Bolivia: Epic adventures in the Andes and Amazon rainforest
In the centre of South America lies a country that gets slightly less attention than it's more glamorous neighbours, but Bolivia has a huge amount to offer travellers. I've visited twice and had my fair share of epic adventures, including some fairly testing times too. I literally reached a mega 'high' when I climbed an Andean peak of over 20,000ft. However, I faced a big 'low' when I was robbed of my camera gear, films and diaries, but more of that later! Nonetheless, this fairly expansive but landlocked country of 11 million people has a variety of sites, from the haunting Altiplano, where I first entered, to the soaring peaks of the Andes, through to the dense vegetation of the Amazon Basin around Rurrenabaque.
This slightly out of focus photo of me is my first of two entries into Bolivia, and what an epic entry this one turned out to be! I am stood on the Chile-Bolivia border on what was a 48 hour train journey of just under 500 miles, from Calama in Chile to Oruro in Bolivia. Where I am stood here is where the train was left marooned for 18 of those 48 hours. The Chilean engine uncoupled, and we awaited a Bolivian engine to take us the rest of the way across the Altiplano to the city of Oruro. We never figured it would take so long to complete the journey but my friends and I played endless games of cards and read books to pass the time. Back in 1996, this was well before the era of smart phones to help entertain yourself, and around this neck of the woods in the middle of two countries, I doubt there would even be wifi today. Call me old fashioned, but the pre-smart phone era was way more fun and gave you a bigger sense of remoteness than travelling now.
This photo is taken on the back end of my mammoth train journey into Bolivia, a couple of hours before we pulled into the city of Oruro. I remember sitting in the carriage doorway of the train, with my feet dangling out, chatting to my friend, Andy, as a massive thunderstorm approached and fork lightning struck the Altiplano. We'd both been travelling several months each but remarked upon the fact, it's moments like these that capture your excitement of travelling. Here we were, two Brit guys in the wilds of South America, on a slow moving rickety train, watching a wild storm approaching.
Eventually we pulled into Oruro at 9pm that night, feeling quite weary after sleeping two nights on the train. Bolivia was like a step back in time compared to our experiences in neighbouring Chile. The city sits 13,000ft up on the high plains of Western Bolivia. The buildings were a little ramshackle and the city was based around a bowl shaped valley, with a main plaza at the centre and street markets as far as the eye could see. The above photo is taken from a cross, high above the town, and worth the hike if you have time. We took a bus from Oruro north Bolivia's main city of La Paz, the de facto capital of the country, but not the legal capital which happens to be Sucre. Entering the city of La Paz is quite literally one of the best entries to any large city you can ever experience as a traveller. As your bus rides across the Altiplano, you arrive at El Alto, which is a suburb of La Paz, then suddenly you look down to your right and you are greeted by the main city in a valley you below you, with the huge peak of Illimani providing a majestic backdrop to the city. It's a sight that I won't forget!
The city of La Paz fills a 5km wide canyon following the Rio Choqueyapu. Even though the city was founded during a gold rush by the Spanish, it didn't really become an established city until the 20th century. The lower city has a population of around 1 million but combined with the upper city of El Alto, the wider metropolitan area has 2.3 million living here. Having arrived from Chile just a couple of days before, I felt like I'd arrived in a poorer part of the continent that is much less European and more distinctly Latin American with a high proportion of 'Amerindian' people. In fact, Bolivia has 60% indigenous people, 30% mestizo (mixed) and only 10% of people of more White European origin. As you walk around the endless street markets high up the valley hillsides, you see little old ladies wearing colourful shawls and bowler hats.
I was curious as to the origin of this trend in Bolivia of the bowler hat. It turns out that a bunch of British railway workers who built the lines across the Altiplano wanted a delivery of bowler hats, which were in fashion at the time. However, the hats were too small, so they were sold to the local women and have every since been a real fashionable item, and a huge industry for the local 'Cholitas'. The position of the hat also indicates the marital status of the woman. If it is tilted they are single or widowed, but if it sits on straight then she is married.
The photo above shows Plaza San Francisco, named after the main church. Even though this is not officially the main square (Plaza Murillo happens to be), this plaza is one where all the action happens due to its central proximity. All roads lead outwards from here. I highly recommend the witches market just behind the church where you can even buy the fetus of a llama as a good luck charm, yuck! There are dozens of hotels of all prices and standards to stay around here, plus an array of cafes and restaurants to suit all needs. Food in this part of South America is not particularly exotic and often chicken based with vegetables. However, my favourite dish is Lomo Saltado - which is a salted Alpaca steak which I found particularly tasty.
After a couple of days in Bolivia's big sprawling city, it was time to head on a big 18 hour bus journey down into the Amazon Basin. I went with an old friend of mine called Andy and we felt like real adventurers when sitting on an old bus going over the Andes and taking on what has now become known as the 'death road', one of the world's most dangerous. The road from La Paz down through the cloud forest region called the Yungas featured on a Top Gear Bolivia special. The road has it's morbid reputation as there are steep cliff drop offs, down into the rainforest below. When I took on the road in 1996, it was only partially paved and crumbling away. The road is narrow and in many places cannot accommodate two way traffic. It's become so dangerous with dozens of fatalities that they now operate a one way system on the road with upcoming and down-going traffic operating at two different times in the day.
Once down in the rainforest town of Rurrenabaque, Andy and I hired a guide, who turned out to be South African, plus a local Bolivian man who knew the region. We paid just $100USD for a 4 day adventure, which started with a river trip down the Rio Beni, a tributary that flows up into Brazil and eventually joins the mighty Amazon. We moored our small wooden boat up for a couple of days and we literally macheted our way into a patch of rainforest and spent 3 nights in a self made shelter. One of the nights we went for a wander and saw the eyes of a jaguar through the trees, it raised our heartbeat for a few seconds, but the big cat vanished quickly. We had one mishap, when we chose to pitch our canopy too close to a giant ants nest. The ants in their millions took a diversion right through our camp and literally bit through our mosquito nets and started nibbling through us! We ended up having to relocate and build a fire to ward off the insects! Eventually, we dosed off to sleep, with a shrill sound of cicada insects, monkeys and birds providing an enthralling natural soundtrack.
The above photo shows the leafcutter ants that blighted our camp. They are incredible creatures and work as a giant army moving leaves across the jungle floor. Some of the larger ants are called soldier ants and can give you a nasty nip on the arm. Nonetheless, our rainforest trip was a success and we got to catch fish using a local bamboo fish trap. We learnt to gut the fish and cook them from fresh. Our Bolivian guide also showed us how to get fresh water from particular types of trees, where you slice into it and can drink the way straight from the trunk. We also came across a whole plethora of plant life, such as this giant palm in the photo below!
On our journey out of the rainforest, the outboard motor on our boat broke down a couple of times but we made it back to Rurrenabaque, to much relief, with a few dozen insect bites to tend to. Then we had an epic 18 hour journey back up over the Andes to La Paz. It was quite a culture shock arriving back in a city of 2 million people after spending 3 nights out in mother nature with nothing but trees, birds and insects for company. Another side trip I can recommend is doing a 4 hour bus trip out of La Paz, north to a town called Sorata. This is in the Yungas cloud forest zone at a comfortable altitude of around 8000ft, so you are not quite gasping for breath.
Sorata is surrounded by fertile mountains and farmland that make for a pleasant couple of days relaxation. My friend, Martin and I stayed in an old colonial mansion called Residencial Sorata, right on the main square, which with its high ceilings and log fires made quite a cosy stay. In the day time you can head off up the trails to take in nice views of the rolling valleys. For those feeling really bold, there is the Camino de Oro 7 day trek which leaves Sorata, and provides epic views of snow capped Andes mountains, in addition to the gorgeous lush green valleys.
After a couple of days in Sorata, you can get a bus back onto the Altiplano and then head out to the world's highest navigable lake, called Lake Titicaca. At 13,000ft, this massive expanse of water is so large, you cannot see the other side of it over in Peru, hence why it's classed as 'navigable'. We stayed a night at the town of Copacabana, but very different to it's Brazilian namesake in Rio de Janeiro. The town is on a peninsula that juts out into the lake and has a labyrinth of little alleys full of hotels, cafes and shops.
During late afternoon, I headed up a steep hill on the edge of the town of Copacabana where got a great view of the town, Lake Titicaca and the distant Isla del Sol (Isle of the sun). The above photo shows Cerro Calvario above the town of Copacabana. This makes a peaceful setting and well worth the gasping for breath up the steep path, to see the sun go down over the lake, as in the photo below.
Lake Titicaca makes an impressive and sparse setting on the Bolivia-Peru border. It's worth getting a boat from the town of Copacabana and heading out to the sacred island of Isla del Sol. My friend, Martin and I were lucky enough to sample a giant fiesta on the island whilst we were there, where local Aymaran people wore colourful costumes, did a kind of line dancing to brass music, well into the night.
Isla del Sol was a very important landmark to the Inca people in the past. They believed it was indeed where the universe started out. The festival we stumbled across happened to be that of Ascension Day as it was mid May and 40 days after Easter. It was fantastic just people watching and seeing the locals really celebrate in their colourfully embroidered costumes. There are many other similar festivals of this kind throughout other times in the year in Bolivia.
Following my trip to Lake Titicaca, my friends and I ventured up into Peru for a couple of weeks where we did the Inca Trail, and visited countless other incredible places, which you can read about in my next blog. On our return to Bolivia and the La Paz area, I opted to embark on one of the craziest travel adventure of my entire life, climbing a 20,000ft Andean mountain called Huayna Potosi. This giant of a mountain (see photo below) is the one and only time in my life I have ventured to such a height of over 6000 metres.
For this expedition I teamed up with 5 other fellow gringo travellers, one of whom happened to be the British TV celebrity, Ben Fogle, but this was back in 1996, way before he found fame in numerous adventure programmes. He'd spent the best part of a year working in South America and was looking for a big adventure to top off the trip. Some 23 years later, after Id' followed Ben's fame of rowing the Atlantic, slogging his way to the South Pole, and summiting Everest, I managed to catch up with Ben Fogle in my native Yorkshire, and we reminisced our mountain climb up Huayna Potosi. Ben was doing an inspiring travel talk in Leeds and we met up after the show. Ben had not changed in all the time I'd first known him through to today, where he is still the same down to earth, charming gentlemen, full of ambition and he maintains his enthusiasm for world adventure.
Our expedition up to the top of Huayna Potosi was not without mishap. First of all we made the mistake of eating a curry dish the night before we set off, not the wisest of moves! Then we faced the challenge of learning to do proper mountain climbing as we were mostly all novices. We had a couple of experienced guys in our team but it proved to be quite a challenge from start point to summit. We set off from 14,000ft on day one and made it to base camp at 18,000ft by night fall. We had to cross crevasses along the way which was very hair raising indeed!
This photo is on our first day, getting used to our crampons for the first time. Every step at high altitude has you gasping for breath. We pitched camp at advanced base camp and then during the night I started to feel my stomach rumble with food poisoning and regretting the curry I had eaten! Going out to make a toilet visit at minus 25'c is not for the faint hearted, especially surrounded by unstable crevasses! Ben suffered the difficulty of his tent actually blowing off the mountain in the middle of night, hampering his efforts to continue the expedition to the summit. However, Ben more than made up for it two decades later when he summited the world's highest peak, Mount Everest. His story makes for a very riveting read and I highly recommend it - called "Up: My life's journey to the summit of Everest".
This was my summit photo on the top of Huayna Potosi, 20,098ft (6098 metres). I made it alongside Tom from the US, Mike from Canada, Dave from the UK and Kristian from Denmark. Most recently I managed to team up with Kristian once more and we reminisced our crazy mountain adventure here in Bolivia back in 1996, by meeting up in Liverpool for a meal. We could hardly believe where the last 23 years had gone in the mean time! My abiding memory from this big climbing adventure was the chronic stomach pain and having to succumb to my diarrhea in my trousers, because I was roped up to 5 other men! Ironically the trousers I wore on the expedition were not even mine, but borrowed from my friend, Martin, poor guy. Needless to say, he didn't want them back!
A final point about my Andean climb is the fact, what goes up, must come down. It's all very well you make the summit of a mountain, but getting down safely can be even more deadly than climbing up with the fatigue you are suffering, and also the icy ridges start to melt in the midday sun. As I was the last up the mountain, I was told to lead the way down. The photo below is of me on the steep descent. At one stage, I actually slipped off the ridge and had to dig in my ice axe to stop myself falling into the abyss! My rope saved my life, for sure!
This photo is one my proudest adventure moments. Shortly after this expedition I was sadly robbed of my camera bag late at night in a bus station in the city of Sucre. I had 15 films ready for development taken in the robbery never to be seen again. Thankfully, I have managed to get copies of many photographs from this leg of my travelling from several friends, Martin, Andy and also Kristian. So I give many thanks to you three guys for giving me these colourful life long travel memories. By some miracle and out of the blue several years ago, a Bolivian lady retrieved all my journals from the robbery, found me online and sent the journals back to me, but unfortunately not the 15 rolls of film. However, it was incredible reading my diaries some 14 years after they went missing in the robbery, like a giant time warp in my life.
I hope you enjoyed my blog on Bolivia, learning what this exciting South American country has to offer. If you wish to see more photos please click the link here. Next week I will continue onto the final country of my South American travels, reviewing the amazing country of Peru. Buenos Dias!