Dispatch #8 Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia 3/20/2006
Cowboys and Boulders
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had made their way to the little town of Tupiza, so why shouldn’t we? We arrived in the painted-desert town of Tupiza on the morning of the March 15th. The bus ride from the border of Argentina had been a long and bumpy one, and the warm gentle colors of the sandstone cliffs embraced our tired eyes. Upon first glance this place could easily be mistaken for the desert southwest of the United States, barren, spotted with small resilient and fierce plants, towers of sedimentary material, and radiant hues of reds and oranges, just like Arizona and New Mexico. The sky was so blue and the rock walls begged for our attention.
The streets of Tupiza, we imaged are much the same now as when the two most famous members of the Ft. Worth Five, known only to me as Paul Newman and Robert Redford rode through dirt roads. They were outlaws here as they were in the United States and they had met their end just outside of town. The first thing on Jessica’s mind, beyond lunch, was to find a pair of horses and set off on the getaway trail of these two “American West Outlaws”.
That afternoon we hired a guide and two horses and struck out onto the hills and canyons that surrounded this speck of a town. The trail was much like we had anticipated, aired, dry, with the sun so intense we felt like we had been riding for days. Although Jess felt like a real cowgirl, as her horse brilliantly galloped through the dry river bed, I felt like the Dusty Bottoms from Three Amigos, barely able to stay on a horse that I still believe to this day to be drunk. We rode only for three hours, but that was enough for us, I don’t know how cowboys ever did it in the old west, riding for days on end. We raced through drainages and spires of dubious quality before we arrived at Canyon de Inca. It was a tight slot canyon laced with a small stream and tiny cascading waterfalls. Our horses needed a rest, so we all drank from the little ribbon of water as the sun set behind the canyon, how John Wayne of us.
That night after trotting back into town we arranged jeep transport to an area outside of town, we had suspected to have some quality stone. The next morning the jeep arrived at 7 a.m.; the tops of the hills that cradled Tupiza were already lit in an amber glow. The driver took us to a pull out not far from town were we could see our destination. A sandstone spire known only as “The Torre” sat in the distance. No one knew if it actually had ever been climbed, but we were going to find out anyway. It was a half an hour walk to the base involving a river crossing, traversing a railroad bridge, and passing through numerous crop fields. Before crossing the river we had run into a gentleman, a teacher, at the small school just up the hill. In order for this man to get to his students everyday he had to hitchhike from Tupiza to the pull-out, roll up his pants and cross the river, hike another mile up the hill, all the while caring school supplies for his children. At this point everyone should take a moment to salute the dedicated teachers of the world. They should always know their worth in this world…….
We spoke with him for a few moments before we parted for the Torre. The spire was spectacular, and very dangerous. The rock was by no means solid, and by my estimates, had never been climbed. The ascent of this tower would require fixed protection, having no seams or cracks apparent to us. We were not prepared to bolt or hammer anything onto this pristine relic, so we trekked around the river and found other potential climbing areas. We felt discouraged by the poor rock quality, and spent the majority of the afternoon enjoying the river and speaking to local farmers and goat herders. We were picked up that afternoon and went back to the agency that had arranged our tours thus far. We wanted to talk to them about potentially hiring a jeep for 5 days to explore the south west corner of Bolivia and deliver us the Salt Flat or, the Solar de Uyuni, just west of he town of Uyuni. That evening we bartered and pleaded with this agency to give us more time with the jeep and more opportunities to climb, but the tour company was insistent that we adhere to the agenda of the pre-set tour. Jess ended up finding another smaller local tour company that was reasonably priced, fair, and could cater to our specific goals; the company is called Explore Andina Tours. The agency, run by two brothers, Jose and Pedro were going to set out the next morning and would take us in a long arching circle to Uyuni on a 5 day tour.
At 9:30 a.m. we left for the small village of San Antonio some 8 hours from Tupiza. Accompanying Jessica, Pedro, and I was Pedro’s sister-n-law, a 20 year old named Nilda, who would act as our cook, and explore the area for her first time. The 5-day drive was completely on dirt road, sometimes, no road at all, and the average speed of the jeep was about 30 mph. We stopped for lunch in a lush meadow, where hundreds of llamas were also dinning. The llamas paid us little attention and we ate along side them as members of the herd. We continued on the dusty road until we reached the village of San Antonio around sunset. We were the only white faces in this tiny little pueblo. We did not receive a warm welcome by the locals. While walking through town just before dark I was threatened by several teenagers. Upon seeing me, they all three put their thumbs to their necks and did a slicing motion across their throats, and waved me on. I gave an intimidated laugh, and with my broken Spanish I confronted them, and tried to make friends. An hour later we were all playing futbol together while Jess took pictures of the most amazing sunset we had seen thus far. That evening we had a lengthy conversation with Jose, Pedro, and Nilda, about the current state of Bolivia and the pros and cons of the tourism market in their country. Jess and I felt disgusted by the mentality of the tourists we had seen so far, who all and all were disrespectful, exploitive, and overly demanding of the Bolivian people. We felt disgrace when the word “tourist” was brought up. As the evening waned on we tried to find a balance in the conversation and tried to understand the mentality of this poor nation. Our Bolivian friends were once again our guides.
The next morning we arose early and embarked on another long day. The goal by the days end was the pristine green water of Laguna Verde, and more specifically the 6,000-meter volcano known as Licancabur, we planned to climb. The wind was wild and it didn’t seem to warm up until after noon. For lunch we stopped in this oasis of a valley lined with boulders. As Nilda made us lunch, Jess and I sought out boulder problems. We found untouched beauty only minutes from the jeep. I was inspired immediately by a 20’ boulder in the middle of the valley protected only by a handful of fluffy llamas. The problem was steep and lent itself to my style perfectly. Pockets and flakes adorned this old giant, and after climbing the hardest problem I could, we ran back for lunch. Jess was feeling a bit ill. She had been on the steady decline since we had left Tupiza. After a meal of vegetables, eggs, aji, and bread, once again we set out for the cliffs that embraced this lush landscape. The weather was changing rapidly, while thunder and lightening was not far behind us. I soloed up a 30’ problem as the rain came down. I descended and we raced back to the car. The jeep swiped and swerved on the muddy road as it tried to outrun the torment approaching. Four hours later we had beaten the rain and crested over the top of a long gentle hill to see the glorious turquoise lake of Laguna Verde. The wind was fierce and swept ripples across the semi-metallic surface. We took a few moments to observe the volcano that loomed over the lake. Volcan Licancabur is an ominous looking volcano; it had very little snow, and posed little technical challenge. We needed to climb this mountain primarily for acclimatization purposes. Pedro drove us to a refuge within the park boundary so that we could arrange our gear and prepare to climb the hulking volcano the next morning. After reaching the refugio, we were escorted to the administration office of the national park, where the volcano sat. Then, local officials told us, that we were not allowed to climb the mountain without a Bolivian guide, and further more we must pay an additional $45 US dollars per person. Finding out this NEW information, on top of the fee we had already paid to Pedro to be in this location, did not sit well with either Jessica or myself. Ethically and aesthetically we felt conflicted. By the night’s end we had decided to forgo climbing the volcano and continue on our tour in search of new rock climbing, or a different volcano, and NO more fees.
At 6 a.m. we rose, loaded the jeep, drank matte, ate bread and began again. Jessica was feeling worse and worse. She had not been able to sleep the night before, and her uncomfort was expressed in her every subtle movement. She tried desperately to sleep in the jeep, but the rough road made it impossible for her to rest. She hacked and coughed all morning long. When the jeep reached the 5,000-meter mark we saw steam radiating from below. The steam was being created by a huge expanse of geysers that were taking turns releasing plumes of smoke into the air. We spent an hour marveling at the ash colored material as it bubbled and boiled and eventually overtaken by steam. We took a few tentative photos from the edge and continued on. The jeep lumbered up onto a spectacular ridge that revealed a massive pink laguna with thousands, yes thousands, of flamingos. Jessica sprang to life like a National Geographic photographer, yelling to Pedro to, “PARE, PARE, Por Favor!!!” She grabbed her enormous camera, lenses, tripod, and she was gone. She crept by the lakes edge, snapping photo after photo, the flamingos cooing and wading away in the vast reflecting pool. Jess was smiling ear to ear, and was reluctant to leave. That afternoon we had lunch in Valle de Rocas. Valle de Rocas is just like it sounds, a valley chocked full of rocks. This would prove to be my highlight. Again Nilda prepared lunch, rice and eggs, while Jess and I went to play in the garden of rocks. After climbing and falling on several of the most attractive boulders, we ate lunch and sped off to the town of Alota.
That afternoon as we continued on our journey we saw many cliffs and towers, many have never been climbed, we thought, “if we only had time.” In Alota we made plans to return to “Valley of the Rocks” the next day. In the evening I set up a slack-line and taught our friends, and some of the locals, all about a climbers pass time of slack lining. It was good fun and seemed to bring smiles to everyone’s faces. Jess spent most of the evening in bed. She was still not feeling well. She stayed wrapped up in her Moonstone sleeping bag, with her alpaca beanie on, until dinner. At 8 p.m. we ate heartily and discussed various topics with our guides.
Jess needed the rest, and the next morning we didn’t depart until almost 9 a.m. We headed back to the rock band just outside of town hoping to do a little roped climbing, as the townspeople thought we could drive out there, but with a closer look we realized there was a swampy river that separated us from the inticing rock. Without knowing the quality of rock, and the frustrating walk the swamp presented we opted to backtrack another 10 minutes to the bouldering field. We spent a solid half day exploring, climbing, taking photos, and getting our friends Nilda and Pedro to run up a couple boulders. We had a late lunch in the small town of San Cristobal where Jess could photograph the beutiful church and we could eat in a local lunch house. We drove the remainder of the distance to the tourist town of Uyuni. This town is a prime stop on the gringo trail and we were not pleased to be there. This said we were delighted by the thought of getting to spend time on the largest salt flat in the world, which forms the western border of Uyuni. We walked through Uyuni in the afternoon, but were sickened by the amount of garbage, and tourists that filled the streets. Our small room just off the main square was filthy, and with Jess not feeling well, the thought of moving onto La Paz was a welcomed one. In the morning we drove one last time in the jeep out onto the Salt Flat. It was endless. The southwestern corner of the salt flat was full of water, so we had to enter from the east. There was still much water on the surface of the salt, which revealed an eerie reflection of the stormy ski above. Our goal for the morning was to reach the Salt Hotel, which sits an hour into the drive and is constructed completely out of salt. On the way to the Salt Hotel however a stranded jeep flagged us down. A family of Israelis pilled out of the Land Cruiser, exhausted and angry. The day prior they had been out on the salt flats for a half-day tour when their jeep ran out of gas. With no radio, phone, or gas, they were stuck. They had spent the night in a storm on the flat where the temperature had dropped significantly. Their guide had explained, that after visiting one of the islands on the flat they got lost on their return to town because of all the water, and consequently had forgotten to fill the truck with gas before leaving from Uyuni. Disgusted with their guide they jumped into our jeep and continued on with us. As they recounted their story Jess and I felt pleased with our fortune on this trip, all things considered. We toured the Salt Hotel took snap shots and drove back to town. We had very interesting conversations with our new Israel friends, but had to say good-bye once we arrived back in Uyuni.
In the afternoon we packed once again and mentally prepared ourselves for another long bus ride. We new the ride from Uyuni to La Paz was going to be a long one, but we had no idea how bad it would be. We left on the bus at about 8 p.m. and arrived in La Paz eleven hours later. As we stepped out of the “tenement on wheels” we felt exhausted, famished, and confused, but in one piece and in the capitol city of Bolivia, La Paz.
Now we are preparing to climb a mountain just north east of La Paz in the Cordillera Real, known as Huayna Potosi (6,088 meters). The route we are going to attempt is a demanding line on the west face, the largest face in Bolivia, a 70 degree 1,000 meter wall of ice. The route should take us only a few days, and then we will come back to La Paz once again to prepare to climb Condoriri or Cabeza de Condor (5,648 meters). The route we will attempt on Condoriri is a direct line of 70 degrees, if completed we will be the first to climb it this year. Jess is currently still sick, so we are waiting in La Paz until her health is better and the weather stables a bit, which has not been ideal either.
Thank you, as usual, for taking the time to read these massive dispatches. I was hoping to keep them a bit shorter, but we are finding so many things we want to share that it is hard to keep our words to a minimum. Thank you for reading. Our next dispatch should be up next week, as we will be in and out of the capitol city. As we have said in the past, we love feedback, so please keep those questions and comments coming!
Thanks so much