11.07.2016 - 25.07.2016 25 °C
Being me is quite fun right now, and I have no desire to die. Yet I decided to spend most of my first week in Bolivia risking my life. First by cycling down the North Yungas Road, aka Death Road, the most dangerous in the world, then by climbing Huayna Potosi. The latter climbs to 6,088 metres (19,973ft). Which is really bloody high; over 1,000 metres higher than I've ever been before on foot. Before all that, though, I had Arequipa, the Colca Canyon and Lake Titcaca to take care of.
Arequipa is a cracking little down, like a mini Cusco, flanked by three imperious mountains. My main reason for going was to spend three days trekking down, through, and back up the Colca Canyon. On my previous multi-day trek in Cusco we were provided with duffel bags that mules carried for us. On this occasion we were our own mules. That meant actually buying a backpack designed for this sort of thing, sending my battered and bruised London Marathon drawstring bag into well-earned retirement. The bus would arrive at 3am, so before getting an early night, a few of us checked out a museum that has a remarkably well preserved 500-year-old frozen mummy on display. Juanita, as she has been named, was sacrificed to the gods at around 12 or 13 years of age at the 20,700ft peak of Mount Ampato. The conditions kept decaying, both inside and out, to a minimum, helping researchers uncover a great deal of information about Incan civilisation and such sacrificial rituals. The guide was brilliantly engaging and the exhibition was well worth the 20 soles entry.
Bleary-eyed, I hopped on a bus and met some of my fellow trekkers in the early hours of the morning. Before the hard work began we stopped off to watch Andean condors dance through the canyon. Behind only the albatross and great white pelican in terms of wingspan, they are majestic birds and amazing to watch glide through the air a matter of feet away. The trek itself was almost entirely downhill for the first day, descending to the Colca River as the colourful canyon walls imperiously closed in on us. As is the norm in this part of the world, snowcapped peaks completed the spectacular panorama. We arrived at our base in the early afternoon, had a spot of lunch and then headed out to collect firewood. Along the way we learned about cochineal, a parasite that grows on the Opuntia cactus and is used, somewhat controversially, as food dye. Our guide used it to paint our faces with various symbols, which now I think about it is a little bit disgusting. But so is eating it, I guess. That night we did the classic 'scary stories around the bonfire' before playing cards and getting drunk.
The second day was more undulating as we weaved our way through the canyon to Sangalle Village. The ever-changing view never failed to amaze, and I again developed a severe case of photographer's finger. We again arrived at our abode just after lunchtime, which was a lovely little lodge at the foot of the canyon. The third and final day started just after 5am. While it was hard to believe when my alarm went off, there were several upshots to this. The first was that, barring our headlights and torches, there was almost zero light pollution, so the night sky was able to exhibit it's stars in all their glory, before the sun's crown crept over the cliffs and eased the canyon back into life. The second upshot was that we didn't have the full force of the sun belting down on us for the relatively steep ascent, which would've been brutal in circa 25 °C heat. Upshot numero tres was that we'd be at the summit for around 8am, giving us the whole day to wind down and relax. Because I'm obvs such a boss at trekking, I again went full pelt and completed the supposed three hour journey in a smidge under two.
The reward for the mornings effort was a visit to the thermal pools in Yanque. Dashing between the ice cold river and the steaming pools was strangely enjoyable and surprisingly addictive. The lunch was a buffet so after two mains I had seven desserts and felt incredibly sick afterwards. Back in Arequipa I decided to chill for a day before setting off at 5.30am for Puno. A bunch from the trek came round to my hostel for a few civilised drinks, which were followed by many uncivilised drinks. At 5.30 in the morning a disgruntled bus driver barged into my room to wake me up, which he did. Unfortunately the moment he left I fell asleep again. He didn't bother trying a second time. The bus I eventually caught was driven by a raving lunatic, so I decided to go to sleep and hope I woke up in Puno in one piece. I did, finally, 12 hours later than planned.
I've not heard great things about Puno, which sits on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. "It's a dump" was a phrase a heard more than once. When I got there, I found out it is, in fact, a bit of a dump. I figured I'd kill a couple of hours in the afternoon by visiting Isla de Uros, the floating islands. A few people had recommended them and for 10 soles (£2-3) you can't go far wrong. Unless the bus doesn't turn up, which mine didn't. My hostel rang the tour company and to their credit, they sent a taxi for me, and I then got a private boat ride and a private tour of one of the islands. Admittedly it was in Spanish, but I got the gist of it; the islands float on a bed of totora, the president of each island has a different shaped hut, and they make a living by giving tourists the hard sell and hoping they but stuff they don't really want. I bought a bracelet I didn't really want for 7 soles.
With a heavy heart I left Peru, a country I've fallen completely in love with, and strolled into Bolivia and to Copacobana. My bus ticket gave me the option of heading straight to La Paz or spending the night on Isla del Sol. If anyone reading this is taking the same journey, do the latter. It's one of the best decisions I've made on my travels. The island, where the sun was born (the moon on the nearby Isla del Luna), sits idyllically in Lake Titicaca and is wonderfully serene. A German lad, Sebastian, and I trekked the entire island in around 4 hours, capturing the vast array of landscapes and scenery on offer. Our hostel afforded the most spectacular view, the food was decent and the locals were some of the friendliest I've come across yet.
A guy I met in Switzerland last year told me La Paz is somewhere you can lose countless days to drug and alcohol-fuelled frenzies. In the true party spirit, I immediately went to bed upon arrival. The next evening, having done roughly nothing during the day, I did partake in a drink or two with a trio of English girls I first met in Puno. They had been moaning about a guy in their room they nicknamed Snoorlax, who turned out to be birthday boy Lucas, who I seem to have bumped into in every city I've visited. I also wound up chatting to the nephew of Rose Woods, with whom I worked at The Olive Grove. Small world. Drinking that night wasn't smart, as I had to be up the next morning to cycle down Death Road. As if to make sure we didn't think the name was a gimmick, our guide had us look over the cliff and pointed out a bus that vouched for the title. It's the most dangerous road in the world, but also indescribably beautiful. My GoPro nearly joined the bus after it flew off my handlebar attachment, possibly because I hadn't clipped it in properly, landing two feet from the edge. Aside from that there was no real drama and most of the group made it down safely. One lad who fancied himself a bit fell over while showing off, injuring his elbow and ego in equal measures. I didn't find it at all funny.
The couple who had recommended I stay on Isla del Sol also suggested spending a night at Senda Verde Animal Reserve in Coroico, a town near the end of Death Road. Animals stolen from the wild and sold on as pets or attractions for shops and restaurants are not allowed to be reintroduced into the wild under Bolivian law. The vast reserve is a haven for these animals to recover from the mistreatment they've suffered, in an environment as close to their natural habitat as could be hoped for. I spent the night in a tree house and woke to a spider monkey peering in through the window. The reserve is home to eight species of monkeys, as well as an array of tropical birds, reptiles, armadillos, bears and everything in between. Like Isla del Sol, if anyone reading this is heading in that direction, I thoroughly recommend staying a night.
Then came Huayna Potosi. I signed up for it with a Czech guy I cycled Death Road with. It was a ridiculous decision. I've never set foot over 5,000 metres, let alone 6,000, and I've never climbed a mountain requiring the technical ability of this one. It was a relief, therefore that day one was a training day on a glacier, learning how to use ice axes, crampons and other such fancy climbing equipped. We also got to climb a vertical ice wall, which was fun. Day two was a trek from Base Camp (4,700m) to High Camp (5,130m) which was a little rough, but only a taster of what was to come.
Then, as is often the case after day two, came day three. At 2am, in bitterly cold and windy conditions, we set off. And it was immediately difficult, scaling cliff faces while hanging on to the safety rope for dear life. Soon after that was out of the way we donned crampons and hit the icy terrain. The next five hours are something of a blur. We were jumping over deep crevasses, using the ice axe to haul ourselves up near-vertical walls, and trying desperately to inhale every particle of oxygen as the air's supply depleted. All while using only headlights and the faint illumination of the moon to navigate through the treacherous terrain. The final push to the summit damn near killed me. I was tired, struggling to breathe and had frozen snot on my moustache. Did I mention the temperature was around -25 °C? Anyway, I made it. It wasn't stylish, or heroic, or done with any conviction whatsoever, but I made it. And the views were stunning. On one side, the lights of La Paz shined brightly from the darkness that surrounded it. On the other, a spectacular sunrise revealing the truly immense nature of our surroundings. I'd have taken more pictures but I'm fairly certain my fingers would've instantly fallen off had I removed my gloves and mitts, plus my phone wasn't fond of the conditions and refused to play. There was, of course, the small matter of getting down. Not just to High Camp, but to Base Camp. This meant a 1,400 metre descent, which my broken body was not chuffed about. The sunrise also revealed how perilous certain parts of the climb actually were, and how one slip or misplaced step could have been rather troublesome. We made it down safely, and headed back to La Paz. I went for a nap that lasted 13 hours.
I have three weeks left on this wonderful continent before jetting off to New Zealand. I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to spend them, but I like the idea of throwing sticks of dynamite at things in Potosi, and of course the salt flats at Uyuni. I'm still debating whether or not to pop into Argentina. We'll see. Whatever happens, I'm sure it won't be boring...