I took an early morning bus from Arica, Chile, to La Paz, Bolivia, after having arranged all the paperwork with the car dealer in Arica about Oscar’s sale. It was nice to enjoy the views from the bus as passenger. We passed by two beautiful national parks with several volcanoes on the Chilean and Bolivian side en route: Parque Nacional de Lurca and Parque Nacional Sajama. Bolivian customs were straightforward and I received 30 days. At the border I donated most of my food to an Aymara women.
I arrived at La Paz’s bus terminal in the early afternoon and headed to the closest hostel – The Adventure Brew hostel and got myself an empty 8-bed dorm for 69 BOB. The room was clean and the bathroom as well and there was free hot coca mate available. Also there was a pool table and an on-site bar available. However, there was too much party going on at night time and my room was just above the bar ;( I immediately bought ear plugs the next morning 😉
La Paz is a busy city with a lot of traffic and emissions. Due to its altitude at 3600m the air is already quite thin and it has to breath when walking up La Paz’s steep streets. Talking about steepness: It is just breath-taking to see how the entire city was built into a valley and houses are clustered are clustered onto steep hills (“boiler”).
On day one I walked around the barrio of San Pedro where most of the tourist agencies and Alpaca shops are located. I booked the Death Road mountain bike trip with No Fear Adventure on Calle Sagarnaga since they had good reviews and did not overcharge single persons as other agencies did (380 BOB per person). Further, I decided not to head to Madidi National Park in the Bolivian Amazon since the itineraries were to similar to the ones I had in the Brazilian Amazon and Pantanal. At late afternoon I walked up to Parque Mirador Laikakota (3 BOBs cover) to enjoy amazing view of La Paz – highly recommended!
My dinner choice this evening turned out to be a very bad one. After nearly eight months of travel I was starving for a different food flavor. Hence I picked the successor of Delhi Curry Lounge (don’t remember the name) where I ordered Indian food: Naan, a yogurt based cucumber dip, a chicken curry and a mango lassi. It tasted well but was a bit overpriced (105 BOB). However, the worst thing happened afterwards. I could not sleep all night and had to spend half of the night on the toilet – food poisoning! I should have heard to the one Tripadvisor review which talked also about food poisoning!
Fortunately, I was able to postpone my bicycle trip by one day.
The starting point for the Camino de la Muerte (Death Road) was at 4700m, ca. 1:45h outside of La Paz (northeast of it). I was picked up at my hostel at 7:50 and got all the equipment (pants, jacket, helmet) provided by the agencies. We were a group of 11 in the minivan. At 4700m we became our instructions about the road and the bikes and took some pictures of the beautiful valley.
Then we headed down the first 18km of the road which was paved and was not considered being officially part of the Death Road. We stopped here and there for pictures of the surrounding mountains and hopped also for 10min on the bus to avoid an uphill sections.
After 1.5h we reached the gravel part of the trip which was also the official start of the Camino de la Muerte. The trail started off relatively wide such that two cars could fit next to each other. But after 8-10km we reached the narrowest parts of 2.5m – unbelievable that this path was the main route to connect the Yungas with La Paz until 2006! It’s not hard to understand why the Development Bank named this road the most dangerous road of the world!
During the ride downhill we had to stick most of the time close to the sharp drops on the left-hand side. This rule was introduced such that cars going downhill could see their left front and rear wheels better when passing by traffic on the opposite site. Quite a scary undertaking!
Among the highlights of this trip were the multiple waterfalls on the way and the magnificent views of the valley when going downhill. The double suspension bike were reliable although my breaking pads had to be replaced twice on this 50km trip. However, the guides were pro-active and careful enough to take care of it before I brought it to their attention.
After around 6 hours our trip ended at 1200m at a restaurant where we were served chicken, rice, fries and salad to refill our energy. We also got the chance to jump for a couple of minutes into their pool. This was very refreshing but also not too cold at this altitude. At the end of the day everybody received a “Survivor Death Road” T-shirt and everyone was happy that no one got injured or died. These things still happen as one could see from the amount of crosses on the way down. The bus brought us back to La Paz in around 3h. For me it was a fun day and I liked the company and can recommend them.
The next day I joined another tour: 3 days and 2 nights to climb my first 6000er – Huayna Potosi. I booked it with All Tours Operator (1000 BOB for the trip plus 50 BOB for a good sleeping bag) since they also got good reviews and had already a group scheduled which I was able to join. The agency provided all the necessary clothes and equipment. This included in particular snow boots, crampons and a helmet.
The trip started off with a breakfast at an adjacent restaurant which was nice (eggs, coffee and cereals). Then we tried on clothes to ensure proper fit and stored most of our stuff at the agencies’ storage room. I brought the big 100l backpack and a small 15l one. We left in a minivan towards the base camp and arrived it after two hours.
The base camp was a very basic hut with two dorms and dining room with a table and chairs. The six of us, Matt from Scotland, Rory from England, Marjolein from the Netherlands, Christin from Germany and Eran from Israel, moved altogether into one room. First, we were served chicken and rice for lunch which was ok. Then we went off with our guide Felix to train with the equipment on the Glacier.
It was a bit disappointing that we had only one guide for this as we were promised always a ratio of two persons per guide. Anyhow, we walked around 30min in foggy conditions to the glacier where Felix demonstrated to us how to walk uphill and downhill with the crampons. All of us figured it out pretty quickly. Also we learned how to use the ice ax. After spending 45min on the ice we returned to the base camp. We were served a yummy dinner (vegetable soup, llama and noodles) and sat around with hot mate de coca to get to know each other better. Around 9pm we put on multiple layers and hopped into our sleeping bags. Outside temperatures were at -5 Celsius! To my surprise I slept pretty decently.
The next morning we had breakfast and packed our big backpacks to hike up to the high camp which sits at 5200m. The bag was very heavy (15kg) and the air got thinner and thinner with each step. The views of the glacier and the mountains at the horizon were really rewarding though. 15min before the high camp we even had to use ropes and climb some rocks in order to reach the sleeping place for next night. This was a tough part but we all made it.
The lookout was very beautiful here and we enjoyed the free afternoon to acclimatize. Immediately, a strong headache hit me – the high altitude effect! Rory helped me out with some painkillers and I chewed on my coca candy. After an hour or so I had overcome it. We had lunch and dinner here and were joined by two more guys – a Swiss couple who intended to climb Huayna Potosi in two days. At 18:45h we went to bed since the next day was supposed to start at midnight.
We “overslept” and were woken up at 0:30am. I did not sleep at all – I assume it was the height and the cold feet I was fighting against for hours. Not the best preparation for the next 900m in altitude!
We went up pairwise accompanied by a guide. My partner was the Dutch girl Marjolein and the guide’s name was Herman. Rory felt really bad this morning and started to throw over shortly after we started our ascent at 1:30am. I felt bad for him since he hiked so well the prior day! But to all our surprise he forced himself to continue! What an attitude!
The ascent was steadily steep which was super-exhausting. I was hoping permanently for flat parts which hardly ever came. It was a struggle from the first minute on. Initially, we just stopped every 40min for a short break to drink water and eat some chocolate. After 4min the guides forced us to continue to not get cold and to make it in time for the sunset to the summit.
I wore 5 layers in total and was fine with it. The only freezing parts were my feet (I wore two pairs of woolen socks, no thermals though) and from time to time my fingers – one glove layer did not help against an outside temperature around -10C. The moon and the head lamps were our only sources of light and hence good pictures needed to wait until sunrise.
After two hours the first hikers started to give up and returned to the high camp. So far no one from our group was among them. The climb up to the summit was supposed to take around 5-6 hours. After 3.5 hours we reached the “middle mountain” at 5750m. I was already super-exhausted and the first serious thoughts about returning came to my mind. I continued. And all the others from our group as well.
The next 150m in altitude I was struggling so much that I had to stop every 5 meters to take a deep breath. I was not the only one struggling, however I was definitely slower than my partner. At 5900m I decided to quit: It was another very steep ascent of more than one hour and my battery was completely discharged. It was much more pain than pleasure and that’s why I took the decision to give up.
Marjolein got attached to Eren’s and Matt’s group and I started to descent with Herman. On the way, I met Christin and Rory who still fought to reach the top – amazing! Just at that moment the sunrise started and finally I got see what crazy ascent we had brought behind us in the last 4.5 hours.
Initially, I was very sad that I was not able to make it to the summit. While descending though I said to myself that this was a good test to test your personal limits. And this was part of the idea why I actually participated in this tour – to see what my body is able to accomplish. Ultimately, it was the first time in my life that I made it over 5000m and up to 5900m – still a good reason to be proud.
After around 2h we reached the high camp and I lay down for an hour to relax. After another hour my group arrived at the high camp – they all had made it. What an accomplishment! They were very proud of themselves which they should be. After another hour we started the descent to the base camp with the heavy backpacks. We reached it within 1.5h and were brought back to La Paz by bus where a nice farewell lunch awaited us. For me personally, it was a great experience to learn about myself.
The last morning before leaving La Paz I passed by the beautiful Plaza Murillo surrounded by some government buildings. Then I visited the Coca Museum (15 BOB) which is quite informative if one is interested in this topic. The exposition is a little bit confusing but the German guide book which I was offered helped a lot to follow the history and development of coca leaves in Bolivia. One of the things which surprised me was the name Coca Cola stems from the coca leaves and that it’s still nowadays a flavor ingredient to it. I completed the visit with a yummy coca beer 😉
Overall, La Paz is a really good base for diverse activities in the region and hence it is definitely worthwhile visiting. The city itself overs programs for a couple of days such as riding the impressive telefericos 🙂 And sometimes you even get the chance to bounce into traditional Aymara dancing 😉