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05. Feb, 2010

Traveling Across Bolivia by Bus

Traveling Across Bolivia by Bus

After saying our goodbyes to Vanessa and Jesse, we headed towards the bus terminal. Of course, it started raining along the way. Or maybe I should say pouring! And lucky us, it even started to hail too! What this means, is that streets are totally flooded and traffic comes to a complete standstill at certain points. The city bus we were on, was never going to make it in time for us to catch our other bus to Santa Cruz. So we hopped out of our bus, flagged down a taxi and got to the bus terminal with about 2 minutes to spare. Drenched and soaking wet, we rain into the bus terminal hoping to catch our bus on time. Turns out, the bus had been delayed another hour because of the rain. So we still had plenty of time to kill.

Once on our to Santa Cruz bus, the ride was basically uneventful. Paying an extra 10 Bolivianos to get a semi-cama bus was well worth it. Approximately 18 hours and 130 B’s later, we arrived in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz has a very large and nice terminal. You can take the bus or the train into Brazil from here. Everyone wants to help. Or maybe I should say, everyone wants your business. This may be intimidating, or it may be good, depending on how you look at it. Since competition abounds, prices get competitive. We found the prices ranging from 130 B’s to 80 B’s to get from Santa Cruz to the border town of Quijarro. We opted for the 80 B bus which left at 5:30pm. We had 7 hours to kill. So we checkout our bags in and decided to explore the town.

Santa Cruz really has nothing to offer. Right across from the bus terminal is what looked like a very nice hotel. A beautiful reception room, a pool, restaurant area, and more. We asked, and the price was 35 B’s per night, or $5USD. Gotta love Bolivia and it’s prices. This was obviously upper end, because you can get hostels in La Paz for 10 B. Continuing our journey, we walked a couple miles and found a Grocery Store with all the modern conveniences of home. I knew we had another long night ahead of us, so I bought some water, peanuts, yogurt, and a donut. Half was for lunch, the other half I would save for my overnight bus trip.

It was hot, finally! A nice change from being cold, and at altitude for so long. The walk back to the bus terminal found me pretty wet with sweat. But I wasn’t complaining. Once in the bus terminal, I still had another hour till the bus was to depart. Sitting on a bench, with 500 other people around me, eating peanuts, INTERPOL police picked me out and decided to check my documentation. Why I was targeted, I have no idea. But lucky for me, it was an uneventful 15 minutes of interrogation. Soon, I was out of the INTERPOL office and boarding the bus to Quijarro.

This bus was a little different. Right away we knew why it was only 80 B. It was closer to a chicken bus than a real bus. If you know what an OMSA is, it was a little like that. The seat I picked out was specifically for watching the TV. Except that there was no TV there. Instead, there was a speaker tied above my head with strips of an inner tube from an old tire. Oh well, the price was right.

The night was long and rough. The road was muddy, full of water in some places, not paved, and bumpy as can be. Time after time we would stop, or even back up, to allow other oncoming vehicles to pass. And when the road was good, we stopped again and again. This time by drug enforcement agency. Most the time they just wanted to see the documentation of the bus driver and check the baggage. But once, we all were required to exit the bus. They checked everyone’s bags, then checked everyone’s documentation as well. Talking to one of the drug enforcement agents, they explained that along all the roads that exit the country they set up these spot check road blocks. They are looking for coca, marijuana, or other ingredients used to make cocaine. Thirty minutes later, we were on our way again.

Finally we arrived in Quijarro. From that bus depot there, it’s another 5 B taxi right to the border. The border of Bolivia and Brazil is where you get your passport stamped for exiting Bolivia. You still must continue on into the town of Corumba, Brazil to go through passport control and eventually get checked into the country of Brazil. After Quijarro, we walked across the border and waited for the local bus to Corumba. It was a 30 minute ride to Corumba and the immigration office. One bus takes you to a main terminal. And from there, you need to catch another bus to the immigration office and main bus depot.

It was a long 2 days full of sleepless nights, bumpy roads, and sleeping in bus terminals. But finally, we made it to Brazil. Another 2 days or so, and we would finally be in Rio de Janeiro.

03. Feb, 2010

Huayna Potosi

Huayna Potosi

Huayna Potosi, at 6088 meters, is one of the highest mountains in Boliva. I got this crazy idea to go climb the thing. Why? I dont’ know. Because I can, because it’s there. So anyways, after checking around, I made arrangements to go climbing.

Leaving La Paz in the morning, you drive up to the base of Huayna Potosi, and start your climb around noon. The drive up there is amazing. Or at least it was to me. You wind your way through a few pueblos and end up in the high country which I would describe as tundra. You are well above the timber line, so no trees grow here. You’ll see some scrub brush and llamas grazing all around. Off in the distance you can see the base of Huayna Potosi. This mountain is huge! Or at least it was to me! Covered in snow and glaciers, the summit can’t yet be seen as it is hidden far above the clouds.

After passing by a platinum mine, you wind your way up the mountain, driving past a small lake until you reach the end of the road. The rest of the way to the summit is by foot.

At over 4500 meters, the air is thin, and your lungs can feel it with every step you take. Hiking up the trail and climbing over boulders and rocks becomes a real challenge. Climbing higher and higher, you become engulfed in a cloud, and the landscape seems surreal. Off to your left, you pass by a glacier, and the water flowing out from underneath it is almost emerald green. Nothing grows up here except for the occasional small clump of short grass. Not even enough for any animal to eat. About 2 hours later, with the temperature dropping, and the air thinning, you finally reach base camp at over 5100 meters. Here is where you spend the night before attempting your ascent, early the next morning.

The base camp consists of an outhouse, a kitchen sheltered by a tarp, and the main cabin, where you eat and sleep. There’s no heat or fireplace here, so I hope you brought some warm and dry clothes. The temperatures reach -15C at night, and you never seem to be able to warm up.

I’ve never been this high before, and it was a real awakening for me. With most your clothes on, you lay curled up inside your sleeping bag trying to keep warm. You dare not move, because every move you make, your body finds another cold spot that sends cold shivers straight to your bones. The air you breath is cold and thin.

Imagine running a 1/4 mile at a pretty brisk pace. When you are done, you are not overly tired, but you have depleted yourself of oxygen and your breathing is deep as you gasp for air. Well, that’s the same feeling you get as you sleep! Lying perfectly still, you are always out of breath. Oh yes, and did I mention it was pretty damn cold too?

There’s no light here, so when the sun goes down, it’s time for bed. And you need all the sleep you can get. Around midnight you wake up, have as much breakfast as you can stomach, then start your ascent to the summit well into the night.

Myself, along with 7 other guys, woke up at midnight, and started our ascent around 1am. Less than 100 yards from the main cabin, you stop and affix your crampons to your climbing boots. From this point forward, it’s all snow and ice.

You climb start at about a 35-45 degree incline. And literally, you are taking baby steps. With each step you take, you gasp for air, and your legs feel like they have 50 pound weights attached to them. It’s all you can do to concentrate, placing one foot in front of another. Again, and again, and again. Slowly making progress, up the steep incline towards the summit.

As your hiking, sooner or later, you hit a soft and your legs sink into the snow up to your hips! Ugh! Now you much expend even more energy, that you don’t have, to pull yourself out, and start on and upwards again. This cycle repeats itself over and over again.

I remember being so fatigued that I just wanted to fall asleep. And given the opportunity, I’m sure it would have been no problem. However, if you fall asleep here, you’ll die in no time. So it’s not such a good idea to take a nap.

Chewing a wad a coca leaves on one side of my mouth, I would stuff chocolate in the other side of my mouth to get some quick energy. The funny thing was, the chocolate would never melt! Not even in my mouth. Maybe that will give you an idea of how cold it was up there.

At one point, I made my way over a crevice. You walk along an 18 inch path that on both sides drops off. In front of you, is a shear vertical wall that goes straight up. Upon reaching the end of the small path, you leap forward, digging your ice pick and crampons into the wall in front of you. Slowly, you scale up the wall making new foot holes with your crampons, and by placing your ice pick higher and higher. Eventually, your back on terrain that you can walk on once again.

I made it to 5500 meters before I could go no further and decided to turn back. Actually, I could have gone further, but there was no way I would have ever made it to the summit at over 6000 meters. I just didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t breath, I was cold, I was tired. I just couldn’t do it. No excuses, the mountain won!

Later that day, I discovered only 4 of the 8 people that started actually made it to the summit. Some were just to fatigued like me. While others got altitude sickness and started vomiting uncontrollable.

Huayna Potosi kicked my butt! But it’s an experience I’ll never forget. And if your the kind of person who like challenges, then Huayna Potosi is definitely for you!

02. Feb, 2010

Jesse Rocks La Paz

Jesse Rocks La Paz

The outskirts of La Paz are a little on the sketchy side. I dont think I’d really want to be there. But, if you are rich or middle class, living in La Paz in awesome! Now being rich or middle class is all relative.

The currency in La Paz is the Boliviano, or the “B” for short. You get seven of them for every US dollar. Average income here is something like 1000 B’s per month, or $150USD. So your money here tends to go a very very long way. Staying at a hostel or getting a meal cost around 10 B’s. Public transportation will cost you 1 B.

Staying with two Canadians from Edmonton, we had lots of time to talk! There is no English spoken here. And Jesse, like me, doesn’t speak Spanish that well. So having a couple English people to talk to was like heaven!

Turns out we share some of the same interests in music. It also turns out that Jessie is a very competent musician and plays the banjo, guitar, and is learning the charango. A good portion of every day always revolved around sharing MP3’s, learning about each others musical interests, and listening to Jesse play the guitar.

Jesse writes most of his own music and plays by ear. I hope you enjoy his playing as much as I did. He screwed up a few times in the middle of the song, but blames that on the fact he just got done washing dishes and his fingers were soft. It doesn’t matter. Washing dishes or not, Jesse rocks in La Paz!

Find out more about what Jesse and Vanessa are doing by reading their blog

31. Jan, 2010

The Death Road

The Death Road

There’s a road located in the mountains above La Paz that was once, or still is, the most dangerous road in the world. Because of this, it has earned the name “The Death Road”! For between $70 and $85 USD, local tour companies are more then willing to drive you up there, and take you on a guided tour down this 63 kilometer road. Obviously, this is something I cant pass up.

I choose a company called “Madness” for a couple of reasons. One, their prices were pretty damn good! Second, they have top notch equipment and their bikes rock! Third, Beatrize and Fernado the owners, are really really good people.

Leaving La Paz very very early in morning, you start by get fitted for all your equipment. Pants, reflective jacket, gloves, bike, and of course your helmet.

We arrived at the top of the mountain somewhere after 8am amidst a snow storm. Yes, at 4700 meters, it was snowing outside! This was going to be a fun day. Not exactly what I signed up for or was expecting, but fun nevertheless.

Because of the conditions, I was unable to take as many photos as I wanted. So I’ll try to describe as best as I can, what happened that day.

After a brief introduction of how to ride a bike, we were off. Riding single file down the first part of the mountain, the road is paved. Not 500 meters into the ride, CRASH! Down goes our guide. The first victim of road rash! Ouch! Nothing bad. But if our guide goes down, and he has to be the most experienced and best rider by far, I’m wondering what the rest of the day has in store for us!

Remember, its a combination of rain and snow falling pretty heavily on us now. The road is wet and slippery, and everyone is soaked with freezing rain all the way to their skin! There are buses and cars everywhere, and this section of the road is pretty busy. It’s a main highway.

Without much effort at all, you can easily do 60-70 kph on these mountain bikes. In better conditions, and with a road bike, I know I could easily hit 100 kph or more. It’s a pretty damn fun road to ride!

About 20 kilometers later, we stop at at a checkpoint where you have to pay 25 B’s. From this point forward, the cars continue on down the “new” paved highway. We leave the pavement in exchange for the “old” gravel road where so many have died!

I’ve never really ridden a mountain bike. Well, not like these. I bet they have 18 inches of travel in the front forks alone, with more suspension in the rear. They are probably impossible to use for ridding uphill, and a real pain in the ass to ride over level terrain. But for downhill, these bikes kick ass!

At first, I was trying to cut my path by choosing the safest and flattest route, avoiding rocks and potholes as much as possible. After awhile of getting used to the bike, you can haul ass and choose the straightest line possible. Regardless of any rocks, potholes or other obstacles they may be your way.

As we descend in elevation, the terrain became very tropical. With ivy, ferns, and waterfalls everywhere. In every way, very reminiscent of the movie “Jurassic Park”. Infact, there were a couple comments made from others that if they were to see a dinosaur appear, they wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Along the way, we stopped at a couple of areas that were marked with plaques or crosses, to remind us of others that have died biking the same course as we were on.

About four hours later, we made it to the coca fields at the bottom of the mountain, and the end of our adventure. My shoes, sock and rest of my clothes were still wet from the rain and show that morning. But overall, it was a pretty damn good day!

19. Dec, 2009

My Fascination With Bolivia

7 Mile Beach, Grand Cayman

7 Mile Beach, Grand Cayman

Years ago, during another adventure, I ended up on the island of Grand Cayman just South of Cuba in the Caribbean. I had just finished hitch hiking a few thousand miles from California to Florida, with a couple detours in between. Now it was time to leave the USA. Sitting in the Miami airport, I watched the marque displaying airline departures and wondered how far South I could get for as little money as I had on me. After a few question at the ticket counter, I was on my way to Grand Cayman.

After arriving in Grand Cayman, you must go through customs. I was a little naive at this time and did not know then, what I know now. The customs official asks you questions such as, how long will you be staying? And at what resort are you staying at? It’s obvious now that the purpose of these questions is to make sure you have sufficient funds to stay in their country, and that you will contribute to the local economy instead of become a drain on it.

Well, being stupid and very naive at the time, I told the customs official I had no reservations in a hotel, and that I would figure out my lodging options upon arrival. Of course, that did not go over well and was very unacceptable to the customs agent. He gave me a 3-day visa, and told me that would be enough time to arrange for my immediate departure!

That night, I spent the night under a bridge. I arrived in the afternoon, and hadn’t had enough time check out the local scene yet. The next day I headed toward the beach. The famous 7 Mile Beach on Grand Cayman. This is where all the rich people stay in their fabulous all inclusive resorts. If you walk past all the hotels, the end of the beach is (was) desolate. Perfect! This would be my home. There was a huge Sea Grape tree that I would call home for the next 10 days or so while I figured out what to do.

I had a hammock, and actually lived “in” the tree. Just like Robinson Crusoe. In the day, I would swim offshore and find conch hidden in the eel grass for food. Then I would sell the shells to tourist to get a little extra cash. And since my clothes where getting pretty ragged from my travels, I would visit the resorts at night, and find lost shirts and pants left on the beach by tourists that still lived in the world of excess.

After exploring the island and avoiding deportation, my goal became to leave the island without jail time. There are two ways off an island, by plane and by boat. A boat seemed like the obvious choice.

After hanging out at the marina, I found a 47′ Ketch that was sailing for Roatan, Honduras. I had no idea where that was, but I knew it was better than staying here. A couple days later, I was free of Grand Cayman and sailing South to a little know island of Roatan, part of the Bay Islands in Honduras.

The first mate was a nice guy, but a strange character. He had the forward cabin and was an avid HAM radio operator. He had no license to operate, so he would just “borrow” a license and call sign from different people depending on the day. I also think he was ex-military too.

Sunset at Sea

Sunset at Sea

If you have ever spent time on a boat doing blue water sailing, you will know that you have a lot of time of your hands. So the people you are with become your best friends and you share, and talk about anything and everything. This guy, was one of those people. And he had some great stories to tell. He is how I found out about Bolivia.

Whether his stories were true or not really didn’t matter. They were great stories just the same. He spent much time in South America before he started crewing on this boat. I would listen to his stories for countless hours and dream of a life like the one he painted.

He was a pure capitalist, and saw opportunities in everything everywhere. The details are fuzzy, but his stories entailed exporting (smuggling) uncut emeralds out of Colombia. And importing (smuggling) arms to freedom fighters in different locations in Latin America.

He was a helicopter pilot, probably trained by the US government and practiced combat in Vietnam. Supposably he made pretty good money doing this for a couple years. But the adrenaline rush and adventure of it all was the true reason he kept doing it. That was until he was ambushed and almost caught one time. He had to ditch his helicopter and hike out of the jungle on foot to avoid capture.

He always said, that when he had the time, he would go back to Bolivia where he had ditched the helicopter and hidden it in the jungle, fly it out, and start doing it all over again! And of course, I was invited to come with him.

Well, that was many years ago. Whether any of the story is true, or whether he ever went back and got his helicopter I will never know. But the seed was planted. Adventure, espionage, all the makings of a great movie. And all I had to do, was get to Bolivia. Well finally, I’m on my way…