Doing it on your own: Trekking in Bolivia

There’s a certain type of traveller that thrives to create adventures on their own. They smirk at the thought of organised tours and package deals. They feel smug whenever they walk past an oversized group of tourists eating mundane tourist friendly meals at the tourist specific restaurants. They don’t mind using up hours of their holiday on buses instead of planes and risking food poisoning just to save a few bucks.

Sure there are far more positives to this type of travel than there are negatives. The potential for a truly unique and unforgettable experience increases dramatically. You hope to learn more from the journey you ended up on than the one you intended when you first set out. You want to meet, share stories and eat food with the locals. And you want to brag about the random crazy time you had when there were no limits on where you were going.

But lets be fair, I’m certain that even the most care-free happy-go-lucky traveller feels the heat at times when they tried it on their own and they just wished they were on that damn tour bus.

Out of all the (many) times we struggled, doing it on our own, the time we tried to hike to Laguna Glacier, Bolivia takes the cake by far…

A few months ago, we met up with some of our good friends from Australia in La Paz. The four of us love the outdoors and we decided we wanted to do a little trekking in Bolivia and tackle Huayna Potosi, considered one of the ‘easiest’ summits over 6000m – we all wanted that under our belt. We were ready to sign up there and then, but it was suggested that we go for an acclimatisation trek first just to get our legs and lungs warmed up before the big climb. Fair enough. We chose the 3-day circuit to Laguna Glacier as we were told it would be a good introductory hike, no guide needed, and we would be experiencing camp at 5000m next to a huge glacier and it’s little lake – win, win! We were given (the worst) topographic map, photocopied it, and we were on our way.

The next morning we hopped on a local bus to Sorata Valley. Three hours later we arrived and tried to get some more information about the hike (i.e. where it actually began). We were bluntly told we would need a guide to do this climb and no other information was offered. That made us even more determined! We had a topographic map, a compass, a GPS and two savvy geologists on board – how hard could it be?!

After a leisurely breakfast (still to this day, the worst meal of our entire trip) we realised it was really getting on in the day and we still had a 1400m ascent to the first campsite. We didn’t want to cheat but we ended up chartering a ‘4WD’ (nothing about it was a 4WD) part of the way. We got spat out at a random fork in the road and had little idea on where to go next. The next 8 hours were grueling. Heavy rain, too many different paths to choose from, no paths to choose from, dodgy maps, Spanglish with the local farmers and one too many wrong turns meant we arrived at the first campsite, Chillata Lagoon, in the dark and completely exhausted.

The next morning we left early so we would have ample daylight to reach the glacier and avoid getting caught in the dark again. The sun was shining, we discovered the GPS on Jana’s phone (we actually forgot about it on the first day) and figured things could not get much worse than yesterday – things were looking up! By the afternoon, we had ascended significantly so the air was thin and there was less oxygen to go around. Everyone was beyond tired. That’s when the path disappeared and we were faced with steep rocky decisions in every direction. We were going nowhere. The terrain was incredibly steep and the rocks kept sliding underneath us with every step. All we could hear in the distance was the thunder-like rumblings of the unstable mountain above us, and a few stones even made their way down to smack Jana right in the face. The sun was setting and I could see no way out of this mess. We decided to cut our losses and find somewhere to camp. Pretty difficult given how seriously on the side of a flippin’ mountain we were!

There it was, on the edge of a cliff, a little ledge just big enough for the four of us and our tents. It was actually quite an amazing spot to camp for the night; if it wasn’t for the extreme exhaustion and accepting the fact that we never made it to the glacier, I’m certain I would’ve enjoyed our time there a lot more. The imminent descent that was to take place the next morning was on all our minds and Jana went to bed that night genuinely thinking we may never get off the mountain. I saw things a little differently in my head, but still I wasn’t expecting to wake up to snowfall that progressively intensified. The glacial melt froze over the entire surface of the vast boulder and scree field below. Every step was difficult and I felt it through my entire body, but I was actually enjoying myself. Well I would’ve been if Jana hadn’t been with me, she spent most of the descent on her hands and ass sliding down at a snails pace in hysterics. It was quite stressful, but I completely understood, we were honestly in a situation that could’ve eaten us alive if we didn’t have an inkling of sense.

Six long hours later, after a few slips and slides of my own, we reached the base of the snow line, both sporting bruised asses. The sense of relief was intense, but there was still a long way to go. Layers were being stripped off as the temperature rose and we made our way down to civilisation, a little further along than where we were dropped off on the first day. We had been walking for around 11 hours until eventually my knees gave up. We would either be sleeping there for the night or begging someone to take us back to the town. I asked a local family if they knew anyone with a 4WD that would drive us down the mountain and within 5 minutes we were loaded up and heading back to La Paz. We were all so relieved for that whole experience to be behind us.

In the end, the tumultuous ‘training-hike’ broke the girls and they bailed on climbing Huayna Potosi, but Tom and myself went for it after a few days of much needed recovery. It definitely helped, we were the first two to the summit on game day and we just couldn’t believe how straightforward it was compared to Laguna Glacier. It definitely would’ve been worth taking a guide…

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