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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bolivia: Footloose family vacation finds rich experience in poor nation

Bolivia never occurred to me for an outdoor family vacation until my two daughters spread their wings and began discovering the world.

In their 20s and still willing to share a trail, tent or hostel with parents, the girls have been leading us far beyond the USA camping, backpacking, bicycling and paddling vacations of their youth.

Packing lists often include Cipro instead of bear spray.

Brook’s year abroad for her Spanish degree prompted a family hiking rendezvous in the Pyrenees of Spain.

Hillary pursued Spanish in Chile, so we all showed up to backpack in Patagonia.

When the girls suggested Bolivia for last summer’s family expedition, my wife, Meredith Heick, and I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook, searched the Internet and made a list of pros and cons, which seemed to weigh heavily on one side:

We’d be trading a summer vacation for winter in South America. … Bolivia is a major producer of coca – and cocaine. … The country expelled the U.S. Ambassador. … Spokane banks warned against using Bolivia ATMs. … Bus and taxi highjackings occur with reports of tourists being held captive until their credit cards are maxed and bank accounts are drained. … Flight arrivals to La Paz land at elevation 14,000 feet – nearly as high as the top of Mount Rainier. … Bolivia’s most popular mountain bike attraction is “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”

Yellow Fever? “People older than 60 have a 1 in 100,000 chance of dying from the vaccine,” Meredith read out loud.

Malaria? We would stay at high altitudes above the Amazon Basin, I said.

We’d wear long underwear, all the time.

Few Americans visit Bolivia, we learned – fewer than to most other nations where restroom garbage cans are for used toilet paper. There’s a plus.

Moreover, Bolivia has national parks, unusual wildlife and other notable natural features in the Andes. We were especially intrigued by treks on pre-Inca pathways over passes higher than 15,000 feet.

The family rendezvoused toting backpacks in the La Paz (El Alto) airport, where disembarking travelers immediately pass the busy “Oxygen Therapy” room.

The capital city’s water comes from the glaciers we could see clinging to the nearby 21,000-foot Cordillera Real peaks.

We descended by van into La Paz at 12,000 feet and felt the altitude in our lungs as we walked the streets – none are flat. Scores of god-pleasing llama fetuses hung in market stalls. Llama dung sold for fire fuel.

Brook, not totally prepared for the cold, shopped at a market for a down coat.

“Is this really made by Marmot?” she asked the woman vendor, noting a slanted label, misshaped hood and $40 price.

“Si! From Chee-na!”

While we were huffing, I noticed virtually no one was puffing. Relatively few people smoke in the high region of Bolivia, we were told, because keeping tobacco lit in the rarified air required unpleasant effort.

And generally, the people are too poor.

The next day we boarded a domestic flight to avoid a 12-hour bus ride to Sucre, the original capital and perhaps Bolivia’s most beautiful city. At 9,000 feet, we would more easily acclimate for a trek to come while immersing in the culture.

We had planned months in advance for what we wanted to see and do on our vacation with some room for spontaneity. However, for the first time, we hired guides.

Travel warnings we’d read prompted a tip from a friend who’d lived in Bolivia to enlist the help of Edgar Tamayo of Tropical Tours in Bolivia. He took our wishes, made arrangements and hooked us up with local guides and services. It was money well spent, a fraction of the cost in Europe.

We enjoyed watching parents walking their children home from school in Sucre. Indigenous women carried babies over their backs in colorful slings called aguayos. As we traveled to rural areas, women’s headdress changed from fashionable derby-like bowler hats to broader brimmed practical hats that offered more sun protection.

We grinned at the llama crossing signs and grimaced at the cruelty of foreign interests in the silver mines of Potosi, where indigenous slaves and mules worked themselves to death in the mint founded in 1672 to coin silver.

A local uprising in Uyuni turned a normally easy bus ride from Potosi into a Bolivian political adventure. Protestors had blocked access to the town over the proposed relocation of the bus terminal. Tropical Tours helped link us with Hugo, a friendly driver with an SUV.

We started on a paved road, but 17 miles from Uyuni, gateway to the salt flat tour we’d planned, Hugo peeled off the pavement onto a dirt track across high, dry prairie that resembled Eastern Montana. Powdery dust billowed around the bouncing rig. Small herds of vicuñas scurried across the flats much like the pronghorns of the North American West. Related to the llama, the vicuña is a wild South American camelid that lives in the alpine areas of the Andes.

Hugo used his cell phone several times. With a laugh, he admitted he was pretty much lost trying to figure out which of many tracks to take through bitterbrush and over washes, some filled with ice, others with bottomless mud.

It was getting dark and the temperature was well below freezing when Hugo spotted headlights on what appeared to be a real road. He headed that way, bumped up and over bare railroad tracks, angled down a deep ditch and gunned the SUV straight up the other side, the bumper pointed toward the moon until he fish-tailed onto the gravel road.

Hugo soon dropped us off like bags of contraband at a dark hotel and sped off hoping to get home by daylight.

We walked down a street with several food establishments in Uyuni, population 20,000, as cooks wearing heavy coats grilled meats outside. Customers inside left their coats on, too. Dogs roamed everywhere.

Our arranged guide, Gonzalo, met us the next morning looking like a bull rider who didn’t go the full 8 seconds. He was dirty; hadn’t eaten breakfast. Blockade protesters had circled his SUV the previous evening and slashed his tires.

He got the tires repaired and said we could get out of town a back way. We drove under a stuffed figure hanging by its neck from a street lamp where the protesters had hanged the mayor in effigy.

“This is Bolivia,” Gonzalo shrugged.

In the next four days we toured the region around Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. At 4,086 square miles, it’s roughly 100 times larger the Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

We hiked on cactus-studded Isla Incahuasi, surrounded by whiteness, and marveled at the mirage effects on the flats out to a 16,000-foot volcano.

We stayed in simple accommodations, such as the Tayka de Sal, where we sat on salt stools and bellied up to a salt tables surrounded by salt walls.

And then we ventured farther on the Alti Plano at 12,000 feet – the second-largest mountain plateau in the world outside of Tibet – into throne rooms of volcanic peaks towering more than 20,000 feet high.

Dust was our constant companion. Facilities were far and few between. When the girls called for pit stop in middle of nowhere, Gonzalo pointed to some rocks: “Inca baño,” he said.

It was at midnight in a stone mountain hut at 14,800 feet that I called on my travel friend, Cipro, for help. I’m forever indebted.

We toured national preserves and geyser basins following jeep tracks through moonscapes in an SUV loaded with two extra wheels and 10 extra gallons of gas. The highest pass reached 16,158 feet. Being the dry season, there was little snow, but any standing water was frozen.

New wildlife sightings included viscachas – rodents that look like a bunny with a long tail – and the avestruz, the smaller Andes version of an ostrich, also known as Darwin’s rhea.

Delicate-looking flamingos flock to this barren, cruel environment during winter. They walked on lagoon ice, poking heads through a thin layer of slush at the edge of an opening. Sometimes they’d tug several times to pull their heads up to breathe.

Before leaving the Uyuni region, we’d soaked in hot springs and eaten llama in several ways. We toured the Galaxia caves where people preceding the Incas would dig tombs when they could no longer keep up with their migrating families, and then crawl in and die.

Suggesting that their debt of gratitude for a college education had been repaid, the girls began weaning their mom and dad from attentive Spanish translation by the end of the first week.

I had planned for this. When we returned to La Paz for the second half of our trip, we met almost daily with a bilingual guide named Jose and his sister, who drove us to locations in their van.

In the next few days we hike local trails and sat for a performance by Ernesto Cavour, who is to the charango in Bolivia what Chet Atkins is to the guitar.

We visited Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,570 feet, and hiked across Isla del Sol, where motor vehicles are banned. Legend says the sun was born here.

We toured Tiwanaku, Bolivia’s poorer, sadder version of Machu Picchu, unfortunately pillaged of stones for, among other things, Catholic churches in La Paz.

A three-day trek perfectly concluded our vacation. We would backpack away from roads and towns where we could reflect on all the Bolivian culture we’d absorbed.

The Takesi Trail follows a route used by the early Aymara, the Inca and the Spanish. It’s still used by locals and 5,000 tourists a year.

Expertly engineered pre-Inca rock paving installed thousands of years ago continues to shed water and check erosion under the feet of humans, donkeys and llamas.

The first day goes over a 15,400-foot pass and down into a treeless basin with ranging llamas, Andes geese and foxes and an intimate glimpse into rural living.

We pitched tents the first night at a small campsite next to a community of four families who blew us away with their active lifestyle of self-sufficient poverty.

At sunset, one fit woman headed up the steep basin we’d descended to round up llamas into distant stone corrals.

A mom set out after sunset with a bambino on her back and 4-year-old boy tagging along. They continued across the valley and up toward the base of a glacier. We heard them return after dark.

A boy stepped out of a small stone house on a second-story deck of broken boards and let it fly, wetting the doorway below.

Llamas were herded past our tents by the dozens, then sheep with lambs, including one born just three hours before our arrival. Ducks, chickens and a few cows were secured before all was suddenly quiet, with only a single light of some sort illuminating a window in each home. Smoke began wafting out of the chimneys.

We’ve camped in some of the most scenic wild areas on earth and none was more interesting than this.

After shivering in our sleeping bags with every piece of our clothing on that night, we followed a crystal clear stream the next day, descending some 4,000 feet into the sub-tropical zone graced with shocking bursts of blooming flowers, colorful birds, fruits, trees and honey bees.

Bats and fireflies added magic to the next evening along the stream. Three young men hiking by added tension. We’d descended to the proximity of mining activity. Warned in advance, we’d hired porters for the trek. They were up immediately making their presence known until the men were gone. Money well spent.

The adventure continued with a harrowing return van ride on a narrow road carved into precipitous slopes out of Yanacachi. The driver apparently knew how to use the horn but not the brakes.

We knew it would be a wild ride when Jose made the sign of the cross.

We chilled out a day, reflecting on the poorness of a nation landlocked without a port. Overwhelmed militarily by surrounding Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru, Bolivia has a rough row to hoe. Despite its wealth of natural resources, the country’s per capita income is about $3,200 a year. To most of them, every day is like a backcountry expedition.

When Jose dropped us off at the airport, where we breathed much easier than when we’d arrived 17 days earlier, his last words were, “Thank you for coming to Bolivia.”