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.

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.

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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