Upon entering the frontier of Bolivia, two officers were waiting inside the gate. They seemed more preoccupied with checking out my bike than with asking for my passport or the documents for my bike, but finally, one pointed out a door and said, “Inmigración.”
I entered the room, figuring that was where I was supposed to go with my papers. The office was little more than a run-down, half painted room with a few old certificates hanging on one wall and a map of Bolivia on the other. A man sitting behind a desk piled high with papers asked for my passport, looked at all the stamps, and then looked back at me.
“Si, senor,” I replied.
“Primera, Aduana y policia,” he instructed me, telling me to go next door to get a stamp from the police, allowing my bike entrance to Bolivia, before he would allow me entrance.
The police offer next door repeated the motions of the first, thumbing through my passport.
“$20 dollars,” he said.
20 bucks! What for? He wanted to charge me an administrative fee of $20 to do the paperwork. I knew this was a scam – I’d heard from other bike travelers to watch out for crooked police looking for bribes in Bolivia, who try every trick in the book to get money from unsuspecting tourists. This was not my first rodeo, and he wasn’t going to get $20 from me. After half an hour of arguing, I finally received my bike permit. Then it was back to “imagracion” for my passport stamp. Of course, the photocopier was broken, so I had to ride 2km back to the Peruvian border to find a photocopying machine there to make copies of my documents.
With copies made, I returned to the Bolivian immigration office, where the official took my papers and began to type on his antiquated computer system – one…finger…at…a…time. After nearly an hour of painfully slow tap-tap-tapping of the keys, my documents were finally in order.
Meanwhile, the two officers outside were still checking out my bike. They asked me all sorts of questions about the size of the engine, the speed, the make, where the bike came from, where I came from…
“Canada!” I said, which prompted a confused look.
The officers had no idea where Canada was, but they were fortunately much friendlier than the ones in the customs office! Happy to have successfully entered a new country, I rode off towards the town of Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca.
While riding around looking for a hostel to spend the night in, the locals all stared as I navigated the busy streets. Old ladies walked around wearing big traditional dresses, selling beans and small things along the sidewalks. I found the Hotel Copacabana, which at only $5 a night was easily the cheapest room to date, and the bed matched the price. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and it is one of the cheapest to travel in.
With no ATM machines to speak of, exchanging money in town was a difficult task. Street vendors refused any older, wrinkled looking, or high denomination US bills. Luckily, I had a few bills which they would accept that would get us to La Paz.
The next day we took a boat to visit Isla del Sol – (Island of the sun) on Lake Titicaca. Isla del Sol is a rocky island with no paved roads or motor vehicles. The eight hundred families who live on the island mainly farm and fish. The ancient Incan’s believed that their sun god, Viracocha, was born on the island, rising from Lake Titicaca and bringing light to the darkness. The island is rich in Incan sites, with several dozen ruins dating from around the 15th century and there is even some evidence of habitation dating back to 3000 BCE.
Bolivia and Peru are separated by Lake Titicaca. Depending upon whether you speak to a Peruvian or a Bolivian, both are likely to tell you that they have the “titty” and the other has the “caca” – of course, it’s all a matter of perspective and we all know which one they both lay claim to. Both sides of the lake looked quite nice to me! The actual origin of the lake’s name is unknown although there is no shortage of theories.
Fed by five large river systems, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest commercially navigable lake sitting an amazing 3811 meters above sea level. At 190 km in length and 90km and nearly 300 meters in depth, Lake Titicaca contains more water than any other lake in South America.
After a two hour boat cruise, we got off in a small village and hiked for three hours. The trail had astonishing 360° views, on one side we could see Peru, while the other side the high mountain range of the Cordillera Real with 6000 meter peaks towered in the distance.
Moving on to the city of La Paz, we expected terrible roads but were pleasantly surprised by the fresh tarmac and spectacular scenery of the altiplano. Far in distance, giant snow capped volcanoes in northern Chile stretched into the sapphire blue sky.
Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace), or simply La Paz, is located at an elevation of 3650 meters. We found it fairly easy to navigate the streets of La Paz since there are fewer vehicles than in other South American cities.
I received an email from my good Canadian friend James, who just happened to be in La Paz with his wife while traveling in South America. What a coincidence to both find ourselves in Bolivia at the same time, and – even better – in La Paz.
We were both craving adventure in the mountains and with several high peaks just outside the city to choose from, we made plans to climb the 6088 meter Huayna Potosí, Bolivia’s most popular mountain to climb. Huayna Potosí is a relatively easy peak to summit and many tourists climb the mountain to get their first real alpine experience. James and I had enough alpine experience to climb it with only minimal gear and without help of a guide. We headed to a guiding office to get information about the climb and to rent some gear.
James and I joked around with the guides asking them if we could ride my motorbike to base camp at 5400 meters. They didn’t believe that I came all the way from cold Canada with my bike until I showed them my blog, after which they believe we were actually serious about riding the bike up, earning us the title of “loco.” They warned us that the mountain was to dangerous to climb without a guide, telling us that we could get lost easily and not make it to the summit. After an hour of joking around with them, they eventually realized that we were experienced climbers. Having never seen or heard of ice climbing, my photos blew them away – they were convinced there was Photoshop trickery at work…surely people couldn’t really climb waterfalls!
We rented crampons and an ice axe for each of us. James and I spoke with a French mountain guide who soloed the mountain frequently; he told us a rope wasn’t necessary if we had experience. There was a well marked trail with only two easily visible, small crevasses to go over. To cut weight, we decided not to bring rope.
The normal ascent route is a fairly straightforward glacier climb, with some deep crevasses and a steep climb to the summit. However, the other side of the mountain, Huayna Potosí’s West Face is the biggest face in Bolivia. Several difficult snow and ice routes go up this 1000 meter high face. James and I considered our options….and decided on the easy side!
The following morning we packed up my bike with our two loaded packs full of food, stove, tent, sleeping bags and warm clothes. We had second thoughts about taking my bike since it was so loaded – James himself weighs around 180 pounds! Huayna Potosí is less then 30 km from La Paz – going by taxi is quite expensive and most drivers will not go there. It would be horrible to find ourselves stuck at the mountain with no way to get back to La Paz after our climb. My bike was a much faster and cheaper option than trying to find a taxi that might not pick us up for a return journey. Heavily loaded, we rode up to the base at 4700 meters. Surprisingly, my poor bike did well on the washboard dirt road and high elevation. We stopped along the way to visit an old cemetery which was used to bury striking miners who were massacred upon emerging from the mine and had a good up-close view of the mountain’s west face.
I asked an elderly woman at the base refuge if we could store my bike with her and she told me to roll it inside the house. We joked around with her that we really wanted to ride it up the mountain to the Refugio at 5400 meters, and she began to laugh hysterically.
We strapped our heavy packs on our shoulders and waved good-bye to our new-found friend who was still laughing about the bike joke. James and I hiked up a well traveled trail to 5400 meters under a clear blue sky in less the 3 hours. Being back on a mountain reinvigorated us and we were feeling strong and ready for the climb ahead. Normally, guided trips would stay at the refuge below at 4700 meters to acclimatize to the altitude for one or two days. Since James and I had been traveling at high altitude for a while – I had just come from Peru and James had been in La Paz for two weeks – we both felt comfortable in the thin air and ready to take on Huayna Potosí.
Instead of staying in the small, run-down refuge at 5200 meters, we decided set up our tent a little higher at the foot of the glacier at 5400 meters so that we could start early in the morning for our summit push. We sat in the thin air sipping on warm soup while watching the incredible sight of the sun setting over the horizon. By 6 PM it was already pitch black outside and we needed our rest to get up at 2 AM. As the night got colder and colder, it was harder to sleep, and then for some reason it felt like I had less oxygen. The high altitude had finally kicked in, making it impossible to rest. We sleeplessly watched the hours crawl by until we finally decided to get up. It was so cold that getting out of our sleeping bags was unbearable. James finally mustered the willpower to get up and brew some Mate. We noticed some climbers making their way up, and we raced to get our gear together to catch up to them. Natural competitors, we wanted to be the first on the summit. By the time we got ourselves together and had hidden our gear safely under some rocks, their headlamps had vanished further up the glacier. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would be last to the top.
The brilliant stars reflected so brightly against the snow that we didn’t even need to turn our headlamps on as we slowly made our way up the mountain, following in the tracks of the climbers in the lead. We passed several small crevasses without difficulty and then a steep headwall to gain access to a higher ridge. From the ridge we could see that the sun was about to rise and we could make out the rainforest jungle covered by thick clouds to the east, far below. As the sky continued to lighten in the early morning, our lungs began to feel the air getting thinner. James and I could feel our bodies moving slower and slower and at one point I even suggested that we take a nap. We needed a rest every ten meters and without any sleep during the previous night, we wanted only to curl up in the snow and sleep, but we knew that was only the altitude at work. We forced ourselves to continue climbing on.
James’s rental boots were doing a poor job of keeping his feet warm, and when the sun had finally warmed our bodies enough, we paused so that James could remove his boots to thaw his toes. We ate a frozen chocolate bar and then continued another 100 meters until we passed the guided tourists returning from the summit. The guide looked at us and said, “No cuerda!?” (No rope?)
“No necessito,” James said. At this point is where many people might turn around, and indeed, one did! The final 200 meters of the climb is steep and finishes on a sharp ridge-line no wider then two feet with a 600 meter drop on the one side and a 150 meter drop on the other – definitely a good place to have a rope if you aren’t experienced. As we walked along the ridge and looked down on either side, we could see why the guide had asked.
James and I were both comfortable walking to the summit. My watch said 9 am, 6085 meters, 2 hours over what we had predicted. We cheered with our frozen chocolate to our first mountain above 6000 meters. The view was unbelievable; to one side we could see the city of La Paz and the 6400 meter peak of Illimani, to the other lay Lake Titicaca and Peru with the high mountain range of the Cordillera Real to the east dropping into rainforest as far as Brasil. Toward Chile lay several huge volcanoes. The view was one I will never forget.
It was time to make our way down before the sun melted the snow, making crevasses infinitely more dangerous to cross. Invigorated by our successful climb to the summit, we made our way down with much more energy than we had during the difficult climb up. We got back to where we had stowed our gear, and totally exhausted we ate our last supply of chocolate and fell asleep for nearly three hours under a warm sun.
With the summit already in the bag, it was difficult to motivate ourselves to make the trek down to the bike. Once again we loaded our backpacks which somehow seemed heavier, and headed for the base. Back at the refuge, the lady welcomed us with a big smile and congratulated us on our climb. We joked with her once more, telling her that we though my bike could have made it up! Again, she laughed and laughed.
We spent our last change on cold soft drinks to rejuvenate ourselves for the ride back to La Paz. With our packs strapped to the bike, we bounced along the washboard road. I was exhausted and wanted to get back to the hostel to eat and sleep. As I sped down the highway, I noticed – too late – a police officer standing on the overpass with a radar gun. A few hundred meters later, another officer signaled for us to pull over. The friendly young officer looked at both of us and our loaded bike, with James sandwiched between me and our packs. The officer asked for my papers, and I told him that I didn’t have them since we had just come back from climbing Huayna Potosí. I apologized for speeding and told him that we were just incredibly hungry and really wanted to get something to eat.
“Bueno,” he said. “Ride a little slower.”
And with that, we were off.