I´ve been on two hikes in Bolivia. The first was in a mountain range just out of Sucre. By South American standards this range is a baby in height and I stubbornly refused to get a guide, deciding that I could instead crack out my new-found ability with Spanish if I needed to ask for directions.
My ´bus´ to the start of the hike was quite an experience. It was a truck with high sides on the back and it gradually became jam-packed with people, produce, animals and much more. I was early so I got a good standing position leaning against the truck wall – those who came later literally had to hang off the sides. Some of those who did come later were 4 Israeli lads who were doing the same walk as me. After 2 hours we were dropped off and, after a bit of searching, found the entrance to the Inca path that we were looking for. On finding the path the first thing my new friends did was light a bong and get stoned – they said it aided the walking!
After following the incredible Inca path steeply into a valley below we came across our first township where this small dog started to follow us. At first we thought nothing of it, stray dogs are a dime a dozen here. However, after 2 hours he was still with us and when we came to a deep river crossing, the dog was carried across. So that was it, he was stuck with us and, full credit to the dog, he walked 18km a day for the next 2 days surviving on bananas and rice – it was all we had spare. A dog that eats bananas and rice?! I was amazed, English and Kiwi dogs are clearly spoilt rotten, they don´t know they´re born. We named the dog Shy because he was, clearly having had a few beatings in his time and because ´shy´ means ´gift´ in Hebrew. By the end of the trip we were all thoroughly attached to Shy and the Israelis decided to adopt him. They took him on the bus back to Sucre and last I heard they were going to give him a good scrub and take him on their South American trip north. He´d be a hit with the ladies I reckon, a cunning plan on the part of my friends.
I´m pretty pleased that I found the Israelis because their Spanish was a darn sight better than mine and we spent a huge amount of time on the second day getting lost. Much of the problem in the Andes is that there are no clear paths, just multiple paths used by the villagers for farming. We got stuck in one ridiculously heavy downpour and managed to convince some local teachers to let us stay in a classroom on the second night because all the other accommodation in the village was booked.
I´m currently in what is described by the Lonely Planet as Bolivia´s hiking and backpacking mecca. More like hippy mecca. It´s full of unwashed Gringos all mooching around and looking a bit dirty. One bloke asked me if I wanted to buy some marijuana this morning. I politely declined but he spoke perfect English so I asked where he was from. ´The Kingdom of God´he replied. I was a tad taken aback by this so I replied, ´yes, quite, but which country in his fine Kingdom?´. To this I got some spiel about the chap not believing in the boundary of countries etc. At this point I gave up and moved on.
Hippies aside, Sorata is an amazing place. Its perched on the side of a valley and the Andes rise up above the town. You´re surrounded by beautiful lush green ranges on every side and my hostel has a deck looking out on all of this. It´s really difficult to take in just how beautiful it is and it is very relaxed.
There is a trekking guide cooperative in Sorata and from here I engaged a guide to take me on one of Bolivia´s premier walks, the Illampu Circuit. A 7 day hike around Mount Illampu with most days involving 1000m plus ascents and all taking place at between 3500m – 5000m. Brutal, I was totally up for this.
I waited for about 3 hours at the guide office until a chap turned up. Maybe he was official, maybe he spotted an opportunity, but soon enough through much broken Spanglish we struck a deal. Remauldo seemed like a decent enough chap but I, wrongly, assumed he was the office man because he had a pretty serious belly. I was a little surprised when he said he would be my guide. My concern grew on Monday when he turned up at the appointed time and said that we should take a taxi up the hill! I made it clear this wouldn´t do and so he said he´d take a taxi and I could walk with his son! So my first day finds me slogging up the side of the Andes with a full pack of food while Remauldo drove his car to his house. It conveniently happens that his house is right by the first night´s camp. Even more conveniently he got to sleep in his house. And I was paying for all this, who´s the mug??
To add insult to injury, the whole family turned up to watch the Gringo cook dinner. When this was done I spent a humbling hour or so getting Spanish lessons from Remauldo´s 6 year old daughter who was brutal in remonstrating me for my poor Spanish.
All of this aside, the next 6 days took me on an amazing hike crossing multiple ranges and dropping into high valleys, all of which were inhabited and farmed. We crossed the highest pass of 5000m during a full on thunder-storm, the sound of which was terrifying. During the storm it dropped half a foot of hail and I was utterly broken by the end of the day. Remauldo did all of this clad in a pair of sandals made from old car tyres and his raincoat was a piece of plastic tarpaulin. Madness. The night of the storm we slept at 4,300m and I awoke to find a layer of ice between my sleeping bag and the inside of my bivvie bag. I have to say, I´m over the bivvie bag, I want a tent. On our last night it rained constantly and Remauldo took pity on me, inviting me to share his tent. I think he was pretty keen to see Sorata again, he made the point of telling me daily that it was usual to have mules to carry the food and that we weren´t mules! While he struggled on a few of the uphills, I reckon we both worked off a few kg by the time we got back to Sorata, not a bad thing.
The scenery of the Illampu circuit was some of the most spectacular I´ve seen and the walking was really challenging, I loved it and am keen to do more but I really need to get to Peru. Not before I spend a few days relaxing in the yungas, the valley region which leads into the jungle. I´m even considering going to an Ashram for a yoga retreat. Better watch out, I might turn into a hippy.