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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Travelblog SA#22: Salkantay Trek – Peru

19th-22nd October 2018

The Salkantay Trek is an alternative to the – now, not only very busy but exclusively expensive – Inca Trail. You do not pass by as many ruins along this road but you do get to traverse a wonderful variety of landscapes, including glacial mountains, lakes, cloud forests and even jungles, whilst on route to reach its penultimate highlight, Machu Picchu.

I decided on this occasion to treat myself and do it as a tour. It is possible to do this circuit independently – and I passed many along the way who were doing so – but, whilst I do enjoy the freedom of roaming alone and hiking at my own pace, carrying all of your own equipment and food for such a long journey can be hard work. Personally, if it is just three to four days, I will always choose to hike independently but, any more than that, and it starts to become questionable how much you are going to enjoy the experience.

Booking Salkantay as a tour also meant that I had Machu Picchu – with its entry fee, reservation for climbing the mountain, accommodation in Aguas Calientes, and the train ride out – all organised for me. It was also a great luxury to be able to carry just a light load of a few essential items each day and not have to worry about food or pitching my tent.

This is one of my last big expenses of this entire trip. When I embarked upon this journey back in June, I set myself a strict budget of $25 a day and I have managed to stick to it most of the time. I did put aside an extra allowance for things such as this, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon jungle and flying over the Nazca lines, but those extra funds are almost depleted now. Machu Picchu is supposed to be one of the biggest highlights of South America, and I wanted to make sure that the week I saw it was special.

 

Day 1

I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco by Simba, who would be my guide for the next five days. I and the nine people I would be sharing this journey with got into a van and dozed for the first couple of hours as we were driven to Challacancha. It was the early hours of the morning and still dark. By the time the sun came up we made a brief stop in a village to have breakfast and started getting to know each other better.

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After breakfast, we climbed back into the van and were driven for another hour. The road became rocky, and it wound through a series of steep mountains until it finally reached the beginning of the trail where we were dropped off.

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We didn’t have too far to walk that first morning. We saw lots of butterflies and Simba explained to us that they were currently in season. He also stopped us a few times to tell us about some of the plants and trees we passed and gave us all some cocoa to chew on to help us acclimatise.

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By lunchtime, we arrived at ‘Skycamp’ – located in a village called Soraypampa – where we were assigned the domes we would be sleeping in that night.

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It was partly because of the accommodation that I chose this company. Each night of the journey, you stay in a different style of shelter, and this first evening was a particularly novel one.

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After lunch, I went to my dome for a brief siesta but I was woken by a crack of thunder. A storm had entered the valley. It was awesome to listen to the rain hammering against the glass above me, but I was also very aware that I was soon to be hiking again.

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Luckily the weather calmed down a little by the time we all met outside to begin our walk up to Humantay Lake. It was still raining a little – and windy too – but manageably so, and the foggy air conjured an eerie ambience.

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By the time we reached the lake the mist had cleared. I and a few of the others climbed up a nearby ridge to get a better vantage point. It was worth the journey but, while enjoying the view, we glimpsed another wave of black clouds looming towards us and decided it would be wise to return to Skycamp.

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After dinner, I got to watch the storm play out from within my dome again, which was awesome, but it would have been even better if the sky cleared for a while so I could see the stars. You can’t have it all, I guess.

 

Day 2

Simba woke me up at 5am by bringing a hot cup of cocoa tea. I drank it down, got ready, and then, after a quick breakfast, we set off. We were crossing the Salkantay Pass that day, reaching the trek’s highest point at 4,630 meters.

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The ascent was actually easier than I anticipated – although, all the cocoa Simba kept giving us probably helped. Within three hours, we reached the top and then it was all downhill from there, through a grassy, rocky valley which reminded me of Narnia (or at least what I imagine it to be like).

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We had lunch in a hamlet lodge along the way and then plunged into a terrain of cloud forests, reaching Chaullay – a picturesque village, surrounded by green, towering peaks and waterfalls – by mid-afternoon. We were staying in small, Andean-style huts that night and the air was considerably warmer. There was the option to have a warm shower and even access wifi there, for a small fee, but I decided to give it another day before I resorted to such luxuries.

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Day 3

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Of all days, this was the easiest of the trek. We were all acclimatised at a much higher elevation so wandering these lower elevations was easy. The air was still cool enough for the walk to be a comfortable temperature and most of the terrain was flat. We were following a path which snaked along a river, heading deeper into the Sacred Valley, and saw lots of orchids.

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We reached Sahuayaco around lunchtime, and the rest of the day was free to our own leisure. Everyone else went for a trip to some hot springs which were about an hour’s ride away, but I was also feeling a little introverted that afternoon and it was beyond my budget so I chose to have a few hours to myself. I sat in the camp and read a book. There were lots of interesting birds in the trees.

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Day 4

This was my favourite day of the entire trek, but it was also the most arduous and long. We were at 2000 meters altitude now, so the air was considerably hotter. We were also walking upon an actual Inca road.

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We climbed up a mountain, rising seven hundred meters in just a couple of hours. It was foggy, at first, but when we reached the top the mist began to clear. We rested for a while at a viewpoint which had a sky swing (video here). The views were fantastic.

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The highlight of the day was reaching an old Inca site called Llactapata. It was a mysterious place. They don’t know all too much about it, but it is situated on a bluff facing Machu Picchu. Its main building appears to be ceremonial and has two large chambers with a series of alcoves in the walls – which in most other Inca sites are used for the placing of offerings. I noticed that its arched entrance has a water duct pointing directly towards Machu Picchu.

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We caught views of the hydroelectric plant on our way back down into the valley. It isn’t a natural waterfall, but it is still very beautiful. I have a video of it here.

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For the last couple of hours of the day, we were walking along the side of the train tracks which run to Aguas Calientes. It was a little strange. It felt like we were on a pilgrimage because we passed hundreds of people along the way, all either on their way to Machu Picchu or back out. Every now and then a train would pass us and we would have to move aside. Most of the seats in the carriages were empty. It is one of those bizarre anomalies of capitalism. Hundreds of people walk this route every day, while mostly-empty trains roll past, and dozens of little restaurants have been set up along the side tracks to refresh those taking this long walk. An entire micro-culture and economy has evolved from of an adamantly over-priced train system which refuses to adapt.

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We reached Aguas Calientes by the mid-afternoon. It was here that we reached the end of the Salkantay Trek. That night, we were staying in a hotel with real beds and hot showers. In the morning, we were going to see Machu Picchu.

 

For more photos from the Salkantay Trek, click here.

Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

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You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

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Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

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There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

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They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

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Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

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Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

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Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

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Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

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Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

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All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

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The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

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When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

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It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

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A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

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It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

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The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.