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.

shoes

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.

danger2

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.

jeep_

jenni_

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!

Ricardo

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photos – climbing Huayna Potosi

houseI did not particularly enjoy my first high altitude climb with full mountaineering gear. It was a success — but very uncomfortable.

This is one of the easiest 6000+m (almost 20,000ft) summits in the world.

To see the annotated photos, jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive. OPEN icon

travelogue – Machu Picchu – Peru

huay-MUG

Many years ago John Fair’s photos of Machu Picchu & Angkor Wat (Cambodia) helped inspire my now compulsive travelling. These two spiritual sites are often compared, both magnificent.

I was blown away by Machu Picchu and appreciated it all the more as I walked the 4 day Salcantay trek to get there. Salcantay is the most popular of the Inca Trail alternatives.

rick_machu_picchu

I opted not to do the 33km Inca Trail, the most famous hike in South America. Most serious hikers feel it is over-priced (US$220+), over-regulated, & over-crowded (500 / day in high season). Worst of all, most of the troops arrive at Machu Picchu too late in the morning to take photos with the site empty. There are many grumblers.

My last night on the Salcantay I had a fantastic campsite to myself looking over to Machu Picchu 6kms away. Thunder rumbled. I knew the Gods of the Inca were angry.

Indeed, the next day a Russian tourist was killed, struck by lightning atop the imposing peak overlooking Machu Picchu. Local guides told me nothing like this has happened before.

Only the most bent traveller leaves Machu Picchu unmoved. It is far bigger and more beautiful than postcards reveal.

IMG_0571neil

I travelled south Peru with Neil, a petroleum engineer from the UK who works for a Calgary company.

In Cuzco our hostel had a wonderful view of the main plaza. I did my best to avoid the Plaza and Gringo Alley as touts get tedious.

IMG_0698wall

Still, pretty Cuzco is a terrific tourist town. Much to do & see. It is the centre of the Americas for archaeology.

We motored to Lake Titicaca.

Expecting the famous world’s highest navigable lake (3800m) to be painfully touristy as well as a bogus claim — we surprisingly had a terrific day. The floating reed islands (they last 8-10 years) were amazing. I was a big Thor Heyerdahl fan; remember the Ra Expeditions on reed boats, Africa to South America?

116_9200tower_The stark, lofty funerary towers of Silustani are unique too and impressive.

Peru has long attracted treasure hunters like me.

But I am leaving.

Overall Peru is the number 1 country in South America for the gringo. A few argue for Ecuador or Colombia as less tourist-infested & friendlier. Argentina is HOT right now with travellers as it is so inexpensive after the recent currency crisis. And the best parties are in Brazil.

Normally food is of little interest to me while travelling. But I have been quoted as saying South American food is the worst in the world, outside Tibet. (There is a vocal African lobby saying food there is even less edible.)

This trip I made more effort to try and find good grub.

The one thing I could count on was excellent coffee.

Right?

No. The coffee is great in some countries, but Nescafe rules Peru. In one small town we went looking for a good cup of coffee. Directed to an elderly woman’s home we were denied filtered coffee again because she could not get her vicious dog into another room to let us in. We left without coffee — but I did entertain an offer for a Peruvian bride. In every town it is easier to find a wife than a good cup of coffee.

A mountain guide liked coffee mixed with the ubiquitous coca leaf. I chewed the leaves after finishing the java assuming I could hike for days without food or sleep.

Must be some other kind of coca leaf. Doesn’t do much for me. I prefer Earl Grey.

In Cuzco the South American Explorers club hosted a tasty Andean food and drink night.

Pisco sour, made from local white grape brandy is too fine. Cuzquena beer has many devotees including me.

Bread & rice are disappointing here. But potatoes — the greatest gift of Peru to the world — are excellent. there are hundreds of different kinds displayed in local markets.

We were served a local potato with cheese, oil, lemon, egg yolk — cooked, then served cold

Soups are sometimes good. In a smoke-blacked kitchen I enjoyed a typical Andean breakfast warm-me-up, sheep neck soup.

Ceviche, raw seafood marinated in lemon and chillies, is perhaps the National dish of Peru.

Inca Cola rules here, Coke second, Pepsi a distant third.

116_9218pepsi

Grilled chicken and chips is the default meal. Avoid the gamble of cheap, bland, cold set meals at restaurants if you are looking for gusto.

Fruit & veggies are superb. Best advice is to shop the local markets & cook for yourself.

Peru is great. But shun Lima.

The strangest, saddest city thou canst see.
(Moby Dick)

I have heard it called the Scorch. Zero inches of rain per year.

Population 8 million; the worst city in South America. I got stuck in Lima on a connection at dusk. In the red light district. Smog, noise, crowds. I have not seen urban devastation like this since northern India. Almost post-apocalypse — but with taxis.

My airport bus driver, navigating the lawless traffic, was perhaps the most skilled I have ever seen.

A month later I returned to Lima. In bright sunshine the city looked better.

Or my outlook had softened.

A 10 minute bus connection was still more than enough time in Lima.

As Che said: Until the Final Victory! On to Bolivia.

Ciou for now,

Ricardo

P.S. For the record, massive Angkor is by far the most impressive destination in the world. The pyramids, Taj Mahal, even Machu Picchu should be pleased to be listed on the same page.

photos – Sillustani, Peru

sunsetNot all tourists make the sidetrip from Puno to see the funerary towers of Sillustani. I recommend it.

The ruins are excellent. But what I enjoyed most was the lovely location above the lake — a fine vista for all eternity.

To see all annotated photos, jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive. OPEN icon