It was an overnight bus from Uyuni, a small almost wild-west town in southern Bolivia. We entered the city, all mist and yellow sodium lights, before dawn. The lines of lights didn’t stretch out around me, but below me, yellow strings that disappeared into the morning fog. The bus pulled into the main bus station around 6am, the fading darkness revealing busy streets and a city that stretched up above me. It sat at the bottom of bowl, so the sun would not appear over the lip or nearby mountains for some time. The La Paz Centro – the city centre – sits at around 3500m. Further down the valley, the more affluent and middle class occupy smart apartment blocks. Over 500m up the sides of the valley up on the plateau is Palo Alt where the winters bight deep into the shacks, shanties and breeze block homes of La Paz’s workers and underclass. And you’ll also find the airport. I’d been living at altitude for about 3 weeks now and La Paz was still a struggle to navigate without becoming breathless. I have no idea how people fly in from sea level to an airport at 4000m altitude. And survive!
La Paz, was beguiling. I’d left behind the very modern and somewhat European countries of Chile and Argentina. They were majestic, lands of towering peaks, glaciers, condors, guanacos, gauchos, wine, and beef. But it felt Spanish. Tall athletic bodies, European in looks. Bolivia, however felt more like the real South America. The people – Aymara and Quechua – were shorter, dark skinned people, their ancestors the indigenous Indians of the Amazon and Andes. La Paz, was like a Lego City made of orange blocks, precariously built on a wonky blanket draped between tall chairs and sofas. It clung to the hill sides. The walls around the city that led up to Palo Alt and beyond, were half a kilometre high, Walls that sometimes gave way in lethal mudslides when the rains came. The folds of the city, decorated with several notable sky scrapers, while at their feet the orange blocks and tin roofs, terraces open to the sky and lined with washing. Ordinary dwellings covered almost every spare inch that wasn’t a road or path. Apart from the odd patch of deep rich green, oval in shape, a football pitch or stadium the broadest open space was one of La Paz’s famous landmarks – the cemetery.
La Paz had me on edge to start with. It was a busy city. A new city. And my head was buzzing with tiredness and oxygen debt. I’m cautious until I can figure out the lay of the land. Work out my bearings, the main streets, how to get around, where the safe neighbourhoods are and where to be careful. Sometimes that comes from a book, or a web site, sometimes from other travellers and occasionally, you hear those little tingles from your belly that tell you to be alert. I’d been warned that La Paz had its fair share of crime, but initially it felt safe enough.
I got a taxi to my hostel, a quirky pod hostel recommended by traveller friends I’d met coming across the border from Chile. I dropped my bags and found a cafe down the road which was recommended and, at 6:30am, was open. It had an odd vibe. They were cleaning while serving. I found a seat, grabbed a menu and thought about food. The snack on the overnight bus was not nearly enough. No sooner had I got comfortable than two men started arguing, fists and hand slaps by people who’d been drinking all night changed the mood. I drank my coffee, paid and left. But I was there long enough to watch friends of both parties try to hold the combatants apart. La Paz, had my attention.
I found another coffee shop. It was up a couple of steep lanes that required 15 min of puffing and plodding. La Paz was going to be a challenge. I’d spent the last few days above 3000m, and reached 5000m just after crossing the border from Chile. Everybody processes altitude differently. I felt its harsh affects when I caught the bus from Salta in northern Argentina over the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The border post was at 4200m. We spent a few hours there – borders guards in hurry – and just climbing up into the bus took my breath away. Once processed the bus climbed still further to over 4800m – Europe’s Mont Blanc is 4808m – before dropping down the western flanks of the Andes to the more comfortable altitude of 2500m. We descended past volcanoes and snow capped peaks that ran in a line south along the border and north into nearby Bolivia. I spent 5 days in San Pedro with several forays up into the higher Altiplano visiting hot springs, biking into desert valleys, and down-hill biking off a snow capped volcano. I thought I’d acclimatised but La Paz still denied my lungs peace.
High altitude sucks colour from the landscape. It’s harsh and almost monochromatic. Yet La Paz was daubed with colour. Colourful murals decorated whole city blocks, and the cemetery. All the better viewed from the very modern Mi Teleférico – the cable system that loops around the city. The city was alive with Cholitas, the older woman in traditional dress, who were the street traders – fruits, flowers, trinkets and treats. With their bowler hats held at an angle, thick black hair in two distinct plaits, and a colourful shawl wrapped at an angle across their body to carry belongings, a baby or anything else for that matter.
The city also offered adventure: Death Road cycling – a scary descent down the North Yungas Road, a truly exposed gravel road; climbing and mountaineering on one of the local snow capped peaks visible from most parts of the city; free walking tours that took in La Paz’s Witches’ Market, the colourful and curious central cemetery, or its notorious San Pedro Prison. You could also grab one of hop-on hop-off buses that would take you into Peru, via Lake Titicaca, to Colca Canyon, and to Machu Picchu. I had planned to hike the Salkantay Trek up to Machu Picchu, but early in Feb heavy rains had washed away several villages. Literally. Villages and villagers had disappeared off the mountains in mud slides. So the tracks had been closed for 4-6 weeks.
I’d then planned to do a 3-day climb to the summit of Huayna Potosi. Learning how to rope up, use crampons and an ice axe. Considering the time I’d spent hiking and biking at altitude, I was as ready to climb a 6000m peak as I’d ever be. However fate stepped in. A text message from my step-sister. My step mom had passed away. She’d had an amazing innings, brought a wonderful group of people into the world – my extended family – and made my dad happy for the last years of his life. She was an amazing lady and the least I could do was fly home and pay my respects at her funeral. I bought a return ticket to Australia. The flight would carve an arc across the southern Pacific skirting the Southern Ocean on my way to Sydney. I would see Antarctic pack ice and icebergs the size of city blocks glistening in the sun beneath us. My plans were to return from Brisbane after a few weeks, then either finish the Potosi climb or head northwest into Peru. There was still so much to explore: Peru, Ecuador, Columbia and Mexico. I still had 3 1/2 months up my sleeve. That would be plenty of time to make it back to London for the wedding of two close friends in late July. That was 1 year ago.
I stayed with my nephew and his little tribe in the southern suburbs of Brisbane. The funeral for Roma was held the following week. And over the weekend while I worked out my next steps, the world was rapidly changing about me. I looked at options to visit a friend in Adelaide or friends in Indonesia but on the following Sunday, our borders shut. I was going nowhere. Our state like most of Australia was locking up.
It would be a few a weeks before lockdown eased in our state. Months before some normality returned to the country although some state borders remained closed for 2020 while others were like a revolving door depending on case numbers in other states. Virgin Australia went into administration, they now only fly domestic. Most of the Qantas fleet are parked in the Mojave Desert in the US. Most of the Singapore Airlines fleet are parked at Alices Springs airport. International flights are limited in and out of the country while the UAE – with Emirates, Qatar and Etihad the national carriers – still blocked from flying to the UK because of the South African variant. Qantas were due to start flying again in July. That’s been pushed back till October 31st. I’m living in quite a bubble here, where new cases are in single digits and vaccines are being rolled out across country that for all intents and purposes is open but cautious.
So a lot can happen in 12 months. A lot can happen in a few weeks, March 2020 was one of those ‘don’t blink’ moments. Who knows what will happen over the next 12 months. Hopefully the vaccine rollout will help control, at the very least ease, the virus, and help reduce the pain and uncertainty across the globe. Hopefully vaccines will reach poorer countries, and those most at risk are given the jabs first. But I feel it will be a long time before the planet reaches anything remotely resembling ‘normality’ as we once knew it. I for one am curious what March 2022 will look like. But as I look at images of La Paz, Uyuni and Bolivia, I am thankful I got the chance to explore a new continent, several new countries, and see a bit more of this big beautiful world. Just before it all went to shit.