Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lake Titicaca

I headed out to Lake Titicaca fairly quickly after arriving in La Paz. The drive was scenic and the actual lake startlingly impressive. It is the largest high altitude in the world and with good reason as it looks like an ocean to the uninformed – you cannot see anywhere close to across the thing.

South end of Isla del Sol

My visit to Lake Titicaca was rapid and (in all honesty) grim. I arrived on the shores about midday and was on Isla del Sol (The Island of the Sun) that afternoon. I wanted to go for a bit of a wander but was feeling crook so lingered at the hostel. This proved to be a good decision as I was soon vomiting and feeling properly wretched. It was pretty disappointing to not get out for a good look over the island when I was only there for one night, but that can be travelling sometimes.

The next morning I woke up feeling okay so went for a brief stroll out to the point for a look. Armed with my jandals para todos terrano (all-terrain jandals) I went for a wee stroll and took in some of the magnificent views. I was a bit jaded on the whole thing though, partly because of my illness and partly because of all the amazing things I had seen in the last few months.

Too soon I was back on the boat and then bussing towards La Paz for the last time to collect my bike. Lake Titicaca is the perfect place to relax and I wish I had had more time there but life doesn’t work out as you hope sometimes. I was still pleased I had made the effort to get there at all. 

Monday, October 24, 2011


It has to be said up front that Sucre is an exceptionally beautiful city. As one of Bolivia’s two capital cities, it is styled as a poor man’s European cities. Of course, once you get a bit further out it is back into the ‘Bolivian charm’ that tourists become accustomed to, but nearer the main square it is a clean and appealing place.

A view from the square.

I arrived looking to chill out for a few days after my adventures but got my timing all wrong as I showed up for Bolivia day, a three day celebration involving parades and much heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages, The whole city was buzzing and it soon got me pumped to go hard again for the duration of the celebrations.

My hostel, called Gringo’s Rincon, turned out to be a little gem. It was very new and run by a lovely chap called Mike who seemed to have a bottomless amount of energy. The guy slept for like 3 or 4 hours a day, I swear. There was a solid crew of Gringos in residence and lurking around the town so all in all it was a recipe for the good times. These times were definitely had.

From the hostel balcony.

The events of Sucre are a bit of a blur to me. I know we went large for at least three nights in a row. I know my days were spent chilling on the hostels sunny patio, beer in hand. When I wasn’t there I was likely at the food market, a sprawling place which sold the best produce I was ever able to find in Bolivia. I know my nights were filled with cheap liquor, dance floor shredding and drunken, half-yelled conversations.

Thursday night was kind of large but then Friday night went properly big and I must have met a lot of people because I kept running into ‘friends’ the next day as I strolled around with some of the good sorts from the hostel. At the time I was campaigning an orange beanie which made me easily recognisable to all and sundry. I had repeated meetings with people I had hung with the night before but had no recollection of. Some people, I am ashamed to say, I met a couple times before I remembered them. All in all it made for awkward times but good came of it, as I met up with one of the boys later in the trip and we are now solid friends. I also ran into some mates of my long-time travel buddy Townie. These good Kiwi lads had been travelling around South America on motorbikes and it seems they had been having a truly epic time.

Saturday night turned into a good Kiwi-style party on the hostel balcony, with a huge circle of plastic chairs, a whole lot of banter and some guitar driven sing-alongs. A couple of English chicas who were exceptionally good sorts found my beard hysterical and were in fits for a good chunk of the night. They wanted to dye it blue, which would have been epic (and resulted in awesome regrowth) but was not really feasible in Bolivia where supplies can be hard come by. After this we went to town to get in on the big night for Bolivia day, and it was huge. The locals were in good form and it resulted in everyone having a great night.

The one downer was that my two English friends got into some trouble on the way home. Walking from the bar to the taxi they were mugged by two guys. In their arrogance, the muggers hung about. The girls got to a taxi and told the driver what had happened. The driver then got the girls to point out the culprits and went after them with a knife, getting some of their stuff back. I think this is a story which shows both the dangers of travelling in a country like Bolivia but also the spirit of the place, in that the average person is willing to go out of their way to help someone in trouble.

That thing was so suspect.
Sunday was pretty grim after three days of hard binging. The only way to fix the problem was a trip to the park and its many dodgy rides. It is here I had my scariest moment in Bolivia, on a truly dubious Ferris wheel which would not have passed safety standards in any sane country. I don’t cope well with heights and was truly petrified up there. My buddy found it pretty funny and was busy rocking the damn thing, which did nothing to put me at ease. It all ended well however, and I was pleased to be off the deathtrap.

We went out for a movie and a few cocktails on Sunday night, ending up at a bar where a French lady was in sublime form and an older guy just over the edge. He ended up passing out at the bar. I took it easy, going homewards after a couple of horrendously strong cocktails.

On Monday I caught a bus back to La Paz, thinking about moving towards Peru at last. I had a brilliant time in Sucre and would highly recommend it to anyone in the region. A big thanks to all my compadres I met there for making it simple for me to get back in the swing of travelling alone after spending so much time with the boys.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I heard about Huayna-Potosi soon after arriving in La Paz, but initially didn’t have any interest in trying to tackle the beast. However, the idea must have sat at the back of my mind fermenting over the next few weeks until eventually I was drunk enough on the possibilities to have a crack at the thing. For those of you not in the know, Huayna-Potosi is a mountain in Bolivia, located about an hour from La Paz. Labelled as “the world’s most accessible 6000m plus mountain” it has become popular with outdoor and adventure sport enthusiasts in recent years. The reason this mountain is so manageable is that you start your climb at up over 4000m and can summit and return to the start point in a couple of days if you want to. Despite this, altitude sickness is a significant factor and the reason that many who try never see the summit.

Huayna-Potosi from the high camp.

Playing mountaineer.
The morning we started I was feeling pretty grim after my night out. Luckily we spent this time getting gear sorted and driving out there. The gear was rented and the guy in charge was a bit touched, seemingly picking boot sizes at random. He took “smaller size” to mean the same or bigger on several occasions. The quality of a lot of the stuff was pretty questionable too; I had left better gear behind thinking it wouldn’t be up to the job. All in all I was feeling pretty sorry for myself when we arrived at low base after the bumpy ride from La Paz.

The guide noticed my lack of enthusiasm and suggested I sit the first day out. I’m a firm believer in doing the time when I commit the crime however, so I headed out with the other lads to the glacier to learn some basic mountaineering skills. The head started feeling good and I really got into the techniques we were learning. We had a quick run through using crampons on steep ice sheets and then threw down a bit of ice-wall climbing before having a test run of being roped together while crossing rough terrain. All in all the times were good and I felt like I would be in good nick for the climb ahead.

 Back at the lodge there was time for a few games of cards before we went to bed. It was a late start the next day so we took this time to get some valuable extra sleep. We lunched at the normal time and then ascended to the high camp. It was basically a steep walk up a rocky hillside with a bit of a snowy climb for the last bit. The walk took a few hours but nothing to really report here except that we saw a kid casually strolling up carrying a bunch of supplies for the high camp in some very haggard shoes, looking like it was the most comfortable thing in the world. It put me well in my place.

 Even though it was about 5 in the evening we forced down some food and tried to hit the hack. High camp is where the altitude generally started to affect people. I was lucky enough to not really suffer any ill effects apart from some general grogginess (and there’s no way to rule out my travelling lifestyle as the cause of that).

The high camp was a pretty basic affair. Imagine a small, badly insulated sheet metal shack of two small rooms. One has some basic cooking gear and one has what looks like a big shelf in it. The shelf is actually the bedding. Needless to say, we were deep in comfort country.

Our pimping digs at high camp.

After a sleep best described as ‘patchy’, the crew set off at about 2am towards the summit. It was dark and exceptionally cold to start with. The headlight I had rented was about three steps below inadequate and I initially battled to see much at all on the way up. Fortunately the terrain was pretty lax to start with and I soon adapted to the poor lighting.

As we headed up summit-ways it soon became clear that, for me at least, the altitude was going to be the hardest part. For the first few hours the gradient didn’t get any worse than ‘a bit steepish’ with the exception of a short section of ‘ice wall’ (more like very sheer slope with handholds) that was easily negotiated. I could feel the effect of altitude taking a small but noticeable toll which I quickly counteracted by chewing coca leaves. These are green leaves of magic at altitude and left me feeling mentally sharpened and focussed on the task at hand, albeit with a slightly numb mouth. For anyone in South America tackling some high elevation, I would thoroughly recommend these little gems.

I was good until about the last 200 vertical metres. Then the altitude started to kick in and the terrain became a lot more uneven with manageable but potentially dangerous sections. It’s no secret that I’m not good around high edges, which only added to my panic in places. All of this added up to me having a bit of a bad time through this last part. It was good to be roped to others, which forced me to go onwards. I was also pleased I was up there with my boy Angus, who was both a source of encouragement and competition. There was no chance I was going to let a dirty Ozzie outdo me.

We got to the summit about 4 hours after we set off, in perfect time to catch the morning sunrise. I was feeling pretty rinsed by the top, and it was great to sit back and enjoy a truly world-class view with some truly world-class people. Huanya-Potosi is in a range of jaw-dropping mountains and also offers views of Lake Titicaca, which makes it a pretty tight place to watch a sunrise. We were lucky enough to be up there on a fairly windless day with minimal cloud: conditions were perfect.


Everyone had been so absorbed with getting to the top we hadn’t really thought about getting back down. This was actually quite an ordeal. It was just steep enough to hurt already weary legs and the worst part was that it just seemed to go on forever. It took about two hours to get back to base camp, about half the time of the ascent, but it was many times more miserable for me.

Eventually we were back at base camp and happy to be there. Lying down heavily seemed to be the order of the day. Marc, our final group member and a Luxembourgian delight, seemed particularly pleased to be done. We all savaged lunch and then it was back to La Paz for some much needed sleep.

Except it didn’t happen. Gus and I were going our ways the next day so we mourned the parting as all good men do: by drinking jugs. I don’t think it was a particularly late night and I do remember us both being massive lightweights after the trials of the days just gone.

Lastly I should throw out some props to our guide, who’s name somehow slips my mind now. He was a cheerful little 19 year old Bolivian fellow who estimated he had done the summit five hundred (500) times. Not only that, when we looked at the other mountains surrounding us, he had scaled most of them at least once. This guy was technically competent and a top lad to boot, and without him the trip wouldn’t have been the same. Our group had the privilege of being his last before he joined the army, and I hope the banter we had gave him fond memories of the job he was so good at.

More pics here.