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!