travelogue – the world’s most dangerous road – Bolivia

bolivie-164crop_smGo 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.

sun fun

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.

la_pazMy 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.

marketThe 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.

hp3photo 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.)

danger1Most 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!
                                                                  Paul Newman

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.

116_9154bolivarBolivia 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?

Bolivar knows.

Last Bolivian stop — gorgeous Laguna Verde on the border. See you in Patagonia!



travelogue – Touching the Void – Peru

There is a particular anonymity about being in tents. … Once the zip is closed, all sense of location disappears. You might be in the Rockies, the West Coast Trail — or in the Andes with Joe Simpson. …

For the complete travelogue & photos jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive. OPEN icon

» hiking the Huayhuash Circuit
» hiking Alpamayo
» mountain biking the Andes
» canyoning

travelogue – racing rabbits

Spring has sprung in Calgary. Cycling in March was wondrous. Every day I saw more life.

First sign of spring were the huge hares I had seen all winter. But in March they got frisky. They like to race me as I bike along the canal pathway.

A highlight for me during the winter was the first bald eagle I had ever seen in Calgary. (RC has seen them every year south of town.) This one was waiting on an inevitable death of one of tens of thousands of ducks and geese on the frozen Bow River near Inglewood bird sanctuary.


I am a working Joe these days. Sitting in Tim Hortons, reading the Sun. I much like coaching at Altadore for the people and the relaxed work environment. There is no club where I would rather coach.

It is mid-season. I am off to Western Canada Championships next weekend, the first time it has been held in Yukon.

As Calvin famously said, Yukon Ho!

The working world is so often a mutually parasitic relationship. Life is too short to work, really.

Though my job as resident manager of an apartment building is beginning to strain, it has been a eye opener on the world of the working poor; those riding the bus home from work with 5 rolls of stolen toilet paper.

I have even been to court evicting a tenant. A sad and costly system, I thought.

ice_climber copyMountains

Last Fall I felt guilty about not getting up to the mountains often enough. But spring has been much better.

Ice climbing with TM was a rush.

My climbing buddy BW fantasized dispatching me as in Touching the Void. He cut the rope — at least in Photoshop.

The first man-made ice wall opened this winter at the International Hostel in Banff. A great place for beginners to try it.

ET has been talking about the Kicking Horse ski resort for years. I finally got there with RH, GN and others after the Jurassic Classic competition. Super snow, lots of variety and we enjoyed a gourmet lunch in Canada’s highest gourmet restaurant.

Later I got a day at Sunshine with friends from Saskatoon.

If you are on as many humour mailing lists as I, you see a lot of comic photos. Many are fakes, of course. I have been fooled by some:

shark touristguy

The Museum of Hoaxes website collects them. 

And did you see the eerie photos of Chernobyl from Feb. 2004?

Los Angeles is a seductive. Every time there I rent a car and spend time roaming town. It’s easy.

On a gymnastics trip this year we took the kids to wheel the beach, still the highlight of town for Canadians. 

Shopping in LA is excellent. I bought high end hiking gear and an MP3 player.

A safe bet would be to guess I got an iPod, the outrageously cool and popular top seller. But you’d be wrong. I ended up with the Rio Cali 256 Mb flash MP3 player. Why? It runs on a standard AA battery and is computer memory based, rather than a spinning disk. No moving parts. Much more reliable. The downside? Only 60-120 songs at your finger tips rather than thousands.

WAIT as long as possible before you get one. They are not devices for the faint of pocketbook.

My best purchase of hiking gear was a new pack, the Granite Gear Nimbus Latitude 3800 T-PEX (smoke blue). At 3.5 pounds it carries 40 pounds. I’ve often said there is no such thing as a good pack. But it seems this one is.


Over the winter too I researched and posted a list of World’s best hikes. Unconstrained by imperatives of children, marriage and career, where would a recidivist go?

I have big hikes planned in the Canadian Rockies and to the West Coast Trail this summer.

Whoo hoo!

Calgary Rick

endless highs – New Zealand

I remember once asking an American hiker the weather forecast;

Endless highs, man, endless highs.


rick_mugA camper van in New Zealand in their summer? What could be grander?

depart when you want

make decisions on-the-go depending on whim and weather

stop at every amazing waterfall

exit to a beach when you get a tad warm

scramble any interesting roadside boulder

sleep where and when you want

Yet after ET shouted seafood dinner at Mission Bay her last night in New Zealand, I strangely felt uneasy travelling the north island on my own. Perhaps I got civilized working with people 7 days a week in a busy gym this year. Maybe I grew used to the domestic chaos of travelling with a family in a van for a month. Odd.

auckland-harbourIt helped that I was hosted in Auckland by Kiwi Dave Phillips, 2000 Olympian gymnast who had trained in Saskatoon for a season. Dave is now a busy personal fitness trainer and seriously into outdoor pursuits. He organized some friends, ET and myself to kayak the harbour in heavy swells. Great fun though scary at times. Waiting for me as I struggled to keep up, Dave was the only one to dump (as he experimented with a bracing manoeuvre). The highlight of the trip was that ET and I were able to assist in his rescue.

pihaDave also took us to hip black sand Piha beach north of Auckland close to where The Piano was filmed. Ya, I’m a surfie now. I stood up. Twice!

Later I checked the surf south of Raglan, at Manu Bay, famous from the 1966 surf classic Endless Summer; purported the world’s longest left hand break.

I was also hosted in Auckland by Canuck Jeff Thompson and family. We explored beaches and a few of the 48 volcanic hills which make up this pretty and energetic city. Thompsons and I took in the Edmund Hillary 50th anniversary of Everest exhibit — the first time Ed has displayed his tent, clothing and such.

Jeff took me wall climbing and inspired a trip down to the climbing Mecca of South Wharepapa not yet discovered by backpackers. My first morning I flipped a mountain bike playing on the BSX (Bicycle Super Cross) course. I assumed I was incompetent until I learned that at least 2 others crashed at that same spot that day! Safety standards here are not nearly what they are in Canada — the charm of New Zealand is just how undeveloped and unregulated things are. O.S.H. (Occupational Safety and Health) is a government department much reviled by Kiwis.

FroggattFree standing Ignimbrite at Frogatt, South Wharepapa

Eventually I started to enjoy solo travel again. In fact, by the time I did a 5-day solo kayak journey down the Whanganui River gorge it was with a twinge of regret when I saw other (inevitably German or Israeli) paddlers on the water. I normally had the campgrounds to myself and was happy sharing the river only with wild goats and water birds.

BridgeThe Bridge to Nowhere

A failed attempt at farming and developing the Whanganui River wilderness.

I went back to climb Mount Doom (Ngauruhoe). After an epic backsliding scramble up scoria, I finally reached the smoking summit. This classic volcano is almost extinct by New Zealand standards — it only erupts every 5-8 years. (Mount St. Helen’s blasts every 700 years, by comparison.)

Fantastic vistas in every direction. A perfect day. Endless highs.

Oh no! Atop Mount Doom and I had forgotten The Ring!

What would you do in this situation?

I urinated.

Suddenly it struck me. I did have The Ring! The One Ring which binds the Suunto compass/thermometer to the pack! It joined many other rings in the cone.

We celebrated Waitangi Day here — the National holiday commemorating the anniversary some of the Maori chiefs signed over the country to the Brits. Needless to say, the celebration is controversial. The chiefs only agreed because they feared the French might take over instead. The British were clearly the lesser of evils.

whalerider_posterI quite like the Maori people though I cannot say I got to know any as well as I would of liked. Many around the world will learn of the culture through the touching film The Whale Rider, a People’s Choice winner. The book and movie are set in (the author’s home town) the tiny settlement of Whangara. When I toured the neglected, mellow, mostly Maori East Cape the look and feel of that movie rang true.

Sunrise at East Cape lighthouse, the most easterly point, was a highlight.

Did you hear about the cowardly Terrorist Attack in New Zealand? Is no place safe?

Bombers posing as tourists in a van picked up explosives delivered by submarine to the remote north. They drove to Auckland and blew up a ship killing one man.

The terrorists were agents of a foreign government known to have weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons. This nation has a history of talking tough but collapsing quickly when it comes to battle.

Two of the saboteurs were caught, others never brought to justice.

More farce than justice, the guilty bombers were detained on a gorgeous French Pacific island — and returned home 2 years later (far sooner than their sentence) to a hero’s welcome in Paris.

The French, the French,
They are a curious race …

The skeletal remains of the ship, The Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior were moved and sunk as a scuba diving attraction.

The future of backpacking adventure tourism?

New Zealand I think leads the way in the evolution of travel.

competition for the backpacker dollar will increase

e.g. ratings systems to compare hostels

quality of accommodation will continue to improve

packaged fun, convenient tourist experiences will continue to be invented

zorb (roll down a hill in a clear plastic bubble)

fly-by-wire (fly a jet attached by tether cable)

zorbTHE ROCK in the Bay of Islands is terrific example. ET and I felt we got great value paying about C$100 each for a 24 hour ship cruise; visiting 4 islands, 2 great meals, kayaking, fishing, hiking, snorkeling, target shooting off the back of the boat, eating Kina / Sea Hedgehog (sea urchin), and more.

Non-stop action on a floating bar with pool table, great music. Marketed to backpacking young people, the brochure sold me stating, no demanding upmarket suitcase tourists.

– Kiwi Rick

P.S. Perfect tourist weather (i.e. drought) continued. No pesky ozone to filter the healthful rays! Melanoma scars and leathery skin are a small price to pay for a fleeting glow.

Next episode; south island, Wild Food Festival, perfect weather on the Milford Track.