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Bolivian Visa Run

One of the luxuries/drawbacks of being a quazi-illegal immigrant with a UK and USA passport living in Chile is that you must collect another tourist visa every 90 days. Combine this obligatory task with a love for adventure and mayhem and you have one happy Luke. My method of travel is to arbitrarily elect a “must do in my life” goal, then make absolutely zero effort with regards to planning or preparing for that goal irrelevant of it’s very possible dangers and pitfalls, and then head off in what I believe to be the right direction. Well a few weeks ago I decided to renew the visa and complete a “must do in my life goal” of climbing a 6,000+ meter mountain (roughly 20,000 feet) in the very beautiful and challenging Bolivian mountains.

Earlier this year, on a very uncomfortable and ball bruising bus in between the Bolivian side of Lake Titticaca and Lima Peru, I shared a bag of coca leaves with a group of chaps who had just finished up a few weeks in La Paz. They told me about “the easiest 6000+ mountain in the world” and I immediately knew that I would be back to La Paz at some point to officially “one up” my American friends for good. My friends and I are constantly trying to outdo each other and “one up” the other. A group of us climbed Mt. Whitney a few years back, the highest mountain in the continental 48 states, and we thought we were cool. But Whitney stands at 14k feet and some change, so to peak a 20k mountain would officially close that one-upping-category with Luke as the clear and away one-upper. The chap’s stories of the mountain were sparse and not very detailed, and it really would not have mattered what they had told me, as I was practically already on the mountain in my mind.

Six months later and the day of my adventure was upon me. I do not even know what the mountain is called and all I know is I need to get to La Paz. I had just packed my way too small JanSport backpack with the following that was supposed to last me eight days and take me to the top of the world.

  • 2 pairs of ankle socks
  • 1 pair of cycling socks with a giant hole in the heal of one of them
  • 1 pair of smart wool socks that I have used so much you can see my skin through the very intelligent wool
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 thermal cycling shirt
  • 1 pair of wool thermal pants. extremely warm.
  • 1 pair of slightly homosexual gloves
  • 1 scarf
  • 2 dress shirts
  • 3 boxer brief underwears
  • toothbrush but no toothpaste
  • sunscreen that I never used
  • pen and journal
  • thin sweater
  • deodorant
  • iPod
  • $40 digital camera and 2 spare batteries

And I was wearing jeans, a shirt, reebok shoes that have carried me around the world but are in no state to climb a giant mountain, and a thick jacket. As I stood above my backpack wondering if I could remove some underwear, here was the gameplan I was conjuring in my head. Fly to Calama in the northern part of Chile, go to bus station, get bus to La Paz, find party hostel, sign up for the mountain tour, walk up the mountain with ease, then the next day go to Uyuni Bolivia which is a giant salt flat used to take weird perspective photos, pop on over to San Pedro Atacama to sit in some thermal spas, and trot on over to Calama to catch my return flight. Seemed easy enough, so what does that really entail?

I arrived in Calama. Calama is probably the closest main airport to use if you want to see the Atacama dessert in San Pedro. Every chilean will say it is a must see place so I intended to stop by at the end of my trip but I wanted to give myself ample time in La Paz to figure out how to climb the mountain. Calama itself is a one horse town. You truly feel as though you are in a dessert and the terrain is flat with small undulations, brown, and generally lifeless. A miners town that has two main streets, one to go each direction. Every bar is a girly bar and I am pretty sure the inbreeding had begun early here as the population looked “odd.” If you have an old epson printer from the 80’s, it is hear you can find that non-existent print cartridge. Be sure to talk with Andrea at the bus terminal. She will try and impress you with her overly shiny braces and her impeccably wrong advice about her own town. I learned that a bus from Calama to La Paz just doesn’t exist and was reminded for the first time of many reminders that the earth is huge. So I had to take a ten hour bus to Arica, northern Chilean border town where I could then find another six hour bus to La Paz. The first of many bus trips began.

Luke’s Guide to Long Distance Bus Travel

In South America, the cheap, and many times better way to travel, is by bus. The land is dissected infinite times with the veins of a bus network that coarses giant double decker buses with champagne services, fully reclining seats, movies that never made it to cinemas, and smelly anti-deodarant using latinos. In February, my girlfriend and I were in Rio for Carnival and we had the great idea to take busses from Rio to Machu Picchu Peru for our return leg only to find that Machu Picchu wa closed when we got there. That week of 250+ hours in a bus taught me many things that should be shared.

  • Always board with a box of cheap wine. Screw top is awesome compared to pushing the cork in.
  • Window seats can often times have a draft coming through the windows.
  • Always bring a blanket.
  • Although human feces is 90% water, it does not mean that you can take a shit in a toilet that says “fluids only”
  • The bottom level of a bus will have less swaying movement but will always smell worse.
  • Front seats will have good views many times but on an over night bus, who cares. You will also be moving the fastest when turning.
  • Back seats have less motion and can be a great place to have sex, but sometimes they will not be able to recline all the way.
  • The movies will always suck. Who gives a shit about an argentine girls field hockey team?
  • Good luck waking up at four in the morning after drinking a load of wine, stumbling through a jibbing and jiving bus that feels like it is moving at 200 miles per hour, get to the bathroom after putting your hand on three peoples sleeping face’s, and try to take a piss with a boner. I invite you to imagine my position in the bathroom, trying not to fall in to the blue chemicals while still not peeing on the ceiling.

So I arrive in La Paz without a plan or reservation and walk down the hill from the bus station. La Paz is above 3,000 meters elevation (10k feet) and the sneaky altitude will smack you in the face the first opportunity it has. I parused the streets looking for gringos. I found two australian chaps who informed me that the whole world is staying at the Rover Hostel. To the rover hostel I went. An Irish run behemoth of a party hostel with everything you need to make sure you never need to experience any culture while staying in La Paz. English breakfasts, a tab system at the very happening bar, tour office downstairs, WIFI, and ATM not too far away. I paid my $5 bucks and signed up for the 16 person dorm for three nights. Sufficient time I thought to acclimate myself before climbing the mountain.

The first night I found myself involved in a giant gringo trap. The hostel gets everyone drunk with specials and happy hours and then says to everyone that there is a bus outside going to a rave with free entry. Alright!. We all pile into the bus that is ludicrously over capacitated and we are forced to sit four to a two person seat. We drive into the darkness singing songs and cracking jokes from our respective countries. At some point the bus jolts to a stop and we are informed that the bus has broken down. We all spill out through the windows and door to see a crippled looking wheel so I believed them. We were told we could walk the remainder to the rave. After our 30 minute walk, we arrive at the rave to see the measliest looking tent and maybe a dozen people. The music was bad but the drinks were cheap and our arrival brought a little life to this dead rave. That night four digital cameras were stolen, three phones, and two iPods, one of the cameras being mine. For that reason this travel blog will not be a photo blog and I am still waiting to receive photos from friends I made along the way. Despite the lost camera, I enjoyed myself until I wanted to leave. It was 7am and there was no bus. I waited on the road for a taxi that never came. I appeared to be in some remote looking valley with a few mud houses around and not much else. I joined a group of six who were all trying to get back to the city. At this point I felt like I had pneumonia as I did not have a sweater. A truck came down the road and pulled over and waved over to all of us to jump in the back. In the back of the truck sat five bolivians, one probably with my camera, a dirty looking gringo (me) who was uncontrollably shivering, and a giant generator that was not tied to the truck. The truck sped off down this valley at break neck speed as if the guy was not carrying a cargo of six people and a generator that was sliding around uncontrollably. My shivering from cold turned into shivering from fear as we sledded around turns and ran through stop signs. After 30 minutes, he dropped us off at a bus point, where I got in a communal bus, refused to pay, got dropped off about four kilometers from the hostel, and arrive at the hostel just in time for the continental breakfast. Day one in Bolivia.

The next day I set the plan in motion and signed up for the “mountain tour” which cost me about $100. It would have cost more but I lied and said I had years of mountain experience so they said I did not have to go the first day with the rest of the tour. This day is for learning how to use the ice axe and crampons and rope and in general to help acclimate you to the altitude. All of this I had no idea how to do nor was I acclimated, nor would I be after three days in La Paz. Everyone told me I needed two weeks in La Paz to acclimate. I used the excuse that I lived in Santiago and cycled so my heart was strong as a Bolivian llama. While I was in the tour office I decided I would spend the day before the mountain (tomorrow) riding a mountain bike on the World’s Most Dangerous road. Again I paid less than everyone else since I said I only needed the hard tail bike while the rest of the tour got the full suspension. The rest of day two was spent relaxing/recuperating and winning a quiz that got me a free t-shirt.

World’s Most Dangerous Road

For $40 you can rent a high quality mountain bike and descend 60 kilometers on a road that has claimed more lives than any other. The road gets it’s name from the fact that many a bus fell down it’s precariously steep 1,000 foot cliff edges, which meant that all the passengers died, which makes for high death counts. To ride a bike is relatively safe and there have only been 25 deaths in the last 15 years. 14 of those deaths were Israelis who apparently are unruly and uncontrollable. 17 of those deaths were females riding too slow, pfffff. You descend from 4400 meters to 1200 meters over the 60 kilometers going from treeless mountains to hot and humid jungle. The ride was a little slow for me but fantastic none the less and I highly recommend it. You conclude the ride at a remote little hotel with a buffet lunch and a clean pool and a three hour bus back to La Paz. Finished that day at a karaoke place where we received chants of “Grin-GO! Grin-GO!”

Huayna Potosi

The morning of the mountain had come. I was picked up early and taken to a place to get all the gear I would need which was pretty much everything. I was kitted out in a rush, nothing was explained to me, and then I was put into a car which drove me for two hours on a dirt road to a small little house where I was instructed to eat the chicken and rice and not ask questions. The whole time in the car I could see the mountain I was to climb the next day and it was maybe the most beautiful mountain I had ever seen. The weather was perfect and was to be perfect for this entire adventure including a full moon to come in handy during the night time climb.

After the chicken, I was introduced to my guide who spoke no english and used a mixed version of Spanish and some indigenous language I was not aware of. Neither of us learned the other’s name and we both called each other amigo. I was supposed to meet up with an Argentino who had paid the extra amount (normal amount) and was already up at base camp. I took what I hoped to be my final shit and headed up to base camp which was a 400 meter escalation and sat at 5100 meters. I found this initial portion easy, a little too easy, and in fact was pulling the guide up and offering to carry his bags in a sneaky form of mockery. I should not have done that.

Base camp is a rather large two story wooden cabin and two bathroom shacks that were not clean and did not smell good. The cabin was nestled on a ledge that overlooked the mountain range and the view was truly spectacular. Glaciers were slithering all around and clouds would sore right past your nose on their way to wherever it is that clouds go. The earth and rocks were painted by an army of painters who all had their own opinion of what brown was. And ever vigil above us, was the peak of Huayna Potosi in all her glory. The wooden interior to the cabin is covered with the signatures of all the peoples that made it up there. “Bob was here, and Jack was not. Ha.”, “If you have mind over matter, then nothing else matters.”, “MICK FROM IRELAND 2009!” The upstairs was one large room that we were to all sleep in that had one inch mattress’. Downstairs was a few tables, an area to put all our backpacks, and another sleeping area that looked much more comfortable but was reserved for the high paying customers.

It is amazing that a bunch of Bolivians hauled all the materials to build this large cabin. While I was there I watched a Bolivian sprint up about 250 meters of ice and rock to go help some italian one legged climber who was struggling to get down from that days group of climbers. I watched a 12 year old kid wrap a sheet around his back, load it up with two huge bottles of methane gas, and jog up the mountain to base camp, and he was wearing half destroyed sandals. My respect for the guides and their ability to do what they do several days a week grew rapidly as the hours of that first day passed by my slowly weakening eyes.

I arrived at base camp around 2pm to find there was already about 15 other people their with another five guides. Why I paid less to get to this point was becoming painfully obvious as my guide did not speak to me nor offer me any advice, food, and/or water. Everything I learned at this point was from listening to the other guides. The only thing he had told me was that the Argentino had stomach problems and would not be climbing with us and it was just me and him.

The argentine was a jolly chap who was as wide as he was tall. We had some great conversations and I wish he would have climbed with us but it was clear he was suffering when he would suddenly sprint to take a dump. He had brought enough gear to last three months alone on the mountain which came in very handy for me.

The other climbers were all playing some card game and all of them immediately bothered me. Not sure why. It might have been the one douchebag Irish guy and his incessant whining, but who knows. I avoided them and chose to stay outside and take in the grandeur and beauty around me and try out some meditation and a few lines of writing. While the group jammered on in the cabin apparently feeling no effects from the altitude, I was starting to get the first signs of altitude sickness. I shrugged them off at first and went inside for dinner at 5pm.

The plan of attack was to eat dinner at 5pm, go to bed at 6pm, wake up at 1am, eat breakfast, strap on your crampons and walk on a 50% slope for six hours to the summit about 900 vertical meters higher than we were, absorb what oxygen you can steal at the summit for 20 minutes, then descend back to the cabin in a two hour sprint of glory. Sounded brutal to me but no worse than 13,000 feet of climbing on the bicycle. Dinner started to be served and I watched the other groups scarf down their pasta and steaks. The argentine and I were getting anxious and when our guide finally arrived, I wanted to cry. He brought a bowl of rice, two spoon fulls of tuna, and a quarter of a tomato. I attempted to eat, but the stomach was not having it and the pains I was to suffer for the next six hours began. I told the argentine my head was starting to heart and he instantly ran up to his medicine cabinet he lugged up there and gave me four pills to remedy.  I drank a shit load of tea while I regretted the fact that I had forgot the chocolate and peanuts I had bought at the house below base camp. I knew I needed energy but I simply could not stomach the food.

Bed time! You ever try to go to bed at 6pm? Not easy. Especially when it is cold as hell, you are wearing every single layer of measly clothes you have, including a loaned jacket from the argentine, and theres 15 other people around all making noises. When everyone else is wearing a north face jacket, the sound of that material rubbing against itself, becomes internally murderous. I laid down on my mattress which was probably worse than the floor, and put my head phones on to listen to a little Rachmanimov to pump me up. Somehow, dude from Ireland is already sleeping and snoring… loudly. My stomach is twisting itself three times in my stomach and I have to constantly adjust my position to untwist it. The pain was agonizing and I hoped that it was just a giant fart bubble accumulating in my stomach that would eventually escape. I struggled to lick my lips they were so dry and I had only enough water for the climb so I decided to eat Carmex chapstick to lubricate them. I writhed in agony until about 12:15 am and then I lingered in some sort of mild dream state where I imagined I had harnessed the acclimated Bolivians and used them to make t-shirts that we sold to the climbers. No idea how to translate that dream. Then at 1am, four satellite synchronized watches all started blaring and the climb was on.

My breakfast was supposed to be a piece of bread. No butter, jam, or anything… just bread. Thanks amigo. I couldn’t eat it anyways and sucked down on some herbal tea. The stomach pains had gone for the most part thankfully. My guide seemed unconcerned with my lack of digestion and left me on my own to figure out how to put the harness on and the rest of my gear, which I had no idea. I was wearing four layers and found it hard to move properly but it was necessary in the cold that I am sure got colder as we ascended. My rented boots were enormous and I have no idea how I let this mistake happen at the rental place. With all my strength, I could not get these tight enough to not slip. Great. At some point, I appeared to be sufficiently ready and the guide tied a rope to me, and we headed to the start of the trail.

The start of the trail is a vertical ice wall. I have used crampons one other time in my life walking on a glacier in the south of Argentina but that was a joke. This was some serious shit and I began to feel that maybe I should not have lied about my experience on a mountain. I invented a way to put the crampons on to my over sized moon boots, turned on my way under powered head light, clapped my hands, and shouted “Hot Damn! Let’s do this.”

With crampons you can easily scale a vertical ice wall, to my shock, although my moon boots were slipping and sliding and I tried to ignore the images of blisters I would see in ten hours time. Walking at altitude of this nature forces you to breath heavy… always. Walking up a steep glacier with a way too short ice axe to stabilize you and a Bolivian mountain goat urging you to walk faster forces you to pant frantically… always. But I pushed on and felt good. We maintained a good pace and had distanced ourselves from the other groups who could only be seen behind us with their little head lights bobbing up and down. We would walk for a few minutes then would take 30 second breaks. Your steps are about eight inches and at some point I tried to do the math of how many I was to make that day but then my mind exploded and I gave up.

The guide I was pulling up the day before was now putting his hands on his hips and tsk tsk’ing me as my pace began to slow. “How long have we been walking?” I asked at one point, sure that we had at least reached the half way point. “One hour amigo.” I wanted to cry and it was the first of several times that day I wanted to give up. In general, I do not give up. Never. I had come a long way to be in this position and despite it’s sadomasochistic appearance, I had to complete my goal. But this shit was hard. Incredibly hard. Each step was like I had a small child hanging on to my leg. The mountain loomed tall over us the entire time and it was easy to think that we would never make. The thought of telling my girlfriend and friends, “Well, I was really close to the top. Pretty good huh?” ultimately kept me moving.

After four hours the groups had merged and our death march continued. There was no talking. There was no playful banter or funny games you play with someone who is attached to you by a rope. You stare at the ground trying not to fall over and trudge on hoping and wishing that at each turn you are to see a sign saying “Summit, 25 meters.” It never came.

After five hours my hip started to hurt and I demanded to take longer and longer breaks. My lack of food and energy was beginning to show itself in my poorly selected steps. I felt like a zombie and that was necessary as the rational Luke would have only gotten in the way at that point. But sometimes, life has a way of knowing these things and decided to try and help me out. We took a break and I slammed myself down on some ice and began my deep meditative breathing and then I saw it. The darkness was waning and we had the world’s best vantage point to witness the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen in my life. We were well above a featureless cloud cover that was pierced by four other behemoth mountains in the distance. At the horizon was a giant red-orange ball propelling itself above the cloud cover casting it’s glow proudly over the clouds. The largest mountain top had developed a hat of clouds and was flashing lighting while the sun was doing it’s thing. The full moon could still be seen in the same visual. I panted frantically, but smiled enormously and determined that if I were to lose my legs right now, this would make the climb worth it despite what my friends and girlfriend would say to me.

The final 50 meters to the summit were brutal and by far the hardest. My boots were sliding out of control and I am pretty sure my guide pulled me up for the most part. The summit was not large and sat precariously over a 1000 foot vertical drop to one side. I hesitated to stand on the three meter square summit due to my wobbly nature. I had some Czech guy take a picture of me with his camera and stammered to him that I would find him and get that picture some day. I could have slept there all day after my night of no sleep and lack of nutrition but I had to go as other climbers were starting to fill up the summit. I had done it.

But now I had to get down and I was in no condition to walk, let alone descend this agro-crag. My self motivations previously were only thinking about the one way journey and it did not occur to me that I would need strength to go down. I was wrong. The guide at this point begins to yell at me and explain to me how I am putting him and myself in danger and that I should have eaten something. At this point the fart bubble I had felt the night before was beginning to release itself and I responded to him in loud splattery farts. These farts succumbed to intense pressure to take a shit and I began to weigh the consequences of taking a dump in my four layers of clothes. I told the guide basically to shut the fuck up, in Spanish, and explained that we had no options and I would just go slow. Every 40 steps or so I would have to stop and arch my back backwards to stop my ass from exploding with some Bolivian soup I ate three days ago. I complained to him that I needed to take a dump but he said I had to wait. Finally I gave up and untied the rope, walked 20 feet off the trail all the while rushing to pull off my multiple layers, sat down, and let out the best shit of my life. How I did not get any on my clothes I do not know but I will thank the mountain gods for that. The argentine and his polar sweater should also thank them.

The next two hours were rather uneventful and extremely painful on the blistered feet. I arrived at the cabin exhausted, beaten, and dissolved. The spirits of the other climbers were unusually high and I wish I could have joined them and thrown out some high fives, but I focused on removing my boots and laying down on some rocks. I shared my pains with the Argentine who was very supportive and in general, a great guy. Another 400 meter descent to the first camp, another two hour dirt car ride, and I was back in La Paz. High five Luke.

The Trip Home

I considered shacking up in the five star Hilton in La Paz for a night of recovery but instead opted to go to the bus station and get a 14 hour bus to Potosi to walk around in a mine and try and blow up some dynamite. The dynamite didn’t happen but a few hours hunched over in a mine being the translator for a Japanese guy was pretty fun. Bolivians work in that mine for about $6 a day hauling about ten tons of material ea day, each of them! There is at least one accident every day at that mine which I was not a part of thankfully. The spanish had come there 500 years earlier to force the indians to live in the mine for six months without leaving. When the Indians decided to not work, the Spanish went to Africa to bring in some strong black guys to do the work. They all died after three weeks due to altitude and not being as storng as they looked, poor bastards, and the solution was to build devil figures in the mine and tell the indians that if they did not work, the devils would do bad to them. This worked.

I arrived in Potosi at 6am, left the mine at 12 noon, and decided in a fit of love and passion to make the journey to see my girlfriend in La Serena Chile for a romantic beach holiday in our own private beach house. This journey involved a six hour bus to Oruro Bolivia where you never want to be unless you like watching 34 dogs rampage a town where the entire population is a taxi driver. From Oruro I took a 10 hour bus to Iquique Chile. From Iquique I finished my journey with an 18 hour bus to La Serena to be greeted by the very welcoming arms of my girlfriend.

The weekend with her was amazing and made the lengthy bus journeys a vague and distant memory. Punto del Churo is a must do for anyone visiting Chile. be sure to bring food any money before arrival.

One more nine hour bus ride to Santiago and I was home again. New stamp in the passport and one more box checked off on the list of life I call Luke.

Published inLukePodcastTraveling