Day 157: Goodbye South America … I’ll be back one day!

South America has tons of distinctive traits and before flying out of the continent two specials ones showed up once more. The first being the pleasant chaos that is always around, however this is every time accompanied by a smiling face that makes the caused discomfort much more bearable. The latter is the apparently cheap cost of labour that results in tons of employees where one could have been sufficient. My endeavour  to fly out of Cartagena was characterized by both.

A couple of days ago a plane, of the company I was flying with, was struck by lightning upon landing in Bogota. Although the plane broke up in three parts, most of the passengers survived, leaving only one deadly victim due to a heart attack. This disrupted the whole flight schedule in the coming days as well as the flight I was planning to take. On my last evening in Cartagena I got two emails from the airline company, the first one for the direct connection I had booked, the second one de-routing via Barranquilla and leaving one hour earlier. Just to be sure I got very early to the airport and passed on a final night out in town. When I showed up at the airport, I got referred from desk to desk until I finally queued up for my flight check-in which started one hour later than promised. There it turns out that I got two flight tickets for the flight de-routing through Barranquilla, nevertheless I would be taking the direct flight to Fort Lauderdale, only on a different hour than either the ones that was originally sent to me (things were starting to get slightly confusing for me at this moment). During check-in I all of the sudden needed different documents than the ones requested up front, but we managed to make our way around this. Then I had to wait for another hour to get to customs check, since that one isn’t open at the moment.

Customs check turns out to be like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. First an airline employee writes down my name, then I go for a first interview with a policeman. After this I drop off my bags to get them through the scanner, while I go through one of those walk-through scanners myself. Everything normal until here. Never minding the result of the scanner, I get scanned manually by an officer as well. Then I take my bag to another officer who goes through all my stuff as well. A next officer pads me down, before sending me up to the narcotics officer who takes X-ray shots of my body (so far for privacy)! Then I go back down to the migration officer who questions me once more before giving me my stamp. Then another lovely lady takes down my name and sends me to another airport employee who once more goes through my bags before finally approving me safe to fly. I got to the airport at 7.30am and at 1.30pm, I can finally board my plane towards the States.

Don’t let this short history give you a wrong impression however, I’ve absolutely loved my time on this continent. Before I left I heard horror stories about the freezing cold in Patagonia, the unavoidable food poisoning in Bolivia and the fearless para-military groups of Colombia. All the while during my five months of travelling here I only had amazing experiences, met incredibly friendly people, ate (mostly) really good food and saw fantastic sceneries. I will take all of these with me as beautiful memories while my trip continues and hopefully far beyond. I can only recommend everybody to travel here yourself and experience the absolute friendliness and beauty of this continent.

In an attempt to organize some of these memories I’ve drawn up some lists that rank the most memorable ones.

Best Countries

1. Colombia
2. Bolivia
3. Argentina
4. Peru
5. Chile
6. Ecuador

First place here had for a long while been in the hands of Bolivia, which without any doubt is an amazing country that has so much to offer at a bargain price. In the end Colombia took over based on two reasons: having a coastline (sorry for rubbing it in Bolivia) with all related advantages and the always present joy the Colombians show while smiling, talking or dancing. Having the prettiest looking ladies of my trip might have been important as well. As for the other places I’ve been, if Patagonia had been a country it would definitely been on the top of my list, same for Galapagos. Peru was good fun, but limited to Huaraz and Cuzco area.

Best Regions

1. Patagonia
2. Galapagos Islands
3. Caribbean Coast

Because the country question didn’t cover the whole spectrum, I started looking at specific areas as well. Patagonia is taking first place here because it is just plainly amazing and I would recommend everybody to go there and to discover it by himself. It’s also a region that has changed part of me as well, where I discovered that I loved being outdoors and go trekking, thus it has definitely defined how the rest of my trip would look like. Galapagos Islands have a mythical aura around them and were the place where I felt most like I was a kid again, looking in amazement at the animals around me. The Caribbean Coast in Colombia is a deserving third that has a lot to offer for anyone who is up for it, stunning beaches with abundant marine life are linked to the cloud forest of the Sierra Nevada rising just behind it, with a flourishing nightlife in between.

Relaxation in the middle of Patagonian peaks

Best Food

1. Caribean lobstertails in Santa Marta
2. Patagonian lamb in Cafayate
3. Filet Mignon in Taganga
4. Mangrove Crab in Guayaquil
5. Self-made food whenever eating out became too expensive

When eating, the people you’re sharing the food with are probably just as important as the quality of the food involved. So it’s no surprise that all off these meals were shared with great fellow travellers. The lobstertails with one of the final evenings of travelling with my parents came in giant portions with freshly grilled vegetables. The Patagonian lamb was a delicious dinner after Tom, Tom, Joss and I finished our trek around Mount Fitzroy. The filet mignon was once again shared with my parents (we tended to go to slightly more expensive restaurants when they were picking up the bill) and it was a pleasure to finally have a nice thick piece of meat (so much that I even went back later on with Tom and Roy). The mangrove crabs were shared when I met Sophie and Jay, a superb Australian couple that I kept running in to later. From time to time, the urge to cook our own meal took over and moments like those mostly gave us the most gratification.

Best Drinks

1. Fresh stream water in Patagonia
2. Malbec wine in Mendoza
3. Caipirinhas in Buenos Aires

Rarely good food goes without a good drink and definitely not in the wine regions of Chile and Argentina. But drawing up a list of my favourite drinks didn’t turn out to be that easy, apparently my alcohol consumption has been more limited than I had expected up front. This reflects itself in the first place as well, the fresh water out of the small Patagonian creeks and waterfalls. After being used to bottled and tap water for 25 years, it was an absolute revelation to be able to drink straight out of the little water streams. As a balance for all this healthy water, there were the famous wines of Chile and Argentina. The Malbec variety was our absolute favourite here and it was hard to have a meal where we weren’t drinking a bottle of wine when we were in the area. Caipirinhas normally are reserved for Brazil, but on a great samba party during our first weekend in Buenos Aires the combination of these strong cocktails and good company made us dance all night long.

Tasting Malbec wine in Argentina (still with beard then)

Most challenging activities

1. Kicking off this trip
2. Climbing Huayna Potosi
3. Biking back from Lago Desierto
4. Surviving freezing cold nights in Huayhuash trek
5. Keep going on the Torres del Paine trek doing everything ourselves

Without any doubt, making the decision to start on this trip was the hardest challenge to overcome. I had been playing with the idea for three years before I finally gave in to it and decided to go for it. Everything since passing that hurdle seems to be a piece of cake. Some things however were a bit harder than others. Climbing Huayna Potosi near La Paz definitely is the achievement I am proudest of. Whilst feeling physically ill, I had the guts and character to continue and make the summit. Afterwards the dredging walk back might have been even harder, but in the end it was all worth it. The mountain-bike trip back and forth to Lago Desierto must have been the most painful experience, neglecting the advice of the locals we set of on a 75km trip over the worst dirt road possible. When coming back there wasn’t a single muscle that wasn’t hurting and every single rock along the road had been personally cursed upon. Whilst trekking the Huaraz area in Northern Peru, each night the temperatures dropped to zero degrees Celsius and I was shivering inside the tent trying to keep my extremities warm by putting a hot water bottle near my feet and sleeping with my hat on. All of this made our trek in Torres del Paine even more impressive, where we were carrying all our belongings, pitching our own tent at night and cooking our own food in harsh conditions. But back then we were still full of fearlessness and courage.

Magical moments

1. The first look of Glaciar Grey
2. Sunset in Pacific with sealions and flying fish
3. Hatching baby turtles in Galapagos
4. Night dive in Taganga
5. Sunrise on Huayna Potosi
6. Sleeping in a hammock at Parque Tayrona
7. Swimming with river dolphins and cayman in the Bolivian Pampas
8. Biking through a deserted Atacama desert
9. Sunrise in a thermal bath during Huayhuash trek
10 . Sunrise at Ciudad Perdida (pictures click here)

The whole trip has been full of amazing experiences, but some of them are even a bit more special. I can vividly remember them straight away and I knew I was thinking to be the luckiest guy on the world at those moments. It’s hard to make a ranking of them, but I gave it a go. The feeling I had when stumbling upon Glacier Grey must be at the very top, after 7 days of intense hiking the majestic view of a 30 kilometre long glacier was extremely overwhelming. Sharing a sunset on a surfboard with animals as well as the hatching of sea turtles used to be things I would dream of as a kid, now I have actually experienced them myself. The night dive I did in Taganga as a part of my advanced dive course was great fun, slowly plunging into a dark unknown world with only my flashlight to guide me was just amazing. The sunrise on Huayna Potosi is without any doubt the most rewarding one I have experienced on this trip. After a couple of days on the Caribbean coast I had gotten used to sleeping in hammocks, but none was as overwhelming as the one in the tower up on the small peninsula of Cabo. Sharing a river with dolphins and cayman was pretty damn cool, as well as taking our mountain bikes and find a part of the Atacama desert that wasn’t full of tourist tours. The last two sunrises were equally magical, it’s only the amount of mosquito bites in Ciudad Perdida that bumped it down to the last place. (Pretty hard to make the selection here considering I had to bump Uyuni saltflats, Macchu Pichu and paragliding in Iquique)

Foggy sunrise at Ciudad Perdida

Best trekkings

1. The Circuit in Torres del Paine in Patagonia
2. Ciudad Perdida in Sierra Nevadq de Santa Marta
3. Huayhuash trail in North Peru
4. Salkantay trail to Macchu Pichu
5. Cerro Lindo in El Bolson

I had never expected to do that much hiking during my trip, but it seems like you’re never to old to discover new things you like. Out of the 155 days I’ve spent travelling, it turns out that some  45 of them were dedicated to (multi) day trek through nature. I believe the following five were my favourites. Doing the circuit in Torres was something we planned up front and one of the reasons we headed to Patagonia. It didn’t disappoint us and set the expectation level very high from the beginning on. The trek to Ciudad Perdida was something completely different, going through the jungle over ancient old paths of Tayrona indians we had to cross rivers and fight off mosquitoes to finally get to the old indian capital. The Huayhuash trail was equally beautiful as the other hikes done, only we did it a bit more luxurious having our own guide and horseman. The Salkantay trail was great fun to share with an amazing group of people and ended up in the mythical city of Macchu Pichu. A short two day hike to Cerro Lindo finishes of this list, it doesn’t happen that often that you can climb a frozen waterfall in the end.

Huayhuash trail


Most Played Music on my Ipod

Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriella
The XX – XX
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Isbells – Isbells
The Black Keys – Brothers

The music I’ve been listening most to on this trip, other bands that have been passing by a lot: Air, The Beatles, Beach House, The Black Box Revelation, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, Eels, Fever Ray, Fleet Foxes, The Hickey Underworld, Jef Neve, The Low Anthem, Monsters of Folk, The National, Soulwax, The Subs, Vampire Weekend, Warren Zevon, The Whitest Boy Alive.

Things I miss the most

1. Friends and family living their lives and big moments
2. My own kitchen
3. A good game of basketball

While I’m travelling around the world, I’ve taken a side track to the life all of you are involved with. This also means missing out on all the special occasions in your life: new girlfriends, family celebrations, couples getting married, buying houses and having kids, new jobs, … These are the moments I wished I could send myself back for a short moment and be part of all the joy in your life. Guess I’ll just have to catch up fast once I get back.
Asides from that it seems like the things I’m missing are rather trivial. Having my own kitchen with my own utensils, spices and ingredients to put together a nice meal as well as playing a bit of basketball at times. But I guess those two would be better with friends around as well.

Shortly going through these lists I can only see that this trip has been a great experience till now. Five months in six South American countries have flown bye and great memories will always be attached to them. Now it’s time for three weeks of cruising through the States before starting the final leg of my trip in Asia.

Take care,

David

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Day 100: The wrap-up and the break-up!

The wrap-up

We’ve been lagging behind a bit on our blog, so the first part of this post will try to wrap up all the different story lines of the last couple of weeks. It will cover a lot of different experiences we’ve had and perfectly reflects the great diversity of South America has to offer. It is also the last post we probably will be writing together for a while. But more on that later.

First some jungle boogie! You might know the song from the soundtrack of Tarantino`s masterpiece Pulp Fiction. But apart from that it describes our adventures in “la selva” quite well.

We met up with Australian Tom again and decided to go for the death road in La Paz combined with a boat trip towards the jungle village Rurrenabaque. La Camina De La Muerte is a 69 km road that connects Bolivia’s capital La Paz with the Amazonian rainforest region Yungas. It got its name because of the 200 to 300 travellers who got to their final destination taking this road. Nowadays there is replacement route between La Paz and Coroico, so none of the buses, trucks and other means of transportation take this road for the moment. But it still is impressive to see how narrow the road and how steep the abyss is. While heading down, the road was wet and there was a thick fog hindering us. Nevertheless we made it and all got back down in one piece.

Posing along the death road

Upon arrival in Coroico, a bus took us to a bit further where we took a swim and relaxed after the adrenaline rush we just received. The next day we spent mostly on the bus towards the starting point of a 3-day jungle tour. Highlights: swimming Tapirs, bullet ants and especially the amazing jungle scenery around the Madidi national park. Only hustle were the thousands of sandflies and mosquitos that seemed to like our gringo blood very well.

Tapirs taking a swim

The two Tom’s went back to La Paz to tackle the infamous Huayna Potosi. In the meanwhile David continued his jungle expedition and set off for a pampas tour. A bit afraid about being packaged in a typical gringo trip, he soon discovered that it was a great experience. The wildlife was abundant (pink river dolphins, black cayman, howler monkeys, anacondas, capibari, parrots, …), the fellow travellers were interesting, the location was superb, the activities were had a dare-devil feeling (hunting for anacondas, swimming with dolphins and cayman, fishing for piranhas, poking a tarantula, …) and once more the sunsets were astonishing.

David challenging cayman to take a swim

While David was preparing his tour through the Pampas, the two Tom`s tried to find a spiritual experience in the Bolivian jungle. In Rurrenabaque they contacted a Shaman that would take them into the jungle for a nightly Ayahuasca-trip.

Ayahuasca (Quechua-translation: vine of the soul) is extracted from different plants that can be found in the South-american jungle. It has been used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes, specifically helping during consecratory celebrations and as a medecine. Allthough the “magic potion” is considered a quite strong entheogenic substance, usage is perfectly legal.

We left the town of Rurrenabaque around 5 pm and jumped on a boat that transfered us to the other side of the river. From there on, we jumped into the 4 by 4 of our Shaman and got to the entrance of the Madidi national park. After having paid the entrance fee, we jumped out of the vehicule and walked for 45 minutes straight into the jungle, until arrival at the desolate spot where we would try the Ayahuasca. The tents and hammocks were put in place, so everything was set for our spiritual experience.

The Shaman, together with his assistant, explained us about the trip and got out the bottle with the dodgy-looking yellowish jungle brew. He poured in some of the juice and explained that it was better to down completely as fast as possible. I followed his advice and quickly swallowed the lightly sparkling and weirdly tasting substance. I soon realised there was no way back and relaxed until the first effects kicked in.

After about half an hour a slight euphoric feeling is noticeable. Little by little, the sensation grows stronger, and soon I entered a weird imaginatory fantasy world. With closed eyes, bright colours can be witnessed, together with all sorts of thoughts. As if you are travelling through your own mind for several hours. The sounds on the background (crickets, birds and other animals) gave everything a strange “jungle touch”. A few hours later, I struggled towards the hammock from where I underwent the rest of the trip.

The nex morning I woke up with my head still a bit buzzing, but the overall feeling was good. Soon, the dizzyness disappeared again and I felt great after going through this amazing “spiritual” experience.

As mentioned in the previous post, David had no trouble in transfering his enthousiasm about the climb of the Huayna Potosi. So, Tom and Tom decided to take up the challenge as well. They both returned to La Paz, where they had to stay a couple of days in order to acclimatize to the altitude.

David already described the experience of the climb very adequately and pretty soon TomTom found out that the way to the summit is hard, extremely hard, but o so rewarding.

Tom-Tom on top of Huayna Potosi

Next morning we traveled further towards Isla del Sol, a beautiful island on Lago Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. After a short guided tour, we hiked back on the island from south to north, ending up eating the local delicious speciality “Trucha” for the third time. The views and colours from the lake are incredible, thus the perfect scenery for another jumping picture.

Jumping Belgians on Isla Del Sol

When in Peru, one can not miss out on visiting Machu Picchu. Of course it is quite busy, but undoubtedly with good reason. There are several options to get to the astonishing site. We choose for the 5 day Salkantay trek. Advantage is that it is not as touristy as the classical Inca Trail. Moreover, the days before getting to the final destination are beautiful. On top of that, we were quite fortunate with the group we ended up in. A nice mix of nationalities (Polish, Brasilian, Canadian, Russian, Portugese…) and personalities. We are pretty sure that we will never forget some of them!! Cheers to Joss whom we initially met in Patagonia, but saw back again at Machu Picchu.

Jumping Brit, Australian and Belgians at Machu Picchu

The break-up

In the meanwhile we have been travelling more or less 100 days together. A great time, with unique experiences, adventures and events we will remember for the rest of our lives. Both of us feel like we couldn’t have picked a better partner to set off on this adventure.

But like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid found their downfall in Bolivia, so have we in the neighbouring country of Peru. After having tasted so many new things, we both have different ideas and plans on how to fill in this trip. Rather than giving up on these aspirations, we think the moment has come for us to split up. We’ve been lucky to travel together for so long without any big conflicts or differences of opinions. But right now we both feel like doing our own thing. And what we mean with that can be found in the next paragraph.

Whilst David is heavily anticipating the arrival of his wonderful parents in Colombia in mid July, he still wants to squeeze in the wonderful trekking of the Cordillera Huayhuash in Northern Peru as well as diving with the incredible creatures of the Galapagos Islands. That’s only possible by speeding up the pace of travelling, so right after coming back from Machu Picchu he took an aeroplane to Lima to pick up some credit cards and took a night bus to Huaraz to prepare for his plans.

After leaving Colombia around mid August, the future is still a bit hazy. But that’s the amazing advantage about setting off to travel for a year without the boundaries of pre-booked tickets. If everything would go as currently planned, that future would look a bit like this: taking a flight to Miami, hitchhiking across the States to end up in Burning Man, crossing the Pacific and having sushi in Japan, taking a couple of weeks in Thailand to improve my diving skills, finally hitting India to buy a Royal Enfield that takes me all the way to Anapurna base camp in Nepal. It will be a miracle to fit in all of that before coming back home, but it seems like a beautiful future to me.

Tom on the other hand, is taking a bit more time to get to Colombia, where he is meeting up with a friend the beginning of august. This leaves him enough time to plan in the Huayhuash trekking, the north coast of Peru and Ecuador.

After having passed by the US and the Burning Man festival, the idea is to hit the West Coast of Australia and to search a temporary employment, preferably something inspired by nature (e.g. fruit picking or working in a vineyard). Afterwards, he is aiming to buy a pick up truck with the earned money, as well as a surf board to travel around the country for a few months. Visiting New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Tasmania or Papua New Guinea are options as well.

The fact that we are travelling independently implies that we’ll each be posting our travel stories and experiences independently. So, we are definitely not giving up on our enthousiastic readers!

All the best!

David y Tom

Day 83: Bolivian headaches

Hello everyone,

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.

Llama soon to be killed

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.

El Tio

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.

Pobre Llama

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.

David's toy babywish

Tom sipping some Chicha

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.

Our private bus to the campesino's crazy party

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.

View from Campo Roca - Huayna Potosi behind me

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.

On top of the world!!!

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!

Day 65: The desert sessions

Readers who have followed the rock and roll scene in the late nineties and early noughties will be familiar with the term ‘Desert sessions’. Josh Homme, lead-singer of the Queens of the Stone Age, gathered several of his musical friends for jam sessions in the middle of the Mojave Desert. After a period of isolation and contemplation they came back with some great inspirational music.

We followed in the footsteps of some of our musical heroes when we headed for the Atacama desert in the north of Chile. An overnight bus took us from the Chilean beach side into the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which has developed into the backpacker’s Mecca for this area in recent years. The tiny pueblo is brilliantly located in an oasis that is surrounded by deserts that haven’t seen rain in years but is nourished by underground rivers that collect the melted snow of the neighbouring Andean peaks. It consists of little more than a couple of blocks filled up with hostels, tour agents and restaurants. We were definitely on the Gringo Trail. Nevertheless it’s the ideal operating base to discover the surrounding salt flats, geyser fields, lagunas and valleys.

Laguna Cejar

Laguna Cejar

Not allowing time to pass by, we immediately took two of the bikes – that our hosts at Inca Huasi provided for free – to check out the nearby Valle de la Luna. The sensation of biking through a desert is just sensational, although the altitude and omnipresent dust certainly didn’t make it an easy ride. Enjoying sunset on one of the dune ridges in the the valley was downright amazing, with the last rays of sun projecting a beautiful pink hue over the low hanging clouds that topped off the moon-like landscape. Following days were spent on excursions that took us to the Laguna Cejar, Ojos de Salar, Salar de Atacama and the Tatio Geysers. Because of the large distances to be covered and the tourist nature of Atacama, we were forced to join tour groups to see these attractions. It didn’t really feel like the way we preferred to travel, so by the end of these two days we felt a little bit disappointed by it all.

Our first Salar

Our first Salar

Our original plan was to head out of this desert-town on Monday towards the salt flats of Uyuni, unfortunately it had been snowing in the Bolivian Altiplano during the last couple of days so our departure was delayed for a day in order to clean up the roads. It turned out to be a great delay, because we took out our bikes again to ride towards the La Corniza. After taking a scenic but bumpy road that was constructed in the 19th century to connect San Pedro de Atacama with Calama, we got up to a little tunnel that took us in an out-of-this-world scenery. With nobody around we felt like we were dropped on a lunar landscape, so we happily biked further. Route indication was non-existing and our orientation had been heavily pertubated by the winding road towards the tunnel, but our instincts told us to drive straight ahead. We continued through dried up stream beds, steep canyons and vast desert landscape. At lunchtime we did some rock-climbing and got up to a plateau that gave us a majestic outlook over this amazing scenery without a single sign of human interference. This was the way we loved to travel: off the beaten track, not following a guide like a herd of sheep but breaking a sweat to arrive in a place where we’re all by ourselves and can be surprised by an amazing landscape and then not be afraid to scream out how f***ing great this all is.

Jumping in La Corniza

Jumping in La Corniza

After spending the night gazing at the stars (as well as freezing our toes off) in the Observatory, an early wake-up call got us out of bed for a three day adventure in the Bolivian Altiplano. At the border we were introduced to our companions for the coming trip: Chris, a very likeable investment banker(no this is not a contradiction) out of the UK; Francis, our medical whizzkid out of Singapore; Alex, freshly released of the New Zealand army, Bobby, a creative globetrotter out of Australia and Epi, our Bolivian driver. All of us got in to a 4×4 Toyota, which was surprisingly comfortable and besides lacking a functioning dashboard has taken us safely throughout the Altiplano.

Chris - Alex - David - Tom - Francis - Bobby at Salar de Uyuni

Chris - Alex - David - Tom - Francis - Bobby at Salar de Uyuni

It took us three days to get to our final destination Uyuni, but these are the things that we’ll remember for a long while:

1. Salar de Uyuni: without any doubt the highlight of this trip. The image of the otherworldly sunrise is something that is burned in our visual memory forever. Amazingly beautiful.
2. Geyser bathing at Salar de Chalviri: this was so much better than our experience at Tatio Geysers. This time the water was truly warm here and the family of vicunas passing by in the background just made the image complete.
3. Dark Side of the Moon: without any doubt the best soundtrack for this trip.
4. Cold nights: if you want to have a decent night sleep in a refugio at 4200 metres of altitude, you’re better off when you nick a pair of sheets from the empty room next doors to be covered in nicely.

Sunrise in the Salar

Sunrise in the Salar

Upon arrival in Uyuni, a sinister feeling crept upon us. The city was rather dead and signs of poverty seemed to be everywhere, it just didn’t feel comfortable. For a moment we were afraid that this would be representative for the whole of Bolivia. A well-deserved good night sleep and our arrival in the city of Potosi the following day luckily changed that whole idea, but more on that in a coming update.

Hasta proximo …

Tom y David

Tom y David