December 9, 2007

La Paz, the Death Road, and the joys of being ill

Julie and I have been in and around La Paz, Bolivia for about a week and half now. I thought I´d write this post while everything was still fresh in my mind and stomach. I´ll get to that last point a little later.

La Paz has really captured my heart. It´s one of the most culturally rich cities we´ve visited so far on this trip. Set at about 12,000 ft in the Andean plateau, the city spreads out down a valley and the surrounding hillsides. Illimani, a 6400 meter, snow capped peak is visible in the distance, and is breathtaking at sunset. The city is a mix of tradtional and modern more than any we´ve seen. Around 60% of Bolivians claim indigenous ancestry, and still keep to the tradtional way of life. As you move further down the valley, and along the main street called the Prado, you get beatiful colonial bulidings, high rises, and fancy restaurants.

We´ve been spending our week or so in the backpacker area around Sagarnaga street, staying in a pretty nice hotel with cable TV for about $15 a night. You can´t beat it. We´ve got HBO and all! We met up with Sonja, one of my sister´s friends who has been living here for a couple years, and explored the cool expat neighbourhood of Sopocachi where she lives. To be honest, we haven´t done too much sightseeing. We´ve just been relaxing, going to the movies, shopping, eating well, and sleeping tons. Here are my photos of La Paz.

Now I know most of you are wondering what´s up with the Death Road? The world´s most dangerous road, or Death Road for short, is a road that drops about 12,000 vertical feet, starting in the snowy mountains, passing through a cloud forest, and finishing in a rain forest. The Death Road part is really only half of this, but nutty tour operators in La Paz figured out a way to make a buck shuttling groups of mountain bikers up to the top of the road, and then letting them bike their way down. I´ve been on some sketchy roads in Nepal, but I have to say this one takes the cake. The dirt road for most of the time is the width of a big bus, and it´s for two way traffic. There are drops that can reach up to 3,000 feet off the side of the cliff as the road curves its way down the mountain side. Unfortunately there have been so many deaths each year from buses and cars going over the side. My bike guide mentioned 100 deaths per kilometer of road per year, but that sounds high. The good news is that the govenment finally built a new paved road this year for travelers headed to the Yungas in the jungles of Bolivia. So this means that the old road is left for all the crazy tourists, and some locals who still like the scenic drive. I should mention that about 5 bikers die each year on this road, so it´s not all fun and games, but it was fun for me. I had a great tour operator, with trained guides, so if you end up going on this, I highly recommend B-Side Adventures. Here are my pictures from the Death Road, but I´m not sure they really do it justice.

When it comes to traveling, you tend to overlook all the inconveniences that come with it. The idea of seeing new places, and cultures, overshadows everything. I remember telling Julie that we would get sick, but that it was inevitable, and we couldn´t worry about it. I had gotten really sick a couple times when I was in Nepal and India, but that was the fall of 2001, and I guess the pain had slipped my mind.

I had the idea that I wanted to climb another big mountain so Julie, myself, and our guide Miguel, set out on a two day trek to the base of Huayna Potosi, a 6088 meter (19,974 ft) peak. The trek itself was nice. The first day was easy, and we set up camp in a valley. The guide insisted that we have donkeys carry all our gear, so we trekked with our day packs. I felt really strange since I´ve always carried my own gear, but hey, this was Bolivia, and the cost was next to nothing. The next morning we woke up to three inches of snow that had blanketed the whole area, in a late spring storm. Somehow our donkeys with the porter weren´t around, but our guide assured us our stuff would make it. The day of trekking was a little tough because of the snow and altitude, but we made it over the 5100 meter pass that day. Julie had made it to her highest point so far at 16,700 ft. By the time we got to the base of Huayna Potosi the donkeys were nowhere to be found. Julie headed back to La Paz as planned, without her bag, and angry as hell. The bags finally arrived, along with my climbing gear, and I spent the late afternoon reviewing climbing skills on the local glacier. We spent that night at the base, sleeping on the cold floor of what seemed to be the washroom of a local electric company. After a freezing night, we woke and hiked up the mountain to the high refuge at 5200 meters, where we would start the climb that night.

These are where all the problems began. I´m not even sure if I had altitude sickness, but at the time, I was positive I did. I had just been to 5900 meters the month before, but altitude affects everyone differently all the time. I rested, shivering in my sleeping bag, getting worse by the minute. At about 6 pm, after six hours at the refuge, I told Miguel that I needed to go down. Mumbling, and barely able to stand, I said goodbye to all the other climbing parties who would leave for the summit that night. I was so embarrassed. I could barely walk. I felt intoxicated, and the trek down was steep, over loose rocks. I walked so slowly, too slow. I thought every step would kill me. It took me more time to go back down to the base than it did to walk up, and I had to rest every 10 minutes. In the dark we walked, and we made it to the same cold room I had slept in the night before. I collapsed, shaking with a fever, and tried to sleep.

The next morning, I took a cab back with Miguel and some others and collapsed in the bed of our hotel in La Paz. Julie found me a couple of hours later under the covers with all my clothes on, shivering as I had the night before. At this point I realized that it wasn´t altitude sickness, but some parasite, bacteria, or virus that had invaded my body. The sad thing is that I was relieved, as I was worried my body wouldn´t take me to altitude again, and there are so many other mountains I want to climb. All in all I was really sick for about three days. I couldn´t eat for 72 hours, I was running to the bathroom every 20 minutes, and I had a nasty cough that you could hear in the next neighborhood. Julie was my savior, and I don´t think I could have made it through this tough time without her. So I guess what I´m trying to say here, is that although traveling is amazing, this is something not to be envious of. Believe me, I´m on antibiotics and my body hates me right now. But I swear I will be back to climb this mountain at some point.

Even though this last part was kind of a downer, we really had a fun time trekking before I got sick. Here are the pics, look at how beautiful the Bolivian altiplano and Huayna Potosi are.

By the way, its Julie´s birthday tomorrow (Dec 10th), so please shower her with adoring emails, as she misses everyone, especially this time of year.

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