Saturday, 23 July 2016

At The El Choro Inca Trail, Bolivia, By Accident

While some of us dream of visiting certain places, others get there by accident. Now, the Inca Trail is something that I had seen in various documentaries. It looked interesting, amazing and out of reach.  The interesting thing is that none of the documentaries ever mentioned Bolivia in the Inca Trail. They all seemed to focus on Peru. Maybe it is because the Peru version is more famous or it is the only place that they have managed to go to.
So, a group of friends in Bolivia was planning a caminata (hike). Out of curiosity, we signed up for it. A few days to the walk, we were informed of the things that we needed for the caminata. The rough information that we had was that it was to be a walk and camp. The idea that we had was a walk in the lush hilly areas of Los Yungas, which are very green, warm and beautiful. A wonderful break from the cold, dry city. And again, who does not like camping? So, we were all psyched up for the beautiful adventure on this long weekend. Nothing prepared us for what lay ahead.

The team preparing to begin the trek

We left the city of La Paz at around 6:30 am, carrying our camping bags with our supplies, ready for the great adventure. The vehicle dropped us at La Cumbre, which is about an hour from the city centre, at an altitude of about 4,700 meters. This is the highest point between La Paz and Los Yungas. It is often covered with snow during winter and many tourists who visit Bolivia for biking along the Death Road begin their biking at this point. The treks and hikes also begin at this point. It has a beautiful view, and one gets to watch the sunrise and the landscapes of the Altiplano.
Some Aymara villagers with their herd of llama.

A native walking briskly past us.

This is characterized by sharp descends at the beginning, followed by seemingly flat paths, and then more and more descends. The trek included a break at some point at the Tourist Information Centre, then a bit of a climb. We head to the Chucura village, where the villagers demand to be paid because we are trekking in their territory. A few of us negotiate with the villagers, and we end up paying a lower amount than what they had demanded. The Inca Trail at this point is so well maintained, it feels as though one is on an ancient city. After a 30 minute trek, we stopped for lunch at the nearby river. It was so refreshing to finally get a chance to sit down, relax, refill and breath in the fresh air, gently. 

Resting time

And the journey continued

Chucura Village

Soon, our time in paradise was over, and we had to continue with our journey. From this point on, it is an endless descent. There is something about after lunch that makes one so lazy. The sun was not hot that day, but with full stomachs, walking can be a challenge. Did I say that it was a descent? Yep! Going uphill is always a challenge for most people, but I didn’t realize that going downhill for long can be a greater challenge.  We are descending into the Cloud Forest, where everything is cloudy all day long. It might get sunny at some point, but as much as it is sunny, the hills on the opposite side are covered in clouds. There was lots of beautiful vegetation and the hills were spectacular. This made the pain in the knee that had gotten injured due to the long, steep, descent to be temporarily forgotten. The air was too fresh to be ignored. The vegetation, a fresh break from the city. 

Challapampa camp site

Three hours later, this was not a walk through paradise anymore but a struggle to reach the destination. Were elated to see a camp down the hill, the Challapampa Camp. We crossed the thin shaky bridge to the other side and took a few minutes to draw our energy back. Now, here is the bad news… this was not where we were going to set up camp, but we had two hour journey, which turned to be longer than that, waiting for us. 

Finally, at 6:00 pm, we got to our camp site, El Choro. Tired, hungry and with a hurting knee, wishing that we could go back but realizing that going back would probably be the same as continuing with the journey, seeing that no vehicle can access that place. Being in the Cloud Forest, it was so foggy, it seemed to be drizzling. We were happy to retire to our beds (oh, our sleeping bags), dreading the following day. The night was amazingly warm and calm, which was to our delight.

Day two, we woke up both happy and anxious, not knowing what lay ahead of us. As usual, in line with the Bolivian tradition, we were told that it would be a 2-3 hour trek, lunch, and then followed by another 2-3 hour trek. It turned out to be almost double the time. As we set down our campsite, we were anticipating another long, tiresome and equally beautifully journey. This time round, our destination was El Jardin del Japones, the Japanese Garden. 

Our Camp site

Day 2 briefing

We set out for our ‘unknown’ destination since we were not sure exactly how long it would take us to get there. From our previous day’s experience, we learned not t trust a Bolivian (and this time a Bolivianized foreigner) when they tell us how far a place is. It started out as a cold day, and we feared that it would rain. One thing about the Yungas is that when it rains, the journey becomes dangerous because one, the road becomes slippery and muddy in certain areas and two, there is danger from falling rocks and stones from the hills, or the danger of falling down the hill or cliff. We braced ourselves for the worst. 

Destination 'clouds'
Still, nature did not cease to entice us. With beautiful wild flowers everywhere, waterfalls and the cloudy hills, we were smitten.

Drawn like magnets to this flower that looked like bougainvillea from a distance
Endless hills, flowers and waterfalls

Did I mention wild vanilla plants?

The journey was characterised by both steep climbs and descents, crossing some streams that did not have bridges, but just stones and logs for support. Luckily, it did not rain. After stopping for lunch, we went on with our trek, walking past the San Francisco and other campsites. By now, it had sunk in our heads that we were on the Inca Trail and there was no going back. It was an exciting feeling, knowing that we had made it to the great Inca Trail, but a daunting task at the same time. It gave us a chance to reflect on the kind of life that the members of this civilisation lived back then. 
This is a journey through the forest, with no sign of modern development anywhere. No vehicle can get in here and even a helicopter would not make it to certain parts. Some of us even teased one another, “Have you repented of all your sins?” This was the kind of trip that makes you remember your Maker and make peace with Him. The two or three shops that we saw along the way had very few things on the shelves, most of which were soda and biscuits, which do not go bad quickly. The prices were double those of La Paz, but we were glad to pay because one, they came as a welcome relief in the middle of nowhere and two, after walking along their trail for a day and a half, we understood what it took to carry goods up the hills and down the valleys. This gave us a chance to count our blessing and thank God for the things that we take for granted.
As we stopped to refresh ourselves with a bottle of soda, we asked the shop keeper how far the Japanese garden was and in keeping with the Bolivian tradition, she said, “Aquisito no mas! Sola dos sierras” Which means, “Just here! Two hills only.” An hour and a half later, and three hills away, we were still looking for the Japanese Garden. By this time, the nature around us ceased to look beautiful. We did not take notice of anything. Our goal was to reach the promised land. With our entire bodies in pain from walking for two days, all muscles aching and the back packs feeling heavier instead of feeling lighter, the joy of the adventure had disappeared.
At last, we made it to the Japanese Garden before it got too dark. After dinner, we spent several hours around the fire, recounting the events of the day and making the very much welcome mush mellows. 

At the beautiful Japanese Garden

The environment around us remained true to itself; beautiful

Day 3, we were in what we call in Kiswahili “Kipindi cha lala salama”, which is the final lap. After a sleepless night since to our tent decided to suck in all the moisture from the environment and the night being unusually cold night, we were glad to pack and go. We had been told that this journey would take half a day. We did not care anymore. All that we wanted was to get out of there and go home. The best thing about this day was that our redemption was near.  With accumulated fatigue from the previous days and both knees hurting, every step stirred up all the pain from within. We pushed ourselves, knowing that we were on more step away from the new promised land. Still climbing and descending. The sun was hotter this day, making us glad that it hadn’t shined as much during the previous days. The nature did what it does best; impress us. When we thought that we had seen it all, we encountered some of the most beautiful butterflies ever seen.
By this time, we had met several other trekkers who became our companions. We had seen them from day one. We walked past them, then they walked past us, and we passed them later on, and they passed us again. In certain sections, the path was so narrow that one had to keep moving off the way to give a faster person a chance to pass.  It was a journey of reflection, friendship, pain, beauty and endless nature. It was a great adventure. Here we were,at last, at El Chairo, the end of our trek. This is a small village near Coroico, in the Yungas and the egg sandwich that was waiting for us, thanks to those who went ahead of us, was more like manna from.

The promised land

Here we are!

Make It Beautiful
This for me was a journey that I had not anticipated. It turned out to be a both a beautiful adventure and a painful, tiresome experience. My knees ached for more than two weeks after the caminata but guess what, I made it! Could it have been better? Yes. For anyone planning to do the Inca Trail trek, here are a few tips:
·         Know the Distance
When one is aware of how long they are expecting to walk, it makes them psychologically prepared so, instead of hoping after every 10 minutes that you have reached your destination, you will have a closer estimate of how long it will take you to get there.
·         Increase the Number of Days
What made the trek difficult for many of us was the fact that we had to do the entire trek in two and a half days. If the time is longer, it means that you walk for a shorter distance each day, and get the rest of the hours to enjoy the nature and friends.
·         Make it Fun
Instead of just walking, arriving at a campsite, setting up camp, eating and sleeping, incorporating simple games and other bonding activities make the trek more enjoyable.
·         Get a Local Porter and Cook if You Can
Increasing the number of days means having to carry more supplies for the journey, which might make the trek harder for most people. It is advisable to get a local porter and cook who can help in carrying some of the luggage and meal preparation.
·         Train in Advance
Before the trek, take time to engage in some exercises. This is almost like mountain climbing, and it needs a lot of physical and mental preparation. Taking some time a few days before the trek to engage in exercises will make the trek much easier.
All said and done, we all have different amounts of energy and drive. While this trek might be a challenge to certain people, it is a walk in the park for others. Do what you can handle and enjoy the great adventure.

Can you spot the butterflies?

Loved this butterfly shot

Butterfly moments


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