Bolivia & Peru; amazing landscapes

For years Peru has been high, if not the highest, on my list of countries I wanted to visit. Whereas Argentina and Chile have a European feel, Peru sounded more Latin American (whatever that may be) to me. Initially Bolivia was just a transit country but during my travels I met more and more people who really liked Bolivia. I guess I had to see what that’s all about…

Because I had some issues with my laptop my previous post about Brazil was really late. In fact I had already left the country for about a month. This post might therefore seem a bit quick but in fact I’m just catching up…

I arrived by plane in la Paz, with 3650 meter a very high city. Of course this did not go without any problems. In Sao Paulo I was given two boarding passes, one for Sao Paulo to Santiago de Chile and one for Santiago de Chile to la Paz. On arrival in Santiago I went to the international terminal, which makes sense to me as la Paz is located in a different country. I checked the screen with departures and my flight was not there. I waited a little bit for things to change but of course it didn´t. It turned out the flight from Santiago to la Paz went through Iquique, a city in the North of Chile. This wasn´t mentioned on my boarding pass nor on my e-ticket. I had to go back through security and go to the domestic terminal. Luckily I just made it in time to catch my flight but, come on, how difficult can we make things?

La Paz as can be seen from the slightly higher located city El Alto

La Paz as can be seen from the slightly higher located city El Alto

The center of la Paz can best be described as one big market. Women dressed in traditional clothes carry goods on their back and sell them all over the place. It´s great to walk around and observe the local people and all the goods! Walking around is a bit tough not only because of the altitude but also because the streets go up and down. The first night I slept with a light headache but the next day I was fine. At migration at the airport I met Tanja and Thomas, two Germans. We shared a taxi to town and enjoyed a really cheap 3-course dinner (6 bolivianos which is around 0.75 euro and it tasted good!) and did a bit of sightseeing the next day. We checked out the main cathedral and the so-called “Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore”. This museum has a patrimony consisting of 27,571 pieces including colonial and contemporary masks, ceramics, fabrics, feathers and coins of Bolivia. I’m not the biggest fan of museums but I quite enjoyed this one. That evening we decided to eat a bit more upscale and went to Diesel Nacional, a restaurant decorated with old parts of cars, trains and airplanes. We enjoyed some great food before the Germans took off to the jungle in the North of Bolivia. I had other plans…

One of the main attraction of Bolivia is its spectacular landscape. A great way for me to enjoy the scenery is in the mountains. I soon noticed some good and interesting options for mountaineering. The elevation in Bolivia however is nothing to joke about so I decided to do a trekking first to acclimatize. A 4-day tour with Michi and Muchi, as Michaela and Michael were nicknamed by their Austrian friends, to Sajama National Park would hopefully prepare me for further adventures. We drove for about 5 hours towards the Chilean border and did a short walk to the geysers. A beautiful setting of bubbling water with a giant volcano (Sajama is 6542 meters high) in the background made it pleasant to walk around. We set up our tents and after a nice meal tried to catch as much sleep as possible during a very, very cold night. The following day we hiked a fair bit to around 4600 meters and enjoyed a lunch surrounded by many llamas and alpacas. Another cold night followed before we made an attempt to reach the high camp on Sajama mountain. We left around 6 am and reached base camp at 4800 meters roughly three hours later. Michaela decided to turn back at around 5000 meters but Michael and myself continued towards the high camp which was at 5400 meters this time. The original high camp is situated at 5700 meters but was full and therefore another camp was created. From this altitude I had a great view of Pomerape and Parinacota, two vulcanoes with the last one being a great skiing objective! Yes, I’m afraid I will have to go back one day…

Sajama National Park is quite spectacular

Sajama National Park is quite spectacular

Now I was acclimatized, the real adventure started. As a novice mountaineer I had a beautiful goal: Pequeño Alpamayo. This is a very aesthetic peak of 5410 meters in the Northern part of the Cordillera Central, also known as the Cordillera Real. It is true mountaineering which made it a great challenge. It could serve as good experience for further ski adventures to be had in the future but was also a great adventure on its own. Together with Iris and Martin, both from Austria, I went on a 3-day trip. We drove towards Tuni from where we had to walk three hours to reach our base camp. We enjoyed an early dinner when we heard the great news, “wake up at 1 am, and start at 2”. After merely four hours of sleep my alarm woke me up. At this ungodly hour (for fans of The Big Bang Theory, yes, this is a phrase used by Howard´s mother) we tried to eat something before we started walking in the moonlight. After one hour we reached the glacier where we put on our crampons and got all roped up. Step by step we progressed with an ice-axe in our hand to provide some balance when needed. At 6 am we were at Tarija peak from where we had a great view of Pequeño Alpamayo. The real climbing was about to begin. We finished another chocolate bar before we descended a steep section through some rocks. Now we really needed our ice-axe as we were about to climb two sections of about 45 to 50 degrees on a ridge all the way to the top. Between 5200 and 5410 meters this is no piece of cake, especially when you add the lack of sleep as an additional factor to the lack of oxigen. I told my guide Mario to go slowly many times, “tranquilo, tranquilo amigo!”. It felt great though because I knew I was about to make my first summit in the world of mountaineering. At 7:30 am we were all at the top from where we had a magnificent view of the Cordillera Real!

that must be me at the top of Pequeño Alpamayo (5410 meters)

that must be me at the top of Pequeño Alpamayo (5410 meters)

Because I was perfectly acclimatized for this trip I had no issues whatsoever. The descent started great with two rappels on the steep sections. What followed was a hike back up through the rocks and a long walk back down the glacier. We reached our base camp again at 10 am. There are days I wake up around 10 o´clock, this day I had already climbed a peak in the Bolivian Andes!

With a great experience in my pocket, I went towards Peru with a stop in Copacabana (a quiet town on the shore of Lake Titicaca). Because this town seemed to be a hangout for hippies, I quickly moved on to Arequipa. This Peruvian city is marketed as ‘la ciudad blanca’ or the white city. Well, I counted about two white buildings in the city. Not enough to justify its name if you’d ask me. The center was nice though and I just relaxed a bit for a day. The next day I went on a rafting adventure nearby the city. My guide, Sergio, had to use the full capacity of his brains in order to paddle (indeed, he was a stupid retard!) but the rafting was great with rapids of class three and four. There was also a photographer in a kayak who took some nice shots…

rapids of level 4 are a lot of fun, that's me in the lower left!

rapids of level 4 are a lot of fun, that’s me in the lower left!

The next stop was Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire. During my trip I had met many people who raved about this city. Some of them stayed there for two weeks, that’s how much they liked it. With high expectations I arrived in this famous city that serves as a perfect base for many tourists because many Peruvian attractions are relatively nearby. High expectations are always dangerous and so were these. The city has beautiful little alleys that go up and down because of the mountainous terrain the city is built on. The center however has lost all its authenticity because of the too many tourists that wander around with all its negative consequences. During a 10-minute walk you’ll be offered marihuana, 8 massages, 10 disgustingly looking paintings, 22 tours and be asked to eat in around 53 restaurants. Besides a cathedral and a market (we haven’t seen that in other cities…) the city has not many sights to offer. To summarize, Paul did and does not like Cusco!

Luckily I left the city after a day or two in order to walk the Inca Trail towards the mysterious lost or secret city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was one of many private estates of the emperor and, in particular, the favored country retreat for the royal family and Inca nobility. In order to reach this retreat they had to walk from the capital, Cusco. There are many trails leading towards Machu Picchu, but only one of them is known as the classic trail. This classic 4-day trail starts at km 82 (82 kilometres along the railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes) and treks high up into the mountains passing the Inca ruins of Llactapata, Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna before finally arriving at Machu Picchu on the 4th day of the trek. Can there be any walk anywhere in the world with such a combination of natural beauty, history and sheer mystery and with such an awe-inspiring destination (I do like this sentence!)?

Of course, you can take a direct bus or train and visit Machu Picchu in one day but the various ruins along the trek and the walk itself make you appreciate this wonder of the world even more! After my trek and mountaineering in Bolivia I was well acclimatized so the trek was quite easy for me. Some of my groupmembers however, struggled heavily. One was sick and another one had no idea what trekking was about. They thought it was cold every single night and walking for a couple of hours was too much. Why for god’s sake are you doing a trek? This group of three students was completed by an arrogant smarty-pants, so it’s needless to say that I have had better companions. Luckily there was also a nice couple of Brits.

The first day consisted of a busride to km 82 and a lot of history lessons. More talking than walking. Some people referred to this day as a hard day. The next day was the hardest day of the trek with an ascend to Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 meters. I had to wait 1 hour and 45 minutes at the pass until the last one of my group arrived. Luckily for me, the view was very nice (see picture below on the left) and I had some nice chocolates to kill the time. After a long descent I arrived at the best campsite of the trek. Without having any decent conversations (I’m not talking about highly intellectual conversations but just a normal talk) I went to bed. The next day was a long day but without many ups and downs, in terms of geographics. We passed many of the before mentioned ruins which were all pretty impressive.

The Incas claimed descent from the sun and the moon, their father and mother. Different realms were represented by three animals. The condor represented the upper world whereas the outer and inner world were represented by the puma and the snake respectively. The upper world consisted of the sun, moon, stars, rainbow and lightning whereas the outer and inner world were the realms of mother earth, or Pachamama, and the ancestors and heroes of the Incas. Sacred sights resided in natural objects as mountains and rivers. Check Wikipedia, it’s true! As should be obvious by now, nature played an important role in Inca mythology and that, of course, I liked. Not that I truly believe that blowing a coca-leaf in a certain direction will lead to a better harvest season but I do like the admiration of nature.

At the end of the day, we had two options. The first was to sleep at a spectacular campsite at a high plateau but not close to Machu Picchu. We would have to walk another two hours the next day. The second option was to walk this two hours on this day so we had a short remainder on the last day. We had to wake up at 3:30 am anyway because our porters had to catch an early train the last day. The checkpoint on the last day opened at 5:30 am. We would have exactly two hours to walk. A win-win situation I thought; we could spend the night at a beautiful campsite and we didn’t have to wait at the checkpoint. Needless to say my trekking companions decided differently…

some nice vistas along the Inca Trail

some nice vistas along the Inca Trail

The last day we joined a long queue of around 500 people at around 4 am and waited. Luckily for us, it was extremely cold and people started to get annoyed. What else do you expect? I had to be careful not to say the well-known phrase “told you so!” every now and then. We finally passed the checkpoint and went to Sun Gate. There was no sunrise anyway and it was cloudy too, so why did we join this rat race in the first place? Walking in a long line doesn’t exactly add to the mysterious feeling this trail should give. As a consequence, it was crowded at Machu Picchu too. Unlike the others, I had booked an additional night at Aguas Calientes which is the town at the bottom of the lost city. Whereas everybody left around noon to have lunch and catch their afternoon train, I enjoyed an extinct sight. It felt I had Machu Picchu all to myself, very special!

After a long and boring day in Aguas Calientes I started my way back to Bolivia. I traveled through Cusco and Puno to arrive in Copacabana again where I spent a day hiking on Isla del Sol which was beautiful. To avoid myself beating up multiple hippies, I soon took a bus to la Paz. I enjoyed being back in Bolivia. The South of Peru is really too touristy. I just chilled out for a couple of days before a bus brought me to Potosi, Bolivia’s mining city. I checked in at the Hostal Carlos V for four nights. During my stay I visited one of the cooperative mines at Cerro Rico. The tour was guided by an ex-miner and it turned out to be somesort of a combination of a visit of old friends, for whom we bought gifts at the miners’ market, and an actual tour. I saw miners at work in claustrofobic conditions. They all looked pretty old even though they were all under 50 which is around their life expectancy. Life in the mines seems to be really sad. It’s a real men’s world and alcohol and cigarettes are the main subjects of conversation. I was glad to leave this underground world again. Back in the “upper-world” (where are the pumas?), I visited the Convent of Santa Teresa. I just wanted to have a little insight in the life of nuns. Unfortunately taking a guide was obligatory and, as is often the case, she wanted to show her abundant knowledge. She went into details of the Carmelite Order for nearly two hours where I lost her after a minute or two. I somehow kept on thinking about a delicious Tripel Karmeliet though…

I completed my stay in the highest city of the world (Potosi is located at a not to underestimate 4090 meters above sea level) by eating their local specialty, Kalapurca. This is a corn soup with lama meat cooked with lava rocks. It is pretty spicy and very, very flavourful. You can find pictures of this fantastic dish in the gallery.

I still had some days left in Bolivia and a visit to this country simply isn’t complete without a visit to its salt flats, Salar de Uyuni. I took a bus from Potosi to Uyuni and went shopping for tours. When doing some research on the web, you soon get totally stressed out. According to the many reviews drivers are drunk, they forget people, they don’t follow the itinerary, the food is absolutely shit and accommodation is terrible to say the least. As a warned tourist I visited as many agencies as possible to finally pick the one that gave me a good feeling…

Touring the salt flats is quite a passive acitvity; you’re sitting in a jeep most of the time. Iris and Martin, the couple who climbed Pequeño Alpamayo with me, recommended a 4-day tour including the hike of a volcano. I shopped around for this tour when finally multiple agencies admitted they actually offer exactly the same product. They simply share jeeps and accommodation. You can therefore book with agency A and end up in the jeep of agency B. In this case there is only one optimum choice in my humble opinion which is to choose the lowest price. Wara Altiplano was the lucky one. They offered the tour, including sleeping bag, for 900 Bolivianos (roughly 100 euros) whereas others offered the same tour for 1200 excluding sleeping bag. I ended up in the jeep of Betto Tours in the end…

The landscape I saw during the following four days varied from amazing to mesmerizing (I love that word!). The first day we visited the salt flats. All the tours (1-, 2-, 3- and 4-days) go here first so it was crowded at certain places. The flats are huge so luckily it’s easy to find a quiet spot…

enjoying the empty salt flats

enjoying the empty salt flats

In the afternoon we drove towards Tunupa, a little town next to the similarly named volcano. The next day we had to leave around 2:30 pm and our guide suggested breakfast at 8 am. An easy calculation led to my conclusion that reaching the highest viewpoint at 5190 meters was not within reach with this starting time. My suggestion to start at 5 am initially led to raised eyebrows but, after a short explanation of my plans, was accepted. The next morning the others were so slow that a split in the group was inevitable. Which meant I went on a solo mission. A solo mission in terms of humans because there was a little dog that showed me the way to the top, quite amazing. He/she was definitely having less trouble with the altitude!

Whereas the others didn’t see sunrise at the lower viewpoint, I was on my own on the crater rim where I enjoyed an absolutely spectacular view! A three hour descent followed and I was back at the hostel at 13:45. The others were already enjoying their pasta when I, totally exhausted, arrived. After our visit to Isla de Pescado (the island in the middle of the salt flats has the shape of a fish) the group had to split because most of them were on a two-day tour. A nice group of people left and we (myself and another couple of young travelers) got some terrible people in return. From the first minute there was a delightful tension in the group. That’s life…

The next two days were spent driving in a landscape that was truly amazing. Everywhere you looked there were vulcanoes and lakes, all of different colours. Many lakes had flamingos as well and every now and then you could see some llamas or vicuñas. The last morning we checked out many geysers before taking a warm welcome bath (no showers for 4 days…) in the hotsprings. The couple who were with me from day one left to Chile which seemed a relief to the others. I still had to cope with them. A long drive of around seven hours took us back to the town of Uyuni. A tour around spectacular scenery had come to an end. Via Tupiza and Villazon, I made my way back into Argentina…

All in all I really enjoyed Bolivia and Peru. The landscapes are simply breathtaking, especially in Bolivia. Many volcanoes and other impressive mountains form a dramatic scenery, often completed with lamas, alpacas and vicuñas. Bolivia is a country where the people are so ugly that they become beautiful again. Really it’s true, look at the pictures! They are quite friendly but have terrible habits. They truely rival Indians in this field. When you live in a poor country like India or Bolivia, it’s more about survival than about having the best habits. When you really need food or shelter, why open the door for someone else or make way on a footpath? Life is all about priorities!

Bolivia still has an authentic feel in most places whereas Peru is a bit ruined to say the least. I didn’t like that about the South of Peru. The North might be different because it lacks a main attraction like Machu Picchu. Peru attracts a slightly older crowd which I strongly preferred to the young, hippie-like backpacking crowd in Bolivia. In Bolivia you encounter people who pack food from the breakfast buffet for lunch or people who are surprised that it’s cold. You go to a country at 4000 meters altitude in the middle of winter, what do you think? “Oh, I thought I could sunbathe on the beach in lovely weather…”, is the most stupid reply I have ever gotten since Bolivia doesn’t have any coastline at all. In the information era with access to internet at almost every corner, I still can’t believe people like this exist. Unfortunately this is what you get in a dirt cheap country. People just go there because it’s cheap and have no idea what to expect. An advantage of the price level is that you can easily afford a private room here so you don’t have to cope with those idiots in dormrooms!

Ignoring those idiots, which is hard for me, the memories of landscapes remain. The mountaineering was the highlight of the trip to Bolivia and Peru. The physical and foremost mental challenge of such an adventure is something I will remember. I hope I can use it someday in the world of ski mountaineering.

Next on the agenda is the ski season. Unfortunately Argentina is lacking snow so there is no point to put the skis on there. I’m not talking about ‘only’ one meter of snow, no, there is actually hardly any snow midseason and temperatures are reaching an arctic 10 to 15 degrees Celcius. Las Leñas, the freeride paradise of the Southern Hemisphere, therefore has to wait to be visited by the “Skiing Dutchman”. I might first go to Portillo in Chile, where conditions are relatively good (they actually have some snow!), and keep my fingers crossed on big snowfalls on the other side of the Andes. Maybe I will have to blow some coca-leaves to attract the attention of Pachamama!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Bolivia & Peru!

2 Responses to Bolivia & Peru; amazing landscapes

  1. Marijn says:

    Hey Paul,

    Another update from you, the adventure doesn’t stop huh 🙂 Great, keep enjoying and keep posting those “mediocre” pictures 😛

    All the best from Vietnam,


    ps. Went to Sapa this weekend and it was great (again)!!

  2. Arjan says:

    Jammer van je commentaren op Cusco ;-), maar de Inca trail is erg mooi verwoord! Heb ‘m zodoende ook weer even herbeleefd.

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