Trekking the Santa Cruz circuit

The Santa Cruz trek is, literally, breathtaking. With the highest point at 4,750m, the altitude left me a little breathless and very slow as I struggled uphill. Going downhill was fine, but the direction we trekked in (starting in Cashapampa) meant there was only one section that wasn’t an incline. I was constantly taking layers off and then putting them back on as the temperature fluctuated. At night I alternated between sleeping like a log and shivering wakefulness. It was all totally worth it though.

Samaipata

We spent a week in Samaipata. It wasn’t on our list of places to visit, but boy are we glad we did. It’s a nice little village just to hang out in. The climate is gorgeous, the scenery really beautiful and the tourist infrastructure surprisingly well-developed for Bolivia.

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How to spend a week in Samaipata.

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.

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

Hiking la Muela del Diablo

The Devil’s Tooth.

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3,825m above sea level, this rocky outcrop overlooks La Paz to the North-West, Zona Sur to its North and Mallasa (and the Valle de la Luna) to its South-West.

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From Jupapina, we shared a taxi ride with some of the other Up Close Bolivia volunteers, to the north face of the Muela (60 bolivianos). It was a little hair-raising at times (especially for the person riding in the boot of the taxi), because the roads ascending through the small villages were in poor condition and we frequently had to stop and reverse along bumpy dirt tracks.

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At the final village we got out, thanked our driver for not killing us and began walking towards the Muela.

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It was a perfect day for hiking. Clouds studded the sky giving us a little shelter from the sun and insulating us against cold wind. Snow had recently fallen on the peaks of the Cordillera Real highlighting them in the distance. Far below we could see the Pigsty, the Bird House and the Green House where we all lived whilst volunteering.

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It looked as if we could just walk straight across the valley to them. But we soon realised how deceiving the landscape was once we started hiking east along the ridgeline – it took us about three hours before we found a place to descend, and another hour to reach the valley floor. By this point we had passed Jupapina long before and had to walk along the road in the dark (armed with stones to scare away dogs). We finally got a ride back along the road to get home and just made it in time for the tea and cakes being prepared for us.

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Getting to the Muela is easy: a taxi will get you the closest, or for a cheaper option take a minibus heading to Los Pinos from Zona Sur and walk the rest of the way up (40mins to 1 hour walk). You can either ask your taxi driver to wait (extra charge of course) or walk back down through the villages to Zona Sur.

If you choose to hike along the ridgeline, take plenty of water, snacks and sun/wind protection because there is nothing along the way until you reach the valley bottom. There are no signs to show the route but the path is fairly clear. At two different points you will come to a barbed wire fence: climb over and continue (it’s meant for cattle not people). After the second fence (see picture above) begin descending, taking particular care as some sections of the path may have been damaged by landslides after rain.

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Make sure you have enough time to complete the hike! You don’t want to get stuck out here after dark. Plus the last minibus back to La Paz leaves at about 6:30pm, and it will likely be very crowded.

For a well-planned day out, I suggest going in the morning, eating a packed lunch at the Muela or along the ridgeline somewhere and then getting dinner on the outdoor terrace of the duck restaurant down in the valley. If you’re too late to get a bus home you can call a taxi from the restaurant to take you back to La Paz.

Bariloche

Bariloche is beautiful. It’s also very touristy. You can cycle along country roads, kayak in clear lakes, hike woodland trails and have your fill of craft beers and Swiss chocolates. You can also laze on shorelines and watch pumice floating on the water or catch a cable car up to a viewpoint to avoid the dusty volcanic ash on the roads.

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We stayed at Green House Hostel, easily one of our favourite hostels in South America, for it’s quiet location closer to hikes, super communal spaces and friendly cat.