Hiking the El Choro trail: for complete beginners

The El Choro trail winds it’s way from La Cumbre, near La Paz, to the village of Chairo in the Yungas. It descends from 4,900m to 1,350m and is usually done in three days (although 2 is possible). As you might imagine, it is mostly downhill, but there are also some flat parts and some fairly steep uphill paths.

As long as you don’t have knee problems and are relatively fit, you could easily do this hike with no previous experience of multi-day trekking (although please check the comments below for useful feedback from another hiker who has experienced this trail). This website gives some good information and some map references. The trail is pretty straightforward, although having your own map would help with plotting your route and knowing how far you have to go before the next campsite.

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But, if like us you don’t fancy carrying your own tent and food, you can book with an agency to go with a guide, porter and cook. Our guide, Pascual, kept our pace up so we arrived in time to get the best camping spots each day. His wife and daughter cooked us filling meals and carried all our supplies whilst hiking in full cholita outfits and converse shoes! They were super and it really felt like a luxury to relax while our tents were assembled and dinner cooked.

But we did have to do some work. In addition to personal items, we had to carry a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, as well as our own water. We were recommended 2 litres per person per day, but if you have water purification pills you can fill up along the way from rivers and at campsites.

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So, what else do you need for this trek? How do you pack for possible snow at the beginning and sweaty jungle at the end? Here’s my list of essentials:

waterproofs – at the very least a rain jacket or poncho (you can buy quite good ones in the market in La Paz). Waterproof trousers are a bonus since if it decides to rain all day, it won’t be comfortable walking in wet clothes and they won’t necessarily dry by the next day.
hiking shoes – you could do it in trainers, but you’d be at a higher risk of slipping and injuring something (hopefully just pride). In some places the path is literally a stream with a lot of slippery rocks and mud, so shoes with a good grip will make it much easier.
clothes – dress in layers and peel them off as you descend to warmer temperatures. Don’t bother with a big coat as you really won’t need it after the first morning. Instead just use a hat, gloves and scarf which can be stuffed into your bag easily once you don’t need them. Stick to light, fast-drying materials – no jeans. You might also want swimming clothes if you plan on taking a dip in the rivers.
insect repellent – and a lot of it. Actually, the best thing would be to wear long sleeves and pants because even with repellent these critters are going to bite. They might even draw blood. And they’ll itch for weeks afterwards.
sun protection – most of the trail is under cover of clouds or trees, but you’ll still need sunglasses and sun lotion for a few sections that are out in the open.
plastic bags – don’t leave any rubbish behind. There were lots of places along the way which people had used as a toilet, with tissue left behind. Yes, it’s biodegradable but it doesn’t happen overnight. Instead just take your tissue and any other rubbish with you and dispose of it when you get back to civilization.
mini medical kit – trust me, you don’t want to get sick here. There aren’t many toilets at the campsites, and those that are there aren’t very nice. You might also want something for aching muscles or twisted ankles. Hand sanitizer or wet wipes also come in handy.
snacks – if you trek with a tour, you’ll get fed well but you might still want something to munch along the way. Granola and chocolate comes to mind.

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We did this trek at the beginning of November. It wasn’t supposed to be the rainy season, but it still rained. If it was truly the rainy season, it would have been not only miserable but much more dangerous as well. Also, because it was a holiday weekend, there were a lot of Bolivians hiking the trail too. If you want a more solitary experience choose your dates to not coincide with national holidays.

Finally, be aware that you are going to end up stiff and achy. But it’s worth it to walk a Pre-Columbian path through amazingly diverse environments.

We went with Travel Tracks, which cost 650Bs pp + 50Bs for sleeping bag rental and 20Bs national park entrance.

For more pictures, see our photo essay.

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El Choro Trek

The Choro trail runs 42km from the high altitude pass of La Cumbre down to the subtropical Yungas valleys. In three days you descend more than 3,000m, passing from treeless, rocky landscapes to misty cloud forests and muddy, verdant jungle paths. It felt quite amazing to be walking on a pre-Columbian path that so many feet have traversed in the past.

For info on hiking the trail yourself, see here.

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Census day in Bolivia

Today, November 21st, was Census Day. That means, of course, that we weren’t allowed to leave the house or we’d be arrested or fined. But a day off is a day off and we made the most of it.

Two high school girls interviewed us around 10 a.m. They asked us such questions like, “Do you own a boat?” (I wish!) and, “Do you like to use home remedies when you’re sick?”

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After this pleasant ordeal we got down to business. Other than the thrilling task of laundry, we spent hours baking rocks – I mean bagels. They turned out diamond-hard and burnt on the outside, and gooey and undercooked on the inside. Kind of like the fish sticks Lisa made in that one Simpsons episode.

We had more success with banana bread in the evening, though at this altitude it took several epochs to cook.

We also spent the day wishing we were watching Game of Thrones, but alas, no sorcery could conjure up a device for us to watch it on.

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All in all, Census Day is a great time. If you’re in Bolivia ten years from now I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina “Eduardo Avaroa”

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We’re ascending, higher and higher in this desert landscape, to cross from Chile into Bolivia. I’m so worried about getting sick in the thin air that the altitude has become an obsession. Fortunately, nothing worse than light headaches and shortness of breath is in store for me.

The border station is a shack at the edge of nothing. The “toilet” is a place to stand or squat behind an old rusted bus. Processing is quick, and I’m told I should buy my visa in Uyuni when we arrive two days later.

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Sometimes place names are remarkably literal. “Altiplano” means highflat and it’s just that. In this atmosphere blue-brown snowcapped mountains show off, with no foliage to obscure their grandeur. And wind-sculpted sedimentary rock statues display impossible curves against a backdrop of blue sky.

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Laguna Colorada’s deep scarlet and rusty hues are formed by algae, but I like to think it’s the Earth secreting some essential life-giving fluid which these ethereal flamingoes, from some distant tropical paradise, come to feast on. I don’t actually know where flamingoes come from, but I’d always thought of them as tropical birds whose flamboyant pink could be linked with carnaval and other debaucherous occasions. We give these elegant birds the respectful distance they deserve, but all too soon they fly off to who knows where.

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Sol de Mañana geyser field might attract more visitors if it were renamed “Death Field.” Like the old “Death Road” from La Paz to Coroico (which tourists happily cycle down nearly every day the weather permits) this collection of bubbling pits, which also lacks guard rails, has its own share of death traps.

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The locals probably think we’re idiots, following a group of llamas through this barren town, trying to get the perfect photo. Imagine a group of foreigners enraptured by a herd of cows in a farm near your hometown, and you get the idea

Empanadas and api at Wist’upiku

For my typical mid-morning snack I usually go to Wist’upiku, an empanada chain, and order this:

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The drink, which has quickly become one of my favourites, is made from purple corn. Api morado is thick and gloopy with fruity flavours of cinnamon and sugar – perfect for warming up on a cold day.

While other south american countries have baked empanadas, these ones are rather different. The slightly sweet, crumbly pastry makes them more similar to salteñas (a delicious baked pastry full of stew). I especially like the charque empanada, full of dried meat, vegetables and a piece of egg.

Wist’upiku also sells cinnamon ice cream. Now that it’s getting into summer, I might have to change my order.

San Pedro de Atacama

“Es caro, pero vale la pena. How do you say ‘vale la pena’ in English? Is ‘It’s worth the pain’?”

“It’s more natural to say ‘It’s worth it.'”

“It’s worth it the pain.”

Close enough.

As a tourist town isolated in the middle of the driest desert on earth, San Pedro de Atacama is a bit expensive, but certainly “worth it the pain.” Attractions include the expansive and stunning Valle de la Luna (not to be confused by the valle of the same name near La Paz), sandboarding, and the ghostly and chilling Geyser El Tatio. At 2,400 meters, it’s also a good place to spend a few days acclimatizing before you cross into Bolivia.

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A postcard from Cerro San Cristóbal

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Santiago is surrounded by towering snowcapped mountains. This sounds like an ideal city backdrop, and it may be in the summer. Unfortunately, smog gets trapped in the city during the winter months, obscuring what might otherwise be a stunning vista.

Even with a substandard view, Cerro San Cristóbal is an easy and cheap way to spend a few hours. A ride up the old funicular is a fun little ascent and a touch of living history in this thoroughly modern city.

The mirador sits 485 meters above the city, and offers potentially great views, depending on the weather. There’s a museum, a zoo, snack and souvenir shops, and of course the ever present stray dogs of Chile.

How to get there The funicular leaves from Plaza Caupolicán in Pío Nono, Bellavista. Or, if you’re up to it, you can walk to the summit from the same point.
Cost CH$1300 per person.
Hours 1-8 p.m. Mon, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues-Sun

A weekend in Sorata

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About three and a half hours from La Paz, along a newly-paved road, there’s a valley. In that valley, about a thousand meters lower than La Paz, there’s a town. In that town there are several hotels, residenciales and hostals (as well as at least three Mexican-Pizzeria “Casa-del-Tourista” gringo restaurants).

We stayed in a quiet hotel down the hill from the main square, with pink walls, gold curtains and a checked blue duvet. Two big windows gave us lovely views of the surrounding greenery and farmers’ fields. We chose this place because it was the only one that answered the telephone when we rang (we thought we’d better book ahead even though it wasn’t high season, but we could have just rocked up and found a place straight off the bus from La Paz).

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We wandered along the market street which sold a bit of everything you might need; shoelaces, cakes, fake sports clothes, electric cables, coca leaves, toilet rolls, fried pork. We zig-zagged around the plaza, avoiding open man-holes, dug-up paving slabs and dogs. We ate in one of the gringo restaurants and had beer and a nice pizza with real slices of chorizo. Then we went to bed early.

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The next day we went walking. We joined a dirt road and followed it along the side of the valley. We saw cloud shadows dappling the bumpy landscape. We heard the river gushing below and the breeze rustling the leaves around us.

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We passed villages and were hailed by small boys. We watched little pigs snuffling the grass and a fuzzy donkey tied up next to a shiny red land rover. We were overtaken by taxis, cars and a big tour bus of Bolivians who waved to us out the window. We walked on and on and then we reached the caves.

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We climbed the steps to the entrance and the girl asked us if we wanted to go by foot or boat. We chose boat. We almost had to run to keep up with her as she descended quickly down the damp steps. Fluorescent lights dimly illuminated the path and we saw the cave open up and a dim shape down below. We stood at the water’s edge while she waded out and pulled the dim shape towards us. We climbed in and I felt pedals in front of me.

We pedaled forward on the plastic, toy-like boat and suddenly the water was much deeper. Even in the dark I could just make out the lake floor far beneath and I imagined bumping into the rocky sides and gushing water and sinking. I tried to take photos but the boat shook too much, or I shook too much. We turned around at the end of the long, thin lake because there was no where else to go. We got out and the bus load of Bolivians were all there watching us. They asked us to pose for a photo with them.

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Outside we bought meat sandwiches from the little shop and ate them with sugary sweet coka quina to restore our strength. We watched a man create a make-shift wrench to hold up his car while he changed a tyre. We tried to entice a family of skinny cats to play with us but they couldn’t be bought with anything but food and we didn’t want to give up our sandwiches for them.

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We threw our rubbish in a bin because the wind kept blowing it off our table and said bye to the shop lady. We walked back and saw the pigs again, snoring quietly in the grass. In our hotel we washed the dust and sun lotion off our bodies and out of our hair with orange soap and luke-warm water. We went to eat at a different gringo restaurant, figuring that we were on holiday and we could afford the extra money for a nice meal. The pizza was even better than at the first place.

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Stay: Hotel Santa Lucia, 50Bs pp per night, tel:02-213 206686
Transport: La Paz-Sorata bus 17-20Bs one way, leaving hourly from Cementerio area in La Paz
Extra Costs: large pizza 60-70Bs, American breakfast (toast, jam, eggs, tea, juice) 17Bs

Lake Titicaca: Peru

We took a two-day, one night homestay trip to the islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. The colours were spectacular; the greens and browns of the islands themselves contrasted with the blues of the lake and sky, whilst the islanders’ bright clothes stood out vividly. Just don’t go expecting to be the only tourist.

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20120923-094730.jpgDelicious lunch on Amantaní.

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20120923-094925.jpgOur homestay host (left).

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See a video of our trip to the islands.