|Subject: Two Old Men in Bolivia - Part 1|
I recently returned to Australia after 3 weeks in Bolivia, the most interesting country I've ever visited. I went there to have a safe (at 64 I'm too old to need to be terrified) adventure. In this email I'll say something about the background to the trip and in a few days add some information in a second email about the main places that we visited in the Andes.
I'm married to a great travelling companion who will go anywhere as long as it's in Europe so my companion this time was my German friend Norbert, another old man with a taste for safe adventure, good food and good wine.
2 years ago I did a solo trip to Southern Chile and Argentina, fulfilling long held fantasies from childhood about sailing the Straits of Magellan and crossing Tierra del Fuego and, unusually, found that the reality was even better than the fantasy. Alas, my wife remained unmoved by my tales. "You go to your barren wastes if you want dear" she said tolerantly, "we've got enough of those right here in Australia, I'll just stick to Europe, wandering the Camino de Santiago and enjoying great food and wine in Tuscany". Of course I love those places too but the South American itch remained, reinforced by the internet. So when the opportunity came Norbert and I made off for the highlands of Bolivia, determined that we were going to have a great adventure, although not to die, unlike Che, Butch Cassidy and Sundance who all breathed their last in Bolivia.
If you're thinking about going to the Andes you may be worrying about altitude sickness - with good reason as it can kill you! I've had 2 heart valve operations so I was particularly concerned, but having always had these dreams about the Andes I really wanted to go. I had to visit 3 doctors before I found one who said I was no more at risk than anyone else as long as I took sensible precautions. These were to start at a low altitude and ascend gradually rather than flying straight to La Paz at 3,500 m, taking medication (Diamox) as a precaution, keeping alcohol intake low, drinking plenty of water and having quick escape routes mapped out in case I needed to get down in a hurry. I also read as much as I could about altitude sickness on the internet and found all these precautions there too. If you do have heart problems please DON'T think that just because I was OK at high altitude you will be too, there are a lot of different heart conditions!!
So if you do want to go to high altitudes and have a medical condition do get some medical advice, do some research and take sensible precautions. I found the main effects of altitude were breathlessness, lack of sleep, headache (wore off after a few days and was much reduced by taking Paracetemol) and some loss of appetite. All these were pretty piffling to endure compared to the mangnificence of the Andes and the diversity of the country and its people.
You don't need to worry unduly about your personal safety in Bolivia - and it does have a justifiable reputation for political instability and drug trafficking - I only met one tourist who had encountered any scams (and he wasn't a victim as he had more sense than to be conned). You will probably encounter at least one demo in La Paz and maybe a roadblock or two during your travels but there's no reason why you should come to any harm unless you do something really stupid. I know a lot of people who've suffered from scams, theft etc in Europe and Asia but only one person who was done over in South America and that was 30 plus years ago (yes it was in Bolivia and he was locked up because he wouldn't pay a small bribe to the police - once he paid he was released!).
Bolivia has had democratically elected governments (admittedly rather a lot) for some years now. We were surprised not to find more US and Canadian tourists (there were plenty of Europeans and Australians). If you're a US citizen with concerns about your safety don't worry - my conversations with taxi drivers and other locals suggested that in Bolivia a gringo is a gringo is a gringo - whatever your nationality.
We started our journey in the lowlands, flying into Bolivia's main international airport at Santa Cruz the centre of the oil and gas industries, where a million people now live, making it as big as La Paz. Evo Morales, the newly elected and first indigenous President,is committed to gaining more revenue for all Bolivians from these sources. One of our interests in Bolivia was its high proportion (over 60%) of indigenous people. Most of them live a very hard life, scratching a living from the soil or in whatever ways they can in the cities. Although it was sweltering hot in lowland Santa Cruz (where we stayed at Hotel Asturias, Calle Moldes 154 - reasonably priced and has a swimming pool) there were many indigenous women in traditional dress from the highlands, including some wearing those magnificent bowler hats that you see in photos in the National Geographic or school geography textbooks. The colourful costumes of the Quechua and Aymara people are one of my main memories of Bolivia.
>From Santa Cruz we went 60 km west by taxi, 2 hrs and only $12US in an ancient rattling Toyota, just like our car at home, climbing to Samaipata which, at 1650m has a cooler climate. It's surrounded by steep hills/ junior mountains, some still forested but most of the trees have been felled and the incredibly steep land often terraced and farmed. You still see oxen ploughing while condors wheel overhead. In Samaipata, which is something of a haven for expatriate Europeans wanting to lead alternative lifestyles, we met up with our guide for the trip Michael Blendinger, an Argentinian by birth from a German family. Michael is highly proficient in English, German and Spanish and is a well qualified and very experienced naturalist and ornithologist. We would recommend him unreservedly: http://www.discoveringbolivia.com
We spent 3 days walking and exploring the hills and forests around Samaipata, staying in one of the rented houses Michael borrows for his clients, also used as weekenders by the rich of Santa Cruz. Then we set off for the Andes proper. This was the first time either of us had taken a guided tour - we're the sort of people who generally rather despise these things. In Chile and Argentina I travelled by bus - buses there are some of the most comfortable in the world and very cheap too. However we decided that in Bolivia we would be wimps and have a guide. Everything we saw, heard and read about Bolivian buses reinforced our view. Of course it cost more to have our own guide and transport (Michael's 4 wheel drive - SUV) but we felt it was well worth it (just under $2000 US each for a 19 day all inclusive trip which we designed ourselves).
I think that's enough for one email. I'll send another in a few days.
Michael Sydney, Australia