In life we are always chasing something, whether it be a career, owning your own home, a husband/wife/partner or a personal best in sport. But I find when travelling that you are chasing other things like climbing the Eiffel Tower, walking the Great Wall of China, trekking to Machu Pichu, diving the Galapagos, the sun (my personal favourite), the best exchange rates, the coolest hostel, the safest journey from A to B and I can relate to all of this and even participate in this chasing. Then you have travellers that chase the highest points and climbing them and this I certainly cannot relate to. I personally have never been a fan of this and find myself making excuses when the suggestion of climbing something high comes up (once I even confessed that I had to get my nails done rather than spend 8 hours climbing a mountain), don’t get me wrong I do occasionally get sucked into it like when I travelled to Sri Lanka and we climbed Adams Peak at 2am in the morning to view the sunrise, it was 5000 steps up and leech infested but it was a challenge that I was willing to take on and little was needed in the way of clothing/equipment to reach it.
You may wonder where this is leading to but it happens that just a few days ago I found myself on the wrong tour and yes you guessed it they were chasing mountains, a volcano in fact and one that stood at 6008m!!!
I was in Tupiza in the south of Bolivia waiting to get on to a 4 day tour of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and Uyuni Salt Flats, days were ticking away and I finally found a tour that needed one more person and was leaving in 2 days, so I paid up front and said I would see them in 2 days time at 8.30am to depart. So the day came for us to leave and I rocked up with my bags all set to go. When I arrived the lady at the tour agency asked me to take a seat as she needed to speak with me, oh dear, thoughts were going through my head like someone has pulled out and we have to wait another day and so on but this was not the case, the tour was going ahead it’s just that the tour I had been booked on was a 5 day tour and the extra day was for climbing a volcano, and a very high one at that!!!! Anyway I thought I need to get on this tour and an extra day won’t hurt but climbing a volcano, well that might!! I was not to be charged for the extra day as it was the agency’s fault in putting me on the wrong tour but if I chose to climb the volcano with the others then I would need to pay towards the guides fee which was fair enough, at this stage the thoughts running through my head was ‘no way am I climbing up the volcano I’ll just wait at the bottom’!!!. The lady did add that due to a lot of recent snow that the climb may not even take place and that the tour would then be the regular 4 day one, yes let’s hope that this is the case.
My fellow chasers were a French couple in their late 20’s early 30’s, Audrey & Juan and an English guy the same age as me, Stuart. Our driver’s name was Edson and his wife was to be our cook (hmmmm have no idea what her name is even after 5 days but she was a really good cook). So off we set on our 5 day (maybe 4) tour. Not far into our drive we were welcomed with some amazing scenery, canyons, funky rock formations, cactus and snow capped mountains, and it was just incredible. Come lunch we stopped in a farming area of llamas, there were plenty of llamas and so we took plenty of photos while lunch was being prepared out of the back of the jeep. After lunch our drive continued through the ever changing landscapes and we also saw Vicunas (their wool is the 2nd most expensive textile after silk), Suri’s (similar to an Ostrich) and birds including Condors. Towards the end of the day we came to some Incan ruins that the Bolivians nicknamed Little Machu Pichu, here we saw some animals similar to a rabbit but with long bushy tails. From the ruins we next headed to our accommodation for the night but not before we stopped for an hour trying to help another jeep that had broken down. Our accommodation was very basic, a concrete floor room with five beds and just a thin roof with no insulation. Thankfully I had hired a sleeping bag as I had many conversations with travellers that had done the tour and could not express highly enough just how cold it got in the nights.
Now my original thoughts were that the climb would take place on day 5, oh how wrong could I be! During the days travels I discovered that day 2 was the climb. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm not much time to make the decision and psyche myself up for the challenge. Over dinner we discussed the climb and the decision was made that I would do it. The worst case scenario was that anyone not able to complete the climb would make the descent with our driver, which would most likely be me!!
Day 1 of our tour was now finished and it was 10pm, time for bed and the thoughts going through my head was just how cold will it get during the night. Surprisingly enough with my leggings, scarf and 4 layers on top, a sleep sheet, a sleeping bag and 4 blankets I was toasty warm, it was just a pity that I couldn’t get any sleep due to the high altitude (we were sitting at well over 4000m). At 6.30am it was time to get up and prepare ourselves for the climb. I felt pretty crappy from the lack of sleep and doubts of whether I should attempt the climb were starting to run through my head but I felt that I had to give it a go. Now normally when you do any physical activity you tend to get warm and take layers off the further you get into the activity so I decided that I would only wear my hiking trousers, 2 tops, scarf, jacket, hat, gloves and an extra top to change into should I be sweaty once I reached the top. Boy was I kidding myself!!!
There was also a second group doing the climb with us, a French Family of four and the Dad was a professional climbing guide back in France so you could just imagine how prepared they were. They had walking sticks, big fat puffy jackets, big warm boots, face masks that covered the mouth and nose from the cold harsh wind etc. Was I worried, not one bit!!! I thought if I could do this with my apparel then it just goes to show that you don’t need anything fancy to climb a big hill!!!! Yeah right!!!
It took an hour to drive to where we were going to start our ascent from; the good thing was is that we were nearly at the top of the bloody thing without doing anything but the bad thing was that we had reached SNOW. I could see the top of the volcano (active I might add) and it was blowing a gale.......#*%$!! I wasn’t counting on wind ‘why didn’t I wear a pair of leggings under my trousers!’ I say to myself. So out of the jeep we get and it is cold...OMG....Like is this for real???!!!
After some fathing about we start to make our way up the volcano very slowly and it gets colder and colder, not warmer as I had hoped for. The wind just bit right through you and I thought my toes, fingers and nose would drop off there and then. I think I lasted 1.5 hours before I said ‘NO MAS’ I was just too cold and with my lack of sleep and the lack of oxygen I could just go no further. The thought of continuing and getting even colder than I was just about bought me to tears. At this point it was time for a tea break and I welcomed the hot maté de coca (tea made from coca leaves...yes the same leaves they use to make cocaine but a lot of other s*** goes into it as well for that!). Coca leaves are very good for altitude especially when you chew them but I am not a fan of this but very much enjoy drinking them in tea.
At this stage we were at about 5800m which was enough for me so I said goodbye to my travel buddies, wished them luck and made my way with our driver to the warmth of our jeep. Now though I had the waiting game for them to finish the climb which would take a couple of hours..... but no, before too long I saw someone coming down and then 5 minutes later I saw the rest of the group....what had happened???? All I knew at this stage is that we would be getting off this volcano sooner than later and I was very happy.
Stuart was the first down and the news was delivered that approximately 150m from the top the snow had become hard ice and it was considered too dangerous to continue, mind you the Bolivian guide was happy to keep going, it was the professional French guide that made the decision to not continue any further!
And so the chase was over and I was overjoyed as I just wanted to get back and get warm......somehow!
Day 3 saw us visiting many lakes including Laguna Verde (Green Lake and very toxic) and Laguna Colorada. The Laguna Colorada is famous for its Flamingos and attracts many tourists to the park just for this. During the summer thousands of flamingos migrate here but at this time of year only a couple of hundred could be seen. Never less the lake was quite spectacular as it is red in colour, covers 60 sq km and reaches only a depth of 80cm.
Between lakes we also saw the Salvador Dali Dessert, simply a surreal sight and it was a real highlight for me as I love Salvador Dali’s work. Next was a dip in Termas de Polques, hot springs of around 30 degrees. It was awesome after all of the coldness we had been experiencing and the springs overlooked a picturesque lake and snow capped mountains. Next was a visit to some geysers with bubbling mud pots and the nauseating aroma of sulphur. Another night in similar accommodation but not as cold as the previous nights surprisingly enough. Other than the first night we were in bed no later than 7.30/8pm each night.
Day 4 was probably the least exciting day but never the less we passed through some amazing scenery including lakes, volcanoes and snow capped mountains, oh and the odd llama or two!
Day 5 and our final day and we were up early to catch the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni. This salar is the largest in the world and covers an area of 12,106 sq km. It was an amazing sight but the area sees extreme temperatures and I think before the sun came up that it was actually colder than on the volcano climb (and this time I was wearing 2 pairs of leggings, trousers and 5 layers on top plus scarves, hats and gloves), was it even possible that I could get any colder...........well apparently so!
It’s hard to believe that the vast whiteness before you is salt and not ice or snow (especially with the cold temperatures). It was an amazing experience!
After a 10 hour overnight bus I am now in La Paz, the countries capital and pretty high at 3660m. Even though the days are warmer the nights are still chilly so it’s time now to chase some warmth so off to the Amazonas Jungle I go and whilst I bathe in the tropical heat maybe I will see a monkey or two, swim with a caiman or spot an anaconda............