The Choro trek is one of the easiest and most accessible hikes in Bolivia. It runs along pre-Columbian Inca road for most of its 70 km and runs downhill for most of its length. We planned to take three days for this hike. The trailhead is just 22 km from La Paz at a high pass in the road called La Cumbre. This is also the start of the infamous Death Road. Annie and I had wanted to up our adventure quotient by hitching a ride to La Cumbre in the back of a truck, however our taxi driver was uncooperative and took us to the bus station despite Annie's clear instructions in Spanish. However we got on a mini-bus that quickly left the station and we were on our way. After an hour the driver pulled over on the side of the road, climbed on the roof to retrieve our bags and we were ready to hike. From La Cumbre which lies at roughly 4600 meters we hiked cross country and uphill, sometimes following a rough road, and making our way to an unmarked pass at 4850 meters. Once we found the pass, the trail became much clearer as we followed a remarkable Inca road which dropped quickly down the ridge towards the valley below. Inca roads are marvels of engineering : the trail was easily 10 feet wide, flat and well graded and in many places built up with perfectly fitted stone blocks. We made good time and stopped at the bottom of the ridge for lunch next to the ruins of an Inca tambo. Tambos were Inca way stations situated roughly 20 km apart (a days walk) all along the Inca system of roads.
After lunch we continued our way down valley. We passed families herding llamas loaded with goods to market and several tiny hamlets, continuing downhill the whole time. Around 2 we were treated to an afternoon rain shower, but Annie and I just donned our rain gear (for the first time in 2 months of hiking) and continued on our merry way. At the end of a long day of hiking we arrived at our camp for the night at a place called Challapampa at roughly 3600 meters in elevation. We made camp and prepared an awesome vegetable pasta for dinner. Figuring that we could carry some extra weight on a three day jaunt, we had picked up veggies at the local market in La Paz and they made our dinner extra special.
The next morning we were on the trail by 9 AM and continued to drop in elevation. As we went lower the valley walks grew taller and steeper and the vegetation slowly changed from alpine tundra to lush tropical cloud forest. We traipsed along the Inca road for kilometer after kilometer until we crossed a suspension bridge above the river at the bottom of valley and started to climb the opposite ridge. After a brief ascent the trail stayed high in the ridge for the rest of the hike. We paused for lunch at a tiny campsite called Bella Vista and it did indeed have a pretty view both up and down valley. In fact we could see our goal for the day-a collection of houses called Sandellani perched on the side of the valley in the distance. A guide for another group of hikers informed us that despite its proximity it was a good six hours away! We soon found out why as after lunch the trail wound in and out of innumerable side canyons, crossing streams and waterfalls and steadily traversing the valley's side. We hiked steadily for hours and oohed and aahed at the many vistas, innumerable butterflies and remarkable array of tropical plants and flowers. After 25 or so kilometers we decided to make camp early at a place called Buena Vista at about 2300 meters above sea level. The dueña (owner) and her daughter were busy trimming gorgeous cala lilies for sale in La Paz while we set up camp in a tiny soccer field carved out of the hill.
Our last day brought us ever lower as the trail dropped towards the valley floor and the end of our hike at the town of Chairo (1800 meters elevation). After a great many switchbacks we arrived in town and gladly negotiated a taxi ride to the jungle resort town of Coroico. There we spent a day recuperating poolside after a long three days on Choro. Coroico proved a pleasant little town and we enjoyed our stay. The only drawback to our pool time were the sand fly bites that left us spotted and itchy. Sand flies are like gnats that bite and seem to inhabit the lower elevations in the Andes (we've encountered them in Peru also). They leave you with red welts that itch furiously for days, but as far as we know they don't carry disease so I suppose they are preferable to mosquitos in that respect.
Annie and I returned to La Paz determined to find the prettier side of this rather gritty city. We reserved a room in a what we thought was to be a nice hostel called Hostel Republica, which turned out to not be the case. Unlike the friendly greeting we received in Sucre upon our early morning arrival, the receptionist at Hostel Republica was neither prepared nor willing to let us into our room until their 1 PM checkin. Strike one for La Paz. Undeterred we pressed onward and headed for breakfast at our favorite La Paz hangout, a delightful cafe owned inexplicably by a strikingly beautiful swede. We enjoyed muesli and yogurt and porridge with fresh fruit and waited for the tour agencies to open so we could arrange for a guide for our next trek. After an hour and still no agencies (I think we mentioned that Bolivians are not a morning people), we strolled the streets and came upon the Rodriguez market-street after street of stalls selling everything from fresh flowers and produce to home goods and cleaning supplies. Things were looking up. We walked for an hour and half admiring the various wares for sale and bought some veggies for our first dinner on el Choro. We then returned to the tour agencies to learn more about apolobamba.
We visited several tour agencies up and down the main tourist drag, calle sagarnaga, and fleshed out our options. Apolobamba is approximately 120 kilometers and 10 hours away from La Paz. Most agencies quoted a guide at around 35 US dollars per day and everyone assured us it was at least a 7 day ordeal to and from the city. These facts stole some of our enthusiasm, but several operators mentioned Condoriri as a more accessible high- altitude excursion. In the same breath they also included tackling Huayna Potosi along the way. Armed with more info and sone serious deliberations to make, Annie and I decided to discuss things over lunch before signing on with a tour.
The best restaurant in Bolivia is called Gustu. It is located in the Zona Sur, a ritzy neighborhood to the south of the city center where the rich can live far removed from the dirt and poverty of everyday Bolivian life. It looks for all intents and purposes like a sunbelt city in America (think Phoenix or Tucson). Gustu is the brainchild of Claus Meyer, the cofounder of Noma in Copenhagen, currently number two on the list of world's best restaurants. Meyer is at the forefront of hyper-local food and was attracted by the diversity of Bolivia's foods and flavors. Everything on the menu is uniquely Bolivian but with a decidedly haute cuisine twist. The restaurant, barely a year old, also serves as a school and training ground for young Bolivians and everyone from the waiters to the chefs are students eagerly learning and honing their craft. As such it lacks the polish one might expect at a fine dining establishment but more than makes up for it by the quality, creativity and originality of its dishes and the earnestness of its young staff.
We had to take a long and harrowing cab ride to the south of the city. Our taxi driver aggressively nosed his car in and around other cars heedless of any lanes or of oncoming traffic. After half an hour or so we arrived and our gastronomic journey began. We were greeted at the door by the restaurant manager, a recently transplanted Coloradoan from steamboat springs who guided us to our table and through the menu by explaining some of the more exotic items. Deciding to go 'all out' we began our meal with cocktails-this would be rare for Annie and I at any time but especially while traveling (we can count the number of drinks we've had over the past two months on one hand). Annie enjoyed a BOLIVIANA DE AVIACIÓN made with Distilled Andean botanicals, lavender, cherry and grapefruit while I sipped on a distinctly Bolivian old fashioned made with Daroccadorado, api, homemade clove and cardamom bitters. We're still unclear about the exact ingredients but they were very tasty. With our cocktails we nibbled on complimentary starter - The most beautiful and exotic potato chips you are likely to encounter. As a snack we shared crispy pork skins with rhubarb. This was Annie's first time with cracklings. Did I mention that they served complimentary sparkling water? That alone sets Gustu apart from every other restaurant. For our appetizer, we ordered Soft Poached Rabbit With Citric Choclo Cream And Lemon Grass. Choclo is corn and the confited rabbit came in the most delicious ' corn gravy' imaginable. Even the bread was wxceptionabld being accompanied by 3 herbed butters including a Coca butter tasting strongly of that illegal-in-the-US plant. For our mains, Annie chose Lama With Citric Yogurt, Achacana Cactus And Honey. It would never have occurred to us to accompany grilled steak with yogurt and honey but the sweet creaminess of the sauce went perfectly with the grilled lama and the Achacana cactus proved earthy, toothsome and provided a touch of bitterness to balance the plate. I chose Lamb Tail, Chuño, Blueberries And Blue Potatoes. The lamb tail had been confited and shredded and was plated with chuño an earthy tuber with a delicious blueberry sauce. For dessert we decided to share Iced Chirimoya On Aji Fudge With Flakes Of Tomatillo. Chiromoya is a fruit that tastes vaguely of bubblegum and again we were pleasantly surprised by the combination of sweet, fruity sorbet with the tartness of tomatillo which was made into candied crisps.
Throughout our whole meal we were impressed by the flavors and superb presentation of each course. It was a gustatory adventure, by far our best meal of the trip, and a highlight of our time in Bolivia. Plus when you consider that we are unlikely to be able to dine at Noma and our bill at Gustu was scarcely 80 dollars US, it was an excellent opportunity to experience world class cuisine.
Thus fortified, we headed back to Sarganaga to book our tour. Over lunch we had decided to do Condoriri and Huayna Potosi rather than Apolobamba. We've booked a guide through a highly reputable organization called Adolfo Andino. Adolfo spoke great English and took the time to talk us through all of our options. We are going to solo hike for 4 days and 3 nights along the condoriri trail and meet up with our mountain guide at the base of Huayna Potosi. In the afternoon we'll practice a little ice climbing and the next day we'll tackle the mountain. It will be an EPIC ending to our Bolivian adventure.
Ah, Sucre... named for a badassBoivian general from the war for independence, but as sweet as you would assume given the name (sucre= sounds like sugar but does not actually translate to sugar (azucar) or sweet (dulce)). We felt REALLY lucky to get out of Uyuni when we did. The taxi drivers had organized a strike, which in Bolivia means that they shut down all the gas stations and create barricades on all roads into and out of town. Our bus left at 10pm, and the strike was scheduled to start at 12am. We escaped!
We arrived from the Salar de Uyuni very dirty, covered in salt dust, and after an eight hour Bolivian bus journey. These rides are particularly challenging because Bolivian buses may or may not have the following: heat, ventilation, seats that recline, bathrooms, stopping places every 4-6 hours for bathroom purposes, and/or paved roads on which to drive. This bus had semi-reclining seats and they stopped every three hours, which sounds good until you think through an overnight bus ride where they randomly throw on ALL the lights each time they stop. It is very disconcerting. Additionally many Bolivians travel with huge amounts of luggage, which they store in the isles along with their sleeping children. It creates a minefield of polite seat-leaping and excusing yourself for sitting in the laps of strangers in an attempt to not kick the baby.
We were welcomed warmly into the Hotel Santa Cecilia by the grandfatherly Oswaldo and lead into a very clean, warm private room at 5am. When a hotel lets you check inat 5am after an overnight bus it feels like winning the lottery. Instead of freezing and sitting in the lobby waiting for a restaurant to open (side note- Bolivians are not a morning people. They do not open businesses or restaurants or appear on the streets until generally after 8am. This has been true in every city we´ve visited, and been difficult for us as we generally arrive very early on the bus and wake up early in general.) we were able to shower and crawl into bed and sleep late.
When we emerged from the room it was clear our hosts had been waiting for us because they had a little welcome packet for us at check in. Oswaldo sat us down at his dining room table and marked all the best spots in the city for us on a map. We asked for food recommendations and he sent us to the best Salteña spots and chorizo restaurants in town with a "yum" as he patted his belly. We headed out into the blissfully warm morning, grabbed some super-ricosalteñas (meat-filled savory pastries available only in the mid-morning) and headed up to an overlook at the San Francisco church.
From there we headed to the Indigenous Textile Museum, one of the most fascinating museums I´ve been to here in South America. To say that weaving is important to the indigenous communities of Bolivia is a gross understatement. It is the foundation of their culture. Llamas and alpacas are among the only domesticated animals fromprecolumbian times, and children begin to learn to weave when they are toddlers. When you are sick, you wind threads backwards to try to ward off the illness. When you pray to the Virgin Mary, you create a weaving from sunup to sundown, finishing it to honor the virgin. When you make an offering to gods, you burn weavings. When you dance on feast days, your feet take the steps of the patterns you weave into your cloth. Textiles are perhaps my favorite art form, so I loved every bit of information in the museum. However, true to form we arrived at 12pm and they shut for siesta at 12:30, so we had to leave after a half hour. The bonus was that they made it clear our tickets were good forever, so we could come back as it was convenient.
We wandered down to the lovely main plaza, then further down to DonaNatys following Oswaldo's lunch recommendation. We ate delicious chorizo and had our fourth (!)(seriously, our forth) alcoholic beverage of the whole trip, splitting a black beer with lunch. It was delicious as promised. Salty spicy sausage with a very sweet beer hit the spot. Again, we were so happy to be warm and well fed! BUT... Blake began to feel under the weather again. He took a long nap while I returned to the textile museum and had my mind blown by the intricate and amazing weavings on display. We spent the next two days basically repeating this relaxing, wonderful pattern. Late rising, wandering out for a salteña (or three, they are very good), and checking out the city.
We were in Sucre for the 205th anniversary of La Paz, and to honor the day, the city, and the patron virgin of the city there were celebrations taking place in Parque Bolivar. In Bolivia marching bands seem to be a very big thing. We watched as several marching bands processed around the park. Each band is lead by a group of dancing fancy women. They have dance steps and their costumes range from sexy tight jeans and five inch heels with sparkly t-shirts to brightly colored versions of classic Bolivian dress in a skirt, blouse, long shawl and bowler hat. After the ladies come an honor guard of men, also dressed to the nines and fancy stepping. Then comes the band (always out of tune, very loud, heavy on the horns) dressed in matching suits. All of this is followed by a second honor guard, some wearing carnival masks, carrying scepters and spinning noise makers, and dancing with well-coordinatedcha-chaing.
We also visited the awesome Museode Ethnographia y Folklore (MUNEF) and enjoyed their exhibit of the intricate, storied, and amazing carnival masks. Some of the masks are funny, many are enormous, and most are completely freaky. I can only imagine how awesome it would be to see them in use during carnival or an indigenous celebration. We left Sucre reluctantly, having enjoyed it more than any other city we´ve been to in Bolivia. Warm, welcoming, and full of history.
Potosi is Sucre's sad cousin. The two cities are only three hours apart but could not have felt more different in tone and setting. I´ll begin with some background.
According to legend, in approximately 1552 an indigenous llama farmer lost one of his animals. Following the animal´s trail up a mountain, he settled down to camp for the evening and made himself a fire. Upon waking, he noticed that his fire circle had small streams of pure silver running from the rocks. He reported this to the newly arrived and powerful Spaniards, and a legend was born. The mines of Potosi´s Cerro Rico provided the Spanish with THREE HUNDRED YEARS worth of silver, unimaginable wealth, and funded their empire. Everywhere you go in South America they say that something valuable or creating weath "vale un Potosi", meaning that it is worth a Potosi.
We learned all this while touring the Casa de Las Monedas, which is one of the finest museums in all of the South America and surely the highlight of our time in Potosi. Our tour guide, the tiny Luis, walked us through the museum and explained the exhibits in English, which I always appreciate. The museum is housed in the old mint, dating back to the mid-sixteen-hundreds, which operated almost continuously until the 1960s making Spanish Reales and pesos until 1825 and then minting Bolivian dollars after Bolivian Independence. Petosi was so rich with silver and they minted so much money that the symbol of the Potosi mint - a P,T,S, and I superimposed over one another and printed on every Real made there eventually became the symbol of money EVERYWHERE - ´$´ being the S and I from the Potosi mint symbol. The Casa de Monedas was one of the highlights of our time in Potosi.
Most visitors to Potosi choose to go on a mine tour, because even through the silver ran out after nearly 300 years Cerro Rico is still full of valuable metals like tin, lead, and copper. Miners work in incredibly poor conditions, as cooperatives, and tourists flock to experience this depressing, difficult, dangerous way of life. Human suffering and enclosed spaces did not sound like something Blake and I wanted to pay to see, so we skipped this classic gringo trail experience. Instead we traveled to the "Ojo del Inca", a hot springs in the red rock canyon hills outside Potosi. While the water was lukewarm as opposed to hot, the pond is a perfect circle 22 meters deep set into lovely country. We went for a swim and returned in the afternoon for our tour of the Casa de Monedas.
On a side note, we again felt really lucky in our timing of our Uyuni trip. Both Sucre and Potosi were full of tourists trying in vain to schedule their Uyuni trips, only to be rebuffed and told it was not possible. People were paying for cabs and making elaborate plans to walk 10k through the blockades, not realizing that no tours could run because the gas stations were blocked. They did not believe us when we told them otherwise. Poor things.
We caught yet another overnight bus from Potosi to La Paz, in preparation for our next trekking adventure. This bus was interesting, as it was filled with women making their way with TONS of luggage which looked suspiciously like produce on its way to market. More on that in our next post...