Our high altitude Bolivian adventure continued as we rolled into one of the highest towns on earth. Potosi, sitting pretty at 4,000m. This town does have some picturesque colonial buildings from back in its Spanish hay day but other than that it’s not too different from other Andean towns. Throw it back to the 1600s and we’re talking a whole different ball game. Following the fortuitous discovery that silver filled the hillsides above Potosi, the Spanish quickly swooped in and developed a metropolis based around extracting the riches. Want to take a guess what the largest city in the new world was in the late 16th century? Nope to whatever you guessed. It was Potosi, Bolivia. Larger than London or Madrid. Of course when a mountain contains enough silver to build a silver bridge from the source directly to Madrid it’s bound to attract a crowd. The Potosi mine padded the pockets of the Spaniards for over 200 years. It is a tragic story at best. Although Potosi was once one of the richest cities in the world it came at an enormous cost. Between the 1500s and the 1800s it is estimated that up to 8 million miners lost their lives to unsafe mining practices.
There’s definitely a question of ethics/morale when it comes to making a tourist attraction out of a lifestyle that leaves the average miner dead before age 47 but curiosity got the better of us and into the mines we went.
After runnin along the cart tracks, hopping out of the way when loaded carts came from the opposite direction, visiting several different groups of miners, and pushing my claustrophobia to its limits we exited the mine and once again breathed fresh air. It was at this point that our guide decided to divulge that an average of 14 miners still die each month. Not great odds when roughly 12,000 men still show up for work here everyday.
Next up was the capital of Bolivia. Although far from being the largest city, Sucre is the constitutional capital and another remarkably picturesque city with white, colonial buildings making the main square one of the nicer ones we’ve encountered in South America. Due to the cheap prices of lessons, Sucre is a very popular spot to learn Spanish. Our Spanish still needs more than a weeks worth of lessons, but we’ve come along way and have been getting by pretty well so we opted to spend a week climbing around the city instead.
We also rendezvoused with an Austrian climber we met on our Salar de Uyuni tour so we had some company each day.
One random thing we’d been noticing as we traveled from country to country was that South America loves a good rally race. Throughout Chile and Argentina we’d noticed more and more posters and car decals promoting local races and the major ones that have legs running across the continent. As luck would have it, on our last day in Sucre we got to witness the festivities as a local rally had its finish line right smack dab in the middle of the main square.
It wouldn’t be a typical blog post for us if there wasn’t a night bus, and that’s exactly how we got to La Paz from Sucre. La Paz is a mountain lovers dream, and although gaining popularity it is still somehow not a household name when it comes to mountaineering destinations. The town itself is nestled in an ancient river gorge sitting at 3,600m but a few hours drive will get you to the Cordillera Real, a range that could keep any mountaineer occupied for a lifetime. It boasts 9 peaks over 6,000m and hundreds more that top 5,000m. We ticked one off the list so we’re pretty much half way there. But more on that later. First we had to get acquainted with the city. First step, sample the local salteñas, Bolivias take on the empanada. Football shaped and baked, filled with a stew like mixture of meat, veg and potato. You guessed it, they were great. But even better was finding out that salteñas have a deep fried cousin, the tucamana. I officially give up on searching for the best empanadas because every country does them so incredibly differently, but so incredibly well.
Step two, attend a futbol match between top two local rival clubs. Most Bolivians seem to dress like it’s winter but with the sun out I swear it was pushing 30 degrees during the day. Mix in the elevation and I’m amazed they don’t limit the matches to 10 minute halves. If not for the players sake than at least for the fans, the diehard supporters behind the nets of their respective clubs did not take a minute off from jumping and chanting the entire match. These were two clubs from La Paz so the altitude likely wasn’t an issue, but coincidentally enough we learned that the Bolivian national team has an outstanding record when playing in La Paz, yet rarely wins a game when playing in other countries.
At last it was time to tackle what we’d come to La Paz for, an ascent of Huayna Potosi. A popular “mountaineering” objective for visitors to La Paz, heralded as the easiest 6,000m peak in the world, we tracked down a guiding agency (not hard to do) and made our way to base camp to start the three day ascent.
As I alluded to with those cleverly placed quotation marks, the climb up Huayna Potosi is hardly technical, aside from a short and narrow ridge to the summit it is more or less a midnight hike in crampons. It is still a big effort, but almost every day dozens of people attempt the summit and barring bad weather or altitude sickness, most of them reach the summit.
We spent our first day at base camp acclimatizing to the altitude difference from La Paz, now at 4,700m. We also got comfortable in our gear by taking a hike up to the toe of a nearby glacier, messing about in our crampons, and taking a crack at ice climbing.
Our second day was also mellow, allowing us to soak in views of our goal before hiking up to high camp at 5,200m, and drinking record amounts of tea and then attempting to sleep at 7pm in anticipating of our midnight wake up call.
At the same time people were probably heading to the bars in La Paz we woke up, fuelled up, geared up and set off by headlamp for the summit. You can imagine how orderly 20 plus people putting winter clothing on in a small cabin at midnight would be. Lucky for us our guide, nicknamed Jackie-Chan (by himself), hated chaotic groups as much as us and was confident in our speed so told us to relax until everyone piled out before getting ready. A few cups of coffee later (which I would regret when it came time to try and piss in -20 degree temps with a harness on) and it was go time.
The route up was well travelled and despite it being pitch black the going was relatively easy for the first few hours. Jackie-Chan took us on several detours off the normal route to bypass other groups and give us a bit of extra challenge. By about 5,700m we started to feel the effects of the altitude more and more, making our progress slow albeit still steady. Having missed Canadian winter I was enjoying the feeling of being cold at first, until that cold became the coldest I’ve been in recent memory and I was trying to will the sun over the horizon. Just before 6am we ascended the final, somewhat nerve wracking, ridge to the summit and lo and behold the sun was there to greet us.
The descent was bright and warm, and we got to appreciate the terrain we’d crossed on the way up while we were too dazed to focus on anything but following the trail. Seven and a half hours later and we were back at high camp eating soup before packing up and descending the rest of the way to base camp. Despite some people who had been battling altitude sickness since base camp, the majority of our crew made it to the summit so spirits were high on the hike down, before everyone promptly passed out on the drive back to La Paz. We celebrated our first 6,000m peak with Bolivia’s national dish, Pique a lo Macho. A massive dish of fries topped with a mixture of sautéed onion and pepper, beef, sausage, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes and a spicy, beer based sauce. If you haven’t noticed yet, we are big fans of Bolivian food. We may or may not just be doing all these adventures to justify eating as many local dishes as we can.
Hundreds of peaks over 5,000m in one mountain range. Wow. Bolivia is certainly high. As is the word count of this blog so I’ll mention that we visited the Lake Titica and Isla de Sol, the birthplace of the sun according to Incan beliefs, and leave you with a picture of the beach in Copacabana.
We’ll be reporting back shortly with tales of the Ausangate trek in the Cuzco region of Peru, featuring mostly pictures of fog!