La Paz – We Become Overlanders

We finally arrived in La Paz after many hours in road works and diversions from hell, the last hour and a half being in darkness. Actually a pretty harrowing experience as much of the on coming traffic don’t dip their lights and the diversions are dirt roads with no markings. On top of that there are crazy overtakers everywhere who don’t seem to fear on coming trucks in the slightest. We’re not doing great wih this not driving at night thing…

Driving into La Paz you quickly understand that it is on a steep hill as you decend down a helter scelter like dual carrigeway into the center of town. The route to our hotel was fortunately turned out to be fairly straightforward and amazingly we got there without getting misrouted. Even better found that the off-site parking was just across the street – we were dreading finding that by this point!  Sure, we got overcharged as our van was “larger than an ordinary cars” but we didn’t care about gringo taxes, we were just happy to be able to get in and have a hot shower!  Well, the hotel was a little basic but good enough, and the shower was hot  but had the same electric heating system as in Uyuni, which meant a hot trickle or a cold flow.  What escaped Barbara’s attention initially was the plastic wrap over the tap – that is, until she inadvertantly touched the metal behind it and got a shock.  Apparently the plastic wrap was their nod to health and safety.

We discovered that Bolivia is not as cheap as we had been expecting, as besides being able to get almuerzo (or lunch) for about £1 and accommodation being cheap, pretty much everything else cost as much or more than Chile – particularly wine!

We wanted to find a mechanic as Steve had a few niggles we wanted looking at, and a quick internet search led us to suposedly the best mechanic in South America – which may have been the case but he didn’t specialise in deisel engines.  Although he was able to call a friend who worked for Mercedes and gave us some helpful tips, one of which is not to get a Sprinter fixed in Bolivia as you can’t get parts easily and there are no mechanics experineced with Sprinter engines. We heeded this advice and decided to wait for Peru.

The great thing was that he had quite a trade in fixing other overland travellers’ vehicles so we got to meet other travellers who were staying at Hotel Oberland, introducing us to the world of overland travellers we had not discovered until now. We decided to move over to Oberland as it sounded pretty good, basically a big parking area with showers and the use of the other great hotel facilities. Barbara was particularly pleased to find that their fantastic hot showers weren’t reliant on plastic bags as a safety measure…

It seems that throughout Bolivia and Peru there are campsites that cater for ‘overlanders’ and a whole community that cross through them in a wide variety of vehicles from humble vans and 4x4s to mega trucks.

Overlanders at Hotel Oberland
Overlanders at Hotel Oberland

We spent the next couple of days sorting out a plan and aquiring some maps for our next expedition, which was to be out climbing some acclimatisation peaks. We hoped to climb a 6000er later. After eventually finding the Instituto Geographica Militar and requesting copies of the maps we needed we continued wondering round the narrow steep streets of La Paz. Having looked on Google Earth at the route to the place I thought would be good to base ourselves for a few days it seemed we’d need 4×4 transport out there, so I thought we should pop into an tour agency that seemed to specialise in mountaineering trips. I went in and asked the lady working there about hiring 4×4 transport to get us to the Khara Khota valley – she did not know, but she did call her boss and passed me the phone saying Doctor Hugo wanted to speak to me. He told me that return 4×4 transport would be very expensive (about $400) but I explained we had a van so could get some of the way. He suggested going to Pena and speaking to the local padre who would be able to arrange the onward transport. However he also warned that if we encountered any drunk miners we should make a quick exit as it could be dangerous. After talking through the miner issue a bit more it turned out that they really don’t like Gringos and if you get in amongst a drunk mob your life may be in danger. I asked him if he thought it might be better to go elsewhere. He suggested going to Juri Khotta valley instead. He said he would be in the office the next day, we could come visit him and he would show us on the map where to go and tell us how to get there. We agreed a time and went back the next day once we had ordered a different map from the IGM.

Tom and the Great Dr. Hugo!
Tom and the Great Dr. Hugo!

Meeting Dr. Hugo in person was quite an experience.  He was a fairly eccentric chap to say the least, his office bookshelves crammed full of guide books and mountaineering journals. He showed me on the map where the Juri Khotta valley was and explained we could hire a muleteer in Tuni, and that Tuni was quite safe as many tourists go there to walk to Condoriri base camp. After some more lively chat he said he could give us a lift back to the Hotel Oberland as he lived near by, we would just need to go to his lock up to get the Beast (his old toyota 4×4) and he would then introduce us to his mechanic friend (the second best mechanic in South America apparently).

The stunning night view over La Paz with Illimani in the background.
The stunning night view over La Paz with Illimani in the background.

As we drove round the streets of LaPaz he told us stories of his youth when he rode round on a motorbike graffiting anti government slogans and being part of the marxist revolutionary movement, ultimately having to leave the country to avoid being captured by the government. It seemed he’d had quite a colourful youth!  He drove us up to a fantastic view point over the city before visiting his friend Tuco to drop off ‘the beast’ who had to collect some other clients from Condorirri the next day, dropping us off at Oberland at the end . Dr Hugo was really knowledgable and helpful, even if he is a bit bonkers. If you need some mountaineering advice in LaPaz you should pay him a visit at Huayna Potosi Tours at the top of Sarganaga you’ll definately get some good advice and some entertainment to boot!

2 thoughts on “La Paz – We Become Overlanders”

  1. It’s great that you’ve tapped into a community that you didn’t even know about before ! – should make for a better set of overlanding stops 🙂
    Dr Hugo sounds like a fantastic chap !

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