Travelblog SA#30: Torotoro – Bolivia

19th-22nd November 2018

I deviated from my plans this week, and I believe it was a good choice.

Originally, I was supposed to be spending more time in the mountains around La Paz. Hike the Takesi trail, spend some time in Chulumani , and maybe even do what most backpackers seem to be doing these days and cycle down the infamous ‘Death Road’, but my slight disappointment with the El Choro trail made me realise that maybe I was in Bolivia at the wrong time of year for such activities because of the weather. Having lived half of my life in Wales, I am not shy when it comes to a little rain, but getting that wet isn’t worth it with the mist swirling around the Andes at the moment obscuring its views.

I began to look into other options. I needed to be in Cochabamba for an ayahuasca ceremony soon so I read up on that area. A place called Torotoro National Park caught my attention. Not only is it home to canyons, caves, waterfalls, and even prehistoric dinosaur footprints, but there also happened to be a festival going on.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I was pretty tired when I arrived. Getting there involved an overnight bus from La Paz to Cochabamba followed by a walk through the pouring rain to reach the stand where the colectivos for Torotoro left. I was crammed into a minivan with several others and it was a bumpy ride. Although less than a hundred kilometres away, the journey took over five hours.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Shortly after I arrived, I called into the ranger’s office and they told me if I turned up early the next morning and they would match me with a group for a tour of the park. There were still some hours of daylight left and there was a mirador only an hour’s walk away on maps.me so I decided to check that out.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

About halfway there, I came across a barrier and a woman in uniform came out to ask me where I was heading. It turned out that I was about to enter a restricted area of the park for which you need have paid the entrance fee (something I had not done yet) and have a guide. I explained to her that I was due to go out on a tour to see the caves the next morning and was just following something I noticed on my GPS.

While we were talking, a Bolivian couple with a guide arrived and the ranger was eventually lenient allowed me to tag along with them. I hopped onto the back of the guide’s bike and we headed into the park.

4.JPG

I am glad I got to have had a guide for this part because it was an enlightening experience. We walked along some of the riverbanks and he showed us dinosaur footprints. Some of many I would see over the next couple of days.

6.JPG

There were some other interesting geological formations along the trail, including a natural stone bridge.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

A huge boulder which, over the years, has been split apart by a tree.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

But the highlight was when we reached the mirador of the canyon.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There was another great viewpoint of the canyon a few minutes later too, and we even spotted a group of bright green parakeets.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The following day, I turned up early at the registry office and they put me with a group of French and Spanish people for an eight-hour tour of Cueva Humajalanta and Ciudad de Ita.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I was a little apprehensive about Cueva Humajalanta. I haven’t done any intermediate-level caving for a while. It is something which I do not do very often because I have moderate claustrophobia.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Most of it was fine though. I have a video here of the worst bit – where I did need some encouragement but I did manage to get through it in the end. It was a two-hour journey through all the chambers and we passed lots of caverns, underground rivers and even a waterfall.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Ciudad de Ita, like its name (‘City of Rocks’), was a metropolis of crazy rock formations, with stunning views of the park’s landscape the entire way.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There were also cave paintings, which our guide informed us were over three thousand years old.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

And towards the end, we came across a pair of local musicians filming a music video. They asked the French girl to sit down with them for a while as the song was about a ‘Gringita’. I have videos here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

By the time we returned to Torotoro town I was very tired but I it was the beginning of their festival that evening so I forced myself to power on through. It was to commemorate the town’s inception 135 years ago. As evening began to set in, I went to the plaza and waited.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

To be honest, this first night to the two-day festival was not too spectacular when compared to Puno Festival (which I went to just a few weeks before and had lots of colourful costumes and dancing). People simply marched in groups, representing the different industries of Torotoro. The tour guides, bus drivers, taxi drivers, farmers, and so on. At one point, fireworks started (which I caught a video of here).

Although it was quite basic, I did enjoy the atmosphere. It was intimate, honest, and I felt very privileged to be there, witnessing this moment of community pride.

For me, the heart and soul of the party that night were a group of men playing harmonicas and drums and looking like they have chewed on far too much cocoa but loving life (videos here).

The following day was a festival too, so I lingered in the town for another day. I was tired and the cold I caught while on the El Choro trek had gone to my chest, so spent the day relaxing in my hostel. I occasionally ventured outside to see what was happening. There was a bit of activity in the streets and preparations were being made. I asked some people what time the day’s events started, and one person told me midday and another said 3pm. I went back to my room, eventually hearing a brass band at 11:30. I rushed outside and there was a parade going on. I followed it to the plaza, but there was no costumes, dancing or anything too interesting going on. It seemed to be just a repeat of the previous day, with people merely marching.

I began to think that maybe this day was going to be a write-off, but then at 6pm I heard sounds again and rushed outside, finally seeing the sort of festival I came here for – filled with music, costumes, dancing and everything (I have videos of the highlights here, but there are a lot more in the full album which is linked below).

SAM_2850_Moment.jpg

For a place which wasn’t even on my original itinerary, I am very glad I came to Torotoro. Not only did I get to see a unique landscape which I had never seen anything like before but I got to witness village life and a festival.

 

I have more photos of the national park and also plenty of videos from the festival here.

Travelblog SA#29: El Choro Trek – Bolivia

13th-15th November 2018

Dropped off by the shore of Laguna Strellani with a backpack full of camping gear and all the food I will need to eat for the next few days, I was at the beginning of the El Choro trek.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After passing through a car park full of tour groups getting their bikes ready to ride down the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, I reached the ranger station where I signed in. I noticed that there didn’t seem to be too many other entries in the book in recent days. I had heard this was a popular hike, but Bolivia does receive significantly fewer visitors than Peru and we were entering the low season.

I began upon the trail, looking forward to the idea that this was a walk where I would get to experience some solitude.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

At around 4,500 meters altitude, the air was thin and I was rather breathless on my way up the pass. Once there, I was engulfed by clouds, totally obscuring – what I guess to be – the amazing views at the top, but I guess you can’t always win them all.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

From the pass, the trail snaked down into the valley. Eventually, I reached a green meadow where there were some old ruins and a woman was herding llamas. She was the first person I had seen for a couple of hours and I didn’t see anyone else until over an hour later when I reached the tiny village of Chucura, which was the next checkpoint. A man got me to sign my name in his book.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I arrived at Challapampa at around 3pm. The owner of the campsite wasn’t there, but visitors still had access to water and the squat toilet. There were three French guys in the process of setting up their tents. We didn’t speak too much that first evening because I was tired and after making myself a dinner of soup I went straight to my tent to sleep, but I would spend the next couple of days living in their shadow. They were three, and thus sharing the burden of carrying all the gear as well as tasks such as pitching, packing and cooking, whereas I was doing all this alone. They were always a little ahead of me but, because we began the same day and had similar stamina, we ended up staying in the same places.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Shortly into the next morning, I experienced problems along the trail. The whole trek isn’t very well marked but most of the time it doesn’t matter because there is only one way you can go anyway.

When I reached the part known as ‘El Choro’, at first I walked all the way up to a series of huts up the hill. Like most of the dwellings along the trail, they were empty – with it being the rainy season – but I realised I had reached a dead end so I had to turn back. Maps.me seemed to be indicating that the trail was along the bank of the river so I ventured there, clambering along rocks because there didn’t seem to be a defined trail.

I could see on the app that there was a bridge around the corner though. Except that when I reached that location I merely found the remains of one which had collapsed.

This wasn’t a new situation to me. This kind of thing happens a lot in South America, a region of the world which is prone to earthquakes and landslides, and usually, if a new bridge has not been built yet there will be a detour to reach an alternative bridge. I spent the next hour walking back and forth, clambering around banks, venturing back up to the huts in El Choro and even backtracking along the trail for a while because I was convinced I must have missed something, but eventually I realised that I had no other choice but to take off my shoes and try to wade across the river. And pray that there was a trail somewhere on the other side (because I couldn’t visually see one).

I am not being dramatic in saying that it was dangerous. I was almost waist deep, it was a fast running river and the rocks beneath were slippery and I couldn’t see them properly. At one point I almost slipped and I was very conscious of the fact that I was alone and that if something happened to me there would be nobody to help or even know about it.

I did make it to the other side though, but some of my things got wet along the way. After putting my shoes back on, I clambered around a few different parts of the bank and eventually found a way back onto the trail.

I am very disappointed with the people in charge of this trek for this very irresponsible behaviour though. I went through two checkpoints and neither of the people there told me anything about it. Forewarning me would have not only saved me a very frustrating hour of my life but, more importantly, it is dangerous to have no indication of how to rejoin a trail again once it is broken. When people are lost they end up wasting time they may not have the food supplies for and climbing places they shouldn’t be.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The trail went a little uphill after that, through the cloud forest. I encountered another broken bridge an hour later. This time they had improvised a somewhat haphazard replacement but I think that it would have actually been safer to wade this one too, to be honest. When I crossed it the logs were twitching beneath my feet and at one point one of them swerved a little. Someone is going to have an accident on it one day, but luckily it wasn’t me.

6.JPG

I reached San Francisco by mid-afternoon and it was one of the few campsites where the owner was actually present, but I decided to carry on a couple of hours longer to Bella Vista as there was still some daylight left.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

When I reached the Bella Vista the three French guys were there and had already set up their tent. I was feeling in a more social mood that evening so I chatted to them more. They had experienced confusion when they reached that river too but, with there being three of them, crossing it was a bit easier.

9.JPG

The third morning I heard thunder as I was packing away my tent and by the time I was on the trail, it began to rain. With it mostly being downhill that day I managed to keep up with the French guys for most of that day. We passed Sandillani, the final campsite of the trail, an hour in and met a Swiss couple who had spent the night there. Of all the campsites, Sandillani was the most beautiful – it had a garden overlooking the valley and lots of little cabins which used to serve several purposes – but it was also a sad place because the Japanese man who built it and lived there for fifty years recently died and the place has begun to fall into disrepair.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

It began to rain heavier, so the French guys and I made our way. I put my cover over my backpack but didn’t put my raincoat on as it was fairly warm and I had not showered for a few days so I would prefer to be wet and refreshed than sweaty and clammy.

I didn’t get to take any photos for the rest of that day because my camera was stored safely within my backpack. It was pouring with rain and the views were obscured by clouds anyway. We made good progress, reaching Chairo before lunch.

Chairo is connected to a road but still quite far away from any public transport system, so we talked a man there who owned a minivan and negotiated a price to be taken to Coroico.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Overall, I have to admit that El Choro was not my favourite trek I have done over the last few months, but I did miss a lot of the views because I was there at the wrong time of the year. It was certainly good for birdlife and seeing some of the cloud forests of the Yungas though.

 

For more photos, click here.

Travelblog SA#28: La Paz – Bolivia

9th-12th November 2018

La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world. Its official attitude sits at 3,600 meters, but in reality when you are here chances are you could be much higher than that, as it is perched within towering peaks. It’s airport, based in a district known as ‘El Alto’, is 4,100.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I will begin with the journey there from Copacabana. On the bus I often found my eyes drawn away from the book I was reading to the window as we circled the shore of the lake. At one point the bus began to sway and I was startled to see we were completely surrounded by water. The bus was floating upon a small vessel, being carried to the other side. From there, we ventured up into the mountains for a period of time until we crossed a threshold and were suddenly on a flat, desert-like plane which stretched for miles and miles with only the icy peaks of the Cordillera Real to be seen on the horizon.

As soon as you reach La Paz you are plunged into chaos. The bus crawls its way through unruly traffic on old roads full of potholes, but you are not overly upset about it because it is a vibrant city with lots of street markets.  I even spotted a group of people praying by a small outdoor altar with burning incense.

I was tired the day I arrived and I had things to catch up with online. The wifi in La Paz was somewhat more functional than in Copacabana but still painfully slow. I was staying in a small B&B on the tenth floor of a tower block overlooking the centre. It was a cosy little place with a kitchen, bathroom, two private rooms and one dorm with just four beds. The lady who owned it was helpful and one of the other guys staying there I had met previously before in Ollantaytambo, so I felt at home.

The next morning I began exploring. I started with the sights near to the central plaza. The cathedral is a little empty and bare, but it is the nearby Iglesia San Franciso which is the real nucleus of religious life. I have noticed so far during my time in  Bolivia that, unlike Peru, all of its churches have been free to enter.

3.JPG

Next to the church there is a museum where you can wander some of the halls of the old Franciscan Monastery. To be honest, there isn’t a great amount to see in there, but the entry does come with a free tour and the guides are helpful and inform you of some of the area’s history.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I went to visit El Mercado de las Brujas (Witches Market). A place where one can buy all sorts of remedies, potions, herbs, and even some more gruesome ingredients such as llama foetuses from old ladies if you wish. It was interesting to browse for a while, but it seems the street is beginning to be taken over by travel agencies and stalls selling tat which is somewhat polluting the ambience.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I spent the rest of that day in museums. The Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore had a wonderful collection of ceremonial masks and examples of weaving, pottery, featherwork and all over affair from the different regions of Bolivia. It is a lovely way to spend an hour and soak up Bolivia’s wonderfully diverse culture, but I did come out of there feeling a little peeved that, despite them acknowledging their foreign visitors in a monetary way, by having a perfectly-translated list of rules and entry prices at reception and charging us four times the amount they do nationals, once you have bought your ticket, you discover that none of its displays has any information in English.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The Museo Nacional de Arte was technically closed that day because they had a temporary exhibition by contemporary artists from all over Latin America. This event was free entry and, once inside, I managed to see some of the museum’s permanent displays too because the doors were left open.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The next day I set off early in a crowded minivan to see Bolivia’s most important archaeological site, Tiwanaku.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Pre-dating the Incas by hundreds of years, the Tiwanaku people are one of the most interesting in all civilisations of South America. From their humble origins on the shores of Lake Titicaca, they managed to spread across a vast region encompassing parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, and what makes that even more of an enigma is that archaeological evidence suggests that this expansion was achieved peacefully with very little warfare.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This site was their nexus during the civilisation’s golden age. Its stones were carved from quarries in Lake Titicaca and hauled all the way up by a very early canal system. It is thought they chose this location, despite its harsh location, climate and lack of fertile soil, because the Tiwanaku were astronomers and it is situated upon a flat plane, allowing them to better observe the movements of the stars. Indeed, one of the pyramids they built – now not more than a mound surrounded by some vestigial walls – was thought to have had a pool on its roof for their holy men to see the night sky in its reflection, and there is also the Sun Gate which acted as a primitive calendar.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The Tiwanaku people did not meet their end through being conquered but experienced a long period of drought, during which their civilisation dwindled. The ones who survived retreated into little villages because life was so hard they no longer had the luxury to build monuments or map the universe. Tiwanaku was abandoned, but many of its people were swept up by the Incas and I don’t think there is much mystery – particularly when you see sights such as the nearby Puma Punku – as to whom they learned their master stone-crafting techniques from.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On the way back to La Paz, instead of being caught in all the traffic again I got off the bus and used one of its cable car systems to reach the centre. It was a wonderful way to see the cityscape, passing over all of its rugged peaks and outer neighbourhoods. I even got to see the famous market in El Alto, said to be one of the biggest in Latin America.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On my final day of exploring La Paz, I went for a little trip to Valle de la Luna which was just a short bus ride away and had some very interesting formations. It was a great way to spend my last morning before I prepared for the El Choro trek, which is what my next blog will be about.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

For more photos from La Paz, click here.