After the stopover in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the last part of our flight from Vienna to La Paz seemed to be a continuous climb flight. The airport of La Paz in El Alto (Spanish for The Height) – located on the Altiplano highlands – is maybe the world's highest international airport. The touchdown of your plane at 4050m literally makes you gasp for air and you easily understand why there is a compression chamber next to the baggage claim.
La Paz itself lies in a canyon and is perhaps one of the most pleasant capitals of South America. The atmosphere is relaxed, criminality seems to be limited, and the inhabitants are friendly and politely reserved. Still the first days in La Paz were quite strenuous. The streets in La Paz can be considerable steep and if you're not yet acclimatized walking uphill in this high altitude can make a simple walk around the block an exhausting endeavour.
To get acclimatized we decided to start off with a 4 day trip to Isla del Sol. Isla del Sol is an island in Lake Titicaca. We bought a bus ticket to Copacabana a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca right in front of Isla del Sol. To avoid a big detour over Peru the bus to Copacabana crosses Lake Titicaca at the Estrecho de Tiquina. Copacabana is a pleasant little town, with many fine restaurants, friendly locals and a beautiful location between rocky headlands, overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Titicaca, which is by the way at 3800m height the highest navigable lake on earth.
From Copacabana we started hiking along the Copacabana Peninsula towards Yampupata. The trail is relatively flat, but even small hills are higher than 4000m and we still weren't acclimatized. So we happily accepted, when a local fisherman offered to row us over to the Isla del Sol. Two hours later we pitched our tent on the island.
The following day we crossed the Isla del Sol, hiking along the western side of the island until we reached the shores of the Bahia Sabecera in the early afternoon. We camped directly on the beach in a stunningly beautiful cove. The sun was so hot on this afternoon, that we even dared a quick swim in the freezing cold lake Titicaca.
The last day of our excursion we hiked back south to Escalera del Inca, this time on the eastern side of the island, which is more densely populated and features a succession of bays, beaches and villages with a distinct Mediterranean feel. From Escalera del Inca we took the ferry back to Copacabana.
Chacaltaya is famous for being the world's only ski resort above 5000m altitude and being the closest ski area to the equator. It is also Bolivia's only ski resort and there's actually one single lift but no more snow. As there have hardly been any snow or rain falls for several years – probably due to recent climate changes – skiing is no longer possible on Chacaltaya.
But even without the skiing option, Chacaltaya is a worthwhile destination for a one day excursion from La Paz. The Refugio Chacaltaya of Club Andino Boliviano at 5300m can be quite easily reached by car. To reach the summit at 5422m from the refugio is an easy half an hour walk. We used this trip for further acclimatization and spent more than two hours at the summit.
Our first trekking tour brought us to the friendly town of Sorata. Sorata lies nestled below the enormous white bulk of Nevada Illampu and Ancohuma and is the ideal base for treks into the furthest western extent of the Cordillera Real. With 2695m height it is the lowest point of our Bolivia trip so far.
Actually we had planned to do the full 7 days Illampu Circuit Trek. But the Asociacion de Guias Turisticas y Porteadores, a very recommendable nonprofit organization that trains and employs local guides and porters, discouraged us from the trip. On the trail near Laguna San Francisco armed robberies happen on a systematic basis. The funny thing is, it seems to be only one man and his two sons who have committed these robberies for a couple of years and everybody seems to know them – everybody knows their names, knows where they live, but still police seems to consider the remote location around Laguna San Francisco simply out of their jurisdiction.
As we didn't want to take any unnecessary risks we went for the shorter but also very scenic trek to Laguna Glacial. Normally we prefer trekking on our own, but the prospect of climbing 2300 meters up to an elevation over 5000m in only two days while carrying heavy loads made us rethink and we hired a mule for our package.
On the first day we started early from Sorata and climbed up to Laguna Chillata at 4200m. Even with the mule carrying our package the 1500m elevation gain was strenuous enough. We enjoyed a wonderfull sunset before we crawled into our sleeping bags.
The next morning we left tent and mule with the nine year old son of our guide at the Laguna Chillata and headed on. The trail to Laguna Glacial is steep and leads through rocky buttresses and over a glacier moraine and ist too difficult for pack animals. We reached the laguna at lunchtime. Laguna Glacial is a beautiful glacial lake at 5038m. The glacier calving into the laguna is receding fast (more than 10m per year) and is considerably smaller than usually displayed on older photographs, but it is still an impressive sight.
We spent some hours at this marvelous spot enjoying the spectacular views of the glacier lake and Nevado Illampu. We then descended to Laguna Chillata where we spent another night before we returned to Sorata.
Back in La Paz we checked the various trekking companies to arrange climbing Huayna Potosi. We found Adolfo Andino very competent and arranged a 3 days trekking tour in the Condoriri Group and climbing Huayna Potosi afterwards.
We started the trekking at Estancia Tuni which only consists of a couple of houses near Laguna Tuni. This time we had no mule for our package but two donkeys instead. It was already noon until we had loaded the donkeys and started walking. We reached Lago Juri Khota in the late afternoon where we pitched our tent directly at the shore.
The next day we first followed the shore of Lago Juri Khota and then climbed steadily higher until we reached the top of Pico Austria at 5250m. Up there the panorama is fantastic. You can see the whole Cordillera Real from Illampu and Ancohuma to Condoriri, Pequeño Alpamayo till Huayna Potosi and Illimani, on the other side you see the vast Altiplano with Lake Titicaca in the distance. We descended to Laguna Chiar Khota where we spent our second night.
On our last day we first climbed to a small pass at 5100m, with again splended views but then continually descended until we dived into the fog of the lowlands and reached Estancia Botijlaca where a car already waited to take us back to La Paz.
After a day rest in La Paz we set off for Paso Zongo and pitched our tents near the Huayna Potosi Refugee at 4700m. That day we only ascended to the foot of the glacier for some ice climbing training sessions to get comfortable with our rented mountaineering gear.
The weather was perfect the following morning and looking out of our tents we appreciated the inviting sight of Huayna Potosi in the morning sun. We had to carry all our gear to the high camp at "Campo Roca" (5200m), but the three hours climb was astonishingly easy – all our efforts for acclimatization seemed to pay off now. Campo Roca is the highest point where you can pitch your tent at dry grounds in the rocks. We had early dinner, sipped some tea and at 6 pm we were all in our tents. We expected a cold night as it was a totally clear and we never had camped over 5000m before. But the camp was well sheltered and it was surprisingly warm and cosy in our sleeping bags.
We got up at midnight had some quick breakfast and more tea, put on our gear and at 1 am we were already on the glacier. It was a cold and moonless night. The track was marked by little green flags. From time to time there was a red flag instead of a green one – this usually meant trouble – most often a dangerous crevasse to overcome. It didn't take long and the drinking water we carried in our backpacks was completely frozen and shortly after the batteries of our headlamps started to fail because of the cold. From now on we mostly walked in the dark and only turned the headlamps on when we spotted one of these little red warning flags.
We were not the only ones who tried to reach the top of Huayna Potosi that night, we counted the lights of about fifteen other groups on the glacier.
After maybe two hours rather steep climb we reached the flat area of Campo Argentino. Campo Argentino is sometimes also used as high camp, but it's not completely safe and rather exposed to avalanches.
A couple of hours later our way seemed to be blocked by a maybe 30m ice wall with an huge split right before it. We were at the base of the bergshrund marking the top of the lower glacier. This large cervasse is formed when the glacier moves downslope and detaches itself from the mountain's rock. We had to cross the split on a shaky aluminium ladder and climb up the face at an inclination of probably more than 70 degrees. This was definitely the technical crux of the route.
We had now reached the flats that form the base of the summit pyramid. By this time, day dawned over the Amazon Basin. Meanwhile most of the many other groups had given up and turned around. But the most strenuous part lies directly before us – the summit slope. This last face rises around 200 meters vertically, at an inclination around 45 degrees just steep enough that you need your hands and ice axe for climbing. But what made this last slope so strenuous was the knee-high penitentes snow. Penitentes are a snow formation mostly found at high altitudes consitsting of tall thin blades of ice closely spaced with the blades oriented towards the general direction of the sun.
The climb through these partly waist-high blades required all our strength and focus. We were so concentrated on each single step, that we were completely surprised when we had suddenly reached the top and looked over the vast outstreched Altiplano lying far below us. The intense emotions of relief and happiness we experienced on the summit, are hard to describe. Having reached the summit of our first "six thousand meters peak" was definitely the absolut highlight of our trip to Bolivia.
After a recreation day in La Paz we set off for our final trekking tour. This time it won't go uphill but only down following some ancient Inca road into the yungas. After three tours with guide and pack animals it felt good to be on our own again.
From La Paz we took the bus to La Cumbre from where it was a short walk to the Apacheta Chucura Pass at 4860m. From here the next three days will be a continuous downhill walk until we will reach Chairo at 1400m. On the first day the Camino Choro is a wide path with well preserved Inca paving cut into steep cliffs and descending in a series of tight switchbacks to the U-shaped valley below. We passed some lonley enstancias until we dived into the obligatory cloud cover of the yungas. We spent the night at a nice spot on the river banks.
The following days the vegetation started to get very thick beside the trail and the temperature and humidity rose steadily with each meter of descent. We have now entered tropical rain forrest. We passed Casa Sandillani where Tamiji Hanamura a Japanese immigrant has done an incredible job of carving an existence from the jungle. For many years Tamiji has collected guestbook entries from tourists passing by and he now probably knows more about the world than many of the travellers.
After reaching the end of the Chorro Trek at Chairo we took a bus to Coroico where we planned to relax the last days of our vacation. Due to bad weather we couldn't really enjoy our stay in Coroico and soon drove back to La Paz over "The World's Most Dangerous Road".