We have lived in Bolivia for almost four weeks now, and throughout our time here we have learned much from the people around us. Our Spanish teachers showed us how to navigate the winding intricacies of a foreign language; our El Alto host families taught us to laugh about our mistakes; our instructors guided us through the cultural differences between the US and Bolivia. I believe the people we meet during Bridge Year are who truly make this year abroad special, but I also believe the landscape provides a fantastic framework to form these new relationships and eternalize our experiences.
We spent four days last week hiking in the Condoriri Real, a mountain range a few hours outside of La Paz. We departed from our hostel on the 17th (my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a better present!) and began our trek with our guide, Don Felix, leading the way through the mountains. The altitude affected everyone differently, but I found something wonderful about struggling to breath while surrounded by picturesque nature. After 2.6 miles of trekking (~1.5 hours), our group arrived at a cabin which we would come to call home for the duration of our time in the mountains. For four days we worked in small cooking teams to prepare meals for the group and wash dishes. Each team prepared one breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Mia, Jackson and I made curry on the first night, Liv and Lauren made pasta with marinara sauce the second night, and Chiara and Joseph made quinoa stir-fry the last evening, which was supplemented with trout from the lake outside of our cabin that Chiara, Liv, and Jackson cleaned and prepared. Group consensus: Each dinner was delicious, but in the future we should be sure to buy hot chocolate powder rather than chocolate milk powder to simplify the beverage making process and avoid having to mix water with absurd amounts of sugar, powdered milk, and chocolate milk powder.
The second day we traversed about 5.5 miles in net, visiting a glacier that spilled over the edge of the nearby mountains as though it were a bowl of sugar filled by unwatching hands, and after a short break to recover our breath and talk to a group of film-making cholas who were preparing to climb the glacier, we made our way to a magnificent viewpoint in a mountain pass. As we ate lunch a group of llamas got curious and came to say hello, much to the delight of the group. Fun fact from Pedro: Llamas and alpacas can be differentiated with a simple rule – Alpacas are more fluffy and curvy.
The third day we bagged our first peak of Bolivia, summiting Pico Austria in all 17,454 ft of its glory. I felt accomplished hiking up to Observation Peak in Idaho this summer at about 9,000 ft, so Pico Austria was mind-bogglingly incredible for me. Fun fact number two: At 17,454 ft there is around half the oxygen in the air than at sea level. Despite a range of hiking experience in the group, we stayed together throughout the ascent and basked in the sunlight at the top with a mixture of fatigue and ecstasy. We took a different trail coming down from the mountain and ended up on the backside of the lake adjacent to the cabin. Perhaps the lack of oxygen affected our brains, but as a group we decided to go for a dip. Without regard to bugs (gnats were everywhere) or weather (~15,000 ft and partly cloudy is chilly, and glacial water is more so), we stripped to an appropriate level and jumped in. After days without a shower the alpine swim was more than just a joyous celebration. Later we relayered and circumnavigated the rest of the lake to cap off the day of hiking with about 5 miles in the books.
The fourth day was our day of departure, and our short trek offered time to reflect on the experiences of Andean hiking. Never before have I witnessed the stars shine with such a spectacular vibrance, or heard the milky way sing such a beautiful white-purple across the sky. As humans, we are always connected to the Earth, but it’s easy to get caught up in a different life with our computers, cellphones, and fast forms of transport. Sometimes though, all it takes to return to our roots are two feet and a desire for adventure.
Mentally refreshed from the trek, we now set out by bus to Tiquipaya for a night in the program house, and then we will transfer to a service site in the community of Calientes to construct a rainwater storage tank.