Ever wondered what it’s like to go on a real adventure into the unknown? One with a lot of blood, sweat and well held-back tears?
My first ever adventure into the Bolivian countryside proved that if you’re looking for an adventure, you only need a few things:
1. A destination recommended by a local, your guidebook, or passed down as part of an urban legend about an idiotic traveller who trekked off into the countryside and (almost) never came back.
2. Fearless, but useful, companions who’ll encourage you to ride on the back of trucks but know enough first aid to stem heavy bleeding.
3. A decent tent, preferably insulated for comfort, or a willingness to spoon for warmth.
4. Optimism. Things will turn out ok. Even if you think there’s a chance you’re going blind.
Read on to learn how to discover adventure when you travel – and come back almost in one piece.
Make adventurous friends who share your passions
I was living in Sucre, Bolivia’s capital at the time, and had befriended two travellers: Adam, another Brit, and Jimmy, an Australian medical student. Both were keen on camping, adventuring and, most importantly, consuming litres of disgustingly sweet Bolivian red wine. It became clear from our first meeting that we were destined to become inseparable.
Soon, we started planning our initial adventure together, a weekend that would teach me a thing or two about trips into the unknown.
Adventure is a state of mind: often closest to stupidity
Adventures start by getting wind of a random, unvisited destination. For us, this was Ikla.
Only meriting a brief mention in my Bolivia guidebook, it sounded ideal for a weekend of adventure. One part of its appeal was its distance: it was only five hours by vehicle from Sucre, but travel in Bolivia is never easy nor reliable. What I’ve found on numerous occasions is that arriving at a place can be the most taxing part of the adventure.
We’d also heard that – once you got there – it offered picturesque views of untouched, mountainous landscapes and a winding canyon to explore.
We were sold. And after shopping for supplies (biscuits, rice and some vegetables to stave off scurvy), our preparations were complete.
Be ready for the long wait: it’ll be worth it
After these initial ‘planning’ steps, we took a four-hour bus journey to a town near Ikla. For the better part of a day we sat by the side of the road, waiting for the elusive bus that we’d been told would arrive.
At 5pm, conscious that night would soon be falling, we began walking, hopeful that a vehicle would arrive and whisk us away. Thankfully, one did, and that’s how we ended up on the back of the truck.
Adam and Jimmy had limbered up to sit on the cab, their feet dangling down onto the windscreen. Wimping out, I’d chosen the less comfortable seating option: precariously perched on the edge of one of the 20 gallon water tanks. They wobbled dramatically when we took each corner; I was pretty sure that they would soon pitch me over the side of the truck and onto the road below. Either way, if we stopped sharply, both the guys and I probably had equal chances of death.
Spectacular views of unadulterated Bolivian countryside – sheep, verticals drops, goats – passed by. It had been a long day, but as dusk settled on the surrounding mountains, the wait had been worth it.
Invest in good camping gear – or get friendly with your companions
We left our makeshift transport at the top of the hill above the valley, before the road plunged into the village of Ikla. Pitching our borrowed tent in the twilight, we shared an evening meal of biscuits and cold rice with vegetables, before following camping customs and going to bed at 9pm because there was nothing better to do.
What I learned about camping at altitude in the Andes is that it’s always freezing, and our single-skin tent did little to keep us warm. As each of us tossed and turned – not yet emotionally ready for the prospect of spooning one another to share body heat – we vowed that next time we would get a decent tent.
But when I climbed outside at 6am, I was struck by one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve ever witnessed. Although we couldn’t see it the night before, our wild campsite had the most incredible views across the valley, and as the sun slowly crept into the sky, the countryside fuzzed in the hazy mist of dawn.
I took a seat on a rock and admired the view, only to find myself face to face with a cow who was clearly as baffled by me as I was by it. It posed for a few photographs before shuffling away.
Don’t get too lost in the moment – you’re not invincible
After a breakfast of – yes, you’ve guessed it – biscuits and left-over rice and vegetables, we packed up and headed down the road towards Ikla. An hour later found us in the village enquiring about the nearby canyon. Two locals were keen to lead us there, so we left our rucksacks at the village’s only restaurant and headed out along the river.
Adam and Jimmy – grown men but as excitable as small children – bounded, climbed and crawled between the rocks. Inspired by their energy, I took a leap across the canyon, only to find myself in a heap on the other side; blood streaming from a wound in my forehead and expensive sunglasses in two pieces nearby.
It wasn’t my finest moment, and I’m still proud that I didn’t cry. It hurt. A lot. What’s worse, head injuries produce an awful lot of blood and I was convinced that I would bleed to death, or was going blind. Our two local friends splashed water onto the bloodied rocks to clean them and then hurried off; possibly sharing my concerns and not wanting to be a part of the situation.
Always adventure with friends with useful skills
Luckily, Jimmy produced a set of medical supplies and within an hour, my head was stuck back together with carefully placed steri-strips and Adam and Jimmy were making the most of the canyon by hurling boulders into the river to see which produced the best splash.
That night we camped by the river to the lullaby of barking dogs: much warmer thanks to group-spooning in the smaller, two-man tent that we’d brought and not used that first cold night.
At 4am the next morning we boarded the bus back to Sucre. Apparently one did exist, if you knew where to find it.
So are you ready to adventure?
Despite our woeful lack of preparation, and my attempts at permanently disfiguring myself, our adventure was actually quite successful, and was followed by other, equally stupid and unprepared jaunts into the Bolivian countryside.
What I’ve seen is that adventures don’t take much: perhaps you could invest in more thorough planning, but the first step to getting adventurous when you travel is just to head out and see what’s around the corner.
Steph Dyson writes about adventure travel and meaningful volunteering on her website, Worldly Adventurer. She left her job as an English teacher in the UK to travel the world in 2014. So far, she’s made it to Bolivia and Peru. Follow her on Twitter @worldlyadventur