Bolivia's best-kept secret: the Cordillera Real
Former tour guide and inveterate independent traveller Beau Macksoud extols the virtues of Bolivia as a little-known destination for trekkers as he shares his experience of trekking the accessible but world-beating El Choro trek, starting at La Cumbre in the Cordillera Real.
Machu Picchu, Torres del Paine, Cordillera Blanca, the Lost City, and a few other routes besides: these are what a typical backpacker’s conversation will revolve around in the vast, breath-taking continent of South America. The Andes are otherworldly, but after completing a couple of jaw-dropping routes in Bolivia, I’m left wondering why hiking here doesn’t receive its fair share of attention. Talk to your average traveller in Bolivia and chances are they are coming from or going to the stunningly expansive Salt Flats, while outside La Paz cycling the breathtaking downhill route known as ‘El Camine de la Muerte’ – or ‘Death Road’ – seems to appear on everyone’s to-do list.
Meanwhile the Cordillera Real, which lies just outside La Paz in northern Bolivia, is almost completely overlooked and certainly underestimated. Many routes here deserve to be hiked, and you deserve to hike them. This mountain range measures about 160km by 20km, containing six peaks over 6000 metres and hundreds more above 5000 metres. Some are easy to summit, while others are very technical and for professionals climbers only. Some are hard to navigate and require a local guide, while others can be done solo. ‘El Choro’ is an easy to follow pre-Hispanic route for which no guide is necessary, and which should ideally take three days.
I heard about this route from a friend who has hiked everywhere, from Patagonia to Alaska and from the Himalayas to the Alps to New Zealand. He has done more than a few lifetimes’ worth of treks and says that this region is his favourite in the world, thanks to the views, the diversity of hikes and landscapes, the lack of crowds and tourism, the local people and culture and the low prices. With this in mind, and especially his recommending the El Choro trek, I asked a lot of questions and then did a little shopping around La Paz. There are great outdoor shops selling absolutely everything you’ll need. There are also plenty of places to rent good gear, such as sleeping bags, tents and stoves. I’d also strongly recommend a more detailed map of any area you may be considering trekking in. Just ask around for the best one. After packing up my gear and supplies I headed up to La Cumbre at the start of the El Choro trail.
I left La Paz on a typically warm, sunny day: the rainy season had just passed and the region was entering its best trekking months, May to September. This is Bolivia’s winter, and higher elevations get chilly at night, but in the day the sky is blue and the sun is out, making this the time to go. From the city centre I caught a bus to Villa Fatima. These frequently pass Calle Sucre and a few other streets (your hotel should know), cost 1.5 Bolivianos (about a quarter in US currency) and take about 15 or 20 mins. Once there, ask for a bus to Coroico and make sure you specify that you want to get off to La Cumbre. The price is either 20 or 30 Bolivianos ($3 or $4.25).
You should be there after a 45min journey that takes you up about 1000 metres in elevation. You’ll notice the temperature drop right away: La Cumbre sits at 4643 metres.
Cross the street to the small and informal ranger’s station. You don’t pay here, but you must sign in. They’ll offer maps of the route but without any heights, which is why I’d strongly recommend buying a more detailed map in advance in La Paz.
Exit the ranger’s station and you’ll see a sign with some statistics: walk straight on. This is the only part of the trail where you’re likely to go wrong. Follow the road straight up. You will see ‘motos’ written on a rock in white paint with an arrow. You can follow this road until you reach the top. You’ll know when you get there: with the lake behind and below you and surrounding peaks in every direction, it feels as if you’re on the moon. Remember to breathe deeply and steadily to help you adjust to the altitude, and make sure you keep to the path as it can be foggy.
From the start it is about 1hr to the top, from where you’ll see the Apacheta Chucura on your left. This big pile of rocks and bricks signifies the start of the downhill portion of the trail. From here walk left as the way becomes obvious. It will be almost impossible to lose yourself from this point on – especially if you pay attention to the detailed map you bought – as there is a big rock wall on your left and a huge cliff on your right for the next couple of hours. The descent is remarkable. This trail drops 3600 metres in about 53km, but I personally didn’t find it uncomfortably steep or unsafe, although hiking poles will help. This first part is the steepest on the route but the trail is clear, the footing easy and the views are exceedingly photogenic. You will pass the ancient Inca ruins of Tambo Lama Khuchu and arrive at Estancia Samaña Pampa in about 2hrs. If you want to stop here but don’t fancy pitching your tent there is one shared room available beside a small store run by a husband and wife team.
You can also camp on flat land with stunning mountain views behind you. Be aware that it can be on the cold side at night as you are still at 3700 metres.
You may have time and energy to carry on to Challapampa, another 3hr walk. This is the largest pueblo (village) you’ll pass on the entire route consisting of about 20 small houses and their families. It’s also where you will pay the small (20 Bolivianos) entrance fee and sign another register. I’m not quite sure where this money goes, as the man that helped me only spoke Aymara, but I hope it goes to help out with trail maintenance or in the small town itself, where is a small school but no shops. After signing the register, it’s 20mins to the actual camp. There are a few beautiful spots that overlook a stream and some truly majestic mountains on all sides. For astronomers, the night skies are unbeatable.
The next morning you will have a 2–3hr downhill walk to Choro. Although I didn’t camp there it looked a great place to set up for a night, the river in the background providing a soundtrack to fall asleep to. I stopped there for an hour to take in the surroundings.
The route follows a decent uphill grade over the next section, and the weather becomes warmer. I soon realised the importance of staying hydrated. I passed a few more camps and headed up to Bella Vista, conquering another good climb on the way. The name, ‘beautiful view’, is fitting and there is a good flat area for camping. The family that lives there is lovely and I would have stayed except that the mosquitos were out in full force, so I decided to continue 2hrs to San Francisco camp. Here there are two camping areas, which both provide tranquillity and outstanding views. You are also allowed to make a fire to fall asleep beside.
In the morning I had a 5hr walk to El Chairo, the end of the trek. At one point I passed a huge waterfall. After another 1km I reached the other side of the mountain and the views of the waterfall from there were even more impressive, much bigger than I thought! To put it in perspective, there was a group of five people in the picture but the waterfall is so big that they can’t be seen.
Walking further I passed Sandillani, which is famous for a Japanese man who lived there for over 40 years. He has recently passed on, but the gardens in this place were beautiful and it seemed to be the most developed of many of the camps I passed along the route, with decent dorms and an adequate camping area. There was no one there when I passed, but it would be open during high season.
The last stretch was the descent towards El Chairo. It’s a small town with small shops and tiny restaurants. If you arrive late there aren’t official hotels, but one of the ladies in a kiosk will most likely offer you a bed in someone’s home. If you are with a group, or there are other people going too, you can head back to La Paz, or head up to Coroico. If you want to keep walking, it is about 17km to Yolosita. Along roads through other small villages you will pass many orange plantations, as well as other fruit and coffee trees. At Yolosita, there are frequent buses that head up to Coroico for 5 Bolivianos, or back to La Paz for 30.
I highly recommend a night or two in Coroico. It’s a peaceful, charming little Bolivian town that’s truly ‘off the map’. There are comfortable, inexpensive rooms and it’s a great place to clean up, sleep soundly and relax after a few rough days on the trail. There are some good day routes from here, and there is regular transport back to La Paz. When you do head back, your minibus will head up the infamous ‘Camino de la Muerte’ or Death Road’. You will see a slew of bikers passing, and views similar to those of the past three or four days.
Overall this is one of my favourite routes. In terms of views, El Choro runs parallel to the ‘Death Road’, meaning you get very similar views but without the sense of flying a bicycle down a road without guard rails. Not once did I feel in danger.
In terms of landscape and terrain this may very well be the most diverse route I’ve ever travelled. The reason for this is that it starts at 4680 metres and, over the course of 53km climbs to 4850 before finishing at 1260 metres. You may be chilly, and experience some altitude sickness, when setting off, but by the end you’ll feel as if you’re walking through tropical jungle. It’s not just the change in temperature that will astound you, but the changes that these temperature variations bring. No plant growth can survive in the harsh environs of the start, but as the trail descends it passes a rich variety of plant life because of the changes in habitat.
Also, there aren’t many tourists on these routes. On El Choro, over the course of my three days, I met a German couple and a group of five Bolivians doing the same route. In July and August you will see a bigger crowd, but probably not much.
And because of the lack of tourists you will have fantastic opportunities to interact with the locals, who are extremely friendly. Each camp has at least one family living there, and as trekkers are the only company that will pass through they tend to be very curious and open. Be aware that not much English is spoken and some of the older folks I met only spoke Aymara, the most common indigenous language in the region surrounding La Paz. It’s worth learning the basics, such as ‘Hello’ (‘Kamisaraki’) and ‘Thank you’ (‘Yaspagara’).
Lastly, the prices. The entire country is cheap, and this route is no exception. The only items that are ‘overpriced’ are the small supplies that they sell in the kiosks at each camp, and this is understandable, as everything must be carried in. If you don’t trust the stream water, or don’t carry water purification tablets, a 2.5 litre bottle of water will cost about 20 Bolivianos. A can of tuna will be about 15. Some places sell chocolate, little snacks and even cans of beer (20 Bolivianos). A 650ml bottle of Paceña (the local beer, and also the word for a person from La Paz) will be about 30. The one thing to note is that there is no guarantee of supplies anywhere, so carry what you need so that you only need to buy things in case of emergency. Additionally, some camps will provide a very basic dinner (normally eggs and potatoes) if you really don’t feel like cooking at night, but don’t depend on it.
All in all El Choro is one of the best routes I’ve done in all of my South American travels. We’d love to hear your experiences of the Cordillera Real.
Top tips for the trail
In La Paz, try and shop with your big bills and hoard the smaller ones. On the trail, the camps and small stores won’t have much small change.
Buy a big, big bag of coca leaves and some lejía (the natural sweetener for the coca) before you leave La Paz to offer the people along the way. They love it and it is sometimes difficult for them to get. Offering a handful is a very quick way to make good friends.
Don’t set off on the trail alone. Between camps absolutely no help is available.
Take cold weather gear for the start of the trail (there may be a snow or hail storm) and warm weather clothing for the middle to end. Also, don’t forget insect repellent and sunscreen. The sun is strong and the mosquitos may be plentiful.
Watch where you’re walking and don’t walk while taking pictures. Along with the views come dropoffs which could easily be fatal.