I popped a handful of coca leaves into my mouth and started chewing. After 20 minutes of supping down the bitter juices, my heartbeat slowed and the altitude-induced nausea began to ease off. We stood at 4100 metres on a cliff side just below mountain village of Charazani and start of our trek. Below us a river snaked through the valley it had created. Above us imposing peaks topped 5500 metres. My wife Cat and I were almost ready to begin our six day trek across the impossibly remote Cordillera Apolobamba in the north west of Bolivia – a land without electricity, where farmers still till land by hand and wild horses drink from glacial lakes.
Before we made our first steps, I placed a couple of coca leaves under a rock as an offering to Pachamama, the Andean Mother Earth. I hoped this ancient tradition practised by the Kallawalla witch doctors, who have trodden these paths for thousands of years in search of medicines, would ensure us a safe journey. It did. Next time though, I don't think I'll be so stingy with the coca leaves. Pachamama looked after us, but only just. Over the next week, we were subjected to freezing nights, hostile locals and an unfortunate experience with a falling boulder which was the nearest to death I have ever been. But we were also privileged enough to see what has been called the most striking trek in the Andes.
We were worn out by the time we reached the trail head. From Bolivia’s chaotic principal city La Paz, we had travelled on a series of buses and endured a particularly spine-smashing journey sat on cement bags in the back of a lorry for eight hours. It took two days to travel 300km, broken only by a nap in a filthy dank hotel room in Escoma above a garage, which I'm sure was paradise for the fleas and bed bugs that feasted on us all night, but not the luxury we dreamed of as we bounced across the dirt road in the truck. We went bed trying not to touch the sheets.
It was 1pm when we finally loaded our backpacks and left Charazani. Our first destination was Curva six hours away, the common start of the route that would carry us to 95km to Pelechuco. Buses climbed up the narrow winding road to the village, but hey, the sun was out and the scenery beautiful, so we walked. Well that, and the fact we could see little crosses along the route where previous vehicles had plummeted into the ravine below.
Granted, it may have been the coca, but our minds were reeling at the scale of the vast cordillera that jutted above us. Stubborn snow lingered in the shadows of the peaks, wild vicuñas (like a posh llamas with attitude) ran across the plains and virtually extinct grey chinchillas ping-ponged from rock to rock.
We went into the hills debating whether to get a guide and mules in Curva. No maps exist of the area because of ongoing border disputes with Peru, and all we had was a written description and hand drawn map photocopied, from a photocopy of the excellent Trekking and Climbing in the Andes, procured though a bizarre meeting in La Paz with the elderly head Club Andino Boliviano. A man who provided us with such nuggets of wisdom as ‘you might need a poncho’ when I asked what we would need to take in October, the beginning of the rainy season.
The wispy clouds that sliced the clear blue skies reflected an uncharacteristically dry October, and we set off in little more than a t-shirt. After descending past thermal baths (a nice ending if you were to finish the trek in Charazani) we passed a woman calmly guiding a huge tetchy looking bull down the steep path. Our huffing and puffing indicated the lack of oxygen at 4000 metres, but the coca was keeping other effects of the altitude at bay. We had acclimatized with a three-day trek around the sacred Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca at 3800 metres, but we were already feeling the difference. Yet with the paths average height on this trek at 4,300 metres we were going to have to get used to it.
We rested on top of our first pass by a recently painted white church and chatted to a young woman resting in its shade. "Where are you going?" she asked a little bemused. "Pelechuco," I answered. "Six days walk from here, do you know it?" "No, I have never even been to the next village." It was a story we heard throughout the walk. It is a small world after all.
Trotting down to a lively stream to the bottom of the valley, we considered another settlement several hundred metres above us, hoping this wasn't Curva. It was. After a three-hour steep climb along rocky switchbacks, the decision not to take the bus seemed a rather sizable error. With fog and dark filling the valley we arrived to a decidedly medieval looking village. After some scary fumbling in the black night, we found a great national park lodge just outside the community and hunkered down under a pile of blankets.
"'Where are you going?' she asked a little bemused. 'Pelechuco,' I answered. 'Do you know it?' 'No, I have never even been to the next village.' It was a story we heard throughout the walk. It is a small world after all."
Strengthened by a solid night’s sleep, merrily we continued our way in brilliant morning sunshine. ‘Who needed mules?’ we thought, and a brief conversation with two American missionaries convinced us we didn’t need a guide either. Several hours later we were cursing our decision as we came upon an impenetrable ravine. After re-reading the guide several hundred times we discovered that a tiny grammar glitch in our reading of the description we had headed towards the wrong valley. In silence we turned around and walked back for two hours.
Climbing to our first campsite on a flat grassy pampa we passed stone houses with thatched roofs. Out of one emerged a friendly woman with a handful of lovely handicrafts. “Plenty of gringos pass by here in June and July,” she told me. “But less now.” Being one of the only places in the world where the locals actually wear those woolly hats that cover you ears, I decided I could get away with an alpaca wool one for the duration. Granted it looks silly, but it was warm and I wasn’t going to wear it to the pub.
Nearby her two teenage daughters were catching abundant trout in one of the many streams that kept this area so green and fertile. We tried and failed miserably to fish, much to the amusement of the girls who continued getting food for their family. We later saw them bringing a herd of alpacas down from the mountain with their seven-year-old brother. These were kids who worked from when they could stand, will probably never see a TV, hear a radio, or even visit a city. Contemplating these differences, we cooked a miserable meal of dried pasta wishing we had fresh trout to eat.
Heading up to the next pass at 4700, with the stunning snow-covered Acamani above us, the vegetation gradually began to peter out. But we were treated to the sight of wild horses nibbling on the tough shrubs around lakes dotting the vast valley that lay before us. We descended down for two hours to the next campsite. The day’s short five-hour walk would allow us to wash, relax and contemplate the next days ascent that was, well, frankly terrifying.
We set up our tent, and spent the afternoon wondering how the hell we would be able to climb the vertiginous 700 metre scree gully that awaited us. We were slightly encouraged after watching a couple, with two donkeys and a baby in tow, run up the hill in less than an hour and half. We huddled down to a cold night.
I actually dreamt about the impending pass, but hiding it away in part of my mind, we pressed ahead and scrambled up the scree. Rocks loosened by our heavy feet hurtled below us. Our backpacks seriously unbalanced us and occasionally we would have to scramble up on all fours. It wasn’t a glamorous climb, but it was nearly worth the exhilaration when we hit the pass. Celebrating with our last chocolate biscuit (half each), we admired the view and headed on. We walked on at 4700 metres across a flat ridge and headed alongside pre-Incan aqueduct, past a working goldmine to our next campsite. It had been a tiring day, both physically and mentally. The stunning setting of our campsite, however, cheered us. Poking my nose out of the tent I could see blue glaciers sweeping down the valley spotted with hundreds of alpacas.
As ever the thick mist rolled in around 4pm like an encroaching wall and hit our faces like a cold wet towel. Visibility was less than two metres. In the grey darkness we retreated to our tent for the longest and coldest night either of us had experienced. At 4600 metres everything we had froze, even the gas in our stove. We rose as soon as there was a hint of light, failed to boil water and began to climb to the highest pass of the trek at 5100 metres. Hungry, cold and tired we tramped uphill. Once our gas had heated up a little we ate more porridge and vowed never to eat it again.
"Being one of the only places in the world where the locals actually wear those woolly hats that cover you ears, I decided I could get away with one. Granted it looks silly, but it was warm and I wasn’t going to wear it to the pub."
We plodded over the pass. And then within seconds the darkness lifted and before us was a bright turquoise glacial lake lit up by the sun, and above us for the first time we could see the glorious peak of Cololo, the highest peak of the cordillera at 5915m. Warmed and cheered we descended for three hours on bouncy mossy plains to the small picturesque stone and thatch settlement of Piedra Grade. Occasionally, an elderly woman silently crossed our path, usually with a baby peering over the top of the brightly coloured blanket.
Finally the village of Hilo Hilo came into sight and the prospect of a much needed sugar boost spurred us on. We found a little dark shop in the main square and bought chocolate. We walked out just in time to run into about 30 school children who thought it would be a giggle pokes us. These soon turned into kicks. The adults sullenly look on. We started moving faster out of town, rather embarrassed to be kicked out by a gang of kids. Fortunately the mist had returned and within minutes we were out of sight of the village...and the path. Joy. We found a stream and headed along it, knowing that at least we were heading up valley. Gormless alpacas stared at us, slowly munching on the moss. Dispirited we set up camp.
After another sleep-deprivingly cold night, we were relieved that our final day would be spent walking in the sun. Within six hours I would have a beer in my hand. It was shockingly lovely: snowy mountains tops, glaciers, twinkling streams. Not even the endless switchbacks of the final pass could dampen our thoughts. It was a tough climb, especially for Cat who was beginning to suffer a cold, but lightened when a man on an ancient bike bombed down the six-inch wide path, carrying a huge box and two fishing rods. It was the postman.
Over the pass the fog rolled in again. A few hundred metres below to our left we could see farmers tilling the land. It was the season to sow the grain. Some used oxen, but most were doing it by hand. Cat and I were discussing how difficult life was for these people when...WHUMP. Cat screamed “DAAAANNN”. Before me I saw a football sized boulder bounce less than a metre from my face. It would have meant certain death. It was a terrifying moment. Shocked, nervous and needing a drink, we ran into Pelechuco.
As we arrived, the sun came out. We booked ourselves into a hellish hotel and bought some beers. Sat in the main square in the baking heat, Cat and I forgot about our bruised feet, sunburnt faces and near-death experience. It was the most difficult trek either of us had done, but already we could only remember the wonder of the Cordillera Apolobamba. “We made it,” I said to myself as much as her. “At times I never thought we would,” Cat replied. “So next time,” I continued. “Should we get mules and a guide.” “Nah,” said Cat. “Just some more chocolate."”
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