should ask Tios for protection as they are taking minerals from his realm. To thank him they leave him thinks he likes, alcohol, coca leaves etc. though they leave the similar gifts on the Jesus alters… it’s a little confusing to say the least.

Uyuni Salt Flats and the Atacama Desert

Uyuni Slat Flats, Bolivia

After a 24 Hour bus ride from Santiago we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, the “Driest Place on Earth.” It definitely lives up to the title. It’s a pretty surreal landscape and it’s hard to believe anything lives out here, much less people. But as we strolled through the streets of San Pedro we were struck with how charming of a little town it was. All the little café’s and restaurants have little fire pits in their courtyards… did we mention it was cold? Sitting at about 8,000 feet it’s pretty stinking cold, especially once the sun goes down.

San Pedro de Atacama

The next day we made our plans for our Salt Flats trip, I was extremely excited to see them so we didn’t plan to spend much time in San Pedro. We took an afternoon tour out to the Moon Valley and the Valley of Death/Mars.

It was a pretty cool to see all the crazy landscapes out here, with crazy rock and salt formations that look the surface of the moon or Mars, which lend their names of the valleys.

Salt just leaches out of the ground here and looks like snow at a distance. We got to go into a cave made almost exclusively of slat. Yes. I licked the wall to check.

San Pedro de Atacama

We got to see the Salvador Dali mountains, named after the way the looked like, well, a Salvador Dali painting.

Dali Mountains

And finished the evening with a private photo shoot on Coyote Rock… ok maybe not so private.

The next morning we packed everything up and meet our mini bus at dawn for a 3 day trip to Uyuni via the altoplano and salt flats. The altoplano is kinda like the high plains in the states… but a lot higher… and there are volcano’s… and geysers… and flamingos… so maybe not so much like the states.

Chile - Bolivia Border

Our first stop was at the Chile-Bolivia border where we leave our mini-bus, go through “immigration” and meet our 4×4 driver/guide for the rest of our trip. The border crossing is on a pass about 14,000 feet up. It’s super windy and freezing cold. Never have I seen so many Land Cruisers in one spot. All loaded up with 100 extra gallons of gasoline and a couple of spare tires, not the kind of place to want to get stuck.

At the border we needed to pay $USD 60 a person for 30 day visas to Bolivia and due to a slight banking error on my part (it takes a few days to move money from account to account as a safe guard against being robbed) we were down to our last few bucks, but we had just enough with a few Chilean Pesos to spare. We filled out our paper work and handed it to the Border Patrol with our money. He hold the 100 up to the light, verify it’s legitimacy then does the same to the 20, stops puts it in my face and flicks the edge where a tiny nick was and says “No.”
I say “what?”
He flicks it again, closer to my face and says “NO!”
I try to explain in broken Spanish that I don’t have any other bills that’s all I’ve got to which he replies “Then you no enter Bolivia” and takes our papers and throws them behind a desk.
I. Freak. Out. And kinda storm out of the little building not sure what to do, but sure we be stuck freezing to death outside with no where to go.

After Liz calms me down a little, a nice Chilean lady who is in our group understands what’s going on and starts trying to find me a good bill; she’s asking everyone. Eventually she finds a little old lady that I’m sure here only reason being there was to give horrible exchange rates to desperate gringos like me on the last pesos I had which was just enough. After some apologies and pleading and digging papers out of the trash, we paid our way into Bolivia in Dollars and Boliviano (no change of course) and were probably the lasts ones to leave the border.

From there it was all uphill… literally. Our little Land Cruiser climbed and climbed until we reached so of the most remote, desolate and beautiful landscapes on the planet.

We were pleasantly surprised to find hot springs at about 15,500 feet and enjoyed a steamy dip before going up another 1000 feet to the geysers. Steamy, bubbly mud holes with a broken English warner from our driver, “No fall in!”

With the smell of sulfur firmly attached to our clothing we made our way to Laguna Colorada, a brilliant red lagoon with flamingos just waiting to pose. I always thought of Flamingos as tropical birds, but here they are wadding through the water at 14,000 feet while we freeze to death.

It was gorgeous and unreal then it was on to another lagoon and to our camp for the evening and some hot cups of coca tea.

Altoplano Atacama Bolivia

The next day was just as unreal, full climbing all over unbelievable rock formations and the discover of a new to us plant called, loosely, green rock. A crazy plant that looks like moss, is hard as a rock, and has a slight sap that make your hands sticky if you touch it.

Our accommodations for the evening were on the edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats at the Salt Hotel… literally the whole thing is made of salt. Even the chandeliers.

Salt Hotel, Uyni, Bolivia

We awoke EARLY to drive out to the saguaro cactus island in the middle of the salt flats to catch sunrise.

The rest of the day was basically a never end forced perspective photo shoot on a never-ending backdrop.

And then Liz taught me how to levitate.

Levitating Uyuni Slat Flats, Bolivia

We concluded our tour with a trip to the Train Graveyard on the edge of Uyuni, Bolivia where all good Bolivian trains go to die… and then be cut up for scrape metal.

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia