1 fantastic month traveling from Uyuni in the south to Copacabana in the north of Bolivia. We also spent a month living in Samaipata, rural Bolivia with our 2 young children who went to a local Bolivian school there. Read about our experiences and get some tips and advice for your trip to Bolivia.
Copacabana is the main Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It is known for its famous Basilica, home of the Virgin of Copacabana, its trout, and its quaint atmosphere. This is also the place where boats leave for Isla del Sol, the sacred Inca island and a a destination for many back packers on the Machu Picchu trail from Peru.
This town at the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca also has a beach, the only one in Bolivia, lined with tourist bars and restaurants serving (‘trucha’ (trout), the local speciality we loved so much.
Its by far the most touristy town on our travels through Bolivia so far but it is still relatively quiet in tourist terms compared to most other places we have visited on our travels so far. Unfortunately, to the kids disappointment the water was much too cold to swim in.
Altitude sickness in Copacabana, Bolivia
After a long and eventful day of travel from La Paz, I spent a freezing cold night under 4 llama blankets with altitude sickness so bad I spent most of it in the bathroom vomiting. Woke up with a banging headache so decided to spend the morning in bed. Luckily later that morning we got moved from our 3 bed room to a 4 bed room in our Hostal Casa de Soland that made a big difference straight away.
We had not had a hot shower for 4 days so by now I was really looking forward to having one hoping it would make me feel better…but no such luck. The freezing temperatures overnight had frozen the pipes and wiped our the electricity…no hot shower today either, in fact no shower at all. Never mind:-)
Paul kept the kids busy doing some mapped compass reading for school work while I tried to recover. Paracetamol, Neurophen and a nap for me then finally my headache & sickness was going and I was feeling e bit better, ready to go exploring.
Exploring Lake Titicaca & Copacabana with kids – Bolivia Family travel
Copacabana town is small enough to walk everywhere with the church and market located in the centre. To our surprise, for the first time in Bolivia we found a “tourist strip” with souvenir shops and touristy eateries full of backpackers heading to of from Machu Picchu. Although food on this street is cheap relative to most other places in the world we knew by now not to pay more the BS10 to eat with the locals.
We went off the tourist strip for a typical Bolivian lunch in a little restaurant by the market. Lunch menu of the day for BS10 £1.50 was Quinoa soup followed by pork cutlet with chips and rice.
This is the kind of cheap and cheerful meal we always try to find when travelling and have usually found them in proximity to the local markets. It may not look very inviting to the average tourist but as long as the locals eat there, you know ifs a good place to try.
At the end of this street you get to the lake Titicaca itself, where a huge fleet of day tripping boats were mored…but to our surprise, no fishing boats in sight. I guess tourists bring more money these days than the fish does.
After a good walk around town we headed up to La Cupola for dinner after a recommendation by someone at our hostel. Quite pricy and a bit too formal for our liking but since we had walked up a steep hill to get there we decided to stay and try it out.
To our great surprise they had fondue on the menu!! How crazy is that to serve a Swiss cheese fondue in the mountains of rural Bolivia. Of course this is what we had to eat and we loved it too.
Kid friendly hikes with stunning views of Lake Titicaca all the way to Peru
Just behind Copacabana, away from the lake shore is a fantastic little path up huge exposed rocks, the old Inca trail, Horca del Inca. 1 hour walking and scrambling takes you up to the top of Horca offering stunning views over the town and the lake. The Horca del Inca was built by the pre-Inca Chiripa culture in the 14th century BC as an astronomical observatory. Rituals on the winter solstice June 21 are also held here by the trilithic, three-rock structure.
We had brought a little snack, and enjoyed it at the very top overlooking the majestic landscape with views all the way to Peru.
The kids loved climbing up and down the rocky trail. Once at the bottom we went for a well deserved lunch in the middle of town before heading back to the hostel. Time for a rest and to pack up in preparation for leaving for La Paz 4.30 the next morning.
Around 4.30 we headed out again this time to climb Cerro Calvario to see the sunsetting over Lake Titicaca. You can walk the paved road up to the view point or scramble on a indistinct path along the sea front on craggy rocks to the same spot.
We chose the latter of course, as this is the kind of walking we enjoy the most. With plenty of time, a few little bribes to keep the kids going and views of the glittering sun slowly setting over the lake we made our way up the steep climb.
Finally on our 2nd hike of the day we reached the top with 30 min to spare for the most spectacular sunset on our travels so far…
Finally a fire to keep us warm in Copacabana
The cold & sub-zero temperatures set in as soon as the sun set so we hurried down on the paved road to find somewhere to eat and hopefully get warm.
By pure luck we walked past a little restaurant with a warm glow coming from the inside…It’s a fire! I shouted to Paul, quickly let’s go in here, they have a fire! We scrambled inside, firmly plonked ourselves at the table right next to the big fire-place and enjoyed a lovely pizza dinner in front of the warming glow.
Back at the hostel in the cold rooms an hour later we climbed in under the llama blankets for a final freezing night in Copacabana. Next stop, La Paz…. and onwards to the animal sanctuaryof Senda Verde if the roads would only let us get there.
We were sad and heavy-hearted to leave our life in Bolivia but the approaching end of our trip made a new sense of urgency come over us. There was so much more we wanted to see and do!
After many long trips on busses round South America, we had opted to fly to La Paz from Santa Cruz to minimise travel time and maximise time for exploring. With the flight it was still a full days travel from Samaipata to get there. 3 hrs minibus to Santa Cruz, then 1 hr bus to the airport 2 hrs waiting and then a 2 hrs flight to la Paz followed by a long taxi ride at the other end. It’s funny how long travel days like that used to fill me with dread, whereas now they are just part of the routine and we are all pretty relaxed about it. The kids have definitely learned to relax and take things as they come while traveling.
What a spectacular view we had as we come in to land in La Paz. It’s a huge city cladding the walls of the entire valley with snow-capped mountains and a desert like landscape all around.
We were fully prepared for the cold nights at high altitude by now and with so much time high up before, we foolishly expected no issues with altitude sickness……
The illusive bus to Corico – a lesson in kindness and flexibility
After a glamorous meal of chicken and chips on the bed we all crashed out with exhaustion and lack of oxygen. Early the following morning we set off in a taxi across La Paz to the bus station in the eastern part of town to Villa Fatima bus station. We were all excited about going to stay in a jungle treehouse for a few days living with wild animals in Senda Verde, south east of La Paz. La Paz in vast and taxi journeys very long on narrow, steep winding roads but by the time we finally got there we were unable to locate the little bus to Corico we had read about and planned to take this morning.
I have had lots of practice over the past year in not stressing and keeping the kids happy while working out what to do and this was the right time to put all of our experience to good use.
As I wondered around asking all the little offices for the bus to Corico, which was advertised on many of their doors, all I got was, “No, no hay” (there is no bus) without further explanation of promises of a later bus or a bus he next day. In these situations, food and drink is always a good distraction so Paul set up camp with the kids by the little food stalls while I unsuccessfully tried to find out what was going on.
Being the only tourists here, the locals were eying us up as we sat on our pile of bags trying to think of what to do next. A traditionally clad lady, with a bowler hat, plaits and colourful skirts walked past and reached out to touch Scott, wanting to hold his hand. With a tiny “Hola” from Scott the lady engaged in conversation with me asking where we were from, where we were going and the age of the kids.
This had happened to us many times in Bolivia and when the silent barrier between two strangers from different cultures with different languages is broken there is openness, curiosity and kindness. Throughout our time in Bolivia we have found locals to be kind, interested and helpful and this was no exception.Ahh Corico she said, no busses, the road is closed due to a land slide.it will be closed for the next few days. I could not believe after asking around for over an hour that no one told me about the landslide…suddenly the lack of busses made sense… and our exciting plans to go to Senda Verde an impossible fait.
A fresh orange juice and some warm crusty rolls and fried egg sandwiches later we had summoned up the energy to make some decisions and new plans. All our travel and accommodation for the next 2 week was already booked and too late to cancel or change but after many phone calls in rusty Spanish to the animal sanctuary Senda Verde, and to Copacabana, the town next on our list, we managed to swap the dates of the 2 hostels around. All we had to do now was travel some more and hope that the road to Corico would be open a few days later.
Final test of patience and travel experience
The bus to Copacabana was located on the other side of La Paz at the cemetery bus station. A 1 hr taxi ride later we managed to get tickets to leave for Copacabana & Lake Titicaca at midday. Ingrid and Scott were already tired by now, but still somehow able to put all their travel experience to use, not getting upset at the sudden change of plans and long travel without actually getting anywhere Once on the bus, they gave in to the simple pleasure of a snack and a film. Finally we were on our way!…..but not for long……
The roads in La Paz are steep, narrow and endlessly winding trough constant traffic jams. As we hit the first very steep hill in central La Paz the bus engine roared with effort. I closed my eyes as the bus slowly made some headway up the hill. A bit higher up the traffic kept increasing until 30 min later when we came to a complete stop. With traffic at standstill for over 30 min we started seeing men, woman and children making their way with heavy loads on foot. Something was going on but what??!!
This was no ordinary traffic jam. A huge tree branch had been placed across the road and 10 men with megaphones made sure it stayed there. It turns out this was a typical Bolivian demonstration that happens every few days in La Paz. Nothing we could do but accept that we were stuck in the bus surrounded by increasing car fumes for almost 2 hrs…
Feeling ill with altitude, car sickness and frustrated by the turn of events, I was surprised by my own lack of annoyance or stress from things not working out to plan. This is something we have all had plenty of time to practice and put to good use over the past year. Nothing to do but to sit back relax and just patiently wait, get another film on and try to keep everyone chilled.
The men on the road were asking for better facilities in their neighbourhood, the area where the road block was put up, and according to the locals this was they best way for them to get their issues heard. Police were present occasionallymaking sure no violence broke out, but no one asked the men to move the block or let them through. Finally everyone stuck in the growing traffic simply got out of their vehicle and walked round the road block to continue on foot and that’s what we had to do in the end too.
Freezing cold & altitude sick in Copacabana
Out of the bus, get our bags walk around the block and head up the hill where there soon will be another bus to take you to Copacabana. I was felling increasingly ill at this time but trying to keep spirits up for the sake of the kids.
The walk dragging our bags up the hill was not long, but at 4200m altitude and with an exhausting morning it was hard work simply rewarded by the stunning views.
The bumpy road took us ever higher up from 3600m in La Paz to 3900m at Copacabana. The views on the way there were stunning but at this point I was simply feeling too ill to enjoy it.
4hr bus ride and a boat trip later, we finally arrived at lake Titicaca to find we had been put in a freezing cold (subzero) room for 3….Feeling very ill I bedded down in the single bed while Paul and the kids huddled together in the small double bed. No time to complain just get into bed and try to sleep.
Even under 4 llama blankets, it was by far the coldest nigh on our trip so far as the subzero temperatures outside crept into our room made of simple breeze blocks. I closed my eyes and fell asleep thinking that tomorrow would be a new and less exhausting day with no travel and lots of exploring and hopefully a hot shower..Little did I know…..
We were all amazed at the huge, free playground here. Beautifully built all set in a dinosaur theme with endless sets of monkey bars to keep even the most demanding monkeys happy, swings, climbing frames, spinners, water features and the largest slide we had ever seen on the tail and the neck of a huge dinosaur.
We liked wandering around the town for a few days but got really badly affected by the high level of pollution. As it is one of the more developed cities in Bolivia there are a lot of cars and busses and we found that the streets were full of pollution spewing traffic all day long. We had though about staying here for a few weeks if we liked it to allow Paul and I to start job-hunting. In the end afterjust 3 days in Sucre, 2 of which Ingrid and I were climbing, we were ready to leave.
With lots of travel over the past 2 months formal school work had to take a back seat while learning took the shape of experiences and instead.
Meteorites and space
Family time in Chila
Volcanoes and geography
Hot air balloo
History & geology
History and bilology
History & geography
Ingrid especially like academic work and during times where we have ben doing less of that she has a tendency to become brain bored and start annoying Scott, myself or Paul. Scott on the other hand does not miss formal learning at all. Staying in Samaipata for a month, without any travel would allow us to do another push on school work while living and enjoying rural Bolivia.
Its is always a bit of a struggle for all of us to get back into schoolwork after weeks of travel so to prepare the kids and make them positive about getting back into it we sat down and agreed on a Mon- Fri, 9.30-1 school schedule with the children.
Ingrid made her weekly schedule with Paul in an excel spreadsheet, while Scott and I set up a plan on the wall with a mix of learning and games that he could choose from each day to earn stickers. Ingrid had 3 x 45 min sessions with 3 15m breaks while school did 30 min sessions mixing play and learning.
A school in the mountains that can’t be found
During our first week in Samaipata, this set up worked really well. Breakfast, school, lunch and then a walk exploring the town and surroundings in the afternoon, going to the market and cooking food together in the house. Paul was setting up Ingrids work and managing to do some job searching at the same time. For me however, school with Scott is all consuming leaving me no time to do anything else.
I enjoy it but after 4 hrs of pushing him through the tasks we are both pretty tired of each other.Also, after a week of this much intense time together in the little house, we were all starting to get a bit of cabin fever.
Ideally we had wanted to get the kids into local school as soon as possible, but after a week of inquiring we just had the name of a school up in the mountains for which I had found the Facebook page on-line. However, with no address, contact or any way of finding it we almost decided to give up hope.
The fact that the school was up in the mountains somewhere outside the town also seemed really unpractical for us as we would have no way of getting the kids there and back everyday. In the end we agreed that homeschooling for the duration of our time here would be ok and we’d simply take turns job hunting in the 1 cafe in Samaipata with internet in the afternoons. At least we had a nice little house with enough space for use to teach the kids without getting under each others feet.
We visit Communidad Educativa Flor de Montana
Finally after a discussion with the host of our AirBNB house, she managed to find us the number for the school principle Lilliana on Monday night week 2. I Whatsapped her asking if we could visit the school and our children potentially go there for a month. On Tuesday morning we went there to visit and on Wednesday morning Ingrid and Scott had their first full day in Bolivian school.
15 min in a taxi, up up up on a dirt road just outside town is Communidad Educativa Flor de Montana. I was a bit sceptical having only seen images of a mud house under construction on Facebook and the barbed wired fence and basic building that greeted us did not install much confidence either. We crossed the big playing field and went up to the house to greet Liliana, the head mistress. The school buildings were rustic, built with adobe mud out of the ground and recycled bottles and old broken windowpanes for windows. The green landscape and views were stunning in the cold and fresh the morning breeze. We could hear the wind in the trees, birds chirping and happy children chattering and I was starting to get a good feeling about this.
Scott and Ingrid had both firmly said they would not be going to this school before we got there and they remained apprehensive and shy while Lilliana explained to us that the school was initiated and funded by parents and how recently been fully licensed as a school by the local authorities. She explained the the school ethos was to live happily and creatively in harmony with nature and all living things. Paul and I liked the sound of this but Scott and Ingrid were not interested or impressed.
The magical climbing tree that changes everything
The school has 24 children in 3 classes ages 5-6, 7-8, & 9-11. First we went to see the little preschool class that would be relevant for Scott. On top of the hill in a little room 6 children eagerly eyed up Scott asking him things in Spanish we could not understand. Im not going in said Scott and hid behind me. I managed to have little chat with Scotts teacher in Spanish as she could not speak any English at all. We were still all bit unsure if this could work at all.
We left Scotts class to go see Ingrid potential new class mates. By this time Ingrid was grumpy and her body language completely closed off. Before going in Lilliana pointed out to us the amazing school climbing tree and Ingrids face suddenly lit up. Ingrid loves climbing, mountains, trees, monkey bars…almost anything and by the looks of it, this would be an amazing tree to climb.
Up she went high into the tree up in the rickety treehouse and down she swung on the ring hanging from a big branch. When she came down she peered into the class room and said, I love it. Ingrids teacher did not speak any English either but at that point it didn’t matter. The climbing tree had closed the deal and with Ingrid happy and excited, Scott just followed her lead. We agreed to pay the school a fee in exchange for the children to go there for 4 weeks starting the next morning.
Early morning start for a fully loaded school bus
The next morning we had an early start to catch the school bus on the town square at 7.30 for a 8.00 school start.
We had no real idea what they would need to bring but packed the same bags they’d brought to school in Nicaragua with a pencil and a folder to write in, water, some fruit and crackers hoping that would be enough. Excitement and nerves were playing up in the morning but Ingrid excitement about the climbing tree blew any other doubts away and Scott joined her enthusiasm.
Waiting for the bus at the square in the cold morning air, we recognised 2 children from the day before and introduced ourselves wondering what would happen next. Suddenly a little minibus appeared and the kids all climbed in. Paul got in too and would run back down again after making sure they both got to their class ok.
Coming back Paul told me in amazement that the little minibus pictured below picked up all 24 kids and 5 teachers along the way and got them all safely to school. Now all we had to do was wait for the kids real verdict when they came back from school in the afternoon.
Mixed reports on their 1st day in Bolivian school
We were waiting eagerly at the square as the bus arrived back at 1 o’clock. As it was a Wednesday, Ingrid would go a full day with extra classes of drama and art in the afternoon and only return at 5.30. Scott on the other hand would come back down with the other little ones at 1. The bus arrived at the square but Scott was not there!! A quick call to Liliana only to find out that Scotts teacher thought he was supposed to stay with Ingrid for the full day and so did not let him on the bus. Scotty was a bit upset as I spoke to him on the phone so I took a taxi up to the school straight away to get him.
When I finally got him in the taxi heading home, he was ok but sad that he had not made any new friends! Scott always makes friends regardless of any language barriers so this really got me worried.
Ingrid on the other hand came back home at 5.30 beaming and starving having had a great time making new friends while not understanding a word in class. Great!
In the end they were both happy to go back to school the next day, Scott with some extra words of encouragement and ideas on how to make friends. At the end of day 2 they were both happy and excited about their new school, music class and making pottery as well as new Bolivian friends and Paul and I were happy to finally have some time get into our plans for going back to the UK.
As we were getting into the month of May we needed to settle down somewhere and start thinking about what to do at the end of our year long trip in July. We had started looking for UK jobs already in February while we were living in Nicaragua, only to realise that it was too far out in the future to yield any results. Now was the right time to get into our homecoming plans properly, but where could we settle down for a bit do so?
We had agreed that the country we would stay in would be Bolivia, simply for the reason of cost. Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in South America still and as we were approaching the end of our 12 month travel, our remaining budget was becoming increasingly important in our decision making. I had done some research about travel in Bolivia during our time in Peru and Chile and was feeling a bit apprehensive about staying here for a a month or more after reading about travellers experiences of unfriendly people, dangerous roads, rubbish food and dangerous dogs. However we know by now not to trust everything we read but rather to follow our own instincts as it always takes a bit of time to adjust to the people and the culture in a new country. After a week here our first impressions of Bolivia did not match the negative things we had read so we thought we’d give it a go and stay.
While exploring Sucre for a few days, we initially thought we might stay there and enjoy the more developed part of Bolivia. However, we quickly decided we didn’t want to stay there due to the pollution and big town feel.
Paul and I had agreed that our the top priority for the next month or so was to stay somewhere cheap with good internet access to help progress with our job hunting but we soon found ourselves doing the exact opposite.
Great advice from local Facebook groups
Back in January I had found some great Nicaraguan and and Costa Rican expats groups on Facebook. The expats in these groups are in may ways similar to us. Families and people that have left the old “western” way of life to enjoy a new and simpler life in other parts of the world.
Ingrids school in Nicaragua
Scott and his school friend Brisa
By simply asking these likeminded people for advice on the best places to live with kids we found a great place to stay and a local school in Granada, Nicaragua.In the end Nicaragua turned out to be one of our favourite parts of our travel so far. So with no ideas of where to go next in Bolivia or what to do for the next 2 months other than avoiding the big cities and living cheaply, I contacted a Bolivian expats group on Facebook for some inspiration and advice from families who had already made the move.
Change of priorities – and plans
Where in Bolivia is a good place to live for a travelling family with primary school age kids? I simply put this question to the few thousand people on the closed Facebook group and only minutes later the advice from friendly folk came thick and fast. Sucre, Cochabamaba, Tarija and Samaipata were the main 4 suggestions with lots of advice and information on why these friendly people through so. Cochabamaba and Sucre we had already ruled out due to size so that left Tarija and Samaipata. Tarija is located in the far southeast on the Argentine border so did not really fit our travel plans, but Samaipata to the east on the Amazon border would not be ideal either.
After reading up about both places and compering the two I instantly felt that little rural Samaipata could be the right place. A small town of 3500 people, lovely climate of 25 degrees, in the mountains full of wildlife, plenty of things to do and see and with a small community of foreigners that we could tap into to for help.
The Samaiapata crowd had also been particularly helpful on Facebook and that felt like a promising start. The main issue was internet coverage. After 2 weeks in Bolivia we already knew how poor internet is here so when we discovered that there is only 1 cafe in Samaipata with decent internet we knew we had to change our plans or our priorities.
Putting the new plan into action
Hours earlier, on Air BNB I had fond a great little house in the centre of Semaipata that was pretty cheap soI contacted the host to check that there was internet in the house. No was the answer, “but you can buy internet data to use on your phone with a Bolivian SIM”…Could we live for a month and look for jobs and houses back in the UK without good Internet access?? We agreed all other things about Samaipata seemed too good to turn down and so agreed we would go for it and make the job hunting process work one way or another.
Once decided, we started looking at how best toget there. Bolivia is not a huge country but the mountainous terrain makes it hard to travel anywhere. From Sucre to Samaipata is about 400km but would take some 12 hrs on bumpy roads in an uncomfortable night bus. The advice I got from my new Facebook friends was “Fly don’t die” and so that is what we did. Only 2 days after posting the question Facebook, we were on our way to Samaipata.
We flew from Sucre to Santa Cruz for about £40 each and then got a mini bus to Samaipata from there. Despite opting out of the bus it was not the easiest of journeys. After weeks in the cold high in the mountains we were also surprised and bit bothered by the heat as we got the bus from the airport to the minibus station in Santa Cruz.
The mini bus schedule ran as most mini busses do in Bolivia, they leave when they are full rather than follow a specific schedule. So we let the first bus go in order to have something to eat and a quick travel break. The next bus didnt leave for another 2 hours when all the places were full. Finally, with one guy practically sitting on the gear stick, we were off to our next Bolivian adventure.
We desperately wanted to go climbing in Bolivia as we had not managed to do any climbing at all in Peru. When we were in Peru the catastrophic floods and landslides made it impossible to reach many climbing areas and unsafe to climb in many places. It had been 4 months since our last outdoor climb in Cat Ba Vietnam and we were itching to get back on the rock. At the same time I was wondering if I still would have enough climbing fitness in me to really enjoy it.
Once we got to Sucre from Potosi and started looking at things to do there, we immediately realised that there is plenty of rock climbing in the Sucre area. Happy days! There are 2 main climbing companies that operate in Sucre and through a friend of climbing friend that met in Lima 2 months earlier, I got in touch with Carlos at ClimbingSucre to se if he could help us out.
By the time Carlos and I got talking we only had 2 days left in Sucre before our flight to Santa Cruz. Luckily Carlos offered to take us out climbing that same afternoon so that we could fit 2 climbing sessions in before leaving. Perfect! With such a long time since our last climb, to fully enjoy it we would need a proper warmup session before trying any harder climbs. We agreed on 2 half days of climbing at BS1000 and headed off out to Sica Sica crag just a few hours later.
Rock climbing at Sica Sica Crag, Bolivia
With only a handful of climbs in the last year in China, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand x 2, and Vietnam. Ingrid and I were lacking our usual climbing strength, especially in our fingers so we were both hoping toenjoy climbing some lower grades than usual.
Carlos met us at our hostel and a taxi buddy of his picked us all up and drove 10min to the crag at the edge of town. How amazing to have such a big wall to climb right on your door step at almost walking distance from the centre of Sucre. No wonder foreigners have settled here to run climbing businesses.
Getting back on the rock after 4 months break
Ingrid was soo excited she was almost hyper. She was skipping along the steep path up the 20 min ascent from the road to the crag and singing non stop. We soon arrived at the gorgeous crag and enjoyed the great view over Sucre right behind us. The 25m wall has a steep path up one side, perfect for setting up top ropes. Carlos went to set up the ropes, while Ingrid and I got our gear out.
As he came back down he was keen to point out that there are a lot of unsafe routes set up by amateurs in Bolivia. 2 routes he pointed out on this wall were set up with unsafe bolts and unless you come here with a guide, you would not know this and perhaps have an accident as a result.Bolts and drills are hard to come by in Bolivia, and although climb Bolivia pay for some of the routes there guys set up, Carlos also explained he and other climbers have invested a lot of money in bolting routes and buying gear that is more expensive in Bolivia than in most European countries.
I was not looking forward to unwrapping our smelly shoes that had been hiding in layers of plastic bags in the bottom of Ingrid backpack for months. Happy to find that they were ok and good to use…my feet however were not as pleased. I got another little bag out with what i thought was chalk, only to discover it was a bag of pasta! What a plonker, a days climbing without chalk as Carlos had not brought his either! At least the crag was in the shade so we would hopefully not be climbing too hard or sweating enough to really need it…
We started easy on a couple of 4s on the giant slab and were happy to find that the technique was still in us. We were also pleased to start the 2 days of climbing on a slab as it meant more leg power and less reliance on our weak fingers and arms. Most of the climbs were along flakes and cracks and friction on this sharp sandstone was good all they way. We continued climbing through the 5bs and 5csand finished on a couple of lovely long 6as. What a lovely afternoon of climbing.
Lead climbing on Garcilazo Crag, Bolivia
Day 2 we headed off at 8 and had only a 15 drive to Garcilazo crag. The driver who’s car was running on something other than petrol was struggling to get the car up the hill to our drops off point, but eventually we made it.
Once there I could not see the crag anywhere…turns out that we were on top of it and the approach was s steep scramble down a slippery hill to the impressive wall of exposed sandstone. Luckily Ingrid is like little mountain goat these days so we managed to get there safely in the end. The Garcilazo crag is a high quality vertical sandstone with long cracks, some tough crimpers and a distinct lack of foot holds.
It is south facing so in summer, this shady spot provides great protection form the sun, but as this is winter it was very cold in the shade so I was glad we had brought our hats and puffers. Yann (one of Ingrid climbing coaches back in London) says cold is good for friction said Ingrid with a smile.
No hanging about, I has asked to lead and that is what I got. I set up the first 5a route and Ingrid second it after me. We were both really suffering with cold fingers, especially the 1st third of every route. It was total agony andsharp rock on our cold weak fingers made for an uncomfortable start.
Fingers apart, I felt really confident leading this route as it had many options for hands and feet. As the crag is approached from the top, all the ropes can be cleaned from the top as we were leaving, meaning could spend more time climbing and less time cleaning routes.
We moved on to top a few other routes of the same line and started to feel the pain building up in our relatively weak finders and feet after months of no climbing. I loved this crag, such a perfectly clean and sharp vertical rock towering up above you and a great mix of comfortable and hared moves. There are also many different routes to climb in a great range of grades from 4 all the way up to 7b+.
The first few moves on all the route were quite reachy and hard so Ingrid opted to second me while I led. Even I struggled to get the first 2 clips in on all routes and was secretly pleased she opted out of leading today. With more recent climbs in the bags I’m sure she could have led these routes with confidence, but lack of regular climbing does quickly take your top performance and climbing confidence out of you.
After 4 leads and 2 top ropes my feet were absolutely killing me and Ingrid was getting hungry. Time to head back into Sucre to meet up with Scott and Paul who had been out to se the dinosaur footprints and park.
Potosi, Bolivia the richest mine in all of world history
We initially through we would stay in Uyuni for a few days to chill out after our 3 day 4×4 adventure across Salar de Uyuni, but quickly changed our mind. Uyuni is not a particular nice place to hang out, just a transit town where the roads from both Argentina and Chile converge before continuing up towards la Paz and all other cities in Bolivia.
We only managed dinner at a really good pizzeria, a visit to the playground in the morning followed by lunch and a 4 hr bus ride up to 4090m, to Potosi, the old silver mining city but that was just about enough.
We could definitely feel the lack of oxygen at this altitude and the pollution from heavy traffic made it even worse. We all suffered light headaches, dehydration, general fatigue and grumpiness. Hostel Realezawas in a good spot right in the heart of the colonial city centre, close to the market and the beautiful town square.
Our first full day here was May 1st, the whole city of Potosi was closed as different unions of miners, farmers, shop keepers, teachers etc marched through the city centre. A great sight to see all the people out marching for their rights, especially the ladies dressed up in the finery and traditional costumes.
After spending the day acclimatising and hanging out at an amazing playground we organised our trip to the mines the following day.
Safety gear for us – dynamite sticks for the miners
The main thing to do in Potosi is to visit the old silver mines so this is what we decided to do. There are a few travel agencies offering a mine tour, but we chose Koala tours, the only tour that takes you into an actual working mine rather than a closed down mine. Early departure in a minibus a few blocks up from the main square then a quick stop to get kitted our with protective clothes. Ingrid and Scott were both excited as Paul had explained to them that going into the mines would be a bit like playing Minecraft. Little did we know……
We all got protective trousers, coats and welly boots. I was surprised that they had wellies just the right size for the kids. Final touch was a protective hat with a head torch and a heavy battery pack clipped into your belt. Just getting dressed and walking in all the gear was hard, especially for Scott. How would he cope walking like this deep inside the mine…..
Next, the minibus took us to the miners market were we bought gifts to take with us to give to the miners we’d meet inside the tunnels. The guide explained that its the part of our tour fee that goes to the miners and the gifts we bring that keep the working miners happy for tourist to come into the mines to see them working. We bought dynamite sticks, ammonium sulphate, detonators, coca leavesand soft drinks that they mix with 96% alcohol while working. Next stop the actual mines!
Feeling scared deep inside in the dark Potosi mines
After a 15 min drive up the hill we were there. Young coca chewing men covered in dust and dirt were having a break outside the mine entrance as we got a safety briefing from our guide. Every now and then a 2ton cart with dirt and stones came hurtling out of the entrance on old rickety train tracks pushed & pulled by 3 young men. These were the carts we would have to avoid at all cost once inside the tunnels.
With our head torches turned on we went into the tunnels covering our mouths with our buffs to limit inhaling the dangerous mining dust. The tunnels were pitch back and very small,much smaller than I had imagined. Only Scott could walk upright the rest of us were folded over trying not to trip on the tracks and stones along the tunnel floor.
In the distance we could hear carts being loaded and pushed down the tracks. “Out of the way” cried the guide and we all had to jump into a niche along the side of the track to avoid being run over. Every 10 min or so another cart came hurtling at us as we stumbled along the dark tunnel, folded in half and sweating profusely in all our heavy gear.
As we got deeper into the tunnels, the oppressing feeling and slight fear was getting to all of us, especially Ingrid who was looking very uncomfortable stumbling along in the little light from her head light. After 40 min of walking, 450 m deep inside the mountain, where more than 10 000 men work everyday, we finally arrived at a resting station. During our 10 min break the guide told us about the hard life of the miners in Potosi and the gods they worship to stay safe.
Each man work for himself in a syndicated group with their earnings depending on the minerals they find. Around 50 miners die every year in accidents and another 50-100 in lung related diseases, their life expectancy is only 40-50, but working the mines earn them more money than any other job they could possibly do here.
Time to get out of the mines – we end the tour early
After the 10 min break we were supposed to head further into the tunnels for another hour of exploring the tunnels deep inside the mines. At this point Ingrid and Scott were starting to feel a bit unwell and so I told the guide we had to take the kids out. To be honest, at this point I did not want to go in any further either.
On the way out we had to wait as carts were filled up with rubble from a shaft in the roof…and all I could think of was the terror of being stuck in the mine behind falling rocks. The guide assured us we were safe, but I certainly did not feel very safe.
Once outside, we waited an hour in a little safety shack before the rest of the group returned. Ingrid almost fainted as we sat down, totally overcome by the stress of being inside the mine for over an hour. I too felt unwell and relieved to be out in the fresh air again. Scott and Ingrid both promised then and there to study hard in school so that they never ever would have to work in a mine.
Trip of lifetime San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia
We had already decided that we would go to Bolivia after Chile, but had yet to decide how to best get there. Our main concern was how the kids would cope with the very high altitude required going over the mountains to Bolivia for either a few hours or a few days depending on the route we chose. Both the 8hr direct transfer and the 3 day jeep tour meant we would have to go over very high passes of around 5000m altitude. We had bern trekking at altitude before, but this would be an entirely different league.
Chiang Dao, Thailand
Blue Valley, Australia
Tiger Leaping gorge China
In the end, after much research it appeared that the risks, beyond feeling unwell with high altitude sickness, were quite small as we had already been acclimatizing at 2400m in San Pedro de Atacamafor almost a week with everyone feeling ok. With so much to see on the way to Bolivia and with a relatively small difference in cost, Paul and I agreed that we simply could not miss the chance to do the 3 day trip by Jeep. Once decided, the kids were very excited and so were we.
Although many travel agencies offer the exact same trip, I did go to at least 8 different ones before selecting the one for us, Toursimo Caur. Most tour operators appeared to have little experience in taking little children over the mountains despite claiming otherwise. Finally I found one tour operator who seemed to understand the importance of Ingrid and Scotts comfort and wellbeing. Also, Turismo Caur was the only operator I spoke to who went over the mountains on the “alternative route” staying at hostel with hot water and electricity at 3900m in San Juan Puerto the first night rather than the standard cold, hostel without heating and electricity at 4400m. A better night sleep for Ingrid and Scott could make all the difference in the overall happiness and success of the entire trip, so this is what we went for in the end. The alternative route also offer a more varied scenery than the classic route.
Bolivian immigration and breakfast at 4400m
On the outskirts of San Pedro is the Chilean immigration control. We spent 30 min in the freezing cold queueing up only to realise that we did not have our Chile entry cards to show. After pushing the kids to the front with big smiles and apologising profusely for loosing our cards the border controller very reluctantly let us through. Phew. 45 min later, 1600m higher up in much colder weather it was time for Bolivian border control at Hilto Cajon.
It was freezing cold hanging around waiting for our turn outside the little building on the side of the mountain. I was glad I had stopped at the San Pedro market the night before to buyhats, gloves and llama wool socks to help us keep warm.
While in the queue, our driver had set up the most delicious alfresco breakfast with hot chocolate, coffee, cheese, salami, avocado and bread. It simply tasted fantastic in the cold air and helped defrost our frozen hands and toes somewhat. With our tummies full it was finally time to take all our gear from the minibus and load up our Jeep. Finally we were going to be on our way!
Soaking in Polques hot springs at 4400m
Just 20 min in the journey we stopped at Laguna Blanca, the white frozen lake. I was already feeling stunned by the amazing landscape and colours of the vast volcanic dessert around us and this frozen lithium lake was simply beautiful.
A similar view at the next stop, followed by the highlight of the day, a hot bath!. Lagunas Polques is a hot spring up high at 4400maltitude with water at a constant 45 degrees celsius. The very cold morning simply melted away as we sat soaking in the hot water gazing out into the desert.
Ingrid and Scott loved it too and we all wanted to stay in longer than the recommended 15 min. I’m not sure if it was the mineral content, the fumes from water, the change in temperature or simply the high altitude, but we all felt dizzy and light headed getting out and dressed ready for lunch.
Yet again, our driver had prepared a great feast while we were enjoying the hot bath. Ingrid and Scott wolfed down the fried chicken and mash…and so did the rest of us. Another quick stop at Laguna Verde before heading up the the highest point of the trip 4995m to look at Geyser Sol de Manana.
Getting out of the car into the sulphur fumes I was surprised not to feel anything of the high altitude except thirst and a bit of breathlessness. We had seen volcanoes in action before, while living in Nicaragua and knew this would be another highlight for the kids. However, Ingrid and Scott did not this as much as the smelly sulphur fumes made them feel ill. Just 5 min was enough to call it a day and head back into the car.
Final stop of the day, the colourful Flamingo Laguna or, Laguna Colorada. You simply have to see it with your own eyes to fully understand how amazing it really is. Bright pink water, flocks of flamingoes, white sand along the water with dark blue mountains towering up against the clear blue skies. We walked 20 min along the beach feeling as though we were walking in a dream world.
We reached the hostel in San Juan Puerto a couple of hours later and went for a wonder among the stunning boulders in theValle de Rochasbefore dinner where we discovered a crashed airplane and a sacred cave complete with human sculls.
We were surprised yet again by the great quality of the food. Tea and biscuits as we arrived then a very late dinner of vegetable soup followed by spaghetti Bolognese. We all went to bed full and tired and excited about the next days adventures.
After an hours drive and a quick stop by Vinto laguna we reached the main site for the day. Tucked away behind cliffs and green little fields with grazing llamas we found to the most beautiful hidden pool, the mystical black laguna.
We had a break and a snack up high on the rocks looking down at the strange rocky landscape around us, wishing we could climb all the cool boulders we could see. Before lunch we also managed to stop at the Anaconda Gorge, named after the snake like river at the very bottom.
In an empty town in the middle of nowhere we finally stopped and pulled up by a little house where our driver served us sausage potato bake and some canned tuna. Not quite the meal a starving Ingrid had hoped for, so she spent the rest of the afternoon in a bad mood with a headache.
Our final stop before the Salt hotel was the deserted town and the end of the train line…FinallyIngrid perked up at the sight of some random monkey bars in the deserted playground.
The bright white salt hotel where we spent the night had an amazing hot shower after which we all felt better and ready for the next day adventures. We had a lovely dinner of soup followed by chicken and chips and then an epic game of pass the pigs with our fellow travellers Kevin and William. We retired really early in hoping to avoid a major meltdown at the early start 4.45 for the salt plains sunrise.
Salt, giant cacti and dinosaurs
At 5am we had packed up the jeep and headed out into the dark for 1 hr straight onto the largest salt flats in the world, where no roads exist. Behind us in the dark, a convoy of Jeep headlights all heading the same way to the theIncahuasi Island with giant cacti in the middle of the vast sea of salt . Here we got out and climbed to the top to catch the imminent sunrise. The high altitude, freezing cold and early hour meant Scott was not very happy. He finally perked up once I lent him my coat. At least I still had my llama socks, hat and gloves to keep me a little bit warm.
The sunrise itself was not that spectacular as the horizon was shrouded in clouds but the view over this completely flat while landscape with the cacti was stunning none the less. The giant cacti here grow 1-2 cm per year, so some of them would have been over 300 years old. It felt magical standing on this ancient little slab of land surrounded by these magical ancient trees.
As we came back down again to our jeep, our driver had set out our breakfast on a little table next to the car in the freezing cold. Hot chocolate, coffee, cake and rice puffs got our blood pumping again and the air started to warm up too with the sun rising above the horizon.
Ingrid and Scott went for a snooze in the car after breakfast while Paul and I went for a walk out on the salt flat. It was a surreal feeling walking for 30 min straight out onto the the big white landscape with nothing in front of us but the vast sea of white. 30 min later and a few km from the Incahuasi island the jeep found us and picked us up for another 10 min drive further out for some funny photos.
End of the trip – Train Cemetery in Uyuni
On the way to the last stop the Bolivian train graveyard we stopped at the local market where we bought some amazing salt crystals and nothing else after being told that all Bolivian handicrafts would be cheaper in La Paz. After another hour in the car we passed through Uyuni on the way to see the trains. …This place was a bit of a dump if you ask me, but of course just the kind of dump that the kids loved. Ingrid and Scott had a great time exploring and climbing up onto the olds trains and stream engines…me not so much.
Our 3 day trip ended in Uyuni at the little local eatery run by our drivers wife. Inside a little building, or perhaps it was their living room, we got sat at a table for our last meal consisting of llama chops and rice. Again, the for was surprisingly good and we felt full, tired and happy when we got our bags out of the jeep to walk 4 blocks to our hostel.
Packing for 3 days in the desert
We did have all our luggage with us as we were going to continue our travels in Bolivia after this trip, but here are the things we brought and kept to hand that proved very useful.
Head torches – for early mornings and late evenings and climbs to see the sunrise
Swimsuits & towels – to enjoy a delightful dip in the hot springs
Sunglasses, suncream & hats – the salt flats are blinding and the sun very strong
Extra batteries – for charging things up as there are only a couple of points where you can get electricity throughout the 3 day trip
Kindles – for the kids to read, as they do get a bit bored staring out of the car window at the amazing views for 3 days.
Travel pillows – so the kids can have a comfortable snooze in the car
Water – 2l per person and day is the minimum
Paracetamol and neurofen – to deal with any headaches or feelings of illness
Warm clothes – wolly hats, socks, gloves, scarfs and layers for very cold nights
Extra snacks – as there are nowhere to buy anything, dinner is served pretty late and the food might not be to your liking.
Lip Balm – Sun, wind and dry air will crack them up for sure
Bolivanos – 250BS per person as you need to pay at immigration and buy tickets to enter some of the national parke
Satellite phones and oxygen tanks are extremely important for emergencies and should be kept in every Jeep – check with your driver before departing
Extremely high altitude with children
We were worried about the effects the extremely hight altitude could have on the kids, especially Scott who is only 5. Before deciding to do this trip we did quite a lot of research on the internet on how to acclimatise and best prevent altitude sickness. As we had been at relatively high altitude before 3200m Nepal, 2200m Thailand and 3400m in Peru without any problems we though the risk of serious illness was slim. However, Paul and I had prior to this only been up over 4000m once and the kinds never so we still need to take all possible precautions. The jeeps doing this off road journey are all equipped with oxygen tanks and masks for emergencies as once you re on route it is 1 to 2 days drive to the nearest hospital.At High altitude in Peru, paul found that drinking coca tea helped, so this we would bring with us, and coca sweets for the children. The actual coca content is minuscule, but the effects very positive at it helps oxygen uptake in to body. After much internet research we decided against altitude sickness pills as they rarely work. Instead we brought lots of water, paracetamol and neurofen for any headaches or feelings of illness.
We all felt the effect of the altitude, in the way of constant thirst, extremely dry mouth,lips and constantly crusty noses, but at no point did we feel seriously ill. Neither of us got a particularly goos sleep over the 2 nights and the same was true again when we went to Potosi at 4400m a few days later. The effects of the altitude increased throughout the 3 day trip and by the time we got to Uyuni, we were glad to be lower down and started to feel better again. I believe the long period of acclimatizing in San Pedro before this trip was the key to our success in adapting to the high altitude ad would recommend the same to anyone thinking of doing this trip with their children.