Trekking the Illampu Circuit

Friday, July 16, 2010
Sorata, La Paz, Bolivia
Leaving La Paz on July 8, we crowded into a mini-bus to take us to Sorata, known as a good base for launching treks. The driver left the station, turned a city corner and parked along the side of the road. No one knew what was going on and then a few minutes later the luggage-loader dude from the company showed up and demanded that each passenger pay 5 more Bolivianos (75 cents) to continue on. I have never seen Bolivians so openly angry before, which is really not saying much since they may be some of the most polite and reserved people on this earth. They even negotiated the price hike down to 3 Bolivianos each. Matt and I never really understood why we had to pay more even though when I asked the simple reply was that there was no more buses. Even though we strongly suspected the whole situation was desperately prefabricated and corrupt between the driver and luggage-loader, we conformed and chuckled about being extorted for less than a dollar, although the unfairness surely had an impact on many of the passengers in the bus.

Anyhow, we arrived to Sorata with no other incidents a few hours later and settled in to a hotel on the edge of town . It felt great to get out of the hustle and bustle of La Paz and we enjoyed walking around the plaza. We checked in with the local guide association to get more information about trekking options.. After some difficulty securing a cold beer in one of the many restaurants lining the plaza, we succeeded and decided on the 8 day Illampu Circuit. It is so named because the route circles the peak of Illampu (although we would later find out at a great distance most of the time, as in we are never really sure that we saw it...)

The next day I washed some laundry by hand, taking advantage of the warm and sunny weather, then we walked a while down the road to the Swiss-owned Cafe Illampu and had a delicious breakfast of homemade bread, yogurt and REAL coffee! After fueling up we continued walking down the scenic but dusty road until an empty cab drove by. We then careened around corners on the cliffy road in the taxi and soon arrived at La Gruta de San Pedro, a grotto big enough to have a lake that you can rent paddleboats for . We opted not to paddle boat, but enjoyed exploring the length of this cave system used by the Incas to hide gold from the Spaniards (supposedly).

We took another cab back to Sorata in order to be on time for our food shopping date with our guide Rolando. It was a little akward to meet him for the first time and then 2 minutes later be in a small tienda discussing breakfast and dinner options and essentially having him "guide" us through buying for three people for eight days. Not having a lot of lightweight options, we got a ton of pasta, oatmeal, canned hotdogs, and fresh produce. The kicker was the flat of eggs Rolando insisted that we should bring. He strapped them to the top of his backpack and there was only one casualty the whole trip!

The next morning,.we met up with Rolando again in town, took a short taxi ride with all of the food and gear to where his mule was hitched outside of town. The mule didn't have a name, so I told Rolando that he would be called "Cafe con Leche" at least for the duration of our trek . Rolando though it was funny and Matt thought I was weird. After the intial climb out of the valley, it was apparent that poor Cafe con Leche was a bit overloaded with all those canned hotdogs plus Matt's backback (I had to carry mine). Convenietly, we were trekking right by Rolando's house in the countryside where another mule was available. Once again, we strongly suspected that this was all prearranged, we were told only one mule to keep the initial cost of the trek low and once we were on our way another one became necessary. Nonetheless, we complied and a skinny knock-kneed mule was loaded up with Matt's and my (thank goodness!) backpacks. This little one was darker and I immediately dubbed him Cafe Negro. Rolando said goodbye to his family and we continued on and up to Laguna Chillata. This little lake is quite scenic, but unfortunately is highly impacted with litter and poop (human and mule) because of its popularity and substandard LNT practices.

We set up camp and ate dinner as the cold fog rolled in . Rolando surprised us with a delicious "salsa de verduras" for the pasta, which was basically chopped up veggies like carrot, onion, tomato, habas (local variety of fava beans) and the most popular Bolivian ingredient of all: lots of salt!

The next morning we awoke to a sizeable puddle in our tent. At first we thought it was a remarkable amount of condensation from having our tent all zipped up to keep out the frosty night, but then realized that Matt´s camelback had slowly emptied its entire bladder. Rolando joked that we had our own Laguna Chillata in our tent, while we laid everything out to dry before gulping down oatmeal and leaving for our day hike up to Laguna Glacial. This was a challenging ascent up to 5000+ meters on a rocky trail to a beautiful lake with a small glacier feeding directly in to it. Everywhere we looked, we could see evidence of the rapid melting of the glaciers from climate change. Rolando told us that when he was a little boy, Illampu was pure white, now you can see lots of rock . It is distressing to contemplate what will happen to this area when the glaciers are gone, as all of the communities around here depend on the meltwater to get through the dry season... The roundtrip took about eight hours, so we had just enough time and energy to eat dinner and crawl into the tent before the drippy fog settled in for the night.

Our tent was covered in ice the next morning. At the time, we thought it was a cold pack up, but in retrospect it was practically balmy that morning in comparison to the colder mornings to come. This day was spent traversing the flanks of various valleys, relatively flat and considered a recovery from the day before. We hiked through a couple of small communities and otherwise were hiking through community-held grazing land. It was common to hike through herds of llamas, sheep, and goats, as well as areas being burned to regenerate grasses for the next wet season.
And since we were camping in grazing land, it took a bit of adjustment on our part to set our tent up on poop, sit on poop while eating dinner, and get our water from streams surrounded by ...poop. Nonetheless, the scenery was amazing even if we were not experiencing it in a pristine national park.

Days four through six took on a similar pattern and in fact very much blend together in mind as I write this: breathtaking cold mornings and numb hands packing up, oatmeal and coca tea, getting a head start as Rolando loaded up the mules, Rolando and mules passing us on the trail fifteen minutes later, high pass, valley bottom, high pass, valley bottom, setting up camp, putting on every layer we own, pasta and salsa de verduras, coca tea, refuge from cold in sleeping bag and ten hours of sleep every night! Not a bad routine if you ask me...

Day seven was certainly a memorable one. This day we had to trek through an area infamous for armed robberies of tourists, but allegedly this problem has not been occurring recently. We grilled Rolando with concerned questions, but he was totally relaxed about it, claiming that he had never even seen the "banditos malos ." Most guides opt to take their clients through the area at night, but Rolando insisted that it was not necessary and miserably cold, the latter of which we could definitely agree with if not the first.

So we left camp that morning, climbed over the highest pass of the trip (over 5000 meters) and were awed with the glaciated landscape. I left a perfectly shaped quartz crystal that I found near Laguna Chillata on the cairn as an offering to the apus (mountain spirits) for a safe journey. We descended the other side of the pass and crossed the invisible line into "la zona de peligro" as we had dubbed it. Ironically, "the danger zone" contained the most spectacular landscapes of the entire eight days, with lakes in various intriguing shades of blue and whole strings of snowcapped peaks visible. We also crossed a section that seemed like a colder version of the Sahara desert and I told Matt that I felt like I was on that sandy Star Wars planet with the wind whipping up dust around us . We lunched, then descended to Laguna San Francisco, where Rolando pointed out the stone huts of the bandits at either end of the silty turquoise lake. We just didn´t get it, but followed him across a squishy marsh and then a trail that went right by a series of those huts and then straight up to the top of the third pass of the day. I was exhausted but we had several hours of cross country hiking left to be in the clear before we could camp. We made it, but not before thick fog rolled in.

That night over pasta, Rolando commented that no one cried today out of the blue. We look confused and he explained that usually the chicas start crying on that third steep pass. I told him I was too busy trying to breathe to bother with crying. He also said that usually with tourists they don´t arrive to a safe spot to camp until eight or nine at night, so it was nice to set up camp at 6 today. That was his subtle way of complimenting us on being "super-bien" trekkers. We were just relieved to be back in the safe zone with all of our possessions, and I could finally stop singing the chorus of "highway to the danger zone" in my head over and over, although for going over the passes I modified it to "high trail to the danger zone" ...

The last day was also a long one, but all downhill on a road that passed through village after village aand lots of agricultural lands. Stopping off at Rolando´s hut, we said goodbye and thank you to Cafe con Leche and Cafe Negro, the poor beasts were ready for a break. We gave our leftover food to his wife and two little kids who looked pretty excited about the prospects of oatmeal and pasta, which we were not. Then we took a taxi in to Sorata and got stuck in traffic due to a parade going through town celebrating the founding of La Paz (even though we were not in La Paz, the 16 de julio celebration was a pretty big deal here). Then it started raining, which was perfect timing for us finishing the trek, but not for the party-goers. Matt said, "Oh look, it is raining on their parade!" without even realizing what he said, then we looked at each other and cracked up laughing. Rolando also commented that rain is extremely unusual in July, climate change anyone? We took Rolando out to pizza, paid him for the unanticipated second mule and a tip, and said our thank yous and goodbyes.

We then checked email and I found out the sad news that my cat Elf had to be put to sleep while we were out on the trek. This was quite a shock and he had seemed quite healthy and showed no symptoms of the bad kidney and plethora of kidney stones in his system. The only other option was very invasive surgeries that would only solve the problems temporarily and would have totalled around $10,000. Shawn, the great guy taking care of Elf and Hippie this summer, did everything he could for Elf and conferred with my parents to make the right decision. It is hard to have him gone, but in the long run I think everything worked out for the best. That certainly put a damper on the evening, so we just went back to the hostel, cleaned up with hot showers, and went to bed. The next morning was rough too, but I was functioning enough to eat a yummy breakfast of chocolate banana pancakes (not oatmeal!), pack up, and catch a minibus back to La Paz.