A Trip to Suncallo, Bolivia – Travel Days

Engineers Without BordersWell, it finally happened. All the effort I have put into getting a professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders started here in the Springs has come to fruition. We adopted a drinking water and sanitation project for a remote Aymara Indian community in the Andes Mountains last fall and have been raising funds and making preparations for a site assessment trip in the Spring of 2009. In mid-May I led a team consisting of three members of the professional chapter and three members of the Air Force Academy student chapter to Suncallo, Bolivia. What follows are the notes I wrote up on the plane coming back. It consists of many observations and side notes on the trip. There was a great deal of adventure getting there and back but overall we accomplished our mission and brought back lots of data and pictures which will help us in our engineering design work. Note: if you click on the pictures you can see a larger version.

Sunrise over the AndesOur trip was delayed by a day due to an American Airlines requirement that all travelers must provide proof of yellow fever vaccination. The American Airlines policy contradicts the guidance given on the US Governments Center for Disease Control (CDC) website which indicates that travelers proceeding to No-Risk areas in Bolivia may sign a waiver at the point of entry.

Our pre-trip research into the vaccination requirements on the CDC website clearly identified the project site to be in a No-Risk area and to keep the costs down and eliminate the risk of introducing a live vaccine into our bodies four of the team decided not to get the yellow fever vaccinations. It is worth noting that the US Air Force declined to provide the yellow fever vaccination to the members of EWB-AFA for the same reasons.

The last thing we expected was for the airline to deny us boarding our aircraft. Regardless of our justifications and documentation supporting our position American Airlines refused to allow us to board the aircraft. Other EWB chapters should be made aware that the airlines have this authority and that the airlines policy may differ from the US Governments. It should be incumbent upon the travel agency to make the travelers aware of any requirements levied by the airlines. Apparently, the $360 in “fees” we paid the travel agency didn’t include this small courtesy.

Fortunately, we were able to locate the required vaccine and proceed the following morning on a direct flight from Denver to Miami and thence on a direct flight (overnight) to La Paz from the Miami airport. Visa fees were paid, Immigration was cleared (no they didn’t ask to see our yellow fever vaccination certifications) and Customs was cleared effortlessly.

La Paz from our Hotel RoomMike and Ruben were waiting for us and we all piled into a bus and began an interesting journey down into the city center of La Paz. The airport is situated at the top of the city in the wide plain of the Altiplano. La Paz itself is spread throughout a very large and steep valley that declines some 1,000 meters. Dwellings are jam packed on the steep hillsides and into the mass and rush of a city of 1 million we are quickly swallowed.

The Hotel Eldorado is located in the downtown area. Traffic in the city is amazing. Very few private vehicles are seen, but taxis/buses by the thousands. Curiously, there is almost no traffic control. Vehicles and pedestrians vie for passage amidst much horn honking. The pollution is phenomenal. There is no “parking” or even a pull off for the hotel. We stop and block traffic until everyone unloads.

The hotel is…quaint. We checked in and realized we were doubling up, two to a room. Each room was small, had two single beds, a bath, yet was quite functional. There was a small café on the mezzanine. We got settled in, rested for a bit, and started acclimating to the altitude.

Ruben came by later that morning and took us on a walk to the “markets”. We walked eight blocks or so up the main thoroughfare, threading our way through a host of people and street vendors. We turned left and entered a series of streets populated with craft and street vendors. We accumulated some loot and then decided to eat lunch at a Cuban café that we had passed earlier. The food was great, although we accidentally ordered too many entrées. We split up and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet back at the hotel that evening.

That evening we watched a peaceful protest against the Bolivian government as thousands of people marched through the street in front of our hotel.

Loading UpTravel to Suncallo
Breakfast in the café, then meet Ruben downstairs to load up. Ruben brought a Toyota Land Cruiser and we piled all our stuff on top and climb in. Catalina, our native Amyra Indian cook, is inside, along with Wilson, our translator. We began a much more circuitous route leaving the city. Up… up… up… through twisty narrow streets. Again, I was amazed at the lack of traffic control, bald tires, pollution-spewing vehicles. The fumes were noxious and I thought we would never get out of the city into fresh air again.

Eventually, we passed through a police checkpoint, pay our fee, and headed out onto the Altiplano. This vast flat plain is desolate, but there are still many people scratching out an existence from this stubborn, harsh land. Soon, Lake Titicaca comes into view and we passed along its shoreline. This lake is 120 miles long and is shared by Peru and Bolivia. It is the highest freshwater lake in the world at 12,500 ft.

The AltiplanoLake Titicaca and Rueben
We passed through Ancoraimes, Ruben’s hometown. A little later we stopped at another checkpoint manned by the militia and were warned about a blockade some miles ahead, between us and Escoma, where we are to meet our guide. Soon we reached the blockade. Ruben got out and talked to people. It seemed they were protesting the government’s failure to correct an environmental pollution problem where an old mine is poisoning the river. They depend on the river water but it is killing the livestock. We were not allowed to pass.

Before long, our guide Daniel from the church arrived on the back of a motorcycle. It seemed that Daniel knew the back way into Suncallo. He got in and we headed out cross-country on a combination of jeep trails and seldom used dirt tracks. There were now ten of us in the Land Cruiser. We passed through miles of remote back-country in the mountains. It was getting late in the afternoon when the “road” suddenly ended.
End of RoadLand Cruiser Stuck
We got out stretching our legs and surveying the situation. I grabbed my GPS and took a “fix.” We were at 14,000 feet in the middle of nowhere. Daniel & Ruben spotted a couple of local shepherds. After discussions, it seemed we were close to Suncallo but need to get “over there” in order to pick up the road again. The terrain was fairly rugged and the Land Cruiser was top-heavy with all our gear & supplies. “Over there” was several miles across, up, and over another peak.

The shepherds volunteered to guide us. Thus began our first hike across the Altiplano highlands. We walk…partly in fear of the Land Cruiser tipping over on the steep hillside and partly because it didn’t have enough power to haul us up the hill anyway. Several times we were forced to help push the Land Cruiser up the hill. There were many small ponds even at this altitude and we got stuck in the mud near one. More pushing and shouting gets the Land Cruiser moving again.

SuncalloSeveral miles later we cross over the top of the Andes at 14, 500 ft and can climb back in, exhausted from our unexpected Alpine hike. We immediately begin our descent into the valley that is “Suncallo” and soon arrive at the community. It is warmer here and there is more oxygen (12,900 ft). There is a distinct shift in topography. Laid out before us is the land of the ancestral Incas; incredibly rugged terrain falling dramatically off to the east.

Our home for the next several days is the one-room community center. We unload our gear and “move-in.” Catalina has a small “stable” behind the building where she sets up her kitchen and begins to cook supper. We were hungry, nothing to eat since breakfast. A few locals showed up and started stringing an “extension cord” from a nearby building so we could have light. I unpacked my 220V converter and cut the plug off it so we could splice into their wiring. Plugged in a power strip and now we have 110V to charge our battery packs and run the incubator.

Home for nowCatalina fixed a wonderful supper, despite doing so in the dark. After unpacking everything we realized Mike forgot to include the sleeping pads. Three nights on a hard wood floor is not sounding good. Fortunately, the community brought over straw mats for us to sleep on. They were surprisingly comfortable and much appreciated.

It was plenty dark by now. The sky was amazing. Its’ winter down here, so days were short, and without the sun the temperature plummets. The community leaders had gathered outside and began a long discussion. Finally, we were invited outside, introductions were made, and we were greeted and welcomed. Senor Gregorio is the community spokesman and he explains through Wilson, our interpreter, that they are excited we have come to help them. We talked briefly and determined that the two most important issues are drinking water and bathroom facilities. It is late, dark, and cold so the meeting did not last long, but we went to bed that night knowing that we had stayed the course and would accomplish our mission.

We discovered that is gets downright cold at night and that Wilson snores like a freight train! Sometime in the night, the light bulb that was taped to the wall let loose, swung across and exploded against the other wall, giving everyone quite a start.

Senor G. said that many of the people had to go support the blockade tomorrow, but that he and several others would show us the water sources and that they will have a festival on Thursday to honor us.

To Be Continued….

4 thoughts on “A Trip to Suncallo, Bolivia – Travel Days

  1. Matt, Really awesome to hear about your journeys, not sure if you qualify as Bilbo or Gandalf, but it is really cool. Reminds me of the time Nell and I spent in Panama doing missionary work in the interior, and also of the blockades during the Noriega days. I must admit, I am jealous, I love stuff like that. Hard to believe the blessings we take for granted. I will pray for your work. <

  2. I don’t have to go to the movies to experience drama and suspense; just read your journal! Looking forward to the rest of your story.

  3. Wow! What an adventure! Can’t wait for the ‘rest of the story’.

  4. My Sweetheart, so proud of all you have done with the team! I know it is just the beginning but the lives that are being changed are a ‘forever thing’ even now, both on the team and in the village! I love you!

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