Go to Bolivia?
Everyone else was.
Beneath my radar, I had never heard good things about Bolivia. It is the prototype South American disaster: corrupt, turbulent history, over 190 leaders in 180 years, breakdowns, roadblocks, strikes. Mucho problemas!
Yet Stephan from Vancouver (yet another engineer) and I crossed the border to Copacabana, Bolivia — a classic hangout for travellers.
Bolivia looked good to us!
On the standard Island of the Sun tour I mostly ignored the ruins and dreamed about the mountains in the distance. The weather was perfect even though this was supposed to be the start of the rainy season.
Stephan returned to Peru to do the Inca Trail. I climbed on a local bus with my huge luggage, the only gringo trying to reach the tiny mountain town of Sorata.
I ended up in La Paz instead.
If you are planning your next family vacation to La Paz — reconsider.
I expected to like La Paz as most do:
- world’s highest major city
- spectacular setting
- indigenous culture, vibrant festivals
- underrated, little known
But I did not thrive. It was very difficult to get anythingdone there. Accommodation & food were disappointing.
My hotel was last modernized in the 1950s. But I loved the location beside central Murillo Plaza & theRoyal Palace (known as the Burned Palace for historical reasons).
The statue is President Villarroel, dragged from the Palace and hung on this spot in 1946. Coincidentally, much the same thing happened to President Murillo in 1810.
Ancient history? Plaza Murillo was riddled with bullets a year ago. (Oct. 2003) The then President Lozada fled to Florida rather than face the mob.
So is La Paz safe?
Surprisingly, yes. It is one of the safest large cities in South America. Dunno why. Perhaps because there are more armed personnel here than any city I can recall aside Mexico City.
The most frequent crime in La Paz is theft of ladies bowler hats, worth on average US$40.
The wonderfully colourful indigenous costumes some say were imposed on natives by the King of Spain in the 1700s. They are charming. Bolivia has the highest percentage native population of any South American country.
Actually, I was twice approached by awkward scam artist / pickpockets. My usual tactic of walking into busy traffic dissuaded them.
I note 2 interesting things in La Paz, though:
1) Shoeshine boys are everywhere, dressed as bandits! Ski masks protect the identity of the young men and their families. It is lowly work of last resort.
2) No need to own a phone. Everywhere are people in uniform leashed to mobile phones. Local calls are US$.15 / minute.
Like La Paz, hiking in Bolivia has great potential, but is surprisingly undeveloped. Access to trailheads is problematic. Bandits are a concern. In the end I did none of the major treks.
But for climbers, Bolivia is a paradise. No restrictions. No permits required. No fees. Screw the Himalaya, come to Bolivia!
The Royal Range (Cordillera Real) near La Paz offers 6 peaks over 6000m.
photo source unknown
The most popular mountaineering peak is Huayna Potasi— though it is no cinch due to altitude. The last 200m is a steep scramble above 19,000ft. Roped together, keeping the line taut, you have very little control over the pace of ascent. I was exhausted for two days after.
Climbing Potasi was a wonderful experience though. Perfect weather! I saw the grandest shooting star of my life up close through the thin air. (My climbing amigos were so tired & focused they barely acknowledged it.) Climbing a mountain at night by full moon was unique. This photo shows the knifetop summit ridge.
Annotated climbing photos with Into-Thin-Air-likedetail.
Many climb Potasi first in preparation for peaks of 6300 – 6500m, very doable for the average Edmund once acclimatized.
Not me. I prefer carbogganing & hiking. I will be back to Bolivia to do the major mountain routes. (May – June are probably the best months in the central Andes if you want to join me.)
Most every backpacker in Bolivia bikes the world’s most dangerous road. Something like a 3000m descent from high peak to steamy jungle in one go.
It reminded me of Going to the Sun highway in Montana. (Bikes not allowed there, of course.)
The title of most dangerous was designated by the Inter-American Development Bank. Can you dispute the claim? An average of 26 vehicles a year were disappearing over the brink.
The bank helped fund (US$120 million) a safe road on theopposite side of the valley. The new road was paved with good intentions.
But the day I biked the new road was closed yet again for repair. All traffic took the dangerous road. In fact, we learned that buses & trucks always take the old road with the cyclists. The new bridges were under built — they cannot support heavy vehicles. That is Bolivia for you.
It was good fun. The torrential rainstorm on the way down cut the dust until the complimentary beer at the bottom.
Rainy season had finally arrived in the Central Andes.
Time to head for sunny northern Chile via the fabulous 3-day salt lake jeep trek.
I travelled by train to Uyuni, in remote SW Bolivia with Jenni from Finland. She’s a gamer having just toured North America by Greyhound from sea to shining sea.
Kid, the next time I say lets go some place like Bolivia, lets go some place like Bolivia!
Our train had been robbed by 2 Americanos. But a posse from Uyuni tracked down Butch & Sundance in 1908. Cornered & wounded, Butch shot his partner and then himself rather than surrender. (That’s not how the movie ended, you may recall.)
Che Guevara died too in Bolivia in a rash attempt toliberate the country from a U.S. backed (one of the George Bushes, I think) military dictator.
El Puro’s end was sad. Age 38, emaciated, sick, defeated; shot on a schoolroom floor by a lowly CIA-trained sergeant bolstered to the task with beer.
Che is dead as Elvis. But his icon lives on, a vague symbol anti-capitalism, pro-revolution. An ex-girlfriend says Che would be mortified to have become a consumer product. But I bought the t-shirt.
Rather than read the much edited Motorcycle Diaries, I recommend Chasing Che (2000) by journalist Patrick Symmes. He retraced Che’s early footsteps giving a more accurate & entertaining account.
Bolivia is named for Simon Bolivar, one of the few hombres who deserves a statue.
There have been three great fools in history: Jesus, Don Quiote and I.
An idealist who could get the job done — he liberated Venezuela, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia & Bolivia — but none the less died broke & abandoned. Bolivar dreamed of unifying Spanish America into a single country.
Why is North America so advanced, Bolivia & South America so slow to develop?
Last Bolivian stop — gorgeous Laguna Verde on the border. See you in Patagonia!