We flew into Santa Cruz from Panama City (Above: my first Bolivian friend) and we were pleased with the surprise of a warm climate. We thought we’d immediately be met with Bolivian winter. The second thing we noticed was the neighbourhood that we were staying in, was highly populated with Caucasian Mennonite looking farmers. The men all wearing blue jean overalls, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and steel toed boots. The women all wore bonnets, florals dresses, panty hose and black footwear.
We didn’t know much about Bolivia before landing... so needless to say, we were pretty confused. The most confusing of all was when Carter and I walked down the street, they ALL stopped and stared! They would stop right in the middle of their own conversations and stare at us. When we went to say 'hi' they wouldn't respond, they would look down quickly and walk away; it felt like we were in some sort of strange Mennonite twilight zone! We spent the morning walking around our neighbourhood in awe, as they were also speaking Spanish (double weird). Finally when we walked a few blocks out of the area we were staying in towards the main market, a little sigh of relief came, ah - actual Bolivian locals. We did fly into the right country! After later research (we needed to know what the deal was with the Mennonites!!) The Mennonites in Bolivia are mostly so-called Russian Mennonites who are descendants of Friesian, Flemish and North German people who came to South America starting in 1927...
Below: a typical scene of local Bolivians hanging out in the city selling various items or simply catching up:
Santa Cruz isn’t on the main tourist path... and probably rightfully so. It’s a big city, with extreme wealth and extreme poverty in one, also not much of anything to do as a tourist. Seriously, if you Google “what to do in Santa Cruz” one of the top 3 things to do is "Go to the Mall". So after walking around and seeing the main city square, we found ourselves at the mall. We typically visit a mall in big cities to feel like civilized/regular humans every now and then. Carter was going on about his newest obsession, finding hiking boots in his size: GOOD ONES, waterproof ones, light ones, very specific about the type of boots we was after but he wants them for cheap cheap, street sale prices! (this guy eh?) He began perusing the South American brand name stores and then switches to Timberland, Nike, Columbia, etc... Carter was really practicing his Spanish (on Duolingo) as of late and was much better by this point so he had learned how to ask "Hello, which is your biggest boot size?" We found out the hard way when we got to Bolivia that they spoke next to no English.
After hitting a few stores for boots we started noticing a theme everytime he asked. The store rep would say "Cuarenta Cinco" (45) and Carter would cringe and say "ahhh Estoy Cuarenta Ocho" (48) and they would erupt into laugher and say "Ooooh hahaha Noooooo muy grande (very big)!! Muy Grande! No Cuarenta Ocho en todas Santa Cruz!!!" (no 48 in all Santa Cruz.)
So out of the mall we went and into the movie theatre we go (another rarity treat we give ourselves from time to time). The only movie playing in English was Jurassic Park in 3D and it was $24USD per person! That’s 3/4 of our daily budget... to watch dinosaurs. So boots were a no go and movie was a no go... we did the next best thing and headed to eat!
We ended up loving this little food stand that was a block away from our hostel; it had everything from hot dogs, to tacos, burritos and hamburgers. The best thing that ever happened at this stand, minus the food, was during one visit (yes, we went several times) Carter and I were standing in line choosing what to have and a little boy and his dad walked past us, the little boy without any hesitation yelled "OH! YUM! YO QUERIO TAAACO!" while rubbing his little pot belly stomach. We bursted into laughter because it was the classic "yo querio Taco Bell" line that we knew all too well from the little Chihuahua drilling it into our heads during the Taco Bell commercials when we were younger. Every single time either of us really wanted something after this hilarious experience, we would proclaim "OH! YO QUERIO yaddayadda!!!!" and rub our bellies!
After a couple fairly boring and unexciting days in Santa Cruz, we flew into Sucre. Usually, we travel slow, cheap and overland but this time, we heard the bus was an awful experience that you shouldn’t put yourself through: an old rusty bus, bumping through the eastern Andean Mountains on an unpaved windy road, for AT least 15-16 hours for $30USD. Or, if we splurged, which we rarely do, for $66CAD, we could catch a 1 hour domestic flight straight into Sucre. Done deal, no questions asked (actually...cheap Carter asked a few more questions about the bus ride, but I gave him the "HELL NO" look and we went back to our room to book the quick flight!)
As soon as we got off the plane, we walked down the stairs, along the tarmac to the airport entrance and it immediately hit us! ***dizziness & short of breath*** Sucre is 2,400m higher than Santa Cruz, straight off the plane we were reminded that altitude will play a big factor throughout our travels in South America. We were winded!
Then we were dropped off in the middle of a random intersection by a local bus from the airport (classic scenario) and we were pointed in a general direction to the main square by the driver, who spoke quickly in Spanish, as he sped off. We walked for 10 minutes before asking a group of teenagers who were all on their phones (phones with data = google maps, we hoped.) One boy completely took us under his wing and ended up walking us the entire way to our hostel which was another 15-20 minutes of walking. From being in places like India and Egypt, our minds quickly went to the classic scam scenarios: CLEARLY he’s going to go out of his way for us...and then ask for a ridiculously big tip and we’re going to get into a fight because of it. So we kept our distance at first while following slowly behind him. When we ended up safely in front of Casa Blanca Hostel, we offered him a small token for his good deed and he shook his head and hands saying "no no!" and then gave us a hug and took off. It was probably one of a handful of times a local went that far above and beyond and was genuinely very helpful without expecting something in return. This experience really lifted our spirits for what Sucre, and Bolivia in general, had in store for us.
In the morning we went exploring. Sucre was a complete 180 from Santa Cruz. It was SO beautiful; it had colonial architecture, and was a little more touristic. It’s known as Bolivia’s white city because all of the historic colonial buildings that were, quite obviously, all painted white. It had a lovely square, with locals selling peanuts, popcorn, balloons and corn kernels to feed the pigeons. People were lazing around, people watching, playing games, soaking in the sun or sleeping. It had cute little cafes and restaurants scattered around the plaza and every street we turned down were more beautiful than the last.
*Oh ya, the city is also home to the famous zebra crossings, where volunteers dressed as zebras will help direct traffic and help children and elderly cross the road safely! They were so fun to watch because if they weren't busy doing their road duty, they were always dancing, singing and joking around!
Then we came across the infamous Sombrero Factory... where Carter got his Instagram famous $18USD 100% wool sombrero!
The next morning as we were having breakfast at our hostel, we noticed a lot of people sitting with a local Bolivian with a notebook. So, Carter inquired. Apparently Sucre is famously known for being the best city in all of South America to learn Spanish! So everyone at our hostel was getting private one-on-one lessons for a whopping $5usd/ hour. Sign us up!!
All we heard before travelling to South America is that you NEED to learn Spanish as it would enhance our experience and help a lot if we knew the basics. And so far, it’s been proved true. There is very little English here - even hostels and hotels owners who are constantly surrounded by foreigners and tourists, hardly know a few English words. So, if we were in the best place to learn... when in Sucre!
We had our first lesson that afternoon with Marvin, a Bolivian university student who works at the non profit Condor Cafe teaching Spanish and French to tourists. We started with demonstrative adjectives and regular verbs. It was like we were in grade 6 French class again conjugating I, you, we, and they in Spanish. My head hurt in the first 15 minutes. Mind you... I wasn’t really catching onto the language as well or as quickly as Carter was. There was one moment with a waitress when I knew I wanted a cheese empanada...which is a super easy sentence of "yo quiero empanada de queso por favor". I KNEW what I needed to say... yet when it came time I just froze for 5 seconds and quickly blurted out “CHEESE”. Carter had a great laugh and we have been screaming "CHEESE" ever since. My mind just goes blank when I need to formulate a sentence in real life situations! But put me behind my mobile app Duolingo (a language-learning app we have been using up until these real lessons) - I am a Spanish weapon.
Marvin was great, we ended up doing 2 hours a day with him for the next 3 days. We learned verbs, numbers, dates, common phrases and a bit more. There is still a LOT of learning to do but at least we know the bare basics now to hopefully get by. HOWEVER, we only know the bare basics of the “present tense” - we can’t talk about the past or the future because we never got to those verbs (which happens more than you would think!!)
These are also the two little cuties who were playing around every day in Condor Cafe that I would practice my basic, basic Spanish with:
After almost a week in Sucre, learning Spanish, eating great food, drinking great coffee and doing our Spanish homework, we decided it was time to move on.
We bussed to Potosí, which was half way between Sucre and where we wanted to go next, Uyuni (for the famous salt flats of Bolivia). Potosi, however, was very well known for its own reason - it is the highest settlement in Bolivia, sitting at 4,060M and it’s home to the silver mines which made Potosí once the richest city in the world (in the 16th century, unfortunately, now it’s the poorest city in Bolivia.)
Many tourists come to Potosí to do the salt mining tour; it takes you into the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), to see how it’s been mined for the past couple hundred years, and to meet some of the current miners hoping to find silver and other useful metals. Since the beginning of the mountain being mined, it’s estimated that five to eight million people have died. Currently, there is little to no silver left in the mountain but many men and, very unfortunately, children still go into the mines every day in hopes of finding some. We decided to forego the tours, as it’s a bit exploited and for me, quite sad to see the local men, women & children in these unsafe and hazardous working conditions. Tourists who do go on the tours are encouraged to bring gifts of dynamite, Coca Cola, or coca leaves to the miners. We opted to explore the city itself which was interesting enough because you can see the remains of what once was of the Spanish architecture, where silver statues once stood tall...
Since we also just went up another 2,000M, we were really feeling the elevation. So after only an hour or so of walking around, after the sun set and it got really cold, we retreated to our room for some Netflix and acclimatization time. That night we even had some trouble sleeping due to headaches and restlessness again, more side effects of the altitude.
In the morning, we boarded another bus to Uyuni, the desert town that boarders the worlds largest salt flats.
Below is a CBW APPROVED TRAVEL TRIP: always, ALWAYS, always bring SNACKS and WATER on buses/trains in third world countries because you never, ever know what is in store for the ride ahead! If you've been reading our other blogs you will know that some trips can take 2,3,4,5 times as long as initially thought, typically only stopping once for snacks or bathroom breaks. Here I am thoroughly enjoying an empanada con carne:
When we arrived, Uyuni immediately reminded us of the town that borders Wadi Rum in Jordan. It had wide, large, straight roads, it was dusty and very local looking. It's only purpose was for the Salt Flats tourism. Uyuni was definitely more built up than we expected but we still got a very old abandoned desert-western vibe from it.
We checked into our hotel and immediately went tour company hopping to do our research. We were interested in doing a 2nights/3 day tour into the Salar de Uyuni (the Bolivian and proper name of Salt Flats.)
We ended up going with Salty Desert Adventures. It was $50/pp more to have an English guide so we opted for a Spanish guide, after inquiring who else was in our group and being told there were Spanish and English speaking people in it, so we would have a translator in theory. We booked to leave the next day at 10am.
We showed up to the offices, left our big bags and were shown to our land cruiser 4x4. Next, we met our Spanish speaking guide Antonio and the rest of our group: two Polish, and another Canadian. None of which spoke a lick of Spanish. They were told WE were the ones who knew Spanish!! OOPS!! This will be a difficult 3 days with guessing what Antonio is saying... and the group was counting on us to do the translating!
The first stop on the tour wasn't too far out to Uyuni proper; it was the Train Cemetery. What was supposed to be a booming railway, ended in a graveyard of trains. It was the product of Potosi mountain running out of silver and neighbouring countries not supporting the railway that was being built in the 19th century to run through their countries. Now, due to the harsh salt winds, there are trains upon trains rusting away that have become oddly beautiful in the flat landscape of Uyuni.
The second stop of the tour was what we all came for: the Salt Flats. We were absolutely blown away as soon as our Jeep rolled it's wheels onto the salt. We drove for 2 hours into the salt desert and came upon a building made completely of salt for lunch!
We took this very first opportunity to take some pictures, not knowing when we'd be out of the salt desert:
Little did we know, after lunch, we drove another hour into the middle of the salt flats where we were completely alone and as far as you can see was a sea of white salt against the cloudless bright blue sky. It was brilliant!! This was the best stop: we spent an hour or so here taking photos. Then Antonio stepped in with a Godzilla toy and changed the photo game: we were being introduced to the salt flat perspective photos... that are hilarious. See for yourself:
After the perspective photo shoot stop, we came to Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island). It was a random island in the middle of the Salt Flats that was home to GIANT cacti and really interesting fossils and coral. It looked like we were on another planet. From what we could make of the broken English, mostly Spanish, explanation that Antonio was trying to get across to us, is that this was a product of an ancient volcano that was submerged by the ocean 40,000 years ago.... we think.
And then the magic happened. Sunset fell over the Salt Flats and the landscape changed entirely around us in real time. It was breathtaking and mind blowing all in the same instant. The entire landscape went from white and blue to every shade of cotton candy sunset you have ever seen. On top of that, the salt melted enough to make giant reflective puddles to illuminate the sky even more. Forgive me if I say this a lot in these blogs, but this was definitely one of the most amazing experiences we have had so far!
That night, we slept in the world's only salt hotel! For how freezing it was outside, our room and bed made entirely of SALT was surprisingly cozy, warm and toasty!
The next day we had a long drive to the opposite end of the Salt Flats. During our day we visited the Laguna Colorado, the Red Lagoon. This laguna was red due to the plankton that lived in it's waters. It was pretty spectacular to see; it felt like we were on Mars.
Laguna Verde was next. The (you guessed it) Green Lagoon was created by the copper oxide in the water. Although, with this lagoon if there was no wind to help stir up the minerals, there would be no green colour. Also, sunlight helps bring out the green colouring so in the picture below, you can see it was super overcast and it wasn't all that colourful but still amazing!
Side note: this was our amazing group. Antonio, our guide, is front and centre. He was the absolutely best for putting up with 5 non-Spanish speaking tourists who continually and consistently would ask him questions even though we knew getting both the question and answers across would be hard!
We also visited, what I call, the Blue Lagoon but I don't know if it's officially been named that. This was our first exposure to FLAMINGOS! They are funny little creatures.
Here are a few more photos from the day that weren't "schedule stops" but are definitely worth an honourable mention!
That night we enjoyed some cheap wine and food with our new friends! We were celebrating engagements - of ours in February and the Poland couple got engaged on THAT trip, only a few days before meeting us in Uyuni!
The next morning, we had to get up very early to drop the Poles and Kelvin at the Chile border and make it back to Uyuni before nightfall for us.
The first stop was the Geysers of the Morning Sun.
The second stop was at the Polques Hot Springs which we opted out of bathing in but still took our time to take in the beauty of it!
The third stop was at the Stone Tree but it was so completely overrated that we didn't even take a picture of it. At this point in our travels, we were pretty tired of people making tourists stops out of rock formations that may or may not look like something. To add to the annoyance, there were people climbing all over the rocks that were clearly marked "do not climb" because of the damage humans are doing to the natural formations and landscape.
The fourth and final stop as a group was at the Republica de Chile border, as Vana White is so graciously showing you below:
We stood in line with the three of them as they waited for their passports to be stamped out of Bolivia (and okay, we finished a celebratory bottle of wine with the cork pushed into the bottle like the classy backpackers we are.)
After they got their visas and were on their way into Chile, so were we. Just Carter, Antonio and I on the open salt road back to Uyuni. I slept. Carter talked. Antonio pretended he understood Carter's broken Spanglish.
We stopped in a very small village for lunch... not much to report back on that other than this little, cute, business woman trying to get a couple Bolivianos ($) out of me for using the washroom. Oh ya, and llamas humping in the distance fields.
Our final destination of Bolivia, it's capital and THE HIGHEST CAPITAL CITY IN THE WORLD, sitting at a whooping 3,650 metres above sea level! Not only are you already SO high and most likely dealing with the symptoms of altitude sickness BUT to make matters worse, this is one of the hilliest and steepest cities we have visited thus far, so you are constantly climbing inclines and running out of breath! We took a calculated approach when we wanted to go out to eat or to a certain store because we knew if we took the google map/straight forward route, it could mean steep hill or stair climbing the entire way.
The city is filled with a very broad range of Bolivian locals, all very friendly and welcoming. It sits low in a valley on top of the mountain range which leads to some of the most beautiful views when you get to a vantage point. Probably the coolest thing is their metro system, its a system of nearly 6 or 7 gondolas that travel above the city much like heading up a ski lift, only to reach another part of town. Very unique and such a new and exciting way to see the surrounding views. For Carter, this was one of his favourite cities with the mountains in close proximity, it meant unlimited outdoor activities very close by.
When we arrived at our hostel we were greeted by the nicest man who gave us plenty of recommendations about the surrounding area. We laughed when he gave us one of those old school hot water pouches with the room key, we later found out why... it was not only useful but essential to our survival. The nights were freezing and the walls in most areas of the hostel were very poorly insulated. We slept in layers, layers and more layers of blankets. However, the morning sunshine was always there to thaw us out and we enjoyed the days outdoors exploring different areas of the city.
La Paz was also any shoppers' dream, with all of the textiles, souvenirs, trinkets, etc etc etc galore!
It has a little something for everyone, even those who are into black magic and voodoo can visit the Witch Market and grab a llama fetus for their spells; a weird signature sighting in this area of town.
After a few days of roaming La Paz and riding it's Metro Teleferico system over the city, we decided to do our first extreme adventure in Bolivia. Mountain biking the most dangerous road in the world! We did some research and ended up going on a tour with Xtreme Downhill Adventures. They provide you with the transportation, bike gear and food along the way.
When heading from La Paz to the location where the bike adventure typically begins, it began to snow as we got higher over the mountain pass. It was clearly a pretty wet day in the city which always means snow in higher elevations. At about 4,500m we battled a bit of snow (snow we wouldn't even blink at in Canada, but keep in mind we are in a van from the mid-80's, packed with 15 people and cruising on mountain side roads with no snow plows)...so we took it slow. Eventually we hit a point where the snow had stopped and it was just rain, so out we got to begin the ride down the mountain. We were dressed in proper gear; outer layers of a jacket and pants, helmet, and gloves, all provided by the tour company. And thank god we had all of this plus the clothes we brought because it was 0°Celsius and wet. My fingers were sopping wet and frozen in the first 5 km.
The initial 5km was along the same (new) highway we had just drove on, so trucks, buses and cars were all using the road as we weaved in and out of slow trucks when the coast was clear. I am closely following our guides hand signals and going slowly to get a feel for the bike and the road... while I can tell Carter is getting quite comfortable because he is already flying ahead of the pack!
After around 5km on the new highway we safely get to the true beginning of "The Most Deadly Road On Earth"; this is the old original road that WAS used to get over the mountain pass before the new highway was built. Local buses, trucks, and other vehicles used it to get to and from the villages on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately over the years many had gone over the edge of the roadside cliffs, causing many deaths due to it's terrible condition and poor infrastructure. So, with all that in mind, lets do this thang! The road is over 30km of downhill riding which ultimately ends in village in the valley which drops in elevation 2,500m.
Biking in the pouring rain and fog, we take off down the narrow road as fast as you're comfortable with (while also still keeping eyes on our guide.) On this dirt road roughly the size of 1 Hummer Truck wide, we rode over pot holes, rode through and under waterfalls, incredible rain forest views, passed by grave stones; it was all very wild to see and take in while trying not to fly over and become a gravestone yourself. Thankfully, the further we got down the mountain, the warmer the temperature got which was delightful after such a freezing morning.
We stopped a few times for photo opportunities and some snacks, which were VERY welcomed breaks for me. My hands we tingling and buzzing from the constant shaking and bumps of the bike. I was COVERED head to toe in mud and I used these breaks to clean the dirt from my sunglasses and remove mud from my eyes. Carter on the other hand, was a happy pig in shit, or whatever that saying is! He was absolutely drenched in mud; I could barely make out what was facial hair or mud lobs but he never even made an attempt to clean himself up on these breaks - he would just woof down the snacks and get back on the bike.
Below are some pictures of the incredible journey:
After experiencing this adrenaline rush, we would absolutely recommend this to other travelers because of course, we lived to tell the story! Below covered in mud after taking off our helmets at the bottom...completely soaked to the bone!
Although the wild ride was over...the adventure didn't stop at the bottom of the hill...
While we were biking down the most deadly road in the world, it continued to rain, sleet and snow all day. This meant, while we were zooming toward the bottom of the mountain toward the warmer climate; at the top of the high mountain overpass at 4,500m, it was snowing the entire day. As the saying goes, what goes down, must go back up! (Right?!)
We had a nice late lunch in a village at the bottom of the mountain, with opportunity to shower and change into extra clothes... if you had extra clothes. With travelling so light, we didn't have any extra warm clothes to bring; we were wearing it! So, we forewent the showers, I ate lunch in my wet clothes and hoped to be dry by the time I got back to La Paz and could take a nice hot shower at our hostel. And Carter changed into his dry bathing suit that he brought and remained in his soaked tank top. Again, I want to reiterate how SOPPING WET we were! Carer wore a wool sweater biking and it weighed about 30LBS afterwards; so there was no hope for him to be able to put his warm clothes on again that day.
We hit the road back toward La Paz around 4pm, we were said to arrive around 8pm. As we made our way back we began to see the weather change for the worst, cars coming in the other direction were snow covered and finally we hit a huge back log of traffic (keep in mind the new highway road we're on is only two lanes wide). We sat in traffic for roughly 2 hours before our guide came back to the car to inform us "Police have shut down the road, we need to stay here until it opens again" We were all thinking, 'well that sucks but what can you do. Oh well!' We made the best of it because we were hanging out with our great tour group! We were a part of a group with people from all over the world, so we were enjoying ourselves and not too concerned with time. There was a Colombian couple, a solo Colombian traveler, a Dutch traveler, and a British traveler. We had a great time chatting about how people had met, how people had fell in love, very fun a lot of laughs.
About 2 hours later we find out that the road will not open tonight, and we need to stay in the van exactly where we were situated...for the night...Oooookay. I am in still very wet clothes and Carter is in his bathing suit and a tank top. So, that's pretty friggin' awful news. Cars are lined up as far as we can see in both directions and its raining and we're on the side of a mountain so we admit defeat; there is seriously nothing we can do. Our guide goes out and thankfully comes back with some blankets and take away containers of rice and a fried egg. He said he knows one of the local ladies from working in the tour company for so long; she was nice enough to make us some food and offer the few blankets she had. He was a VERY nice guy, we are super thankful for his efforts throughout this scenario.
Around 10pm (now 6 hours of sitting in this van), our guide comes back with some more exciting info for the group (a roller coaster of emotions thus far) - police have opened the road, however, you are to take it at your own risk. Our guide breaks down the two options for us and we take a group vote: either we stay where we are and sleep in the van while in moderate temperature climate and get stuck in butt-loads of traffic in the morning when the road reopens fully OR we venture into the unknown and if we get stuck there's potential it could be at 4,000m, where it's below zero and a snowstorm. HMMMMM... like I said, we had a great group, and our whole van votes for "LETS GO!!!" So we race along side all the vehicles trying to get up the mountain toward the peak, in order to head down the other side back to the city of La Paz. It literally felt like a race when everyone was running back to their cars, starting them up and peeling out once they heard the news of the opening of the road.
After 45 mins of somewhat smooth sailing up the mountain, we begin to see why the road was closed to begin with. The snow on the road is piling higher and higher and we're beginning to pass smaller cars who are stuck with their tires spinning on ice. We battle through some high traffic areas where locals are out pushing cars and getting out of the icy patches. Eventually we are stuck again and we are unable to move; the main highway road ahead is far too jammed with cars and we can't get by. Our guide heads out to find out what lies ahead, all the while we are on 7th, almost 8th hour, of sitting in the van and STILL wearing our waterlogged clothing. Our guide comes back and has some MORE information for us...we are about 10km from the peak mountain pass on the main highway road, however, the road ahead is just too congested for us to pass... in both directions. Our new option, he tells us, is to cut off of the main highway road and take the old road (which is part of death road, just higher up). There are vehicles taking that road, however, it is a much worse road because it's much more narrow with less traffic on it, so more snow and ice has accumulated, there are no guard rails, and there is no coming back if we go. At this point its 1AM and the group is still hopeful but getting restless, so again we vote...LETS GO!
So, we break off the main highway road and descend into a valley with a tiny road ahead of us that we can see in our van's headlights as we all stare ahead at the road. What we see is not good. It's a winding snake of a road that goes up a very steep section of the valley with over 12 switch back turns; it looks super sketchy to say the least. We are optimistic as the road condition doesn't seem so bad (as long as you don't look out the right side windows of the van, over the edge of the cliff). At this point, as dramatic as it sounds, we were really putting our lives in the hands of our driver. Oddly enough though, we were all very confident in his ability (another CBWTRAVELS travel lesson is "trust the system" - it always seems to work out.)
We passed by many local cars and cargo trucks that were stuck, some looked so old and rusted, that they wouldn't get up this road on a summer day. It was quite amusing to watch, however, frustrating because they were usually stuck in front of us, blocking us from moving past. When we began to see more congestion towards steeper sections, the game changed for us all. Vans ahead were much more SOL than we had seen thus far, deep in ice holes, spinning tires and sliding sideways. Our driver and two guides leapt back into action and were out in the freezing cold at 4,500m helping other vehicle owners break ice on the road... in front of their cars/vans etc. There had to be easily 15 locals and a handful of other tour guides and drivers on the road around us breaking ice...just to get a little further up the road. After witnessing this debacle taking place for hours into the night, Carter decided he was unable to sit around and watch anymore - he needed to help. He felt terrible for the guys out there working their asses off in the cold, in order to get us through, and ultimately, home. The problem was that EVERYTHING he had was still sopping wet. He borrowed socks from the Dutch girl in our van, kept his bathing suit bottoms on, put on his wet shoes, wore the British girl's sweatshirt and went out to help. We had an agreement he could only stay out there for a few minutes at a time.
Carter can describe the rest from here:
So I head out and immediately grab the tire iron from the old local man working his butt off, who had come to help from another stuck vehicle behind us, and began breaking ice with the others. They laughed when they saw me with my bathing suit and asked a few times in Spanish where I was from (I told them I was Canadian, and was not affected by the cold). After telling them, they kept thanking me for the help which made it all worth it. After about 20 minutes we were able to push 3 cars up this particularly icy slope and get them out of the way so we could try our van next. This was now a big switch back turn that went up pretty steep and 90 degrees back to the left. Our driver got back in the car to take a run at this turn, me and the two guides jumped on the back of the van and held onto the roof rack...the goal was to shoot at it full speed and we would jump up and down to give the van some more traction on the ice. We are on the back, flying and now freezing...first try we get around the corner! I can hear the group inside the van cheering hahah.
Well, this became the challenge for the next 8 switch back corners. (***Britters here - I just wanted to mention that the little agreement of only staying out for a couple minutes at a time was completely lost on Carter; he didn't come back in the van for another 45 minutes after initially leaving!! I thought he was frostbit to death!!!) So the process continued...we would wait until the vehicles in front of us took a run at the next turn and made it up, if it didn't, we would help push it up. Then we would again get on the back of our van and begin rocking as the driver hit the gas, inside the group was rocking back and forth as well to maximize the traction, it was really quite hilarious... because each corner we rounded, the team erupted with cheer. As did the 3 of us on the back of the van!
Eventually we would hit snags and be stuck for sometimes an hour before we were able to try another corner, moving cars in front or even sometimes pulled over waiting while a 18 wheeler truck navigated its way DOWN this road, just squeaking by our van with only inches of it going off the cliff. This was by far the most unbelievable technical driving I had ever seen, even though there was an incredible amount of luck involved. On one of our turns we were most excited to get up and around, we actually stopped 4 times trying to drive up it, I was beginning to think this was literally the end of the road for us. We would get half way up the big turn, the van would stop while the tires were spinning aggressively, and start siding backward toward the cliff edge, only stopping short because the two guides and I were holding the van by the racks and helping direct it to safety. I could have skated on this road with the amount of ice, we were typically sliding or hanging on.
Eventually around 4-5am the team ran out of hope; the line of vehicles in front of us was too solid to get around and the conditions of the road ahead were too bad to help move vehicles in front. We decided, we'll try and sleep only to begin again when the sun comes up and hopefully melts some of the ice. 12 hours in the van so far.
8am rolls around FINALLY. Most of the night we all "slept" sitting up with a draft coming through the windows and doors because this van was ancient. Not to mention Britt and the British girl had acute food poisoning from our lunch spot; the British girl opened the sliding door in the middle of the night 3 or 4 times to have a nice vomit. Britt... well, for those who know her... know the situation was NOT good in that tightly spaced van. It's a good thing there was a windy draft, now that I am thinking of it! The night was a grind to say the very least.
No sooner than the sun rising over the mountain did the whole process begin again, with everyone out pushing cars, breaking ice, all the while cars flying full speed at corners to try to get up and around the hair pin turns. Deja vu, only with sunlight which made it more enjoyable. We helped others that were stuck in older trucks and buses and laughed with locals as they slipped, feel down, and crawled their way to their vehicles. It was most definitely the laugher and smiles of everyone else in this situation, that helped us stay positive, in such a tough situation. By 2 pm that day, we finally connected back up with the new highway at the mountain peak, the road was finally cleared enough to drive with light traffic safely back to La Paz. Aside from two of the Colombians missing their flight that was set for 10am that morning out of the city, all was well and everyone was still in such great spirits!
After one of the most exhilarating, exhausting, challenging and freezing nights of our lives, we were in great spirits on the way down towards the city. To see the Bolivian people come together the way they did, immediately mobilizing when the roads were a complete disaster, to help one another, for the greater cause. It was amazing to experience. Old Bolivian men and women were out at 2am with wrenches beating the road with all their strength in order to help move strangers' cars. People were laughing and joking in Spanish, joking with me as we pushed cars as hard as we could up the icy turns. A time or two I even got in vans packed with locals and began rocking away in order to try getting up the turn with me (more weight) in the van. It was a fine display of teamwork, one that could have been a very negative/terrible experience back home in North America. The Bolivians had each others' backs and it was amazing to be a part of! Long story short, we made it!
Below is this picture I took of Britt at sunrise, she's laying back sleeping on the British girls legs, who are also wrapped tightly in a blanket. We were working as a team as well.
The pictures below that are some of the roads in daylight, you can see how icy/narrow/dodgy the roads are and the long winding roads with line ups of cars and trucks. Also gives you a look at what Carter would have been doing all night on the side of the van.
Although an absolutely crazy and sometimes frightful experience, it had a happy ending! The group was in great spirits, they were all really lovely people. To top it off, our new Colombian pal Andres (below), experienced his first time peeing in the snow! We told him he had to try and write his name and he said it was a success! (see in the distance all the cars/trucks/buses lined up still stuck on the road)
(Brittany writing) SO! If biking and camping out on the most dangerous road in the world wasn't enough...
Carter some how talked me into attempting to summit a 6,000M mountain, Huayna Potosi as our next adventure...oh yeah, and only 4 days after our Death Road experience.
Because the nature of the tough climb, and the risk involved, we decided to spend a bit more money and went with the most reputable company in La Paz, Climbing South America. We knew this would be a tough attempt since neither Carter and I had hiking boots. AH-HA, I was still rocking my trusty Nikes throughout our adventures and Carter still couldn't find any boots his size in South America. So when the company equipped us with our climbing gear, helmets, crampons and ice picks... we were also given our hard mountaineering boots (which were essentially ski boots) that are typically used for the higher/snowy regions of the climb where you need insulated boots for much colder climate. These were the hard shell boots we used from base camp, for the next three days! Other climbers were in their flexible hiking boots until they hit the snow, but we unfortunately had to lug our backpacks up in ski boots for 3 days (see photos below). OOPS.
We were a group of 2 Canadians, 2 Dutch, 2 Germans and an American. Each group of 2 had their own Bolivian guide. One of the four guides spoke English very well... hilariously enough for us, ours was not that guide! However, he was a funny, hardworking guy who spoke slowly enough for us to understand, and motivated to get us to the top!
We arrived at Base Camp (4,700m) by van which is where we got settled for a lunch and then we hiked up to the glacier to practice our ice pick climbing and crampon skills by scaling a glacier wall.
Below is a picture of our entire group, guides included:
After the ice wall fun, we hiked back down to base camp, had an early dinner, slept for the night. Sleeping at Base camp we felt the affects of the altitude slightly, but were able to sleep fine. The next morning we got up and started toward High Camp, which was a 4-5 hour climb that day, bringing us to 5,150m.
Getting my crampons strapped on for the snowy/icy parts:
Above is almost to high camp, it's the final check point for climbers where you sign in your name, country and passport number...juuuuuuuust incase.
We reached High Camp, making a gain of elevation of 450M from Base Camp only...but boy, were those 450M tough with the ski boots, crampons, layers and heat of the sun. We were now sitting at 5,150M.
Below is us arriving at high camp, if you look at the highest peak in the photo, that is Huayna Potosi Peak, we will make the summit attempt there at midnight.
Our main objective here was to acclimatize, so we picked out a nice spot on the rock and warmed up in the sun's rays! Not entirely sure how we would be feeling up here, we were VERY happy with the way we were feeling. We were smooth sailing, no altitude sickness, no signs as of yet. Just kick back and enjoy the incredible views.
From so high in the mountain, we also had a pretty spectacular vantage point during sunset:
After dinner and about 7 litres of coca leaf tea (which helps with symptoms of altitude sickness...we literally drank it the entire time at high camp). This is the leaf they use to create cocaine...so we felt a little weird drinking so much of it, but again "TRUST THE SYSTEM"!!
So, we went to bed at 6pm for a quick nap, to wake up at midnight and begin the summit attempt.
The American, Roy, was in real rough shape as we were waking up to leave high camp. He was drive heaving, felt nauseous and sick, the altitude was clearly getting to him. But he ensure everyone he didn't come all this way for nothing, so he got ready first and headed out 30 minutes before the rest of us left as he would be going really slowly up the mountain. The rest of the crew left around 12:30am, and we headed out 15 minutes after with our guide.
The 3 of us (Antonio, Carter and I) were all tied together with a line, in case one of us fell; the weight of the others would hold the climber from falling down the mountain side. And trust me... there were times that that little line was a HUGE piece of mind. And times we had to tell ourselves, not to look down.
With all of the layers we were wearing, the ski boots, crampons, back packs, the tiredness, and altitude... our legs and bodies felt like 300LBS. It was like lifting a large wood log every time you took a step, and each step was a challenge to take. And this was just on the gradual incline in the first 2-3 hours.
Then we came to our first technical portion and had to essentially rock climb up a short wall, using our ice picks and front of our crampons. I usually got pulled up by our guide, as he kept the slack on our rope really tight during this time. We were completely winded after that climb and when we came to the top of that wall, we could see everyone else from our group was too. We had caught up to the other 3 groups and saw them all resting, sitting in the snow, eating chocolate bars for energy and drinking cold coca tea to help with the altitude sickness. After a short rest (our guide never let us sit for too long, he kept us moving along despite some slight complaining) it was onward and upward!
The last push was the absolute hardest; at the highest altitude, we hit the most technical climbing, at the point of most exhaustion - there was about 15 steep, steep cut backs up the side of the mountain, where you got to the switch back, had to step over the rope and start back the opposite way. The turns were SO steep, that I actually turned and sat on the ledge like a chair for a quick rest. There were a few sections where you needed to engage your icepicks, hang on tight to the safety rope, and never look down. Because if we slipped up and went down, it was likely the end of your climb. Throughout the last 2 hours of the summit attempt we passed everyone in our group and ended up reaching the summit first!! This moment was the most proud of each other we've ever been during this trip! Reaching the summit wasn't easy but we worked together to remember to focus on our breathing and maximize oxygen intake, we work hard and it was all worth it. We reached 6,088M JUST in time for sunrise!!
As we got to the very top, it was only the size of a parking space and dropped right down...I mean STRAIGHT down behind us on the North face of the mountain. It was almost sickening how steep it was behind us. We had the moon in the back over La Paz, and the sunrise in front of us.
It was the most beautiful sunrise we ever did see! It was completely, totally, worth the absolute grind up to witness what we saw!! For reference, the highest mountain in North America is Denali in Alaska. Denali sits at 6,190m... only 102m (length of a soccer field) higher than the peak we reached!
For those now wondering...Mount Everest is 8,848 m. And no, we will not be summiting it (at least I won't be, I can't speak for the mountain man).
After 20 minutes of catching our breath and enjoying our accomplishment, our guide turned us around back down the mountain. He informed us if we waited too long and the sun would be strong enough to create avalanches putting us at higher risk. Right before we collected ourselves to begin the long trip down, out of nowhere, ROY shows up (our American buddy) he made it! We thought for sure he was a goner when we saw the shape he was in at high camp, however, he did it and got the picture that will last forever.
The way down was long, hot, and almost as bad as the way up... especially for Carter who was baking in the hot sun and having layering issues haha! It was SO hot.
Above was taken on our way back toward La Paz, this is the base of Huayna Potosi, from this perspective it looks quite evil and daunting.
Overall it was probably the hardest thing we've ever done together. We are so proud of one another and the whole group we went out with who made it. We were able to grab some much needed beers back in the city and talk about our experiences. SO FUN!
Also, below is all the food we (deservingly) grubbed after the crazy adventure:
On the left was some of our favourite Bolivian dishes from a fast-food type chain. The soup is Sopa de Mani (Peanut Soup) and the plate is Silpancho. It consists of a base layer of rice, usually white, followed by a layer of boiled and sliced potatoes. Next, a thin layer of meat is laid on top, followed by a layer of chopped tomato and onion.
On the right is a Llama flank steak! A South American delicacy. It tasted like liver; it was quite good... (for those of you who actually like liver).
One of our last days in Bolivia ended with a surprise bonus; a cultural parade that started at 8am all the way to night fall and a street party!
Overall, Bolivia is one of our favourite countries we've ever travelled. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming. To truly enjoy your time, its best to learn enough Spanish to converse and ask the questions you'd like to locals. We did so many incredible things and yet we have so much more to do when we return one day. I can say for sure, we will visit again and have a full schedule to things to do.
Amamos bolivia!! Adios!!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!