High Times on Bolivia’s Cordillera Real Trek: Part 1

May 23rd – June 2nd, 2016

Months before arriving in La Paz I had seen on Facebook that my friend Rachel was planning on heading to Bolivia in May and was wondering if anyone would be down for some trekking in the area then. I fired back a quick response saying that just might line up with my own trip, and left it on the back burner. Later Darren decided to join me for 2 months in South America. Rachel is a mutual friend of ours, and so it was that our group of three came together in La Paz. It was Rachel’s idea to do the Cordillera Real trek. A little research revealed it was a 10-14 day epic along the length of the 125 km long Cordillera Real Range. Neither of us had ever done an unsupported trek that long before, and we were game to try it.

We met up at the Cactus Hostel where Darren had stayed before. For those planning a visit to La Paz, I recommend staying somewhere else. It’s cheap, but the kitchen has nothing in it, there are no plugs, hot water is a lie, and most of all the staff are jerks. We spent a few days in La Paz preparing for the trek. Rachel had been connected with Jeff at Climbing South America through some mutual friends. He was very kind and provided us with a wealth of information about the route and good campsites, even marking them on the map for us.

From La Paz, we took the bus to Sorata. We were delayed for a few hours due to protests blocking all traffic through Al Alto, a poor and much neglected city located above La Paz. Driving through El Alto at dusk was foreboding thanks to burning tires spitting up black smoke next to the road and roadblocks presumably left over from the protests. In true Bolivian fashion, the driver circumnavigated all of it and gunned the van ahead like a madman. Eventually all the windows fogged over, and the only way to see out was through the small space in the windshield kept clear by regular swipes of the drivers arm. It was a hellish 3-hour ride, spent getting tossed around on winding roads in an effectively opaque box.

In Sorata we stayed at Hostel Mirador. Not the cheapest option, but it offered spectacular views from the terrace where we rationed out food in the morning. The hotel owner exclaimed that we didn’t have nearly enough food. We considered this briefly, but figured we were good and went about with our preparation.

It is possible to start trekking directly from Sorata, but in order to avoid a massive mining road slog we took a taxi from the main square of Sorata. This cost 200 Bolivianos and was less than a third of what a guide at the hostel offered to charge us for transportation. The ride proved to be good value, as the little mining road seemed to go on climbing forever.

After being dropped off just above the settlement of Ancohuma we munched empanadas hurriedly bought in the main square that morning before proceeding to climb our first pass, Paso Korahuasi (4400m). My pack felt heavy, and soon my legs were burning. The first day of backpacking is always the most uncomfortable as you adjust to the weight of your pack. 10 days is close to the limit of what one can practically carry food for without resupplying somewhere, so our packs were definitely heavy. The Cordillera Real trek is also mostly above 4000m elevation, so we were feeling the altitude as well. Coming over the pass was the most beautiful part. As we dropped into the next valley clouds surged in and out like accelerated ocean tides. We camped in a large flat valley bottom before the mining town of Cocoyo in the company of pigs and alpacas. The first days of the trek take you alongside some of the Cordillera Real’s highest and most spectacular peaks, but unfortunately you almost never see them because smaller mountains in between block the view. As a result the first few days are nice, but not spectacular.

On Day 2 we hiked through Cocoyo and over Paso Sarani (4500m). Over the other side we encountered a dog that seemed to have been spat straight out of hell. I have never seen such an aggressive and threatening animal before. We kept it at bay by throwing rocks and kept moving. It followed us a ways down the valley but kept its distance. Eventually the barking faded away and we descended into the next valley where we found a beautiful campsite on a dry spot in a wetland next to a meandering creek. Once again we shared the space with Llamas and Alpacas.

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Darren and Rachel were both anticipating day 3 to be “hump day”. We would be climbing Paso Negruni. At 4900m it was our highest pass yet. The ascent was a long one, made more difficult by the fact that we lost the trail and were forced to navigate a large boulder field in the valley bottom. It was starting to become clear that the hotel owner might not have been completely wrong about our food rationing. Our lunches were too small, and we didn’t want to cut into our extra food so early in the trek. On a break a third of the way up the pass Darren was feeling light headed and clearly bonking. A bad sign as he is normally an inexhaustible trekking machine. We all struggled that day with not enough fuel in the tank, but we made the pass and were rewarded with some of the first really spectacular views of the trek. On the other side of the pass we dropped down into beautiful alpine meadows surrounded by glaciated peaks. We made camp near the bottom of the hanging valley next to a beautiful lake. It was one of the coldest nights on the trek and none of us got much sleep. My -3 bag + over bag combination was not cutting it, and I could only imagine how Darren felt next to me in the same -3 bag, but with no over bag. There weren’t really any warm nights for us on the Cordillera Real.

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One handy advantage of Darren’s super-light floor-less pyramid shelter is that you can cook inside, so it became our routine to make breakfast in the tent and then huddle in our bags until the sun’s warming rays finally reached us. I woke up early the next morning to a landscape covered in frost, and fired up the stove for breakfast. Unfortunately, that day we were deep in the valley’s shadow and didn’t see sun until we hiked to the other side. Day 4 was a shorter one. We needed a break as our lack of food was starting to wear us down. We hiked down to the settlement of Palca before climbing up our next valley toward Paso Portero. Here we found a farmer who pretty much saved the trek by selling us a kilogram of potatoes. We immediately found a spot in the lee and cooked up a big filling lunch. Feeling rejuvenated we ascended a few more kilometers up the valley and camped in another beautiful spot, next to another incomprehensibly azul meandering creak, this time in the company of a heard of sheep.

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I think day 4 was our true hump day. The next morning we kicked the day off with an abrupt 500m climb to small lake described as “magical” in the 20-year-old guidebook Darren had. It was amazing the difference it made to have eaten well the day before; it felt like we practically ran up the hill. Apparently Darren was so invigorated that he managed to catch a mouse by the tail.

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The lake was indeed quite magical, and we stopped there for our daily and always much anticipated triple threat instant coffee break. From there it was an easy walk over Paso Portero followed by a pleasant descent into the next valley where we took a long break. Our pace was becoming more and more leisurely. We climbed on a road to 4550m and made our highest elevation camp in a picture perfect spot, tucked between some boulders and the requisite glacier blue meandering creak. It was high time for a wash, and we took frigid but refreshing dips in the glacial water.

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Stay tuned for more stories and pictures from crossing to the west side of the range and continuing south towards Huayna Potosi in part 2!

T

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