This week we chatted with IFMGA certified mountain guide Jose Camarlinghi, a native Bolivian with experience guiding throughout South American who is currently living and guiding in New Zealand.
Can you talk a little about your background? How did you first start guiding?
I spent my childhood in La Paz, Bolivia. It was a very nice small city with around 300.000 people. The city is located in a wide mountain valley in the central part of the Bolivian “Altiplano”, the high flat land. On the east side, some peaks and mountains of the Cordillera Real can be seen, with Mount Illimani, the second highest peak in Bolivia, being the most prominent. It can be seen from almost any neighborhood. The mountains are ever present but hardly anyone notices them.
I was not very sporty type of kid. I preferred to read books and wander in the hills around the city. My brother and I, along with our German Shepherd, would spent hours walking in the hills to have a better view of the mountains.
My parents used to buy all types of books and which my brother and I eagerly read. I remember once reading an account of Herman Bull on Nanga Parbat. Afterwards I felt a profound dread and could not understand why people would risk their lives going to such places. I decided I would never ever climb mountains.
Some years later my father took my brother and I to the Amazonian side of the country. He thought that there would be an opportunity for a business in Guanay, the center of a gold rush at that time. We took a bus over the Andes and crossed the mountains. Seeing them up close, I fell in love with them. After returning to La Paz, my brother and I started going to the higher peaks. At the time we didn’t understand the big risks we took without having any equipment or any knowledge of mountaineering techniques. Years later we engaged some training organized by small mountaineering clubs.
The early 1980s were a troublesome time in Bolivia and it profoundly impacted our lives. I was at university trying to study a career in Geography and History when the Army took over and smashed democracy. They closed the universities because the students were the main social movement against the dictatorship. The Army reopened the universities in an attempt to give some sense of normality to Bolivian society, and fortunately that government lasted less than two years. Bolivia suffered an embargo as the military government had an alliance with the cocaine traffickers. Unfortunately, the return to democracy after two years of military rule did little to turn the economy around. With the turmoil I lost interest in the ever irregular classes. Fortunately the German government had several programs to assist Bolivians, including a three year program to train mountain guides and instructors. With that I saw an opportunity to continue developing my love for the mountains and the sport.
Where do you guide and what activities do you guide? What is your favorite route or location to guide?
Outside of Bolivia I have also guided in Peru, Chile, Argentina and México. The place I love most is the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz. It is a small, unknown range with very pretty mountains. The southern part is glaciated and the northern end has hundreds of granite peaks, towers and spires. The eastern side of the range has not been spoiled by humans and holds one of the most pristine alpine and cloud forest mountains in the Andes. I go back there every time I can. Unfortunately, as it is not famous, I do not get many clients willing to go there. They don’t know what they are missing.
In the south there are several valleys with road access to quite close to the glaciers. It is possible to set up a base camp and climb several peaks from it, all of them within a day’s journey. And there are several valleys. In the north you can have the best rock climbing in Bolivia. The most visited valley is called Cuchu Mocoya and from it it is possible to climb faces and ridges of more than 500 meters. I would love to live there!
What do you wish more people knew about outdoor guiding? What tips do you have for someone looking to hire a guide?
In Bolivia there is no law to regulate guiding activities. There are many companies and guides who organize treks and climbs but very few have real, professional staff. Their services are inexpensive but lack quality. Often the trips end in failure, or worse, in accidents. Unfortunately, many tourists are more concerned with saving money than staying safe. Many look for the cheapest options and do not ask about safety or professional credentials. What makes it even worse is that the cheaper companies pay peanuts to their staff, exploiting the guides and keeping their families on the verge of poverty. I wish our government would take on the problem but tourism is the last thing they are interested in.
That is why I try to educate travelers and tourists about the issue. If they hire non-professional, cheap services they support the exploitation of the staff, including not only the guides, but also the cooks, mule drivers, drivers, and others. Bolivia’s Mountain Guides Association (AGMTB) is 33 years old and its school has the recognition of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA/UIAGM/IVBV). Bolivian trekking guides are also members of the AGMTB but are trying to get the Union of International Mountain Leaders Associations (UIMLA) certification. It is a long process but hopefully they will get it soon. People looking for trekking and mountaineering services should ask for those certificates. Of course, some companies will lie about having certified guides, but with the internet it’s easy to check if your guide is properly certified, as both the IFMGA and the AGMTB have websites that list certified guides.
What is your next professional or personal challenge that you are most looking forward to?
As a professional I believe I have succeeded. Many of my clients are return clients and after so many years they have become my friends. Those relationships have become quite special and they endure no matter the distance or the time. At this point in my life my challenges are more personal, not professional. There are places I want to visit and climb and I have other activities I would like to pursue.
What is one piece of equipment that you can’t live without?
I like gadgets and like to try new ones. I find that I love some of them and others I hate and never use again. There is one piece of equipment I make sure I always bring along, no matter if I am rock climbing, trekking, mountaineering, mountain biking or four-wheel driving: a headlamp. Whatever happens, it’s good to make sure you aren’t caught out at night without one, things can go bad quickly in the dark.
You mentioned that you guide mostly in South America but are currently working for a guiding company in New Zealand. Can you talk a little bit about your current guiding work?
In Bolivia you cannot work as an independent guide. You have to work for an agency or an operator. For that reason I have a company in partnership with my best friend. We started climbing when we were 15 and went to Mountain Guide School together.
At the moment I am guiding in New Zealand. I was hired by a local company. I heard that they needed mountain guides for their summer season so I applied to three different companies. To my surprise all three companies offered me a job. At first I didn’t know how to decide on which company to work for. I looked at their websites and read their clients reviews but remained undecided. Finally, I got a phone call from one of the three and had the most particular (and personal) job interview. The questions were about my kids and wife, my dog and so on… I immediately accepted their offer.
I have been in New Zealand for two months and so far I am enjoying it. The mountains are more challenging than the ones I am used to. I have to confess that it took me a while to adapt. Maybe I am a bit old and not as flexible as I used to be?
I understand that you also offer trips focused on photography? How did those come about?
After working as a guide for a few years I decided to go back to university. I got a bachelor’s degree in filmmaking and a masters degree in scriptwriting. At the same time I also studied photography as part of filmmaking. I saw that photography trips were increasing in popularity so I developed a few programs. I know places were my clients can take really very beautiful pictures. I have worked with several professional photographers and filmmakers, too, but my tours are designed for amateur photographers.
How can people best get in touch with you?
I mentioned above that I partnered with my best friend to lead climbs i South America. The best way of contacting us is via our website www.andeansummits.com or at email@example.com.