Saturday, February 19, 2011


Uturunku "mean old man" Volcano - 6,008m (19,711ft)

The highest summit in southwestern Bolivia, Uturunku is a mildly active volcano that was once mined for sulfer deposits. (click here for more information)

View photos of the mountain and more by clicking HERE!

My traveling companions were an Argentine, Pedro, and two dutch people, Jasper and Ellen. We booked a 5 day jeep excursion to see the amazing wilderness in the southwest corner of Bolivia. Jasper's idea that we all happily agreed to was to add the 5th day to our trip and climb a volcano. The agency offered it as an option, and it seemed like a great idea. We left from Tupiza, and after a long day of hard traveling over barely visible tracks, through rivers and around mountains we arrived at a small town at about 4,300m elevation.

Our travel outfitter found us a local guide who would take us as high as possible in a truck, and we would hike the rest of the way on foot. Jasper, the one who had done the most research, informed us that this was said to be the easiest 6,000m volcano to hike. Despite rumors of snow, we prepared eagerly. February is summer time in Bolivia, and even though we had all been traveling the high 'altiplano' and been used to cool temperatures, we took extra care to get ready for the mountain: two of us bought gloves, and we planned to wear all of our travel clothes (several extra t-shirts). Not having proper hiking boots, we wore extra socks then lined our shoes with plastic bags to keep any moisture out. In the end we were a motley looking crew covered with a mixture of fleece, wool sweaters, rain coats, and multiple pairs of jeans completed by shoes that we could have taken from homeless people.

We arrived after days of snow had covered the approach to the volcano with a half a foot of snow. The agency we booked the trip with told us we could reach the summit even with snow, it would just take longer. The morning of our attempt was mild as we piled into the truck. We took with us a pack lunch of sandwiches and coca tea and drove out.

We endured over an hour of rough driving over hard back country tracks before we reached the old mining road switchbacking up the side of the mountain. It began to snow as we gained altitude. Where previously we had seen patches in the shadows of rocks we began to see fields of the bright white snow that made us all double check our makeshift snow boots.

Finally our guide pulled the truck over. Going any further would be too dangerous because he could no longer see under the snow to avoid the large rocks and holes in the path. We were well below where we were supposed to be in this supposedly easy climb and the weather was only getting worse. We decided to get out and make it as far as we could.

I want to talk about altitude for a minute. According to Wikipedia, mountain medicine recognizes three altitude regions that reflect the lowered amount of oxygen in the atmosphere:

* High altitude = 1,500–3,500 metres (4,900–11,500 ft)
* Very High altitude = 3,500–5,500 metres (11,500–18,000 ft)
* Extreme altitude = above 5,500 metres (18,000 ft)

Most of the group had already been at or near very high altitude for over two weeks before we began this trip. Even though it can take up to 46 days to acclimatize to an altitude of 4,000 meters, we generally felt comfortable before we began the ascent.

Pedro the Argentine began feeling altitude sickness early and ended up staying in the truck. The two dutch people, myself and the guide continued on foot hoping that conditions would clear. I hiked at an unintentionally hard pace and soon was ahead of the rest. That was a bad move on my part, but I wouldn't realize how bad until hours later.

At 5,500m I stopped in the middle of an expanse of snow, bright from light reflected through the nearby clouds. Behind me like bald heads in the distant clouds I could make out the forms of other mountains in the chain. In front of me about 200 yards of rocky terrain sloped steadily up, and Uturunku got serious. Instead of piles of rocks and small boulders on a medium slope, the boulders became house sized and the incline became closer to that of a wall. From there we would have to take a narrow winding path winding back and forth for the slow final ascent to the summit.

I had made it to the end of the "easy" part. From here on the mountain was unforgiving. To make the final 1/2 km up it would take about 4 hours of painstakingly slow hiking. From such a short distance, I still couldn't see the peak. Nobody had expected conditions like this and I stood trying to come to terms with where I was. Actually, I think the local guide knew we didn't have a chance but he took us anyway. We were under equipped, under conditioned and disorganized. I hadn't noticed when Jasper and Ellen pulled back thinking that Pedro was going to catch up. I was alone. Our guide had pushed forward to stay up with me. I couldn't read his face but I had a feeling that our expedition was not looking good. Briefly, I considered whether the money I had in my pocket would be enough to bribe him to take me higher.

I agreed with our guide to turn around.

It wasn't dramatic, or really that difficult. I had little invested in this adventure and had read too many survival stories featuring men that returned home with missing body parts from frost bite or worse. I was a thousand miles from real help surrounded by empty desolation. I had too much to look forward to to risk everything going through a blizzard for a little bit more elevation. On top of that, a human body can only compensate for so long from lack of oxygen before its reserves begin to run out. I generally only felt winded, but a creeping exhaustion and cold toes helped convince me that turning back was the right decision.

Not far down the slope we came across Jasper and Ellen sitting on some rocks. Together, we hiked up to an outcropping of boulders and had a celebration for making it as far as we did. It was an accomplishment, even if we didn't make it to the top. Some of the group were more disappointed than others, but we all agreed that we couldn't have summitted that day. Looking back I think that making the smart decision was a big part of our accomplishment that day.

It was easier going down, and about an hour later we were at the truck where Pedro waited. He was in bad shape with altitude sickness but waited patiently while we ate a bit and had some warm tea before beginning the long ride back to our accommodations. Then we were back and it was as if we had never left.

Through the rest of the day each of us went through various symptoms of altitude sickness. Headache, fatigue, lack of appetite, we had nothing to do and lay in bed under layers of blankets. I finally began to pay for my exertions near the top of the mountain, and after dinner felt heavy nausea and discomfort that kept me up all night in the bathroom, and left me extremely weak the next day.

This is not a dramatic adventure or a story of survival. We didn't come close to death and we were only gone for half a day. Looking back, though, it was an ordeal and each of us experienced the effects of pushing the boundaries of the human body. Nature is unpredictable and we made a good decision by respecting the situation. We went to a place that few people have gone, and did it in conditions that even fewer have experienced. I climbed to 16,404 feet and saw nature at her most extreme. It won't be the last time, and next time I will be ready.

The trip continues.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Aiquile, Bolivia

This is a snapshot of a few days of my journey here in Bolivia. I am not resuming this long defunct blog, but as a lot of people have asked for updates I thought this would be the most central place to put a long update. If after reading this you are curious as to what a charango is, check Google :) Enjoy!

I arrived in Aiquile about 9:30 one night. Plans made in transit
involving camping behind a pile of rocks or looking for the first
friendly looking family were thrown away when the bus dropped me off
in front of a hostel which reluctantly accepted me after I promised to
only stay for one night. As I spoke to the owner from my second floor
room I saw a rat run along the wall behind him and knew that I
wouldn't be staying more than one night even if he wanted me. Despite
the lukewarm welcome, I was happy to have a bed and a door - everything
else could wait for tomorrow.

I awoke early the next day eager to have a look around the town which
I knew absolutely nothing about other than their reputation for being
the finest charango makers in all of Bolivia. This is a place far off
the track of the usual travelers coming to Bolivia, so the usual
information (basic map, recommended accommodations, transportation
options) was not available. What information I had came from friends
in Paraguay who had previously worked in Bolivia. My first job was to
find a more permanent place to stay.

I walked up and down the main street, circled through side streets,
and discovered a number of hostel options - all full. As it turned
out, the first week the community was celebrating the festival of
their patron saint. Because of that, the hostels were booked up not by
wondering 20'somethings from Europe but by traveling Bolivians.
Finally I found a place that offered me about all I could hope for at
that point: a bare mattress on the floor of an empty room. The guy at
the desk said that if I waited a room might come available in the
afternoon. Satisfied, I dropped my bags by the mattress and went
searching for signs of the reason I came, charangos.

I had been told that I could find a charango museum, with a sculpture
of the worlds largest charango nearby. I easily found the museum,
which was locked tight. It took maybe an hour of waiting, asking
people, and eventually going to the municipality building before I
found somebody with a key to let me into the museum. The museum was
small, but interesting if you appreciate charangos. Being an aspiring
charango appreciator, I nodded my head and frowned appropriately,
taking pictures of the more interesting designs. All of the charangos
displayed there are the winners of their respective categories from
the yearly charango festival which happens in October or November.
Since it's hard to fill an entire large room with small musical
instruments, half of the space was taken up by Incan artifacts from
the area. I almost missed one of the more interesting, and recent,
historical displays: photos from the 1990's earthquake which
demolished most of the city. The two guys who came to let me into the
museum informed me that if I want to buy a charango I had better come
back during the festival, otherwise I should go find Javier Perez. I
took a detour leaving the museum to have a look at the charango
sculpture. The girl at the hostel had assured me that it was really
quite large, so I had high hopes. It lived up to it's reputation. This
charango statue is more than likely the largest charango statue in the
entire world, as I cannot imagine why anybody would want to build a
bigger one. I took some pictures to prove I had been there and moved

Though it was almost lunch time I followed the directions to Javier
Perez' house. After asking a couple of people to make sure I was at
the right place I was disappointed to see that Javier's was closed and
locked. Figuring that he was just closed for lunch I took the hint and
walked back towards my hostel looking for a diner. I found a likely
looking place and enjoyed an 'almuerzo' to the sounds of the
ever present TV set which is always tuned to that which you least want
to hear.

An almuerzo in Bolivia is an enormous and cheap meal made up of
several courses. First you will get a big bowl of whatever the soup of
the day happens to be. It's usually good and hot with finely chopped
vegetables, a few potatoes and a couple of chunks of meat (what kind
of meat I have yet to figure out). More fancy almuerzos will come with
a salad during the first course as well. After you finish the soup,
your server will bring you a plate of the main course. This is any of
the numerous typical Bolivian dishes. They will always have potatoes
in some form, some rice or noodles, and a big piece of meat. If you
can finish this place (and I have only done it once) you will
sometimes be rewarded with a small desert. So far deserts have
included crema de frutas (creamed fruit?) and an ice cream bar.

After lunch I retired to my bare mattress for a good long siesta.
After waking up and gathering my senses, I was happily informed that a
room had become available. After moving my things I went back into the
courtyard where the guy at the desk was waiting to tell me about the
big event of the week: the patron saint festival. He said that if I
went out onto the main road and followed the stream of people heading
outside of town I would get to see a great bull fight. Excited to see
my first bull fight I pocketed my camera, put on my least ostentatious
shirt, and joined the crowd.

This is what I saw, upon arriving.

A large rocky hill overlooked a valley with a large ring made of
crudely tied together wood. The hill was dotted with clusters of
people sitting for a view of the action from above. Looking at them,
in their colorful traditional clothes I could almost imagine that it
wasn't the year 2011. Walking down the hill to the action, I delicious
'street meat' being cooked by plump ladies covered in shawls and
ponchos. They had more international things like hamburgers (always
with corn and a fried egg), as well as fried meats that came with a
plate of corn and potatoes. For a snack, I tried some fried bread that
came with a generous spoonful of honey poured on top. Chicha
(fermented corn alcohol) was sold out of plastic buckets with coconut
cups. These are not city folks. They are hard people from the country
whose bodies are shaped by the elements. The older people almost look
like the rocks amongst which they live. Public sanitation has not
reached places like this, and people took care of their bodily needs
wherever they could find an empty corner. As I mentioned, the fence
and bleachers was put together in a very crude way, planks of wood and
logs tied together by wire and raw hide. Noticing this (and taking a
picture for proof) I felt a little nervous standing near it. The
action inside the circle was focused on the bulls. One by one, a bull
was let into the large field where it was taunted by teenagers in
trees and chased by men on horses. This wasn't a bull fight, it was a
bull tormenting party. Looking at the spectators one might assume them
to be watching an exciting sporting event, when in reality they were
just hoping to see the unlucky bull be provoked into a charge. Several
times while I watched a spectator was injured, once one of the men
riding a horse was thrown off and walked away with bleeding from his
head. During this entire event, giggling children were pelting girls
with water balloons (in anticipation of Carnival), and loud fireworks
were shot off at regularly irregular intervals. The "fight" ended as
the sun began to set, and as my patience began to wear thin. The crowd
streamed back into town, or back into the hills, to find dinner and a
bed. I did the same.

The next day I was eager to make progress on my search for a real
charango craftsman. I spent all morning walking the streets. My first
lead, Javier Perez, seemed to have moved away or at least left for the
week because I found no change to the closed and shuttered condition
of his house the three times I walked past it during the day. I seemed
to hit a wall with my charango mission, and confused as to why it was
so difficult to find an artisan in a town known even on the internet
as making high quality charangos, I decided to look into travel
options back to Sucre from where I had come. To my dismay, I learned
that a bus would only be available Friday night (it was Friday) and
Sunday night. Not wanting to arrive back in Sucre late Sunday night
where I had planned to watch the Superbowl, I reluctantly purchased the
ticket for Friday night. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I
could skip the bus if I found what I was looking for. I spent the rest
of the afternoon asking people and walking the streets. I tried not to
be disappointed, but when the most common response I got was "come
back in 9 months" it was hard to have much hope of a successful
conclusion to my trip to Aiquile.

Thus ended my trip to Aiquile: The Charango Capital of the World. The
mountain town known everywhere for having skilled charango artisans,
but unfortunately no charango sellers of any form. The next day, after
I was back in Sucre, I stopped by a music store which sold charangos
which I had previously passed without a second though. I asked the
lady working about her charangos mentioning that I had just come from
Aiquile. She just laughed and said, "yes, nobody goes there to buy
charangos... they are all transported to larger cities to be sold in

Thus, I learned what can happen when you leave the beaten path of the
"tourist trail." I will probably buy my charango in a big city when I
near the end of my trip, and my dreams of meeting a master craftsman
and learning the finer points of the charango art will probably remain
dreams. At least I got a taste of Bolivian life not often seen by
travelers. That alone probably made the trip worthwhile and the story
worth telling.

And now, I continue.