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.