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Rock climbing in Bolivia

Sucre – climbing with new friends in Bolivia

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Carlos and Ingrid

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.

 

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Beautiful Ha Long bay Vietnam back in December 2016.

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.

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Climbing at base camp Lima

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 to  enjoy climbing some lower grades than usual.

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View over Sucre from Sica Sica crag

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.

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Bolivia, Sucre, Sica Sica crag set in a tranquil eucalyptus forest

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.

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Ready to climb

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.

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Sore toes

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…

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Lovely routes on the Sica Sica crag

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 5cs  and finished on a couple of lovely long 6as. What a lovely afternoon of climbing.

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Ingrid on top rope at Sica Sica crag Bolivia

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.

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Tricky approach to the Garcilazo crag in Bolivia

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.

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Typical route on Garcilazo crag in Bolivia

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.

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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 and  sharp 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.

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Excited and happy to be lead climbing again
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Ingrid working her way up this 6a+

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+.

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Having a rest before topping out on this long crack

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.

 

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Sore fingers after 2 days of climbing

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.

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Over 5000 dinosaur foot print on this wall
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Having fun in the dinosaur park

 

 

Gasping for air – 3 days over 4000m in Bolivia with our children

Trip of lifetime San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia

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The arid landscape as we headed up to the Bolivian immigration

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.

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 acclimatising at 2400m in San Pedro de Atacama for 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 3day trip by Jeep. Once decided, the kids were very excited and so were we.

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Feeling excited about our trip snd looking silly in our new wollen hats

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 there 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 boarder 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.

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Bolivian immigration at 4400m

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 buy hats, gloves and llama wool socks to help us keep warm.

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Breakfast at 4400m

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!

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The jeep that took us on the 3 day off road tour from San Pedro, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivi

Soaking in Polques hot springs at 4400m

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Heading off into the beautiful Salar de Uyuni desert in our Jeep

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.

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Laguna Blanca on the Chile/Bolivia border

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 4400m altitude 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.

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Lovely hot soak in Polques hot springs

Ingrid and Scott loved it too and we all wanted to stay in longer than the recommended 15min. Im 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 lightheaded getting out and dressed ready for lunch.

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Enjoying a feast after swimming in Polques hot springs

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.

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Smoke and fumes 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.

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Laguna Colorada full of flamingos

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 dreamworld.

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Scott admiring the flamingos

We reached the hostel in San Juan Puerto a couple of hours later and went for a wonder among the stunning boulders in the Valle de Rochas before dinner where we discovered a crashed airplane and a sacred cave complete with human sculls.

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Our hostel under the giant rocks
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The remains of a crashed airplane was an interesting sight

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.

Anaconda canyon and hidden lagunas

Day 2 started with cold pancakes and hot coffee followed by a 30 min drive to the most amazing stone & boulder landscape, Valley of rocks. We stopped to explore the “world cup” boulder formation and climbed onto the gorgeous camels back.

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World Cup stone formation in the background
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Camel stone – luckily I still know how to rock climb

After an hours drive and a quick stop by Vinto laguna we reached the main sight 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.

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There are lots of llamas grazing on the Bolivian altiplano
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Black laguna in the middle of the Valley of Rocks

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.

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Amazing views over the Anaconda gorge

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.

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Deserted lunch spot

Our final stop before the Salt hotel was the deserted town and the end of the train line…Finally Ingrid perked up at the sight of some random monkey bars in the deserted playground.

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Deserted playground with some great monkey bars

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 the Incahuasi 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.

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Incahuasi sunrise
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To Scott the giant cacti looked like waving teddy bears
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Giant cacti on our way down to breakfast

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.

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Al fresco breakfast

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 plus roughers and rice puffs got our blood pumping again and the air started to warm up too with the sun rising above the horizon.

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View of the Island as we walked out into the salty landscape

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 30min 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.

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Train cemetery in Uyuni

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.

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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.IMG_9250At 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 agains 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 acclimatising 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.