© November 1994 Adam Helman


Bolivia is a landlocked South American nation bordered on the West by Peru, by Chile and Argentina on the South and Southwest, and by Brazil on the North and East. It is characterized by a large diversity in terrain, altitude and climate. The Andes mountains are widest in Bolivia (600 km), with three major ranges, the (Western) Cordillera Occidental and the (Eastern) Cordillera Real and Cordillera Oriental separated by a vast high plateau, the Altiplano, with a mean elevation of twelve to thirteen thousand feet. To the East lie steaming jungles near sea level.

The capitol of La Paz is located at the northern end of the Altiplano in a valley slightly lower than the Altiplano proper. It is the highest capital in the world at some 12,000 feet, and is layed out in a bowl shape with the poorer districts at higher elevation than the affluent ones. It is connected to the suburb of El Alto and El Alto International Airport (13,300 feet) by a breathtaking highway which leads down into the valley which contains La Paz proper. (Note: El Alto is a disgusting overgrown shantytown where the only thing which thrives is malodorous garbage. La Paz is by far the nicer.) La Paz is the de facto seat of government and the center of commerce. Despite the relatively poor state of the Bolivian economy (with the lowest per capita income in the Western hemisphere second only to Haiti), there are hotels and restaurants where even the most discriminating may feel welcome.

To the South of La Paz the Altiplano contains the city of Oruro, with Potosi lying to the Southeast across the cordillera. At one time Potosi was famous for its silver mines, with some four billion dollars worth having been extracted since the Spanish conquest in the 1500's. It is replete with colonial Spanish architecture and, for its size of some 150,000, is the highest city in the world at 13,600 feet. Oruro also survives from mining, in particular tin (Bolivia before the cocaine trade used to be a major exporter), silver, lead and zinc.

The cities of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba lie to the East, with Santa Cruz a petroleum center and Cochabamba, at an intermediate altitude of some 7,000 feet, enjoying a nearly perfect climate with a bounty of fruits and vegetables grown nearby.

The pre-Incan Aymara civilization resided in Bolivia until the Inca conquest just prior to the arrival of Europeans. Bolivia has the highest fraction of native peoples in all the Americas, with some two-thirds of the seven million population being pure Indian. Both the Aymara and Quechua (Incan) languages are widely spoken (I have heard radio broadcasts in both), and together with Spanish are official languages in Bolivia. It is said that, apart from the major hotels in La Paz, English in Bolivia is about as useful as Mandarin in the U.S.A.

Vacation Goals

The principal reason for traveling to Bolivia was, of course, the total solar eclipse that swept across South America on the morning of November 3, 1994. Bolivia was selected because the Altiplano gave statistically the best chance of viewing the event, with November enjoying cloud-free days eighty percent of the time. The duration of totality was some three minutes, and was longer in Brazil and in the Atlantic (more than four minutes - cruise ship vacation packages were available). However the chance of a cloudless day there was only fifty percent. Bolivia was also chosen because I have always wanted to travel there, being a part of Spanish America (since I know Spanish), and because there ARE the Andes mountains and I enjoy climbing.

Other activities were planned so as not to make the trip a complete failure should bad weather prevail on eclipse day. Apart from sightseeing in the La Paz area (including a survey of the local cuisine subject to restrictions imposed by health considerations), these activities included a trip to Chacaltaya ski resort (the highest in the world with a cabin at 17,200 feet), a day's journey to Lake Titicaca and Peru (the former as the world's highest navigable lake at 12,500 feet), and an ascent of a modest Andean peak (Serke Khollu, 18,300 feet). Due to time limitations and the fact that we did not come during the dry climbing season, a more significant peak such as Illimani (21,201 feet) was not considered.

Vacation Description

Night Flight and Rental Car Scam

An eclipse waits for no one! So when I learned at San Diego Airport that my flight had been cancelled, there was cause for serious concern. I was re-routed to Miami via Dallas, thereby making connection with the overnight flight from Miami to La Paz.

Edward flew on a different airline so as to make feasible a visit with his family in South Carolina after our return to America. The nonstop to La Paz was however with him, and, owing to the exceedingly full flight (every astronomer and his brother was going to Bolivia), a refueling stop was needed in Panama City, Panama.

Upon descent to Panama City a severe thunderstorm precluded landing, and we proceeded to Barranquilla, Columbia. There the aircraft was greeted by an unprepared ground crew and two guards with machine guns at the gate.

The second leg into La Paz was highlighted by a morning view of the Andes just prior to landing. Arrival at El Alto (13,300 ft) saw a slight dizziness due to one hour's sleep, 80 pounds of luggage, and the altitude. I was too excited to mind. After clearing customs I proceeded to pick up the four wheel drive car which had been reserved months ago. Where is the car agency? Only a downtown telephone number and address. Taxi to downtown La Paz. The descent into town affords a spectacular view of the city.

The rental agency has moved: no wonder the telephone gave no response. The car was not available until 3 P.M. - this did not seem right. I checked us into the El Dorado hotel without problem and take a taxi to various rental agencies on the premise that this was a fly-by-night business. One agent wanted a two thousand dollar deposit. Another wanted a blank check for the car's value - $14,000. A third demanded my original passport as collateral! The American Embassy did not take any sob stories until 8:30 the next day.

I was completely beside myself - without wheels the trip was ruined - no way of meeting the eclipse at the appointed time.

In desperation I asked for some fatherly advice - literally. Paged from a medical meeting at Kaiser Hospital, my father suggested I deal with the front desk and whoever they make car arrangements with. I learned that only one car might be available - the party was late in picking it up, and I could have it by 10 A.M. the next day. This was too late as my brother and his girlfriend were to arrive at 7 A.M. that morning and we must immediately begin driving to the area of totality. So I offered the rental agent twice the original rate. Deal. A driver came with the agreement - no wonder THESE people did not require a passport: I could not run off with THIS vehicle.

The agency head drove us to our hotel and we arranged for an early pick up the next morning. Edward and I ate at a moderate establishment serving Bolivian food. I felt somewhat restricted since I could not trust the water (therefore no ice cubes for soda and no soup), there was no salad, and I could not have ice cream with any cake or pastry (unpasteurized milk). A main dish, Silpancho, and a simple dessert sufficed.

Dusty Drive and Total Eclipse

A seven hour drive across the Altiplano featured one driver, Alberto, who knew only Spanish; one E.Earl who was learning it rather quickly; one brother, Dale, who couldn't stop chewing the coca leaves purchased for ten bolivianos (some two dollars plus change, they are legal in Bolivia); one girlfriend Dana with a videocam recorder to tape the scenery, and Adam who took it all in and acted as translator.

One of several eclipse observation sites was finally selected based upon proximity to a hill, which would be climbed in the morning, so affording a view of the moon's shadow as it raced eastward at 2,800 miles per hour. Having arrived in mid-afternoon Dale and Dana explored some nearby ruins which were recently occupied. I came to retrieve them for supper only to find an enormously distended Dale in a single sleeping bag, resting inside one ruin. You can guess where Dana was. They had, incidentally, brought two sleeping bags.

Alberto had no food, and upon realizing this I arranged to give him a fair portion of everything Edward and I had. Edward had Kraft mac 'n cheese and Raman noodles while I had brought Italian antipasto with crusty bread, noodles Romanoff, and a potpourri of desserts for Dale, Dana and myself. Despite my phone messages the previous week Dale and Dana had no eating utensils or anything to eat out of. So I prepared their portions first, as they used my fork, spoon and knife, and later ate for myself. What a nice guy.

Just as I was to enjoy my pasta a huge sandstorm blew up and filled my pot with a healthy portion of Altiplano dirt. This was supposed to be an adventure, yes? So I ate the stuff anyways, all the while Dana filming.

Dale and Dana went to sleep early while Edward and I stayed up worring about cloud cover and spying at Southern constellations for most of the night. Every two hours it would clear and then cloud up. Having sighted the Southern Cross as it rose at 4 A.M. I managed to catch some sleep reclining in the passenger seat next to Alberto who slept in the driver's seat. That evening Alberto and myself identified AM radio stations from Peru, Columbia, Argentina and Brazil, and from various regions of Bolivia.

Sunrise came at six, and everyone was up by six thirty. As I ate breakfast Edward set up my telescope and we made very exact plans for observing the eclipse, in particular how and when it would be announced, bilingually, that it was safe to look directly at the sun. The sky cleared except for some thin cirrus, and by seven thirty the weather assured us of an unobstructed total solar eclipse!

Edward had calculated the second at which the moon begins to hide the sun, including the effect of altitude: the latter accounted for about four seconds. With a countdown using synchronized watches I observed through my 4-inch telescope equipped with a solar filter to allow for safe viewing. At the INSTANT of predicted contact the moon's shadow took a bite from the solar disk. During the next hour the sun gradually became hidden, so producing a gradual darkening of the earth, a palpable chill in the air, and, in the last several minutes, the western sky became visibly darker than in the east as the moon's shadow overtook us in its orbit.

For several minutes before the onset of totality, known as second contact, I restricted views through the telescope so as to concentrate on centering the image and taking photographs. The telescope was not in clock drive since the camera weight would throw the drive motion out of balance. Thus I adjusted the position manually.

Some three seconds before second contact Edward announced that it was safe to look without filter. I was viewing through the telescope, and in order to avoid burning the optics waited until second contact itself to remove the expensive solar filter. Hence I did not see the onset of totality with the naked eye like everyone else. My brother claims at THAT SINGULAR INSTANT it turned from day to night! The brighter stars appeared. I took two photos in rapid succession. I relinquished telescope operation to Edward who, in the attempt to change shutter speeds, accidentally moved the telescope. I briefly tried to find the sun again but gave up after a few seconds: it is best to observe totality with the naked eye and with binoculars, and with time so precious, fiddling with a telescope mount is foolish.

Shouts of elation were exchanged. The videotape rolled and still pictures were taken with cameras. Just prior to the end of totality, third contact, I observed Bailey's beads - the first rays of sunlight peaking through the valleys and mountain ridges of the moon create a series of unconnected light patches which soon coalesce into a single sliver of light as the sun reappears. Dale grabbed the binoculars from me and just moments later Edward announced it is no longer safe to look. Someone, perhaps myself, translated into Spanish for Alberto.

For the next hour of partial phase, until fourth contact, we were are in a state of heightened pleasure, emotionally transformed, albeit briefly, by what we had witnessed. We packed up and drove the dusty trail, then paved highway, back to La Paz. No matter what happens, or fails to happen for the remainder of the trip, its success has been guaranteed.

Nevado Chacaltaya

Dale generously arranged for Edward and I to share a second room in the Radisson Hotel in downtown La Paz. We ate dinner in the hotel cafe and found it was incredibly cheap for the food quality and service. Indeed, the menu quoted prices in Bolivianos, yet the prices seemed reasonable were they to have been in dollars despite a 4.65 to one exchange rate! What Dale and Dana did that evening is their business - all I know is that ten minutes before our 9 A.M. departure the next morning for Chacaltaya, Dale and Dana were still in bed and with empty bottles of wine strewn across the room.

We departed for Chacaltaya, the world's highest ski resort, at about 9:10. Although only a dozen miles from La Paz, Nevado Chacaltaya takes 1 1/2 hours to drive up to its ski hut at 17,200 feet. This we did in a freezing rain, then snow, on a hair-raising road I would not have dared taken alone without a local driver. Edward and I got out at about 16,700 feet and walked up the road to the hut where the other three were waiting. We do not consider a hike as meriting the title ``ascent'' unless at least one thousand vertical feet are gained. Hence we started one thousand feet below the summit.

Somehow Edward had left one crampon in the hotel room. Nevertheless the two of us climbed past the false summit to the true summit at 17,700 feet, there being, of course, no road at this point. The view was, of course, very nice. Upon our return we found Dale running in the parking lot. He also had met a cardiologist who pricked himself in the finger to demonstrate that his blood was blue from lack of oxygen. Eventually all of us took a shot at running - it was exhausting.

We began the nerve-jarring descent by car. Llamas were photographed at 15,000 feet, we passed through the garbage heap of El Alto, and the rest of the day, proved uneventful.

Lago Titicaca

The road to Lake Titicaca is paved until the Strait of Tiquina, a narrow waterway which separates Lake Huinamarca on the south from Lake Titicaca proper on the north. A ferry carries the vehicle and up to two passengers. The remaining passengers must take a separate ferry, seemingly so that the locals can profit by charging twice for the same passage.

After the strait a horrendous dirt road leads to the pretty town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca just five miles from Peru. I have heard that the famous beach in Rio de Janeiro was named after this town. Copacabana does have a gorgeous church from Spanish colonial times, glistening white with blue and green tiles.

The clothing, in particular llama and alpaca products, is ridiculously cheap here. In 30 minutes Dana purchased a large number of gifts for friends, Edward climbed a nearby hill, and I took a chance on eating ice cream.

We arrived at the Peruvian border in a small town. The border is marked only by a swinging chain, with the Bolivian and Peruvian customs houses separated by 400 yards on either side. Everywhere natives were selling food and articles of clothing. We all physically walked into Peru.

Dale insisted upon being politically in Peru as well, just to have his passport stamped. However the Peruvian official claimed that a 24 hour stay in Peru is mandatory before returning to Bolivia. Since Dales flight was the following morning this was impossible. ``We are not in the business of stamp collecting.'' Twenty dollars (and twenty for Dana) changed his tune. We waited while Dale returned to Bolivia to get stamped out, went into Peru to ``enter'', ``exited'' Peru immediately, and re-entered Bolivia. Is this silly or what?

The terrible road to the straits of Tiquina was renegotiated, and we arrived near sunset. The ferry operator advised three of us to hide in the cab so that the competing operators will not charge us for being ferried separately from the vehicle. With only Dale and Alberto in plain view we shoved off. Shortly thereafter Edward, Dana and myself reappeared when at a distance from the shore.

I treated Alberto to dinner that evening. He did not know how to behave himself in such a nice place. Dale and Dana showed up with beautiful tee shirts of the eclipse for us. Later in their room I said goodbye with a Havana cigar for Dale.

Mountain Climbing

I hired the services of a professional mountain guide, Jose, for an ascent of Serke Khollu (18,300 feet). It was not the dry climbing season and I was wary of climbing alone with only Edward on a crevassed glacier in a foreign land miles from assistance. Serke Khollu was chosen as a modest goal in a land of 20,000 foot peaks because it met our criterion of surpassing 18,000 feet - the altitude at which atmospheric pressure is reduced to one-half its sea level value (this was appealing to us). The altitude would pose significant problems, and it was reasoned that by the end of our trip we would have acclimatized sufficiently.

A driver was hired by the guide service to drop us off at road's end and pick us up at 6 P.M. the following evening. Six was chosen because with sunset at about six thirty, it would become dark around seven and I did not want to drive back in the dark on what proved to be an unbelievably dangerous mountain road. Indeed at one point we had to back up as a truck approached, inching up the adjoining slope far enough to let it pass. In case of inclement weather he was instructed to show up at six the following day, and then wait until we appeared since the following morning our flight returned to Florida and thus would be forced to return to La Paz that evening.

We set up camp as high up as we could find a running water supply. This was some 15,900 feet above sea level. Although Serke Kollu may be climbed in one very long day, I had decided months in advance to camp overnight, so as to note the effects of altitude on sleep, with 16,000 feet as a tentative goal.

That night I had a fiendish nightmare. I was attacked on all sides by ghosts and fantasms, and then I fell through an endless black void. Words fail to express the terror. It is well known that hallucinations are common at extreme altitude, and of course can be deadly if they occur during some crucial aspect of an ascent. It is likely not a coincidence that this most horrifying nightmare in my memory occurred the one night I had slept higher than previously.

We awoke at dawn to find our gear dusted with an inch of snow. We ourselves were in a cloud with a very slight snow and no wind. We decided to attempt the summit and within two hours reached the top of a crevassed glacier at the base of the summit ridge, perhaps at 17,300 feet. The snow on the glacier was spontaneously forming little balls and rolling downhill on their own accord. This is evidence for an incipient avalanche. More snow was accumulating, forming a severe avalanche hazard for our descent on the glacier below, and there was no other route down. The sun refused to burn away the cloud obscuring the summit, so making our further progress too risky. We decided to wait until the weather cleared.

It became apparent to all that the weather was giving no sign of improvement and this, together with my suspicion that Jose felt it was not worth the risk, led me to suggest we call it a day. The guide was not in the position of suggesting we descend because he may not get paid if we wished to continue instead. I realized his predicament and so acted on his behalf.

The terrain was steep enough on descent that an ice axe belay was set up, each climber protected from a fall one at a time as he descended a rope length. Once off the glacier we unroped and were somewhat relieved: the slope could have given way at any moment, leaving not a trace of our party.

We arrived at camp by one and spent two hours packing up. Jose did not want to carry down all the food he had brought so much to his surprise I ``drink'' his can of sweetened condensed milk with brownie and pop tarts. Some ground coffee beans go in to wake me up and we leave by three. Edward gets a giant apple.

The driver arrived just as we approached the road and we exchanged greetings. I found that my money was in shorter supply than I could account for, and I made arrangements to pay Jose the following day through cash advance on my credit card.

Free Day and Flight

A free day in La Paz featured a trip to Valle de la Luna - valley of the moon, a strange landscape of eroded rock surrounding a cactus garden. At 11,000 feet I was positively springing with energy. The nearby houses were fancy indeed, this being the lowest altitude on our trip. Earlier we had met Jose at his home, shared his pictures of earlier climbs and presented him with a bottle of Creme de Menthe. Edward later purchased a poster and I arranged for much food, including smoked trout from Lake Titicaca, to be taken home.

With our trip essentially behind us I felt less inhibited about getting sick from bad food. So I visited four ice cream parlors over the afternoon and take in such exotic flavors as cherimoya (excellent), mango, primavera and whatever I could not find in California.

Our flight home stopped once in Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia. With a South America highway map, watch and ruler, Edward charted our course to Miami and identified such landmarks as the Amazon river.

I spent four days visiting the Florida keys, take an airboat ride near Everglades National Park, and saw my Buby (grandmother) over the Sabbath. Edward visited his family in South Carolina, took them flying with himself as pilot in command, and visited Furman University where he received his undergraduate degree in Mathematics.

Someday I would like to return to Bolivia and climb Illimani with Jose during the dry season. I can speak for all in saying this vacation was spectacular.