Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Trip Report: Bolivia Part I - 2014

Greetings from Bolivia! This is my second time leading this extraordinary expedition, and it has been nothing short of amazing so far. Upon arriving, it hardly felt like 10 months had passed from when I was last here in the “Tibet of the Andes.” This trip, more than any other that I have led, combines the cultural with the climbing with such a grace and beauty that makes it a very special experience.

You can go to Alaska and get a trip that is 100% dedicated to climbing, or go on a travel/immersion trip that is 100% cultural. Our Bolivia expedition seems to strike a chord right in the middle. Even when we’re base-camping at the toe of the glacier and climbing 18,000-foot Andean summits, we come back to Bolivia when we’re done climbing. Our base camps are situated where locals come to fish the high-mountain trout from the glacial lakes, graze alpacas, and come by to socialize with our Bolivian staff. I find myself speaking as much Spanish as English, and wishing I knew Aymara (the local language, which is as popular in Bolivia as Spanish). We have chased hungry burros away from camp, gazed at horizon-to-horizon Milky Way (and the unfamiliar constellations of the Southern Hemisphere), spoken with toothless locals whose second language is also Spanish, and have shared the excitement of the World Cup with a country whose favorite sport is futbol.

There is a sense of locality that is often lost on us Americans in our daily life. Last week we hired Arrieros to organize their alpacas and mules to carry our camping gear. At the end of the trek, we bought fine alpaca goods from the men and women who raised the alpacas in this valley (the same people whose alpacas just carried our stuff). They did the entire process from raising the animal to making the wool into the hats, gloves, and tapestries that we bought from them, right next to their homes. Talk about local, not to mention vertical integration!

We have also sampled a culture that is, at its core, different than ours. We walk the streets of La Paz, the 12,000-ft. capital, where we gaze at dried alpaca fetuses, curanderos (traditional healers), innumerable kinds of potatoes and Andean natives like quinoa, maca, chia, and stevia, which have come into recent vogue in the US. 

We walk streets that host the peak of modernity alongside the traditional. I have watched Transformers 4 in 3-D, eaten sushi at a chic Japanese restaurant, mingled with university students and diplomats, and drank excellent Bolivian Malbec, right after coming out of the mountains where there were adobe and rock houses with straw roofs with alpacas, mules, and cows roaming outside (side note: the mountain locals don’t mark their animals, they recognize them).

It seems that Bolivia is a country in transformation, where worlds collide. Case in point: today at the Sunday outdoor fair, kids danced to a hardcore punk band while older generations danced across the street at a traditional music show with charrangos, pan flutes, and an electronic drum machine, some of whom dressed in traditional garb and others in city wear. It is truly fascinating to peer, as an outsider (always as an outsider), into a country that is so different from ours. These cultural experiences, at their best, serve to enrich both the traveler and the local (we hope).

Here’s to Bolivia.

Tomorrow we head out to the Condoriri Range to further acclimatize and climb. Later this week we’ll go to Huayna Potosi, one of the most prominent and beautiful peaks in the country. Enjoy these pictures that I’ve taken so far, and I’ll make sure to post again when we get back. 

Our trusty Bus, leading us into the mountains

A beautiful vista, day 2 of the trek

A side hike along an alpine lake, day 3

At a pass before making camp, breathing the thin air!

Along another beautiful lake

Finishing up the trek, day 4

Our driver & cook, Hidalgo, playing for his newest fan

The new teleferique, La Paz

--Mike Pond, Instructor and Guide

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