Bolivia Review

After we crossed the border in a small, lonely border station and went from Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, we left already the second country on our journey, so again it is time for a country review. In Peru we were really surprised how well everything worked. Not always as planned, but after all, travelling is predictable and comfortable.

Nothing is like that in Bolivia. Here nearly nothing goes the way it was planned, most things do not work at all and people have learnt to accept that: Roads and city centers are blocked, people are later than expected, when You would like to buy what is advertised outside it won’t be available, if You want to open a box of biscuits You need a PhD in engineering …. Most often a strike causes problems, but there are also technical problems (which of course never have occurred before …. ) or carnival. And in the end Bolivians are more concerned about the fact that they do not have an open access to the sea, after having lost yet another war against Chile in 1904. This unbearable situation, comparable to the well-known third-world country of Switzerland, is still seen as the one and only reason for all problems and plays an important role in everyday life: we had the dubious pleasure to see a ceremony of the Bolivian Navy (no joke!), where Marines showed an uttermost pathetic movie named “El Mar de Bolivia” ….

However, there are two things that enable You to forgive all this hassle to the country. The first is that Bolivia is extremely cheap. You can easily travel with 10 Euro per day and if You only pay prices on that level, You do not expect perfect service. Moreover, You do not need everything to work at once, if You have time.

The second thing which makes it easy to endure all problems are the people. In fact, they are not friendly in that sense. Bolivia is very poor, in La Paz there are no westernized, comfortable neighbourhoods like in Lima (but on the other hand there are no really poor areas like in the Peruvian capital). In the country, especially on the Altiplano, people live in very simple mud houses without any heating systems in very harsh climatic conditions. This hard life creates hard people: In the country, the Bolivians were rather introverted, smiling not too often, especially the woman look old even when young, but most people are ready to help. So although people are not too enthusiastic, You feel welcome. And again, what is really amazing is a certain kind of naivety, which is widespread, very appealing and it explains why things seldom work. It is hard to describe this naivety in detail, but we will demonstrate it with an example:

When we were at the bus terminal searching for tickets to Potosí, which is one of the most important cities of the country, we heard some answers uniquely found in Bolivia. First of all, not even one half of the companies who put “Potosí” with huge letters on their counter actually offered passages. From the rest we heard responses like:
“Is there a bus from Your company to Potosí tomorrow night?” – “I do not know, but I do not think so”.
“What would be the price?” – “70 or 80 Bolivianos” – “Ok, but which of the prices do we have to pay?” – “I don’t know, I have to ask my boss”
“How much is it?¨ – “110 Bolivianos” – “Ok, accepted, we buy two tickets” – And to further promote his company he gives it to us for 100 without saying anything ….
And our personal favourite:
“Is the bus comfortable and can one sleep? What is the angle You can put the seats back? How many degrees?” In probably every other country You would get an answer like “150 degrees, but that is very comfortable”. Not so in Bolivia. On the question how many degrees are possible” they answer very sincere with “Oh, not very much”. And if You hesitate to book then they are very helpful: “But just look at the company over there. They have similar prices but much more comfort.”

You see, with that attitude a country cannot work – but what a lovely way not to work!

From Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama

Sometimes one picture says more than 1000 words …. América del Sur cada día te quiero más!

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Vale un Potosí

Welcome to Potosí, world’s biggest, richest and highest city. Okay, currently only the latter is still true. When soon after the conquest of South-America the Spanish discovered a silver deposit in Cerro Rico, the new founded city of Potosí soon developed to one of the most important places of the world. “Vale un Potosí” is still today a Spanish expression for being worth a million. The density of silver in the mountain was so high that in the beginning it was possible to melt the silver directly out of the stones. Lots of Indios had to work in the mines, the silver was sent to Spain with the famous silver fleet and provoked an inflation in Iberia.

Nowadays the past glorious vanished but what remained is Cerro Rico. Potosí continues to be a mine town with 15000 workers entering the mines every day and producing 5000 tons of stones per day. However, since silver is not abundant anymore, a complex chemical process is needed to get the minerals (silver, plumb and zinc) out of the stones. As mercury is necessary for this process, all the water in the area is contaminated and the working conditions are not any better: We did a mining tour which even though is attended by many tourists is surprisingly somehow non touristic. There are no special trails for visitors but you have to climb the same narrow tracks like the miners and you see them during their everyday work. They spend 12 hours under the earth and often sleep the rest of their time in cold and wet mud huts at the entrance of the mine at more than 4000m of altitude. Due to the humidity, they cannot bring any food inside so they work all day without eating and additionally it is not possible to go to the toilet because of the ventilation system. The solution like so often in the Andes: chewing coca leaves which dampens the feeling of hunger and improves the oxygen transportation. With the huge amount of coca in their mouth, they work in a hot and super-dusty environment, usually getting asthma after a couple of years. On the small paths we had problems getting down, they climb up with bags full of stones weighting more than 40 kilos – unbelievable, we could hardly lift them up. Enduring all these strains, they win between 800 and 1200 Bolivianos per month on average. This is between 90 and 130 €. Continue reading

Huayna Potosí – 6088m

Although the mentioned mountain is in Bolivia near La Paz, I will have to start a bit earlier in order to explain how we got this idea of doing a 6000m summit. It all started more or less in Arequipa, where we saw lots of travel agencies advertising tours to the “Chachani”, with 6057m one of the probably easiest mountain of this height, because there is no technical part during the route, except you have to use crampons due to the ice. As we were coming from Lima and the “selva”, we were of course not well acclimatized and hence went to the “Canyon de Colca” for doing some trekking and also did the bike tour to Patapampa at 4910m (as previously told). When we came back to Arequipa, we went to one agency we were recommended to, and the guys told us they would offer us a guided tour if they found two other persons, because the groups have a size of 4 fellows per guide. But since no other ones were willing to do this tour, we would have had to pay a lot more and go alone. Besides, we started getting very skeptical about this company, because they did not seem really serious but rather like they only wanted to sell us the tour (“normally you have +10 degrees Celsius at the top” – a little bit strange if you take into account that Patapampa had not more the +5 degrees and is located 1000m lower). So we finally looked for other companies and guides (which we SHOULD have done already at the beginning) and found a UIAGM-certified guide, Arcadio Mamani Viza, who explained us that most companies only send their clients to some guy with mountain experience but without real formation. Now we can say that Arcadio was the first person who seemed to be honest and trustful (“you’ll have at least -5 degrees Celsius, but it can feel a lot colder with the wind”) and told us that he would guide us, of course with a higher price, but that we would maybe not have spent enough time in the altitude to be acclimatized enough, so we reconsidered our plans and decided to go to Cusco and the “Lago del Titicaca” first to do more trekking and stay longer at ~4000m.

During those days, we heard that there is also a 6000m summit near La Paz in Bolivia, namely the Huayna Potosí, which is technically a little more challenging, as you would have to do a bit of ice climbing with the ax, but definitely feasible for beginners, because before hiking up you would also do a day of training in a glacier. After looking for some additional information on the internet, we decided to go to La Paz and try and see whether it would be possible to do this mountain also in the rainy low season. We did NOT do the same mistake and asked at several agencies and also at the “Asociación de Guías de Montaña de Bolivia“, where we met Gonzalo Jaimes Rodriguez, who told us more or less that the other companies again would send the groups with some experienced guy, but no real guide. Against that, he is also UIAGM-certified and has done his formation mainly in Chamonix and the rest of France (among others rock climbing at Aguille Verte, ice and glacier trekking to the Mont Blanc, canyoning in the Gorges du Verdon), especially for learning how to realize the training and education of aspirant guides, and later he founded the Bolivian Mountain Guide School, where many people from South-America got the UIAGM diploma (you should have a look at his curriculum). He has opened many routes in Bolivia and is one of only 5 persons who reached the summit of the most difficult, 1200m high rockface of the Bolivian Andes – we could hardly find a better guide in whole South-America. Talking with him about the difficulties of the Huayna Potosí, our acclimatization and our general shape, we began trusting him a lot, and thus chose to do the tour with him, also because his price was not that higher in comparison to the others. Additionally, he was the only one who warned us that it might not be possible to reach the summit due to bad weather conditions. Continue reading

Lago del Titicaca, La Paz, Tiwanaku

Next stop Bolivia – beautiful, quiet and cheap country …. at least that’s what we thought at the beginning! Okay, to be honest, it actually is not expensive at all here – as an example for 1€ it is possible to eat two menus with “sopa y segundo” each. For the rest? Let’s see:

Our first stop was at the “Isla del Sol”, indeed a very beautiful and quiet island near Copacabana at the “Lago del Titicaca”. We spent two nights there, doing some trekking all around and across the island, and we also swam in the world’s highest lake at almost 4000m, where surprisingly the water was not that cold. Apart from this we met lots of Argentines who really seem to invade that place, chilling and hanging around on the beach while talking or playing some music. The actual adventure should start the next day, when we tried to get to La Paz. We were told that there was a strike and that the pressure measure was to block the road to Bolivia’s most important city. But when we crossed this roadblock, we were quite surprised about the Bolivian way to strike. In fact it was more looking like a big meeting or festival with many traditionally dressed locals, and the “colectivos” could pass more or less without any problems, so we arrived at La Paz only a little bit later than planned.

When the next morning we woke up and started walking through the streets (at around 8am), we were a bit shocked because every shop/café/… was closed, and this situation wouldn’t change during almost the whole day (luckily 5% of all cookshop open ~30 minutes and allow you to have a quick lunch, at least really tasty). And, how could it be otherwise, the whole city was paralyzed by buses, who were striking and who thought roadblocks are a suitable pressure measure. Besides, La Paz is definitely the most chaotic and crazy town I’ve ever seen: a few buildings with colonial architecture, but mainly dirty, loud and ugly streets. I cannot exactly explain why somehow this visit was still very nice, interesting and also quite funny. Continue reading