Made it to La Paz with five days left on my 30-day visa. It was meant to be a quick stopover, to meet up with the Frenchies again and then shove off to Peru. No part of me was ready to leave Bolivia behind, though, and so that is how Orlando, the bar manager at Loki Hostel, twisted my rubber arm and convinced me to extend my visa and work behind the bar for free board and a meal and discounts. I was desperate for any reason to stay in Bolivia and Orlando was desperate for staff. He even offered to pay for my visa extension (he didn’t).
Loki guest Joachim the Austrian was travelling alone and desperate to do a good trek, but being solo often means you need to wait for a group (of strangers) to form, or pay higher fees. He was lamenting to me about this from the other side of the bar one Saturday afternoon, and on a whim I offered to join him for the El Choro trek – my days off were coming up.
It’s been so long since we did this trek and I’ve travelled so far – I am writing this from the northernmost tip of South America, Taganga in Colombia, when just a short few months ago I was in the extreme south – and so what are left now are the impressions: 52 downhill kilometres, alien landscapes, rain and fog, infinite folds of green peaks obscured by clouds, rocky and misty mountains up high to Bolivian jungle and soft rain down below, clouds of butterflies, raging rivers, bubbling brooks, whimsical waterfalls. Blistered feet, healthy heart, clear head.
The El Choro trek starts at 4 725m above sea level, on the moon:
This is Patricio, our guide, and his mom. During our taxi ride up to the start of the trail, she asked the driver to stop next to a nondescript pile of rocks. Then she asked him to reverse a little bit. Patricio got out and poked around the pile, pulling out a plastic bag with shoes inside.
We passed through a number of really small villages during our three days, regularly shamed by the age of those who share the road with us, and the loads they and their donkeys carry. No cars go here; and these people make the uphill journey to La Paz on a weekly basis. We were huffing and puffing during the steep descent, complaining about toes crushed in fancy sneakers, carrying nothing more than water and a sleeping bag. Perspective.
And llamas for days.
The rain came and went that first day, but it wasn’t perturbing. Just added to the sense of adventure as the landscape changed from moon-like to Scotlandish.
Jo and I hit the tent as soon as the sun set on that first night, exhausted and fed. The camaraderie formed quickly between the two of us, forged from his stories and my handful of jokes in the dark, childish giggling and obligatory complaints about the hardness of the ground. Sleep found us almost as quickly as dawn brought sunshine and dew and heat, humidity and sweat. The jungle was calling.
The cloud forest is overgrown, quiet, unpolluted. Strange fruit dangle from palms; birds’ eggs hide in the cracks of the mountain; bridges span wild rivers that roar down from the out-of-sight glaciers up high; every plant pledges allegiance to survival by adaptation; the soil smells of life – ancient and future. The Incas survive in the sporadic rock hedges and stone-paved stretches. Down down down we go.
Lunch with a view on that second day, Jo requesting a photo with every animal (cats, chickens, donkeys), Patricio laughing at the gringos who are bursting out of their seams with giddy awe.
A bunch of gold mines, working and otherwise.
Water-smoke (steam) rising from a river tucked between the folds of the mountains.
It was raining again on our last day. We had 17km to cover by 2pm – down to 1300m above sea level now – which means it was a bit of a rush. The guys kept pulling ahead while I stopped for every picture opportunity. Towards the end we basically ran to make the bus back to Coroico – I stopped to drink water that had accumulated in the spines of giant jungle leaves.
I’ll always remember the way Patricio took the time to take in the scenery. He was born and raised here next to the Choro River, but there is not a trace of jadedness to be found. He took lots of time staring out into the various abysses, drinking in the view with us, quiet and thoughtful and patient – attentive.
The trip from Coroico back to La Paz was, pretty much literally, death-defying. Through the rain and severe lack of visibility, our driver pushed his revs to 6000 and stayed there; overtook on blind corners and bridges while the cliffs pulled us to their side with a weird force of gravity. Jo and I were out of breath and swaeting when we made it alive back to La Paz – we may not have seen the famous Carretera de la Muerte of Bolivia, but were instead treated to a death road of our own.
Back at Loki someone told us that a minibus to La Paz from Coroico had driven over the edge that very same day, signalling the end for all 28 souls on board. So there you go.
Use Travel Tracks for your El Choro trek and ask for Patricio. Jo and I each paid Bs800 (about ZAR1200) for two nights and three days, including transport there and back, three meals a day and a tent to share but excluding water. Absolutely worth it. Some good information about the trek here.