Bolivian Climber Day Six

Waking up to a frozen water bottle and a frozen pee bottle is a very big shock to the system, especially when you spent the previous day in shorts on a tourist boat at Copacabana beach on Lake Titicaca.

But frozen indeed everything was. We woke in tents at our pre-base camp situated at 4,417m in the middle of a pass heading up to Condoriri in the Cordilla Réal. I had slept very fitfully, and had the need for paracetamol in the middle of the night to stave off a reasonably significant headache. I hastily put my base layer and socks inside my sleeping bag to warm them up before I even thought of getting up.

The sun nearly reaches our tents at our first morning waking under canvas.

The sun nearly reaches our tents at our first morning waking under canvas.

And looking up the valley, the sun is about to poke its head around Huana Potosi too.

And looking up the valley, the sun is about to poke its head around Huana Potosi too.

The llamas meantime, know how to seek out a sunny spot.

The llamas meantime, know how to seek out a sunny spot.

Breakfast was a similarly cold affair in the dining tent, after we had packed the tents and bags ready for the impending mule train by about 7.30am. We eventually began walking at about 9am, by which time the sun had come up and the temperature had risen probably 20 degrees.

We set off up the dirt road and the conditions were breathless. The impending beast of Huana Potosi, at 6,088m loomed large in front of us most of the way. It looked colossal, and I wondered how achievable it really was, it being our third mountain of four this trip. But no matter, we had to get to Base Camp and hopefully achieve two other even more technical mountains first!

Huana Potosi - not looking quite so imposing here, but in real life it is quite a sight.

Huana Potosi – not looking quite so imposing here, but in real life it is quite a sight.

About half way into the journey we turned off the dust track and headed up the side of a lake and onto a mountain path. Never steep, it gently turned up towards the Condoriri mountains, which looked very steep and dangerous, precipitous ceracs hanging from huge glaciers.

The Condoriri range comes into view.

The Condoriri range comes into view.

And the mule train brings in all of our equipment and supplies.

And the mule train brings in all of our equipment and supplies.

The mules passing us by at their own quite sedate pace, but I would too if I had a table on my back!

The mules passing us by at their own quite sedate pace, but I would too if I had a table on my back!

We stopped for a break at the edge of a lake overlooking the mountains, and we could now see our first two objectives too. On our left, Pico Austria, tomorrow’s objective at 5,300m, looked considerably larger than her actual height. Far far in the distance above a large glacier peered the summit of Pequena Alpameyo, which looked far steeper than the proclaimed 60 degrees in the brochure. I reminded myself that this trip was called Bolivian CLIMBER, and now I knew why. I also turned round to Olan, our guide, and said “bloody hell that looks ridiculously steep!”. Instead of him replying with what I expected to be something like “ah don’t worry it’s not so bad when you’re on it”, he just said “yep”. I shuddered slightly. This was going to be far far more difficult than anything I had attempted before, but I blocked those thoughts out and carried on with the trek and resolved to just take one day at a time.

On our way into Condoriri Base Camp - this lake is at 4,600m.

On our way into Condoriri Base Camp – this lake is at 4,600m. Pico Austria, tomorrow’s objective, is on the left.

We reached Base Camp not long after midday, and after deliberating about whether or not (the answer was not) to do some fixed rope practice in the afternoon, we ended up with the rest of the day to ourselves. This was great, as it gave the opportunity to just get used to the altitude and acclimatise. We were just above 4,700m, a height at which I had only slept three or four times previously, and so I’d need to get used to it, especially as we would be here for five nights.

Some of the others went on an acclimatisation walk up the ridge to take them higher still, but about half of us decided that this was high enough for now. We also needed the rest, tomorrow’s 5,340m summit attempt was going to be a tough effort both in terms of altitude and effort, so a rest was to me just perfect.

Camp is set again, this time we will be here for five nights at Condoriri Base Camp.

Camp is set again, this time we will be here for five nights at Condoriri Base Camp.

After a peaceful afternoon involving a short walk to the lake and a few games of cards (a Norwegian game called ‘President’ was fun, even if I ended up becoming the ‘bum’) the temperature dropped rapidly even before the sun went down. Olan told us that there was some snow forecast for tomorrow, so although we wouldn’t be on the glacier, conditions might be tricky.

Bed came early at about 8pm as everyone just wanted to get into their sleeping bags. Tomorrow would hopefully be a very good day, and a first summit. My head was clear, I was finally ready.

Bolivian Climber Day Five

So today was the day that would see us finally move into the mountains. And as enjoyable an adventure as the last four days had been, we were all I think ready for it. The last couple of days had however seen a bit of altitude and a good bit of walking, but we were here for the mountains after all.

We breakfasted at the EcoLodge in Copacabana for the second and last time at 7.30, and after a bit of a delay for the bus to get to us due to traffic (today was Independence Day in Bolivia) we were on our way not long after 9.

The bus took us back about two thirds of the way to La Paz, and back over the little ferry crossing over the inlet of Titicaca. Then after a fascinating stop at a boat builder’s cottage who had been involved in the Kontiki expeditions, we turned off towards the Andes and our destination of Condiriri where Base Camp was situated.

Some parting shots of Titicaca, this one right the Peruvian Border...

Some parting shots of Titicaca, this one right the Peruvian Border…

...and this is Peru!

…and this is Peru!

And for posterity's sake, this is where we were...

And for posterity’s sake, this is where we were…

And it is back on the ferry again to cross back over the inlet....

And it is back on the ferry again to cross back over the inlet….

....with the bus following alongside us separately.

….with the bus following alongside us separately.

The boatbuilders cottage.

The boatbuilders cottage.

The road to Condoriri was just a dirt track, very bumpy and with virtually no passing places, so it was just as well in the hour or so that we were on it that we only met one other vehicle. The coach driver actually drove quicker on this road than he had on the main highway, making the ups and downs literally lift you off your chair at times.

We're in the wilderness now...

We’re in the wilderness now…

We stopped in the end in more or less the middle of nowhere, although there was one farm building nearby which seemed to be occupied. We were at 4,417m already, and we were to stop here (not at Base Camp as I’d thought before) for the rest of the day and night. We first ate lunch and then helped pitch tents next to a herd of llamas and alpacas (I’m still at times struggling to tell the difference between the two creatures, although I know that Llamas have longer necks, and that alpacas have more rounded backs).

Time to get camped then.

Time to get camped then.

A Trango 3 tent, home for however long it took from here.

A Trango 3 tent, home for however long it took from here.

After this we were free to take it easy if we wished, but everyone wanted to go and walk. Each side of the camp were ridges about 250m high, and so we all strolled up in various combinations, very much ‘pole pole’ style, as this took us to 4,650m (15,300 feet), much higher than we’d been so far.

If you zoom in you'll see our tents are down there in that valley somewhere.

If you zoom in you’ll see our tents are down there in that valley somewhere. Already this is 15,300 feet.

Huana Potosi (6,088m), nest week's objective, looms into view.

Huana Potosi (6,088m), nest week’s objective, looms into view.

When we got back down I had a bit of a mild headache so chose to just have a lie down in the tent, which was quite nice to just relax. By the time dinnertime came at 7pm it was completely pitch black, a reminder of the fact that despite the elevation, we were in the tropics after all, and so 12 hours of daylight and darkness are the year round constant. It was also now bitterly cold, and so two jackets, one down, hats etc were necessary to stay warm.

By the end of a three course dinner, when we got to meet our new guides, and had a briefing on what to expect over the next few days by Olan, it was time for an early night at about 8.30. Getting into a sleeping bag for the first time on the trip as in a way nice. It was the first time I’d been back in my bag since Camp Cholera in Argentina in January and my unsuccessful attempt to summit Aconcagua. I just hoped that this trip was going to give me some success, but of course I also just wanted it to be a good trip, be enjoyable, and to return home safely. Anything else is always a bonus.

Tomorrow we would need to have the tents down and our bags packed by 8am to trek to Base Camp at 4,700m, and our first summit attempt would be the day after that. It was all of a sudden getting very serious.

Bolivian Climber Day Four

As days go, apart from those on the mountains themselves, this day will stand out in my memories for an awful long time. To be on a boat trip in perfect weather, and lunching on The Island of the Sun in the middle of Lake Titicaca, is surely something that few people will ever do. And here we were having it thrown in as part of our acclimatisation routine.

When I had first read the trip dossier and had seen the listing for Titicaca, I had been if not exactly non-plussed, then certainly not over-excited. I can only say now, having had the privilege to go, is that it is a totally stunning and magical place, with some views that will absolutely take your breath away. I will put a picture here below of my lunch spot, taken from the Island of the Sun, looking over the Island of the Moon, with the Cordillera Real spoke of the Andes mountains framed by the sun over Lake Titicaca herself. The phrase “died and gone to heaven”, whilst an overused cliché, is here simply a gross understatement.

Looking out to Illiampu, at 6,430m in the Cordillera Real, the Island of the Moon in the foreground, taken from our lunch spot on the Island of the Sun. A forever memory for me.

Looking out to Illiampu, at 6,430m in the Cordillera Real, the Island of the Moon in the foreground, taken from our lunch spot on the Island of the Sun. A forever memory for me.

We set out at 8am and walked through into Copacabana past the still partying Peruvians. I wasn’t sure if they had started early, or were still going from the night before. Certainly the fireworks has been going long into the night, and made what would have otherwise been an idyllic and tranquil stay at the EcoLodge an interrupted night.

The view of the lake walking out of our lodge.....

The view of the lake walking out of our lodge…..

.....and the view along the shore looking towards Calvary Hill where we had walked up last evening.

…..and the view along the shore looking towards Calvary Hill where we had walked up last evening.

Leaving Copacabana behind.

Leaving Copacabana behind……

....and docking on a tiny jetty at Isla del Sol.

….and docking on a tiny jetty at Isla del Sol.

A boat awaited us and took us across a ridiculously tranquil part of the lake, past the hill we had climbed the night before, and towards the island which awaited us. Some 10 sq km in area, the Island of the Sun is the largest island on Titicaca, and takes an hour to reach by motor boat.

We reached the island by small inlet and a tiny jetty, the only boat around, and were taken up some steep steps to a ruined 11th Century fort come temple, which looked over to the Peaks of the Andes in the distance, and Illiampu (6,430m) in particular.

A view out from the stone fort.

A view out from the stone fort.

After a brief look at the temple, and some really great explanations on the local flora and fauna by César our guide, we began our trek up to the high point of the island, at 4,100m, so some 450m ascent for us. We discovered afterwards that technically there is another part of the island which is 4m higher, but that is a by the by.

The terraced landscape shows the island's reliance on agriculture for its produce, some of which we would sample later at lunch.

The terraced landscape shows the island’s reliance on agriculture for its produce, some of which we would sample later at lunch.

A typical island building, and its only form of transport in the front garden.

A typical island building, and its only form of transport in the front garden.

Resting at the high point by a light tower we took the following pictures:

Looking slightly East....

Looking slightly East….

..and slightly west, back towards Copacabana (out of shot here)...

..and slightly west, back towards Copacabana (out of shot here)…

....and South towards Illiampu and the rest of the Cordillers Real, the Island of the Moon in the foreground. I could have stood here forever.

….and South towards Illiampu and the rest of the Cordillers Real, the Island of the Moon in the foreground. I could have stood here forever.

And here is our whole group - from left to right, Lesley, Alessandro, Jim, John 1, Laura, Yours Truly, Gavin, Lotte, Patrick, and John 2.

And here is our whole group – from left to right, Lesley, Alessandro, Jim, John 1, Laura, Yours Truly, Gavin, Lotte, Patrick, and John 2.

We then began our descent towards the main port of the island and to a most majestic and beautiful inlet, with such pretty flowers and walkways that it could have been from a fairytale. Our boat awaited us and took us back around to the inlet we had first docked and we walked back up to a small stone house, where we were served a local Indian buffet of corn, potatoes, trout, chicken, and vegetables. It was amazing, and with the backdrop of the picture earlier, will go down as probably the best lunch I have ever had.

Local boy (who very enterprisingly charged me 2 Bolivianos for the privilege of taking his photograph) tasking his Alpaca for walkies.

Local boy (who very enterprisingly charged me 2 Bolivianos for the privilege of taking his photograph) tasking his Alpaca for walkies.

Walking down towards the main port.

Walking down towards the main port.

And the main source of water for the islanders, apparently the three outlets come from three different underground springs built by the Inca.

And the main source of water for the islanders, apparently the three outlets come from three different underground springs built by the Inca.

After lunch it was back onto our boat for the trip back to Copacabana, the unbroken sun glistening on the water and framing the Andes in the background the whole way. This is a magical and beautiful place in every sense.

A selection of the local produce for lunch, including the largest corn kernels I have ever seen!

A selection of the local produce for lunch, including the largest corn kernels I have ever seen!

and it is time to bid the island farewell....

and it is time to bid the island farewell….

...and a ride on top of the boat lets everyone enjoy the scenery even more.

…and a ride on top of the boat lets everyone enjoy the scenery even more.

When we got back to Copacabana we went up to the and had a look round the markets of the town. Unfortunately there were so many people as to make it a frustrating rather than pleasurable experience, but the day couldn’t be spoilt because of the morning trip.

...and trying to fight our way through the hordes....

…and trying to fight our way through the hordes….

The Basilica of Copacabana, a 16th Century shrine.

The Basilica of Copacabana, a 16th Century shrine.

After returning to the EcoLodge we ventured back into town for out last ‘proper’ meal of the trip, or at least the last one not in a tent at any rate. Despite a nice meal, the evening was significantly spoilt for one of the two Johns, who had his rucksack stolen in the restaurant from almost under his nose, by whom and how we will never know. He lost jackets, glasses, GPS amongst other things, so the rest of us are trying to cobble together stuff for him to borrow so he can continue his climb. It just shows you that you can never be too careful.

So then it was back to our hotel, the last night in a bed for us (bar one) until the return home to the UK in over two weeks time. Our acclimatisation attempts are over, and if you weren’t ready now you were never going to be. I had taken paracetamol for headaches the last two days, but finally felt free of the need to do so, although a bout of ‘travellers tummy’ reminded me that in foreign climes with substandard sanitation, you were never far away from the wrong side of feeling well.

Bolivia had so far served up some real treats, and had far outweighed my expectations in terms of experience. Tomorrow the ‘real’ adventure would begin – we would head off by bus to the Cordilla Réal and into the Andes. The mountains beckoned at last.

Bolivian Climber Day 3

Day three would see us leave the city of La Paz and head for two days at Lake Titicaca, slightly (but only slightly, at about 3,800m, or 12,500ft) higher than we were now by means of further acclimatisation.

We set out with just a rucksack of things that we would need for the two days, and all of our mountain equipment went off separately in our duffels which we would get at base camp at Condoriri on day five.

Our bus for Titicaca (and beyond, as they say) - a rickety old thing but it served us well.

Our bus for Titicaca (and beyond, as they say) – a rickety old thing but it served us well.

Leaving the city in a minibus which had certainly seen better days, we chugged our way up through the polluted north of the city and past El Alto, the new city by the airport. El Alto is certainly La Paz’s poorer relation. At a million people though, and still growing by 6% per year, it is the country’s second biggest city, and out of control in terms of waste, crime, infrastructure, and everything else. Pretty it most certainly is not.

A typical road/shop in El Alto

A typical road/shop in El Alto

And more El Alto scenes - this is the main street. The back streets which we would go through were much more barren and scarier, I didn't dare get my camera or phone out, even in the bus.

And more El Alto scenes – this is the main street. The back streets which we would go through were much more barren and scarier, I didn’t dare get my camera or phone out, even in the bus.

Travelling through the far side of El Alto it became clear that our bus was not going any further as there was a huge parade going down the centre of what appeared to be the only road through town. The parade was part of the Independence Day celebrations, which was in two days time.

The start of the Independence Day parade which halted our progress.

The start of the Independence Day parade which halted our progress.

It may not look that big from here, but this parade must have been at least two miles long!

It may not look that big from here, but this parade must have been at least two miles long!

The bus ended up following other traffic which was trying to do the same as us and circumnavigate the town. The only way to do so was through incredibly bumpy dirt tracks. This led to various dead ends, and also going through some very dodgy back streets where there were mannequins hung on the walls of houses with messages threatening death by burning and torture to those who contemplated burglary. I was glad the bus didn’t break down or get a puncture, as a bunch of tourists in mountain gear and glacier sunglasses would really have stuck out like a sore thumb.

Having eventually cleared El Alto (it must have taken an hour) we were now on miles and miles of very dry plains, the Altiplano. The Altiplano is an agricultural area growing principally potatoes and quinoa, although how anything grows in such a desolate area at 13,000 feet is beyond me.

A section of the Altiplano, a bland featureless high altitude desert/scrubland.

A section of the Altiplano, a bland featureless high altitude desert/scrubland.

Eventually we got our first site of Lake Titicaca, and it looked magnificent, even though we could only see a very small portion of it. Having said that, a small portion is all you will ever see of it, as at 5,500 square miles, the word colossal doesn’t even come close to describing it. It was a pleasure to see after the scary trip through El Alto.

First sighting of the quite magnificent Lake Titicaca.

First sighting of the quite magnificent Lake Titicaca.

The lake begins to open up in terms of scale.

The lake begins to open up in terms of scale.

We then after about another hour got down to the edge of the lake and to get to our destination we needed to cross part of it. To do so the bus had to go on a barge without us as passengers, and we had get get onto a mini covered speedboat, which was so low in the water that the lake was almost at eye level as you sat down. Thankfully the crossing was only 800m or so, and passed otherwise without incident, although it was certainly an exciting way to break up the journey.

Our method of transport across the lake......

Our method of transport across the lake……

And inside the boat......

And inside the boat……

Our bus followed in an only slightly larger barge.

Our bus followed in an only slightly larger barge.

Meanwhile the 6th of August (still two days away) celebrations continued on the shoreline.

Meanwhile the 6th of August (still two days away) celebrations continued on the shoreline.

Although some of the locals seems more enthusiastic than others

Although some of the locals seem more enthusiastic than others

The journey to Copacabana, our resort destination on the edge of the lake, took four and a half hours in total. Copacabana it seems was the ‘original’ one, and is steeped in history. It is also a place of pilgrimage for many thousands of Peruvians, all of whom were parked along the shore of the lake partying like it was the end of the world. And this was 3pm.

First view of the resort of Copacabana, our home for the next two days.

First view of the resort of Copacabana, our home for the next two days.

The Ecolodge, a bit of an oasis in the madness of Copacabana, thankfully it was right at the far end of the town itself.

The Ecolodge, a bit of an oasis in the madness of Copacabana, thankfully it was right at the far end of the town itself.

Having dropped our stuff off at the EcoLodge, our home for the next two nights, we went for a walk up to the top of the hill (Cerro Calvario) which overlooks the town. This proved fairly tricky for two reasons. Firstly it would be the first time we had walked up to 4,000m, and the thin air was hard work. Secondly we had to push our way though all manner of Peruvian stalls, hawkers, buskers, religious fanatics queuing to place candles, and just general drunken folk. It was madness. There were firecrackers going off everywhere, and the air was ripe with the smell of manner of substances, some of which might have got me up the hill quicker, but thankfully only the smell came close to me!

Walking back towards the hill in town.....

Walking back towards the hill in town…..

The Peruvians like to dress up their cars and vans for the part too!

The Peruvians like to dress up their cars and vans for the part too!

More llama foetuses and armadillos on display though I'm afraid.

More llama foetuses and armadillos on display though I’m afraid.

Eventually we would begin to wind our way up the hill, even though the people were everywhere.

Eventually we would begin to wind our way up the hill, even though the people were everywhere.

Reaching the top of the hill, which is basically a religious shrine, we admired the great view back down over Copacabana beach.

View back down from the top of Calvario Hill.

View back down from the top of Calvario Hill. As you may be able to see, there are probably 2,000 Peruvian cars and busses parked along the beach!

We also got to share the top with approximately 10,000 mainly drunken Peruvians, although many were also there (presumably slightly less inebriated) to just light candles and get their blessing. The blessing itself does however involve much beer throwing and drinking, one of the strangest rituals I have ever witnessed. They also douse their cars in confetti, party hats, garlands, and more beer. Quite a sight, is all I can say, but again it is amazing to see other people’s traditions and rituals, one of the wonders of travel that I am so grateful for.

And this is what they come for.....

And this is what they come for…..

...in their masses, to worship at the 13 crosses on the top of the hill.

…in their masses, to worship at the 13 crosses on the top of the hill.

Part of the view out over the lake as the sun starts to go down. It was transfixing, and intoxicating, and not just because of all the smells wafting around on the top of the hill!

Part of the view out over the lake as the sun starts to go down. It was transfixing, and intoxicating, and not just because of all the smells wafting around on the top of the hill!

We got down the hill just before sunset and ate dinner in a thankfully fairly quiet beachfront restaurant before heading back in total darkness to the EcoLodge, followed by a multitude of stray dogs, but thankfully by no Peruvians, who by now were just wandering around aimlessly or playing ridiculously loud pan pipe music and dancing like idiots. Good for them!

It had been a great day, as unexpected as it was interesting. Lake Titicaca herself, the reason we were here in the first place, would reveal herself in all her majestic glory in tomorrow’s boat trip to the largest island on the lake, Isla Del Sol, or The Island of The Sun. But I was loving it already. An early night beforehand however was as welcome as it was much needed.

Bolivian Climber Day Two

Day two of the trip was to be spent ‘at leisure’ in La Paz. Having only flown in the day before, and having flown overnight, everyone was pretty much sleep deprived, and also we needed badly to get used to the altitude. We were already at 3,700m, higher than many, if not most, European mountains, and in the highest capital city in the world. A good time to explore and make the most of it. It was to be an incredible day.

There was an organised activity laid on by Jagged Globe, lest we lay too idle, in the form of a city tour. This was to take the form of a walking tour, for two reasons: firstly it was good for everyone to stretch their legs and get a bit of exercise, and secondly we’d get around quicker. As we’d discover, whilst La Paz is not exactly Kathmandu when it comes to traffic congestion, it can nonetheless hold its own with most places I’ve ever seen for gridlock and horn-blaring standstills.

Our guide was Rosemary, of Aymara origin. Bolivia it turns out, is still about 70% indiginous population, with most of the remainder being Spanish settlers. The Aymara and Quechua people, both of whom have their own languages, make up the vast bulk of this 70%. We learned a lot about Bolivia, it’s origins, how it got its independence, about Simon Bolivar, about religion (Bolivia is an almost entirely Catholic country for example), and many other customs including why the ladies wear bowler hats (marriage, basically) and the cholitas. It was fascinating. The tour including lunch took almost six hours, by which time we’d walked and also cable-carred around a sizeable chunk of the La Paz downtown areas. The cable car took us back up to El Alto, where the airport is, at 4,200m.

We visited city squares and parks, markets, the infamous San Pedro prison, and otherwise got to go to many places where as a tourist you wouldn’t normally have trodden. It felt safe, if slightly edgy, but not uncomfortably so.

The tour was fantastic, and probably more informative and interesting than any tour I’ve ever been on. La Paz is a bit of a crazy city, being known amongst other things for the somewhat scary San Pedro prison, which is slap bang in the middle of town. It also has many markets, where you can freely buy coca leaves (which I did!). The most famous, or infamous of these is the Witches Market.

View from my hotel, early morning, this in the very heart of the city.

View from my hotel, early morning, this in the very heart of the city.

A typical downtown city square

A typical downtown city square

They use 'zebra crossings' too, but theirs are a little more animated than ours!

They use ‘zebra crossings’ too, but theirs are a little more animated than ours!

The infamous San Pedro prison. It almost looks nice from here, but believe me it isn't.

The infamous San Pedro prison. It almost looks nice from here, but believe me it isn’t.

San Pedro used to allow outsiders, family members, and even tourist tours to come inside the gates, but not any more. It is a notorious crack den, and about 1,500 hardened criminals live inside its walls. There are moves to close it down and move the inmates to a different location, but there is much resistance, most fiercely apparently from the inmates themselves…

A typical La Paz street market. Note in the background how steeply the houses rise into the hillside.

A typical La Paz street market. Note in the background how steeply the houses rise into the hillside.

Buying the abundant coca leaves in a street market....

Buying the abundant coca leaves in a street market….

....and being shown how to fold and chew them, by Rosemary our Almaya guide

….and being shown how to fold and chew them, by Rosemary our Aymara guide.

The Witches Market is a hotch-potch of tiny shops and kiosks, selling an array of trinkets and potions alongside the ubiquitous alpaca and llama scarves and clothing. At first when you approach the area you see what appear to be cuddly toys hanging above the doors and windows. They then give way to something considerably more sinister however, for hung outside every store, and in plentiful baskets inside too, are hundreds of llama foetuses, in varying states of decomposition. I have never seen anything quite like it.

These are neither cuddly toys nor fake in any way whatsoever...

These are neither cuddly toys nor fake in any way whatsoever…

.....most of the shops contain offerings to Pachamama, the goddess of Mother Earth.

…..most of the shops contain offerings to Pachamama, the goddess of Mother Earth. Oh and beer too, as you can see!

Inside on of the witches shops. Fascinating!

Inside one of the witches shops. Fascinating!

The story goes, that the witches market gets its name from the ladies who would collect things from the altiplano to sell. Most of the indigenous population worship or believe in the spirit of Pachamama, the goddess of the Mother Earth. The llama foetus is revered for apparently bringing good luck and good health to houses when they are built, and this is the reason for their sale. They are put amongst incense and other symbols of good luck and burned in the foundations.

The ladies themselves were labelled as witches by the Catholic community and so came to be the witches market where they still sell their somewhat frightening wares. For me there is a fine line between respecting local and indigenous traditions, and being appalled by something as ostensibly appalling as llama foetuses. This is particularly the case when I learned that they are largely obtained by being pulled from the wombs of the mothers who are killed for their meat. I’ll pass no opinion as to which side of the fence I’m on, but I nonetheless found the experience one that will stay with me for a very long time indeed. There are also dried frogs and armadillos here. I should also say that I found the ‘yatari’, who are the people from whom the witches belong (they are considered a sub class of the Aymara by the locals), were among the friendliest, most humble and welcoming people I have ever come across in my life.

We then took one of the the four cable car lines out of the city up towards El Alto. El Alto (literally ‘The Heights’) is Bolivia’s second biggest city, and is effectively joined to La Paz, but is so radically different. A city of a million people in its own right, it is very poor. I would see much more of El Alto the following day. La Paz itself is home to about 1.7m people, and is in a big bowl, or canyon, which millions of years ago was basically a big lake.

View from the cable car up to El Alto...

View from the cable car up to El Alto…

...and the view back across the city towards the centre. Illimani dominates the backdrop, even if it is over 50 miles away!

…and the view back across the city towards the centre. Illimani dominates the backdrop, even if it is over 50 miles away!

Travelling back into La Paz itself by cable car again, passing massive walled cemeteries of the likes I have never seen before, we then ate in a traditional Bolivian restaurant of the kind that you’d never ever venture into if you weren’t being taken there by a guide. I also got to taste my first llama. I am not sure I really wanted to, but it is all part of the experience I suppose. For the record it tasted somewhere between lamb and beef I’d say, and I won’t be rushing to eat it again.

 

When we finally got back to the hotel it was time for our kit inspection by Olan, which as far as I’m aware everyone passed. We then had to pack all of our mountain kit which would be transported separately from us to Base Camp at Cordilera, our first objective in two days time. It brought the reality back into focus of why we were here, such a different thing to switch to after all the things we had seen during the day. We also packed our rucksacks with basic kit ready for two days acclimatisation at Lake Titicaca, and separately left anything we didn’t want in the mountains in a separate bag which would stay at the hotel.

In the evening we were free to do as we pleased, and so John, Laura, Gavin and I went and found an Argentinian restaurant (Gaucho), where the steak was monstrous (and that is an understatement!) and delicious, and the Cabernet Sauvignon (Trapiche Reserva) fabulous. I’m not sure that the latter was the best idea as part of an acclimatisation programme, but nonetheless it went down very well, which is a good thing in itself. The second bottle went down even better…..well, it’s all carbohydrate as they say 🙂

The next morning we would check out of La Paz to head to the largest lake in South America on the Peruvian border, all 5,500 square miles of the fabled Lake Titicaca. The journey was already really coming alive in so many ways, and the educational trip around La Paz just made me want to see and know so much more about Bolivia – it was already becoming a brilliant trip, and it was only one day in.

Bolivian Climber Day One

The Bolivian Climber trip is run by a few of the big climbing operatives, most notably Jagged Globe and IMG. I chose to go with the former and my trip took place from 1st to the 22nd August 2015. The context here overall is that up until the turn of this year I was (perhaps over ambitiously) harbouring designs on the Seven Summits. However, my attempt on my third mountain, Aconcagua, ended up in me descending due to AMS.

Having wondered what to do next, I came upon this trip, which if successful would get me to 6,500m or so, higher than I had ever been before. If I failed, then I would know that physiologically I was not meant to be up that high. The trip consists of four mountains altogether. Pico Austria at 5,350m as an acclimatisation summit, and then the more technical ascents of Pequena Alpameyo (5,370m), Huana Potosi (6,088m), and finally Illimani (6,438m). All mountains are situated in the Cordillera Real range of the Andes, all within Bolivia.

Day one (and two in fact) was one long long haul to get to Bolivia itself, a distance of some 7,500 miles from London where my flying journey began. I would fly American Airlines to Miami, and then after a four hour layover from Miami to La Paz, the highest capital city in the world. The first flight was 9 hours and the latter 6 and a half.

First view of Illimani flying into La Paz

First view of Illimani flying into La Paz

The arrival at La Paz airport was at 7am local time, and by the time we got to the hotel I had been travelling for nearly 28 hours all told.

The airport at La Paz is actually well above the city, itself at 3,650m, or 12,000ft. The airport sits on the Altiplano, a high plateau at 4,100m (13,500ft). Getting off the plane at this altitude without acclimatisation was something else, the air so noticably thinner that just walking a few steps was a chore. Following a fairly painless customs and passport check, we stopped for some photographs straight out of the airport itself, looking down from El Alto into La Paz itself.

First view down into La Paz itself from El Alto, at 4,100m

First view down into La Paz itself from El Alto, at 4,100m

Following a steep journey into town we checked into our hotel, the Ritz Aparthotel in downtown La Paz. The hotel was really nice, much nicer than I had expected. The standard room rates here were about $150 a night, which must be a king’s ransom in Bolivia. Having been allocated our rooms, some of us went for a quick explore round town, stopping for a quick beer along the way (it would have been rude not to, even if I didn’t feel exactly 100%!).

The streets of La Pax, near the church of San Sebastian

The streets of La Pax, near the church of San Sebastian

Another typical (if quieter) La Paz street scene. The lady wears the bowler hat if she is married.

Another typical (if quieter) La Paz street scene. The lady wears the bowler hat if she is married.

Another typical downtown city scene. Pacēna is the local beer, meaning "of La Paz".

Another typical downtown city scene. Paceña is the local beer, meaning “of La Paz”.

In the afternoon we got to meet our Jagged Globe guide, Olan Parkinson. Olan had just returned from another identical trip, and gave us a bit of information about what to expect etc. I then put my head down for about two hours as I was absolutely wiped out. About three hours sleep in the last 24 hours had seen to that.

In the evening Olan took us with two of the local guides to a local restaurant. It was clearly quite smart by La Paz standards, and the food was as nice as it was unexpected. I stayed safe and went for pasta instead of venturing for local Bolivian fare. I figured I’d see enough of that on the mountains themselves, and clearly Llama was very much the most popular dish.

So by now I’d got to meet all of the group. John, Alessandro, and Laura I’d met before on the pre-expedition weekend in Snowdonia some 6 weeks previously. All of the others were new faces, Gavin, (my roommate), another John, Jim, Lesley, and Patrick and Lotte from Norway who were the only ones who came together.

Bed came early that first night, even if sleep didn’t. I always tend to struggle the first night at altitude and this was no exception. I was awake probably very hour on and off. Hopefully the acclimatisation schedule that was planned over the next few days (it would be another three days before we’d head up into the mountains) would make things better.

So game on, as it were. Tomorrow was another day in La Paz to get used to the thin air, and it would be a great and eye opening adventure.