Bolivian Sunset

It might be my love of the sundowner that makes me an aficionado of the sunset, but the stunning extremes of colour that sunsets provide is something I’ll never tire of watching – especially if it comes with a vodka and tonic. I can’t say I have the same feelings towards sunrise, I’ve seen a few but it’s not my favourite time of day.

Sunset is a magical time, especially for a keen amateur photographer like myself. I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some beautiful sunsets in some extraordinary places around the world – the sunset in the desert north of Timbuktu will live long in the memory. Bolivia’s diverse landscapes – from the high Andes to the Amazon Basin – have provided sunsets to match any I’ve seen before.

The hills of the Corillera de los Failles that form the backdrop to our home in Sucre have been the setting for many a pleasant sundowner while watching the sky explode with colour. It is an ever changing palette and now the rains have come the scattering of cloud has made sunset even more impressive.

Sunset over Sucre, Bolivia

This photo was taken as the sun set and a tremendous storm ranged across the mountains, there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain – but none of the rain landed on Sucre itself.

Sunset and a storm over Sucre, Bolivia

Sunset and street lights over Sucre, Bolivia

Although Sucre’s backdrop of mountains is impressive, you’d have to go a long way to find a backdrop to match that of La Paz at sunset.

La Paz sunset with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Travels around the country have also witnessed some stunning sunsets. These are from the high altiplano in Sajama National Park, the first was taken just as an adult and baby llama crossed in front of me.

Sunset and llamas, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

The next shots come from the Amazon basin, first in the small village of San Ignacio de Moxos where the entire village seemed to gather at the nearby lake Isiboro to cool off, most people left as the sun went down but a few people stayed in the water until darkness descended.

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Walking back from the lake to the village of San Ignacio several vehicles kicked-up enough dust to get this pattern in the sky and the haziness in the trees.

Sunset in San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

I love the way water and sky combine at sunset, there was no better example than when we sailed up the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon.

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Amazon Basin, Bolivia

Sticking with the water theme, I’ll finish this montage of sunsets with two from Lago Titicaca.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Trekking the Cordillera Real and climbing Pequena Alpamayo (5370m)

A bit like the ‘drinking-hangover conundrum’ (i.e. one leads to the other but we never learn from the experience and repeat the cycle over-and-over, at least in the case of most people I know), having climbed Huyana Potosi I decided that it would be prudent to do some trekking and more climbing.

I booked a five day trek-climb combo with Climbing South America (http://www.climbingsouthamerica.com), run by the very affable and very experienced climbing specialist, Jeff, an Australian whose been living in Bolivia for the last 15 years.

The final destination was to be the beautiful 4600m Condoriri Basecamp and a night time ascent of Pequena Alpamayo. At 5370m, Pequena Alpamayo is a bit lower than Huyana Potosi, but I’d been told it was a ‘spectacular’ and ‘dramatic’ climb which offered great views of the surrounding Cordillera Real.

The trek started at the beautiful Laguna Quta Quita, about a four hour drive from La Paz up a long glacial valley dotted with farms and the occasional village. Our first night’s campsite couldn’t have been more picturesque, set against the mountains and the aquamarine blue of the lake.

Laguna Quta Quita nestles amongst the Cordillera Real

Laguna Quta Quita nestles amongst the Cordillera Real

We’d be camping in fairly remote areas, so we had to carry everything we needed with us, food, cooking equipment, climbing equipment, tents, etc. Luckily, Jeff had booked some local donkeys and their owners to do all the heavy lifting – just as well as the total weight of our gear came to more than 150kgs. I wasn’t volunteering to carry it.

My tent at the first campsite

My tent at the first campsite

After a freezing cold night (ice on the inside of my tent), we had a late start before trekking over a mountain pass towards Laguna Ajwani and our second campsite. En route we were treated to beautiful views of far off Lake Titicaca and the flat, seemingly endless Altiplano stretching all the way to the Chilean border.

Mountain valley with llama

Mountain valley with llama

Five hours of walking later, we arrived at Laguna Ajwani to discover the local, Quechua-speaking community, had constructed a hostal near the lake. The hostal had twelve double en suite bedrooms, a large communal area and a shared kitchen. Sadly, there was no furniture (beds, mattresses, chairs, tables), no running water, no heating and, despite there being lightbulbs in each light fitting, no electricity. Turns out the government had given the building materials for free, but that’s where the assistance ended. No water or electricity, no marketing and ultimately no tourists using it…a real shame for both tourists and the local community.

Laguna Ajwani

Laguna Ajwani

The dysfunctional community hostal at Laguna Ajwani

The dysfunctional community hostal at Laguna Ajwani

Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, we asked the community representative if we could stay in the hostal, and, for the princely sum of $2, we slept on the floor in the communal area. Not exactly luxury, but not a tent. Although none of the bathrooms inside the hostal worked, the community had constructed an outside toilet; cold but certainly not up there with the toilet on Huyana Potosi.

World's second coldest toilet?

World’s second coldest toilet?

After an early breakfast and packing the donkeys with the gear we were off for a long day that would see us cross three mountain passes, descending into three valleys before finally reaching Condoriri Basecamp in preparation for the climb of Pequena Alpamayo. The route was…beautiful.

Early morning over the Cordillera Real

Early morning over the Cordillera Real

If you look closely, you can see our route down the side of the mountain

If you look closely, you can see our route down the side of the mountain

One of several high altitude lakes on the route

One of several high altitude lakes on the route

After several hours of walking we reached the magnificent Condoriri Basecamp, situated next to another lake at the foot of the Condoriri Massive, a collection of thirteen different peaks, including the Cabeza de Condor (because it looks like a Condor spreading its wings) and Pequena Alpmayo.

The Condoriri Basecamp sits on the far side of the lake

The Condoriri Basecamp sits on the far side of the lake

After a well earned rest, we pitched the tents and had some food before getting an early night in preparation for a 3am start for our ascent of Pequena Alpamayo. The route would take us up the valley (approximately an hour of walking), before reaching the base of a huge glacier where we’d stop to put on crampons, harnesses and ropes, before climbing the glacier for another 2 – 3 hours.

The glacier climb was steep and seemingly endless; as I was beginning to give up hope we finally reached the ‘top’ of the glacier and a natural dip in the mountains, just as the sun was rising. If there was ever a sunrise to make you forget the burning muscles in your legs, the burning of your lungs and the lack of feeling in your toes, this was that sunrise. Truly magnificent…

A sunrise to end all sunrises halfway up Pequena Alpamayo

A sunrise to end all sunrises halfway up Pequena Alpamayo

Although we’d been going for over three hours, our ordeal had only just begun as sunrise revealed what was left to climb. I realised that I’d been a bit preemptive in thinking that things couldn’t get more terrifying than the ascent of Huyana Potosi. The route up Pequena Alpamayo really was going to be scary.

First we had to climb Mount Tarija, itself 5100m, before descending again and starting the final, death-defying climb to the summit of Pequena Alpamayo.

The route to the top of Mount Tarija - straight up

The route to the top of Mount Tarija – straight up

The summit of Pequena Alpamayo from Mount Tarija

The summit of Pequena Alpamayo from Mount Tarija

Seen from a distance, Pequena Alpamayo looks very dramatic, but when you start the climb to the summit the true nature of the mountain becomes clear. Anyone who suffers from a fear of heights, may want to look away now.

Jeff leading the way up a near vertical wall of ice and snow

Jeff leading the way up a near vertical wall of ice and snow

Yes, that really is the edge of the mountain - 1000m vertical drop off the right-hand side

Yes, that really is the edge of the mountain – 1000m vertical drop off the right-hand side

It was at this point that I was beginning to doubt my sanity, the climb up and down this wall of ice was a combination of terror induced adrenaline and sheer bloody-mindedness. I was also beginning to wish I’d taken out proper mountaineering insurance.

The only way is up, unfortunately

The only way is up, unfortunately

Thanks to Jeff’s skill and encouragement, I finally made it to the top, where we were presented with winter-wonderland views over the surrounding mountains. I’d have jumped with joy if I’d had the energy.

I hope the relief at still being alive is evident

I hope the relief at still being alive is evident

The view over the Cordillera Real

The view over the Cordillera Real

The view back to basecamp and down the valley

The view back to basecamp and down the valley

The journey back down the mountain was exhausting, but the views of the glacier and of the surrounding mountains compensated. Back at basecamp I treated myself to a couple of (very) cold beers and a large bar of chocolate, before catching up on some much needed sleep. After another early night we set off trekking down the valley to reach the dirt track and our transport back to the Altiplano.

Back up the mountain another group starts to descend

Back up the mountain another group starts to descend

The view back up the glacier with Pequena Alpamayo peaking up to the right

The view back up the glacier with Pequena Alpamayo peaking up to the right

Home sweet home, Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Home sweet home, Cordillera Real, Bolivia

The night sky...you don't get this in London

The night sky…you don’t get this in London

Climbing Huyana Potosi (6088m)

6088m Huyana Potosi looks innocent enough from a distance

Although Huyana Potosi is 6088 meters high (that’s more than 6 kilometres straight up into the atmosphere), it is considered to be an easy 6000m mountain for novice climbers. So, without realising what I was letting myself in for, I joined five other intrepid novices and headed to the 4750m basecamp of the Huyana Potosi Agency, run by the genial but slightly bonkers Dr. Hugo Berrios – a mountain legend in these parts.

After lunch we headed out to the ‘old’ glacier for an afternoon of ice walking and climbing to prepare us for our attempt on Huyana Potosi; returning for an early night in preparation for going up to the refugio at the high camp, located 5100m up Huyana Potosi.

The climb to the high camp looks a lot easier than it actually was

The refugio was pretty basic, but dramatically located overlooking the valley below, and also featured what must count as one of the coldest toilets on planet earth.

Home for the night at 5100m

World’s coldest toilet?

Our group consisted of three Brits, a Brazilian, an American and a Spaniard, plus three Bolivian mountain guides (three groups of three), and as we went to bed in the freezing cold refugio we were in high spirits. We would have to set off for the top of Huyana Potosi at 1.30am, so we were early to bed, although I don’t think many people got much sleep.

The first signs of ‘trouble’ came at 9.30pm when I braved the freezing cold to go to the toilet, only to be confronted by a snowstorm. Not unusual, but not very welcome all the same. By the time we set off at 1.30am there was about 6 – 8 inches of snow on the ground, which not only covered over the trail to the summit, but also made walking much more difficult and energy sapping.

There is something weird about walking up a mountain in the dark. You have no idea of the landscape you are walking through and you can’t see where you are going – which, given how far we had to walk and how steep some of sections were, was probably for the best. The altitude was difficult to deal with and we needed fairly regular breaks.

Catching our breath on Huyana Potosi

The smile is entirely false

The climb to the base of the summit took approximately 5 hours, and we were pretty tired by the time we reached the final, dramatic climb to the summit. This started with our guide giving us the warning that this section was “very, very dangerous”. Now you tell us!

Then we were off, climbing up a narrow ice ‘bridge’ at an angle of about 50 degrees with nothing but 1000m drops on either side. At the top of the ice bridge was a narrow ledge of ice and fresh snow which stretched for about 200 meters to the top of the mountain – at some points the ledge was no more than 4 – 6 inches wide, with nothing but vertical drops either side. My ice boots were at least 4 inches wide, leaving little room for error.

It was terrifying, but we edged along the ledge putting our faith in our crampons and ice axes, and trying (in my case) to think of what would drive a nominally sane human being to be edging along an ice ledge at 6000m at 6am with certain death just one slip away. In part this question was answered when we reached the top just as the sun was rising, but the adrenalin was pumping so hard around my brain that it was pretty difficult to grasp the beauty of our surroundings for a few minutes.

The sun rises through the cloud and snow on the summit of Huyana Potosi

Once the sun was up, the true beauty of where we were became apparent…and, despite the fact that we were balanced precariously on a lump of ice and snow 6088m in the sky, it really was amazing. To the bottom left of the photo below is the narrow ice ledge that we had just walked up, and which we’d have to go back down again.

Sunrise reveals the majesty of the Cordillera Real

Another group arrives at the top

Tired, terrified but triumphant…the summit of Huyana Potosi

Don’t look down! Life at the edge on the summit of Huyana Potosi

After catching our breath for a few minutes on the summit, we started our descent of the ice ledge, which was even more terrifying than the ascent, and then the three hour trek back down the mountain to the high camp. With the sun rising in the sky, we could finally see what we had walked up to reach the summit, and it revealed an amazing landscape of ice and snow.

Descent of Huyana Potosi

Gazing over the Cordillera real

Ice formations

It was a long way down

Views of the Cordillera Real

More snow and ice

At last, sight of the basecamp

Andean Adventure: Return to La Paz

The story so far: 42-year old male currently domiciled in Sucre, Bolivia, decides that it would be fun to climb some mountains and trek through the beautiful valleys and over the mountain passes of the Cordillera Real.

In what scientists may one day identify as a moment of mid-life crisis, this proves to be at best foolhardy, and at times terrifying and very, very cold. For three weeks, said 42-year old male departs the warm and pleasant climate of Sucre and heads for the mountains and a life under tent canvass…leaving him at times wondering if buying a sports car or dating an 18-year old with the IQ of a lemon wouldn’t be a more sensible mid-life crisis to be having.

He even buys a mid-life crisis mountain hat…

On the slopes before Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

On the slopes before Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

Lovely…

…after three weeks in the mountains I returned to La Paz and civilisation, desiring nothing more than a shower (preferably hot), a cold beer and the world’s most enormous steak.

As ambitions go, these seemed manageable, but this is Bolivia where “everything is possible, nothing is certain”. As we approached La Paz word reached us that the city was currently being engulfed by riots, there were blockades and there was rumour of the army being deployed to the streets.

I asked the driver why the army was being deployed. The answer, “It is the police who are rioting.” Of course they are, why wouldn’t the police be rioting?

Turns out that police demands for higher wages (and their general animosity towards the government) had tipped over into a strike and eventually riots, all gleefully reported in the media…

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

The police had attacked one of their own buildings in La Paz, smashed computers, burned files and other paperwork, started a bonfire with office furniture and fired their guns in the air. If you’re going to have a riot, you may as well have the professionals do it, so much more effective than just a few hoodies from the local estate smashing up a Boots on the high street.

Yet this is the same police force that likes to portray itself as a cuddly dog. Only a few blocks from the scene of the riots, this painting adorns the wall of a police compound…oh, the irony.

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Mercifully, the police had limited their riot to a reasonably small area of the city, and I was able to reach my hotel, get a hot shower…you cannot imagine the simple pleasure of a hot shower under such circumstances…and a cold beer. All in time to watch England go out of Euro 2012 with a whimper.

More on what I’ve been doing for the last three weeks to come…