Somewhere in Bolivia’s vast high desert lies a valley rumored to hold thousands of perfect boulders. Four Bleausards set off on a wild ramble to find it.
We lash packs to our backs and crashpads to our shoulders. I’ve been in La Paz, Bolivia, and on the nearby volcanoes for three weeks, and now, with the arrival of three friends from France, the French Team has become four: Ziza, Tony, Steph, and me, the Dod. No more ice axe and crampons — now it’s boulders, not summits, that I seek. Where we will find them in this vast, deserted country, I am not sure.
We wander through La Paz, short of breath, lost (already!), walking up and down the city’s steep hills in search of the bus station. Soon, we are on the bus, direction: Curahuara, a remote, peaceful town on the altiplano (high plateau) to the south, rumored to have “many rocks.”
Behind a hill at Curahuara, we indeed see a cliff and some bouldering, but most of it tackles terrifying, crumbly rock. We climb for the day and find that most of these boulders are not only loose but pretty difficult, too. On one problem in particular, Tony spends a good while hell-bent on sending, but the poor dog never does. Curahuara is a good start, but beyond the scrappy boulders and a small cliff, there isn’t much else to sink our teeth into. Boulders, yes, everywhere, but very flaky and covered with impressive patches of stout lichen. We haven’t flown halfway around the world for choss. We head south in search of our original objective: Valle de las Rocas (Valley of the Rocks), a boulderer’s eden described by two friends who, many years prior, trekked by the place and came home raving about “tons and tons of volcanic boulders.” However, we discover during our search that there are many Valles de las Rocas in this vast country that is twice the size of France. Lots of valles, lots of rocas. Which one is the Valle de las Rocas, we don’t know. We will just have to keep looking.
Heading south — bus, bus, and more bus — Curahuara, Oruro, Uyuni. At 3 a.m., after 14 hours of continuous travel, we arrive in Uyuni, beaten up and worn out … like the roads. Morning pales over Uyuni; we hire a 4x4 and continue onward, still heading south, still seeking our Valle de las Rocas. We find nothing in this stark, desolate region, where people and pueblos carve out a subsistence niche, struggling against the rigors of an unremittingly harsh environment. We do our best to remain diplomatic with our 4x4 driver, who has had enough of us “tourists” and our unchanging and shrill chorus, repeated over and over, that everywhere we stop, ¡La roca no esta buena! — The rock is no good! We pull up to several promising areas only to touch the stone and have it crumble beneath our fingers. Hour follows hour after hour. Nothing. Mas adelante — farther.
Finally, a huge stroke of fortune (a lucky star always accompanies vagabond climbers). We find it — the Valle de las Rocas. Here, the highway bisects an area of boulders about 10 miles long, and in width … we can’t tell. Boulders here, there, everywhere — forever. Paradise found. But, where to begin? The rock is perfect — light brown with excellent friction, but not too aggressive. The boulders, “organized” in corridors with flat landings, sprout from the silent altiplano in crazy figures and forms. We see no one — nothing but boulders and, on the horizon, Bolivia’s hulking volcanoes. On these amazing crumbs of volcano we climb, sleep, eat, drink, explore. We live. And life here is magnificently beautiful. We remain happily lost in the altiplano, beaten by the cold winds (well, OK, sometimes it is freezing cold, but, hey, you want good friction, right?). Things are easy here at 12,900 feet (well, OK, our pulses are in the red zone, but, hey … ). Mornings move slowly as we thaw out from the cold, starry nights. We explore all day, doing new problems and trying projects until sunset, until we are wasted. The climbing is endless — Nice! You’ve got it! Allez! Pull! Excellent! Nice problem! Hey, move the pads … just a few feet … over here … this one is even better. And so it goes, day after day.
We freely abandon the creature comforts of our soft daily lives. “Really, there are no showers? We have to walk 20 minutes to find water?” No problem. We return to a beautiful simplicity: drinking directly from the source. We visit unprecedented carnage upon the appetizing chickens of the markets of Uyuni, our canines rediscovering their primary function: to tear meat. One week, eight days, 10 days? I don’t know anymore. The days flow into one another, and time evaporates. The boulders crystallize into wind-hewn diamonds. Then, our 4x4 driver returns, and disappointment darkens our wild faces — after establishing more than 100 problems up to V12, and with thousands left to do, we have to return home. The bus at Uyuni is jam-packed. We wedge our way on board and prepare to endure the 14-hour ride back to La Paz. Poor Tony struggles with claustrophobia. Ziza tosses and turns, and tries to make herself smile. Steph is stoic, getting knocked by the errant elbows and feet of people jockeying for space.
La Paz, finally. “La Pazzz, La Pazzz, LA PAZZZ!” the coachman shouts. We have returned to the world. One last fiesta at our friend Daniel’s place, comparing Chilean, Argentine, and Bolivian wines. Climb into an old Mercedes. Climb up through the poor neighborhoods surrounding the airport. Climb into the airplane, the condor. Climb into the sky, rosy with the colors of dawn, abandoning the blues of the night to the ice of the Cordillera Royale just below. Climbing, always — if not, what else?
Although he lost parts of eight toes during a winter 2002 solo in the Alps, 38-year-old Lionel Daudet still travels the globe in pursuit of alpine challenges — and boulders.
Travel Beta for Valle De Las Rocas, Bolivia
Formalities: A passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the date of arrival is all that is needed to enter the country. Visas are not needed for stays of less than 90 days, and vaccinations aren’t necessary for the Altiplano.
Overview: With almost 1,100,100 km2 of surface area (twice the size of France) and with only 10 million inhabitants, Bolivia offers enormous deserted areas. The Altiplano is home to the majority of the population in the north, from Oruro to Lake Titicaca, with La Paz and the surrounding area being the most densely populated. This “high plateau” formed by the Andes traverses the entire western half of the country longitudinally, with an average altitude of 3500m to 4000m and with summits from 5500m to 6500m, while the eastern regions of the country descend progressively towards the Amazon basin, close to sea level.
In La Paz, take it easy upon arrival because of the high altitude. A nice option is to head to Copacabana on the edge of Lake Titicaca (the Emperador is a nice place to stay) to acclimatize. There are several good options if staying in La Paz, a stunning city that is rather enjoyable:
• Budget lodging at the Universo (refer to the Lonely Planet), near the bus station.
• Telephone calls using Sagarnaga are not expensive. The internet is widespread.
• Super cheap food is available in the many comedor popular’s, and there are small stands in the markets.
Download a pdf topo map: Bolivia-map-2-detail.pdf, Bolivia-map-1.pdf
Travel Beta for Valle De Las Rocas, Bolivia
Climate: The climate varies tremendously throughout different regions. The climate of the Altiplano is dry in the winter with regular precipitation in the summer from November to April (southern hemisphere!). The ideal time to visit is from the beginning of May to the end of October, when the sun makes for pleasant daytime temperatures, but keep in mind the altitude and possibility of icy winds, especially in the region near Uyuni.
Security: You will need a range of clothing to be comfortable in the various extremes of the climate. A parka, gloves, hat, warm sleeping bag, etc. – remember that although the days may be nice thanks to the warm sun, night time temperatures can fall below freezing. You will also need all of the gear necessary to be 100% self-reliant at the bouldering area – a stove (a multifuel stove is a good idea) and food, and water must be collected and treated on the spot (we had three flexible 10-liter containers that provided us with two days worth of water before having to refill at the source).
Finally, even though Bolivia has the reputation for being one of the safest countries in South America be polite and discrete at all times, and never outwardly display signs of your wealth, and respect the locals. Basically, follow the universal rules of the traveler. A few crimes against tourists have been reported in the big cities like La Paz. The travel guidebook Lonely Planet Bolivia may be one of the most important items you could bring.
Access: Widely used throughout the country, the bus system is as large as it is unpredictable. You can find anything from a huge chartered bus with all of the comforts to an unreliable minivan! But it is always pretty cheap and practical for long journeys.
• From the bus station in La Paz, plan on about 14 hours to get to Uyuni, passing through Oruro. A less exhausting option is to take the bus to Oruro (3 hours) then catch a train to Uyuni (this way you’ll avoid the rough roads and a long night…). Then it’s about three or four hours (180km) to Villa Alota. Two companies have routes to Chile that pass through the area and Villa Alota starting in Uyuni. At present, the busses leave every Monday and Thursday at 3:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., at a cost of about 30 Bs (“Trans 11 de Julio”, at 3:30 a.m., destination Avaroa/Calama). Therefore, it is possible to avoid hiring a 4x4 by asking the bus driver to stop at a good spot, the bouldering area being exactly 15km after Villa Alota when heading towards Chile (see maps). In Uyuni, the Alojamiento Martih is a nice play to stay.
• To get an idea (and as a base for negotiation), we paid about $180 to hire a 4x4 with a driver in Uyuni, including one day there and one day back with a small side trip included.
• The surrounding area is loaded with hiking in absolutely gorgeous places (like El Sillar, an amazing group of rock pinnacles, rivaling certain Americain national parks). There are undoubtedly some climbing areas to be discovered back there, cragging and bouldering. One travel agency in particular is very helpful, a nice option to arrange your trip and do the negotiating for you (Agence El Grano de Oro: firstname.lastname@example.org 098 Av. Chichas, Tupiza Tel (00591-2) 6944763). This can be done in Bolivia (the best option) — you can go sightseeing in addition to climbing, and maybe climb a few volcanoes as well. … From Tupiza, visit South Lipez then head up and get dropped of at La Valle de las Rocas, then stop a bus to get to Uyuni when you’re ready to leave. You can pay in U.S. Dollars or Bs. “Marco” is a particularly friendly and accommodating driver. They can provide lodging as well (price negotiable, like everything in Bolivia) and the hostel Valle Hermoso is also nice.
• In any case, try to get a hold of Daniel Aramayo (climber/outfitter in La Paz), who can also give you advice or guide you. His agency can arrange your trip as well, and they speak English. Email: email@example.com. Visit their website at www.planetaventura.com. Their address is: Planet Aventura, Calle Vincenti #850, Sopocachi, La Paz. Tel (00591-2) 2423855.