Since we weren’t really enjoying our time in Uyuni, the decision was made to head out of this town as soon as possible. This gave us two mayor options; the first was heading straight away to La Paz, Bolivias capital and mayor gringo stop-over; the second was to make a detour passing Potosi and Sucre on our way. We chose for the latter option given the historical importance of these two cities. Potosi was the miners city that provided most of the silver for the Spanish invaders and Sucre was the birthground of the independence of Bolivia.
A scenic busride through the Bolivian Altiplano made us forget about Uyuni and took us into the lively centre of Potosi. The world’s highest city is located at 4060 metres at the foot of Cerro Ricco. It was here that a local herder, who was looking for a lost llama, found the abundancy of silver. According to the legend however, Mother Earth (Pachamama in the local Quechua dialect) warned them that this source was intended for the foreign visitors. The Spanish conquistadores were more than happy to take up this role and for centuries to come would drain the mountain of its rich supplies and ship them back to Iberia. Up until now thousands of miners are still working here hoping to find a rich vain. The conditions however are extremely miserable and the life expectancy of a miner who starts to work is just over ten years.
Upon our arrival in the city, we decided to head towards the “Casa de la Moneda”, one of the better museums in South America. Luckily we met up here with Senora Carmen, who informed us of three important things that would define our time in Potosi: the llama sacrificing at the mines, the ritual procession to Manquiri and the guides training programme she was setting up.
She was running an amazing touristist guides office called “Bolivia Explorer”, where local miner kids are trained to become tourist guides one day. Upon hearing of this initiative, we decided to use them for our trips in and around Potosi. This turned out to be a great choice since we were always surrounded by six guides (or friends as you might call them) who had extensive knowledge of the local habits as well as giving us a lot of opportunities to practise our Spanish.
In the morning we met up with our guides and headed towards the mine. Basically we each had 3 motivated Bolivians near our side explaining us everything we wanted to know about Bolivia. Upon arrival at the Cerro Rico, we bought the necessary accesoiries for our visit to the mines: coca leaves, cigarettes, pure alcohol (or at least 96%) and dynamite. Yes, the things you normally buy before visiting a mine. After entering we both shivered: the smell is a horrible and unhealthy one. The gangways are narrow and give a claustrophobic feel. We soon met a miner and after offering him some coca leaves we took over his work for 5 minutes (which felt like two working hours). We continued our tour and passed by “El Tio”, the miners personification of the devil. Miners worship this devilish creature by putting a burning cigarette in its mouth and throwing coca leaves and some pure alcohol on it, hoping for good luck and a lot of minerals and silver. With mixed feelings we headed back out: on the one hand it is interesting to get a glimpse of how these people live, on the other hand the horrible circumstances under which these people work gave a very miserable feel.
But the really shocking events were still to come in the next few hours. Every year miners slaughter a llama in front of the mine shaft they are working in. Once again they are asking Pachamama to be generous by pouring llama blood on the entrance of the mine. And guess what… Yes, we were there right at that time. In front of our eyes the “pobre llama” was sacrificed. In the meanwhile, we socialized with the miners and bravely accepted the huge amounts of aguardente they made us swallow. The llama was skinned and the guts were removed. The meat was put on the barbeque (read: used bed frame) and we were kindly invited to join for diner. David ended up eating three pieces of the poor animal, while Tom – for some reason, probably the height – was not very hungry anymore at that time and got up with a beating headache the following morning.
The next day we met up with our guides again for another unique Bolivian cultural experience. Once a year, locals take on a procession from Potosi to Manquiri, a small village some 30k away. We often talked about travelling “off the beaten track”, this was undoubtedly the closest we could get (being the only 2 gringo’s around). And we were not exactly camouflaged: David was by far the tallest person the locals ever saw (and will probably ever see), while Tom was referred to by the same people as “el choclo” (literal translation: “the cornhead”). At several little stands all sorts of toys were sold: houses, cars, babies, dollars… These objects are brought into a church where the priest blesses them. Locals believe to receive the real-life equivalent afterwards. David immediately tested his luck and had a miniature baby blessed. Results guarateed within the year! After having tasted mondongo, a local dish, we sipped some chicha, a corn-based drink and wandered around at the chaotic procession.
We left Manquiri and joined our guides to continue the festivities on the countryside in our recycled old-school Asian private minibus. At the countryside, we were received as kings (two Belgians travelling that far to join in on the local tradition!) and drank, danced (with 60+ familiy members) and partied until the wee hours of the following morning. The blasting sounds of the local marching bands were still resonating in our slightly inebriated heads when we went looking for our mattresses that were conveniently located in the shack/bar of the farm, another headache was bound to follow.
After these amazing cultural experiences, we continued our trip and had a stopover in Sucre. The city – former capital of Bolivia – is charming with lots of beautiful colonial buildings, nice bars and restaurants. We met up with Australian Tom again and went to the 201st anniversary of the first independence movement right away. It turned out to be an incredible party with a great live concert. Until… Tom got his wallet pick-pocketed. Thus all of a sudden Tom was without documents and neither one of us had working credit cards. Due to the loss of his documents, Tom headed to Santa Cruz (the only city in Bolivia where there is a Belgian consulate) and ended up in a headache-causing-nightmare called “administration in South America”.
While Tom was on his own expidition to get a new passport, David decided to take on a challenge of his own. Upon arriving in La Paz I headed straight towards the local mountaineering organizations to find out about the possibility to climb Huayna Potosi. This peak is located in the proximity of La Paz and at 6088 metres high it is one of the easier 6000-plus meter peaks to summit. Because the easiest route to the top isn’t very technical, unexperienced climbers have a decent chance of getting there. However the effects of altitude sickness are not to be underestimated and in the end only approximately 50% of them makes it.
The advice given in the different agencies ranged from “I’ve got a group leaving tomorrow morning, you should join!” to “You need at least 8 days to acclimatize, luckily I’ve got a group leaving then!”. In the vain hope that the time in Uyuni and Potosi would suffice, I decided to go for the first option. After some last minute shopping (altitude sickness pills, sunglasses, gloves and snacks) and a well-deserved night of sleep, it was time to meet up with the rest of the expedition: five doctors-to-be from the UK, Andres a proud Universidad de Chile supporter out of Santiago and our four guides. Together with all of our equipment, we crammed ourselves in a little mini-van to take us to base camp at 4700 metres, where we’d spent the afternoon getting used to walking on glaciars using crampons and ice-axes. After acquiring these skills, we advanced to ice climbing which was not only great fun but also very tiring. Nevertheless it was mandatory to master this technique, because in the last 100 metres to the peak a piece of 30 metres of almost vertical ice wall had to be conquered.
On day two of the expedition we had to pack all our stuff and get to the Campo Roca which was located at 5130 metres and would be our start off point for the final ascent. It took us just over two hours to get there and a slight headache was already bothering some of us. Most of the afternoon was devoted to eating and resting to prepare ourselves for the climb ahead of us. After an early dinner we retreated to the dormitory at six in the afternoon trying to catch some sleep. The altitude sickness as well as a growing nervosity only gave us a couple of restless hours, before getting up shortly after midnight to prepare ourselves. We put on our gear, tried to squeeze in a bit of breakfast and gave eachother some peptalk, before setting of in groups of three (two people plus one guide). Carlos, who would be our guide for the summit, tied up Duncan and myself on a safety rope and off we went.
It wasn’t before long that the altitude sickness really kicked in. Our heads felt like they contained a little gremlin beating the inside with a sledgehammer and our stomachs weren’t really interested in all the chocolate we tried to absorb. But some mutual support and an urge to get to the summit kept us going. After a while I went into a simple trance of “Stick, left foot, right foot, stick, left foot, right foot” that kept me going through the cold, silent night. Every fifteen minutes or so we had a short break to catch our breath, drink some water and enjoy the magnificent scenery that was developing around us. Each step brought us a little higher and a little closer to the summit. After a while we saw the tinkling lights of La Paz far below us and the magnificent Cerro Illimani (6438m) was the only thing in the wide environment that was still higher than us. All of the sudden we stood in front of the Polish ridge, the final difficult part before we would reach the summit. With newly found energy and motivation we tackled this last part. We used our ice climbing skills to conquer the steep wall and then had to carefully cross a footwide ridge to finally arrive at the summit.
It had been a body wrecking experience to get there, but the experience of getting at this point was so rewarding. I felt so proud about not giving in to the natural urge to stop and go back. The view on top of the summit was just amazing: ahead of us lay a field of clouds that was only pierced by some of the nearby summits whilst the sun was slowly rising above it; behind us we could see the city of La Paz slowly waking up whilst Lake Titicaca could be seen as well. It must have been the most amazing sunset I have ever seen and while we were on top of the mountain all the physical ailments seemed to have magically disappeared. After twenty minutes in this magical environment, it was time to descend again. It was a harsh trip going down again as we were confronted with our fatigued body, screaming headaches and rising nausea. Another headache in Bolivia and this time it felt like the worsest one ever.
It wasn’t until I got back in to La Paz that I finally started feeling fine. I met up with the Toms again and had no problems convincing them that they should also try to summit this mountain. However this would have to wait till we came back from the jungle, but more on that in a next update.
Hear you later!