Character building in the Bolivian Andes

Note: I could write a BOOK about this trek, but this is the summary .. the real, long story is way cooler …

To this day, llama caravans are crossing the Bolivian Andes during the dry winter months, exchanging goods in villages and estancias on their way. Using (pre)Inca paths, they visit places that are unreachable otherwise. One day in June, eight happy but unwitting gringos set off to join one of the llama families on their yearly caravan. Little did they know what they would encounter.

The first day is just the transportation from Potosí to the place where the llama family lives, near a place called Colquechaca, in the Potosí province of Bolivia. We are supposed to leave in the morning, but since one of the group, Rachael, needs to see a doctor, we don’t reach Colquechaca until dark. After spending the night here, Rachael decides she is still up for the trek, Giardia and all that, and we climb aboard the bus. City busses in Bolivia are apparently capable of off-roading, but at one point the track becomes really too rough and the guides indicate we have to walk from here.

After a steep downhill walk with all our gear plus some extra, we reach a small house where we’ll await the llamas. When they arrive around 3 in the afternoon, it takes a while to sort all out all our gear since the promised donkeys that would carry our stuff are not there and llamas can carry only 10-15 kilos. The llamas are caught by either stringing a rope around their neck, or someone jumping on them. After loading the llamas, the trek can commence! To our surprise, the old blind man that was sitting at the house is joining us, being led by his daughter with a string attached to his finger. Two younger guys are herding the llamas, our guides help them. The caravan of 20 llamas, two donkeys, the four person llama family, three guides and eight tourists finally sets off into the Bolivian countryside.

After some downhill bits, we climb some ridiculously steep hills. On an altitude of around 4000 meters, this is not easy, especially since our lunch, three hours ago, consisted of a clear soup with half a potato, some chicken and bread. We feel we’re being inspected by some condors: are they dead yet, can we eat them? After crossing the pass, the path finally goes down and at dusk a beautiful lush valley comes into view: our camping spot. We pitch the tents next to the river just as it becomes pitch-black, and the Milky Way appears. Dinner is served in the tents: rice with egg, some sausage and ketchup. At this point, we are blissfully unaware of how we would later dream of such a substantial meal …

The next day we get up at six, while eating our breakfast the llama boys start yelling for our stuff that needs to be loaded onto the llamas. Around 7 o’clock we start walking, herding the llamas along. With the really steep uphill bits, we loose the llamas and struggle along on our own. After a break, we reach a road! We even see one car and one truck. Around 1 o’clock we reach a village. We are all short of water and hope to be able to buy some but soon discover that there is no water in the village so we share what we have. The guides have to figure out in which of the identical llama bags is our lunch (bread with tuna); of course they have to catch the llama first to get to it!

After an hour we’re walking again, more uphill. The road seems endless, we have been walking since 7 o’clock and we start to become tired now, especially the people that haven’t got any trekking experience. Luckily around 3:30 one of the guides manages to arrange a lift, we pile ourselves with 9 people plus all of our big bags in this 8 person van. Seeing the road, how high it climbed and how far it was, at least another 10 km, we all feel relieved. We reach an abandoned half built house. In the dusk, the llamas arrive and the decision is made to camp here. There is a small trickle of water, and the guides promise to boil one litre per person for the next day. As usual, Lorena helps cooking (she is French after all) and dinner is soup with a little carrot, onion and some potato; even though we are all hungry we can’t eat it all because then the guides wouldn’t have any food. By this point we’re all tired, thirsty, hungry and suffering from the altitude, our camp is on 4240 meters.

Next morning, 6 AM wakeup, we help pack the gear, have breakfast (old bread, luckily we bought oatmeal and milk powder) and then hang around till the llamas are ready. The guides don’t know the exact route, but we leave before the llamas and he guesses the right road. First we have some more uphill and then finally, finally the promised downhill – into the valley. No more roads, just small paths and fantastic views. The llamas catch up with us and shortly after we have a break, yoghurt with the Andean cereal: Quinoa. Pretty tasty and it gives us some energy for the uphill that follows after the break. Around 1 o’clock we reach a small village where the kids think eight gringos handing out apples are a really cool distraction from their school day. We are over the moon when we see a tap with running water! Luckily we have purification tablets with us that work within 5 minutes, so at least we’re not thirsty any more. But, what about lunch? When enquiring, the guides explain the yoghurt with quinoa was our lunch to which we respond ”excuse me, do we have to walk from 8 till late on one cup of yoghurt??” They promise we’ll get lunch in an hour and a half, so at 3:30 we have – surprise surprise-, stale bread with tuna. We’re running out of food by now, the guides expected to be able to buy food, but were misinformed. The llamas are slow today, especially with the downhill parts, so we have to wait for them. The target for today was the river, but it is still at least 500 meters below us. When the llamas arrive, around 5:30, it is again already twilight and the decision is made to camp up here. With Swiss army knives, we have to clear the camping ground from bushes, small trees and we can only remove the biggest rocks. We do feel a bit better now as we are not suffering from the altitude and camping on 2700 meters is not as cold. However, the long days of walking while with limited food begins to take it’s toll. We begin to wonder if we are part of a social experiment, because by now we almost hope that one of the llamas will break it’s leg so we would have llama barbecue for dinner. Or when will we start stealing water or snacks from each other? Dinner is api, the Bolivian breakfast drink made with corn and fruit and after that: the same soup as usual, only with even less filling.

The next day we can sleep in: breakfast at 7 and a pleasant surprise at that, we have rice pudding! Part of the group leaves before the llamas, but returns after the indicated path seized to exist after about 20 minutes. A landslide made the path impassable – we think. But no, llamas, donkeys, blind guy .. everybody passes the scary-looking bit without thinking twice. Since we have no choice really, we do as well. After two hours, we reach the river around 10 in the morning, crossing it is a bit hairy, the current was quite strong and being in the water to mid-thigh was not easy. After the river we start climbing, and climbing and climbing some more. Chris, always the jester, says half way the first steep climb: “we’re almost there, aren’t we?”. With the lunch break (we are down to smashed crackers and cold sausages, yoghurt and quinoa) we overtake the llamas and are climbing the bloody mountain like it was the last thing we would do on this earth. Just when we think that by now we really, really climbed all the way, the guide appears with the news that around the bend, there’s more. Awwwww nooooo……Around 4:30 we reach the top and feel like we reached the highest peak of Mount Everest. On top of the world – in every sense! Half an hour later the llamas reach us and the crazy run downhill in less and less light begins. Funny how tiny ridges next to huge drops are no longer an issue after a few days of proper training. Around 6:15 we reach San Marcos: our destination for today.

We never felt so tired, but still, we have to start moving: finding llamas with our gear (Sander even manages the energy to catch some of them) and then pitching tents. The llama-family either felt sorry for the hungry tourists or maybe they were bribed by the guides into cooking for us; either way, we have a lovely filling Bolivian traditional corn-soup for dinner. With goat meat, although rather tough. Some people literally have to drag themselves out of the tent, we are all extremely tired. Since Miranda has to meet her brother in Cusco, she would leave early the next day to try to make it to a village where there would be transport to a place called San Pedro de Buena Vista. The rest of us is supposed to walk for half a day tomorrow and a full day the next day.

After a very relax breakfast, smashed crackers and our Nutella, we wash ourselves a bit at the “tap” and visit the family where we stayed the night. The four little boys are over the moon with the finger-puppets and balls we gave them. The grandmother is pleased with the safety-pins we brought her, but mentions that if we have any spare clothes, they would be very welcome. Emily and Emma are happy to lighten their bags some more, and are able to donate some clothes. They only speak Quecha, so conversation isn’t very easy, but still it is great to spend some time with them.

After the best lunch of the week, spaghetti with sausages and ketchup (thanks Sander for cooking and Chris for brining extra ketchup) we pack everything up. Today the llamas and we are going into different directions, the guides were supposed to arrange donkeys but only got two. This means the guys are supposed to carry their full luggage and some of the girls did, too. Luckily we only have to climb 200 meter and the rest is downhill. When we reach ChariChari, it turns our to be just a medical post and we need to walk on to another village. By now we’re used to walk longer than expected and to quote one of the t shirts from Chris: Stay Calm – Carry On. So on we walk, along the river, crossing the river several times and while the sun was setting, up a steep hill to reach the village. Nobody had water left by this point so the first stop is the tap. Surprise: hello Miranda, looking all clean: no transportation was found, so she spent the day in the village – and the school, where we will sleep, had cold, smelly but oh-so-nice showers!

After a 4-star dinner of rice, tuna and potatoes, there was a small shop in the village, we have a few beers, play some more 10.000 (Sander is NOT allowed to play any more), have some more beers and to sleep – in a room, with real mattresses! After a shower and a breakfast with Bolivian (fried) bread, the crazy ones set off on an optional hike down to the river. Emily, Emma, Sander and I walked for a few hours along the river. Since they couldn’t arrange donkeys, and there wouldn’t be transport in days, the guides arrange a truck to get us all to San Pedro. The truck was supposed to pick up us between 1 and 2 but when we returned around 1, lunch was still being prepared. After the soup, we felt we were in prison once more: playing 10.000 and waiting for something to happen. Around 4:30, the promised truck shows up and around 5 we really leave! Once the sun sets, it’s a bit chilly but is is pretty amazing lying there, realising what we’ve been trough and gazing at the stars. When we arrive in San Pedro, around 9:30 in the evening, we ask about dinner. The guide says something about a coffee .. well that’s no dinner! So they get a lady to deep-fry some potatoes and chicken for us … the most delicious thing we’ve tasted for AGES!

The next day is all about arranging transportation to ToroToro, a national park with dinosaur footprints! The truck finally arrives at 5 in the afternoon, after the president of tourism or something asked us to pose for some photos as proof this town also get tourists and for that reason the government needs to fix the fast road between San Pedro and ToroToro. We’re taking the other road, which means 6 hours of extreme cold and the biggest amount of dust you’ve ever seen on people. Enjoying the Milky Way trough a cloud of dust is pretty hard and although the ride is more comfortable than the night before, we all feel pretty broken by the time we arrive (11:30 at night).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *