An hour after we rolled into our campsite in La Paz, Chris, Mallory and Ellie invited Richard, George, Jenine and I to accompany them on the El Choro Trek. El Choro is a three day, 57 kilometre trek starting in the vast Bolivian altiplano (highest elevation: 15,941 feet) and descending into the jungle-y village of Chairo (elevation: 5,278 feet). The only catch: they were leaving the next day. At 6:00 a.m. In anticipation of the Santa Cruz Trek in Peru it took us like, 2 full days to prepare. Checklists, food, water, gear. We threw that all out the window and said, “Heck yes, we’re in!” We scrambled around gathering food items from the nearby tienda, organized our gear, and packed up our bags for the next day. Spontaneous decisions are definitely something we have learned to make while on this trip, and more often than not they lead to something special.
The first day of trekking started in thick fog. As we descended steeply the rain started. The El Choro trail is like Bolivia’s version of the Inca Trail, complete with a stone path that continues for three days. I don’t know what those Incas were thinking while building the trail because the pathway becomes treacherously slippery in the rainy season. All of us bailed in the mud or on the rocks, slipping and sliding towards our first camp spot.
It was pretty astonishing that in a matter of hours the scenery went from golden plains to a rainforest climate, complete with bright green blades of grass and a variety of beautiful thick flowers. After seven hours of hiking we trudged into the first camp, boots filled with water and pants splashed with mud, soaked through to the skin. We set up camp, hung up most of our clothes, and congregated around the fire attempting to dry out our wet belongings. The urgency to dry out our wet hiking boots (just a little bit closer to the fire and maybe that would help!!) resulted in some melted rubber sole components. Our knees were shot from all of the downhill, toes were wrinkly and ragged, and it was time for a good night’s sleep.
One cool thing about the El Choro Trek is that there are a bunch of campsites along the way with thatched roofed shelters and a tienda or shop selling goods such as bottled water, Coca Cola, crackers, sardines, and other miscellaneous items. Usually an elderly woman runs the place and will supply dry firewood or some coca tea (sometimes even in Care Bear mugs!) to warm you up. The shelters were a God’s send each day when we arrived dripping with water to set up camp. The women would often supply us with a big blue tarp to set our tent on top of and a token dog or cat would be running around looking cute and enjoying our attention.
On the second day of the El Choro Trek we reluctantly slid our dry feet into our still damp boots, donned our packs, and continued our descent to the next camp. We were all sore from the first day of hiking, but luckily there were more sections of uphill this time instead of the dreaded slick downhill. I had been craving some uphill hiking, which seems odd, but I wanted to give my “downhill muscles” a bit of a break. Despite the atrocious weather, Richard and I were in surprisingly great spirits. To have one multi-day trek under our belts made a huge difference in the way we felt the second time around. We knew more or less what to expect, had our routines down, and could just relax and enjoy the company. Except that we forgot our sandals. That was a dumb mistake! Squishing around at camp with Ziploc bags over our feet shoved into hiking boots ensured it was the last time we would leave our counterfeit Havianas at home (in the truck).
The second day actually started out relatively dry. It felt good to put our rain jackets and backpack covers away for a bit. At around lunchtime the rain started and got more and more intense until we reached our final resting stop.
After another day of crossing wooden bridges, admiring waterfalls, and avoiding rocks, mud and roots, we happily pitched our tents in a fern-filled manger-like shelter at Camp San Francisca. The local woman running the camp, Francisca, was very sweet. Also, she must get insanely lonely being a 5 hour walk from the nearest neighbour. She welcomed us with open arms and even took my rain-drenched tank top and hand-dried it in front of her wood-burning oven. She had a motherly way about her and really took care of all of us by drying our clothes, bringing us coals for our fire, pouring coca tea, and giving us dry pieces of cardboard to sit on by the fire.
We started our third day after a restful and dry sleep in our fern-filled manger. We bade a quick goodbye to Francisca and started on our way, like every other day, downhill and in the rain.
Ellie had been having some problems with her shoes over the past few days and her feet were covered in blisters. She completed the last day of trekking in bare feet. Over roots, pointy rocks, through streams, mud, and donkey droppings. The awe-inspiring thing too, was that she kept up pace. She was hiking right along with us with no shoes on. Incredible. Ellie is one tough Czech chick.
Other than that, there isn’t much to say about the remainder of Day 3. It rained. We walked. Snack and rest breaks were minimal as we just wanted to get the last section over with. Eventually we arrived in Chairo, where we changed out of our wet clothes and hopped into a Combi/Collectivo to the nearby town of Coroico. Here we ate a heavy, greasy lunch of fish and chips (mistake) and hopped into a Combi for the three hour ride back to La Paz. The drive from Coroico to La Paz (or vice versa) is a must-do in Bolivia. The mountain scenery is fantastic. Once we arrived back in La Paz we caught a taxi and took a life-threatening ride back to our campsite. Our driver was completely frazzled and told us he had been working for 13 hours and had 7 more to go. He sharply accelerated, slammed on the brakes, screeched around corners. We were jumbled around in the back seat, on each other’s laps, while the driver navigated the busy streets. He swore at other drivers and laughed when we tried our own Spanish curse words that we had picked up throughout our travels. Eventually we made it back to camp in one piece, stinky damp clothes and all.
Ellie’s volunteer time at Colibri had come to an end, and we felt humbled to be invited to her going away party even though we had really only known her for a week and a half or so. She bustled around the kitchen putting together some mouth-watering homemade pizzas with a variety of ingredients that the guests had brought. We generously poured red wine and shoo-fly punch as we munched on pizza and sat around in a circle of chairs chatting away. Ellie is now off to Peru for a volunteering gig in the jungle near Cuzco. My only regret is not having more time to listen to her talk about the times she worked as a sheep-hearder in Ecuador, an orchid farmer, her talents as a jewellery maker and wood burner, an employee at H&M, and many, many other interesting pursuits that I’m sure we didn’t talk about. Good luck Ellie and I hope we meet again!