The drive from Copacabana took us away from Lago Titicaca and alongside the magnificent Cordillera Real. I wasn’t expecting to come to the lip of a huge bowl after miles and miles of flat altiplano, but sure enough, a wide chasm opened up in the earth and there was La Paz, coughing up exhaust and thumping music, glittering and dusty.
Down we descended into the pit. I’ve heard so much about La Paz: good things and bad things. Would I like it?
Well, I did. In fact, I really liked La Paz. The center is nice and just exploding with activity. There are downsides: choking pollution, empty-eyed children forced to bang on a tambourine for change, and the outstretched hands of elderly people whose lives have been unimaginably hard. It breaks my heart seeing old people begging. On the other hand, there seems to be no shortage of enterprising young people, professionals, and families doing what you’d expect in any modern city: Engaging in flourishing commerce, going see movies, enjoying live music. There are clowns and acrobats in the squares and at street corners. There’s art, architecture, history, gastronomy, and plenty of opportunities to purchase artisan goods at reasonable prices.
But from the moment we arrived, we had one thing on our minds: trekking in the Cordillera Real, and we eventually decided on a variation of the Condoriri Trek (or Condoriri Circuit).
Planning a multi-day hike in Bolivia is not easy. Route maps are hard to come by. Ditto for books full of detailed, accurate instructions. And if you’re doing it independently, like we did, you’re going to have to know how to read a compass and topo maps. We ultimately managed to take instructions from a variety of sources and patch them together into something we could work with, but it took a few days.
So. After a few days of planning, we hopped in a hired car we booked through Travel Tracks, an agency whose office is located on Sagarnaga Street. Our driver was nice and arrived on time. He got us within a few kilometers of Tuni, a small village and the starting point for our outing, before his car completely died. After several failed attempts at starting it, he pointed us in the direction of a ridge, cross country, and told us that Laguna Tuni was just on the other side.
Little did we know that having no trail whatsoever to walk on was going to become a theme for the next 24 hours.
Sure enough, once we skirted a herd of horned, free-ranging cows and passed over the ridge, we saw Laguna Tuni (pictured above). We followed a gravel road around the lake to a manmade dam. From there, several faint tracks went off in similar but different directions and it wasn’t really clear which one to take. A local man, herding llamas, was willing to point us in the right direction. There wasn’t a trail, just open countryside. But what he said made sense. So we took off, hoping that once we went over the pass, we’d see Laguna Juri Khota on the other side.
Well, perhaps there is a trail somewhere. We didn’t see one! But finally, on the far side of a long, hilly pass, we spotted the Laguna below. We hiked down to the water, ate lunch, and started up again, our general direction being West. Oh, and I suppose it’s worth noting that there was a thin, faint trail to follow up the mountainside. Can you see it?
So yeah, the Cordillera is a pretty high place. We’re tramping around at between 4600 to 5100 meters all the time. I always find that my first day of a multi-day hike is the hardest. My lungs, my legs, my feet all seem dead set against my achieving a rhythm. I had a slight headache. I got a bit moody.
Adam, I’ll note, experienced a similar bout of altitude misery on the Quilcayhuanca Trek in Perú.
Climbing up from Laguna Juri Khota, wanting only to lay down and sleep, I hoped that once we got over the rise we’d be granted a rest on a long downhill section. It was somewhat soul-crushing to find out that the land opened up into a huge bowl with a faint trail heading up, indicating a slight (but definitive) uphill trudge to the true pass. Here I am. Looking happy about that. Clearly.
How to describe the landscape? Gorgeous, amazing, stunning? Not quite. Perhaps bleak, vast, lunar, and subtle. Yes, that will do. And it was really lovely, in its own special way.
Ah, the true pass. It’s all downhill from here.
A llama watches us as we descend.
We get to Laguna Sistaña and head up a third and final pass towards Laguna Ajwañi, shown below. It’s been a long and difficult day. We went over three passes and one pretty high ridge. We ate spaghetti, drank tea, and nibbled chocolate while we took stock of our situation. My headache and altitude fatigue had passed. I now felt tired in a more natural, nothing-that-eight-hours-of-sleep-won’t-fix way. We had covered quite a distance with little trail to follow, yet using our map, directions, and compass we experienced no problems finding our way.
Alright, said Mother Nature. If that was too easy for you, I’ll make things a little more interesting tomorrow.
And sure enough, the next morning, a thick fog enveloped everything. We couldn’t see far ahead, but we had a few things going for us to make it easy:
- We were retracing our steps from the day before.
- I have a compass and know how to use it.
- Chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
You can see the fog chasing us up this mountainside.
A familiar pass whilst being pelted with sleet. Fun times.
The weather continued to lift and fall, a combination of rain, sleet, snow, hail, and fog. We went down, down, down, then up, up, up. Here you can see Adam making his way through a herd of llamas and the faint trail we came down opposite.
So we passed Laguna Sistana again, and once we got to Laguna Juri Khota we diverged from the previous day’s path and began the Condoriri trek proper. The trail was somewhat more visible as we followed it around the left side of Laguna Juri Khota. Then some cairns started appearing, which really helped us find our way. We got to a smaller lagoon (not indicated on our map!) fed by a glacier which you can see below, right.
Following the cairns, we had one more pass to overcome. But this soon became some of the gnarliest trekking I’ve ever done. Parts were more akin to bouldering than anything else. But the difficult part didn’t last long, and we took it slow. Soon the slope became more easily trodden and the pass came into view.
We lost the trail descending to Laguna Chiar Khota and had to eyeball our way down. Finally, in the late afternoon, we joined several other groups of tents next to the lagoon. This site is a popular base camp for trekkers and climbers. We paid 10 Bs per person to the locals running the refugio and had access to clean, flowing water and basic bathrooms, which was nice.
Here’s our view with Nevado Condoriri off to the left.
And here’s the same view in the early morning! We certainly weren’t expecting to wake up to snow!
Look at our tent!
As the day progressed, the snow melted.
We had two passes to climb on our last day. Fog and sleet came and went.
After the second pass, we descended into a valley that, I’m sure, was beautiful. We couldn’t see it however, but for a blinding fog. We followed a visible trail and our instincts, which seemed to contradict our map entirely. Eventually, we found ourselves where we wanted to be and spent a wet, dreary evening just outside Chacapampa.
For those of you thinking of doing this trek without a guide, we’d highly recommend booking transport to pick you up. We received mixed reports of when and how many buses operated out of Chacapampa. In our experience, the bus comes once a day and early. We got to the bus stop at 8 AM and had already missed the bus. Thanks to a large tour group that took pity on us, we “hitched” a ride on a bus with plenty of open seats. Lucky us.
We stopped along the way at this miner’s cemetery, with the stark and lovely Huayna Potosi behind. We also passed some derelict mining villages, plus a few mines we heard were recently reopened after years of neglect. Sadly, this valley is very polluted and the land is streaked with unnatural contaminants. A “terrible beauty” to quote a certain poet I know.
So that was our trek! It was difficult, but really worthwhile.
Once we returned to La Paz, we showered and headed directly for Restaurante Jalaal, at the top of Sagarnaga Street. There we glutted ourselves on lamb, chicken, and beef kebabs, humus, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves, and falafel. Perhaps the best post-hike meal imaginable.
This hike, by the way, was a really big deal for us. It was one of the hardest we’ve ever attempted due to terrain, weather, altitude, and trail-finding challenges. But it was so worth it.
Next up is a totally new experience for me: the Bolivian Amazon. Stay tuned!