The last three days were spent touring around the breathtaking sites of the Bolivian salt flats, barren deserts, peculiar formations, snow-caped volcanoes and hot springs. Chance to tour the witches' market again and embark on my exploration of the Cordillera Real was just a night-bus ride away. I woke up from the swirling and weaving of the bus. It almost flipped over but driver eventually managed to regain control and we ended up on the side of the road. Seeing the smokes the driver urged us to immediately evacuate. I looked at the damaged bus, fumes, blown out tires and there was no doubt that we would spend the next couple of hours waiting for help to arrive. Temperatures drop very low at such high altitudes at night. Being stranded outside the bus without proper clothing was not really the experience I was looking forward to but I tried to think of it as a part of the adventure.
Sore throat and headache are not the kind of things I enjoy bringing on my hikes so I politely asked the taxi driver to stop by the pharmacy. The hiking guide who was in the car as well told us that there was no need to waste time, he already had the medicine with him. The 21-year-old guide was short but buffed, he started his career in military police when he was fifteen and he meant business. There were no more kindergarten hikes or three-day treks of Peruvian style. There were only two of us in the group - my new friend was a young German tourist, avid hiker in the Alps who just like me found Peruvian hikes quite relaxing. The guide set the pace of the race - we were going up and down the mountains, with two 5-minute rest stops per day and a 15-minute stop for lunch. If we took time for pictures or bathroom breaks we would have to catch up with him since he continued walking ahead no matter what we were doing.
The landscapes were really beautiful and the first day of the hike just flew by. We passed by herds of llamas and alpacas, lagoons and snow-capped mountains; my throat was hurting so badly that I ate half a bag of coca leaves just to be able to swallow. I was getting more and more sick and as soon as we stopped walking I lay down in the tent. I got a fever from having a cold and a grueling stomach ache from all the coca leaves I chewed. I could not sleep or breathe most of the night. As soon as I heard the guide get out of his tent in the morning I asked him to check again if he had any medicine or pills. He could not grasp why I only got worse and sincerely offered me his entire medical kit again - which meant chewing more coca leaves he brought with him.
The second day we hiked for 8.5 hours, pretty much non-stop. After 5 hours of going up and down the mountains the guide finally told us that we arrived. The next 3.5 hours were spent looking for donkeys which were supposed to be found just by crossing another and then another and then yet another mountain... By the time we found them it started getting dark and I already had to lay on the ground twice - I had a fever and really felt I could not keep going anymore.
Even though the views on the first 1.5 days were beautiful, last 1.5 days were akin to military exercise. We spent another half day quickly going up and down through desert-like terrain at 4800m-5000m (15,700 feet - 16,400 feet) altitude, with strong cold wind gusts blowing at us. There was not much to see on this part of the trek except stones and sand, and this was certainly not the best way to recover from cold and sinusitis. The food on the trail made it much easier to keep going - even though the lunch breaks were short, we would get some kind of meat with almost every meal. There were no more boiled potatoes and Oreo cookies I got used to during my hikes in Peru.
We finally arrived to the base camp of Huayna Potosi to start the climb, I was really not feeling well and debating on whether I should just come back to La Paz right away. Eventually, I decided to stay and make my decision the day after so my guide and my German friend drove away without me. I met my climbing guide who told me that the closest pharmacy was in La Paz and I had 15 minutes to rest before going up the mountain to the glacier to practice ice climbing.
The agency trying hard to sell me on both tours told me that the advantage of combining them was not only a small discount but also having more time to relax and a donkey bring all the gear up to the high altitude camp. In reality, everything was combined in one 5-day trip, which just meant I had no time to rest after hiking before taking up the climb. I still had to carry all my clothes, water, sleeping bag, and all the climbing gear including shoes, crampons and axe all the way up the rocky part of the mountain until we would have to get on with the ice and snow...
The only direct flights to La Paz outside of South America are from Miami, so it's very likely you will be making a connection and then have a 3-6 hour flight afterwards. From the US you will be flying either on Avianca (cheapest option is using AMEX Membership Rewards points transferred to ANA Airlines - RT 88K business / 55K economy) or on American Airlines (using their own miles for saver awards - RT 60K business / 40K economy). Saver awards availability for this route on AA is very limited so you need to start looking for your flights well in advance.
The dry season which lasts from May to October is the best time to visit Bolivia. Make sure you read about altitude sickness - this is not something to be taken lightly and can affect you no matter how fit you are. You may want to get a prescription for the altitude sickness pills as well. Do not rush it - leave enough time to acclimatize before you head to higher altitudes, even the capital of La Paz stands at almost 12,000 feet (3,650m) above sea level. The markets in La Paz have a lot of reasonably priced alpaca clothing which will keep you very warm, but buying quality sports gear is a challenge. Depending on your itinerary you may consider bringing from home the following items: ski gloves, hiking boots, sleeping bags, ear plugs and good hiking poles. You can also rent sleeping bags from any tour agency, if you sign up for a tour they will provide you with gloves, crampons, tent, helmet or anything else you may need for your adventure trip. You can book a similar tour in most of the tour agencies in La Paz which will most likely be cheaper than booking it in advance. If you want to have everything planned before you arrive, Tripadvisor offers a variety of tours in Bolivia.