As I was walking on Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca, I caught my breath as I looked across the lake and saw grand white peaks rising out of the horizon.
If you know me, you know that I have a love affair with mountains, and especially those majestic white, snow-covered mountains (“nevadas”). The mountains seductively said to me “You’ve hiked in the Peruvian Andes, are you up for the Bolivian Andes?”
So after leaving Copacabana, instead of taking the usual route to La Paz, I got off the bus early and caught a few cars to get to Sorata, a small mining town of about 4,000 people about 3 hours from La Paz and a starting and ending point for a few different treks through the Bolivian Andes.
I had heard that Sorata was a mining town, but I was still blown away when I saw a sign in a store off the main plaza that said “I buy gold. I sell mercury.”
I had laughed when my uncle heard I was going to Bolivia and told me to take a metal detector and to look for gold…but turns out he knew what he was talking about!
Other than the sign about gold, the town reminded me of any small mountain town in Peru. With a nice plaza in the center,* the main church and municipality building off the plaza, and shops filling the streets around the plaza. And because the town is on the side of a mountain, the streets off of one side of the plaza were an incredibly steep climb up, while the streets off the other side were a steep descent.
I arrived on Sunday when they had their “feria”, or market day, when people from the surrounding areas bring their products to sell – potatoes, acacha (a long, skinny, knobby potato), habas (a big, protein-filled bean), snap peas, herbs, carrots, green beans. Similar to Peru, they would bring their big colorful “manta”, spread it out on the ground and neatly arrange their products to sell. Common to all markets I’ve ever seen in Peru and Bolivia, there were many different vendors, all selling the same things.
I had sought out a local, Sorata-based guide association and “Eduardo”, a local guide met me in the plaza when I arrived and introduced me to his wife and daughter who were enjoying a Sunday walking in the plaza.
I was fascinated with the option of doing an 11-day trek through the Andes that included climbing a snow-capped peak and ending in the “Yungus” (the lower altitude, warm climate of the jungle on the other side (east) of the Andes, but I wasn’t able to pull together a group to do it with. Since it would be just me and the guide, I decided to do a 3-4-day trek to a glacier lake between two snow-capped peaks, “Illampu” (Aymará for “fat of the llama”) and “Ancouma” (Aymará for “white snow”).
That evening we bought food and supplies and the next morning we started off from the town’s center, which is located low in the hills at 2,600 meters above sea level (8,500 ft). Eduardo pointed to the mountains in the far distance. I could not believe that we were going to arrive all the way there walking, (and with 15-20 kilos in my backpack) within a day. But he confirmed that we would do it. So I just put one foot in front of the other and waited to see what would happen.
It happened to be “Día del peatón”, or “Pedestrian Day”, the one day of the year in Bolivia where cars weren’t permitted to drive, which was lucky for us because our hike started along a dirt road, and when cars (illegally driving that day) did pass by, they kicked up a ton of dust which didn’t help breathing through the uphill climb.
Finally we got off the road and the smell of eucalyptus (one of my favorite smells of all time) filled the air and I realized we were walking through a eucalyptus forest.
Fun fact: Eucalyptus is an invasive from Australia that sucks the water and nutrients out of the soil…. But it produces wood quickly so people keep it around.
Later, the climb got steeper and the smell changed to muña. Another smell that I love, and this time there’s no worry about it being an invasive species. Muña is native here, it’s used in tea and is helpful preventing and alleviating the effects of altitude.
The first day was pure steep, uphill climb, like climbing stairs for 6 hours, without any flat parts to rest, so we took breaks every 30 minutes or so. It reminded me of the constant climb up Volcán Misti in Arequipa, including the burning glutes with every step (yep, for 6 hours).
My guide is a really nice guy who’s been a guide since 1993. He started as the front desk staff at a hostel that did tours. Trekking tourism started to boom in Sorata and one day they needed a guide so he went out with a group, and he loved it, and they loved him. He knew his way through the mountains because as a kid he used to take sheep out to graze through the mountains to make cash and as a curious spirit, he would go exploring new parts every time.
As more and more tourists flooded to Sorata to do treks, he formed the Association of Guides in Sorata, which ultimately had 30 guides and 20 arrieros (donkey handlers), all professionally trained. He loved meeting people from all over the world, learning from them, and exploring with them. He especially loved learning about new foods and ways to cook in the mountains. He picked up English and even a little French and Hebrew.
Everything was great until 2003. That’s when the Bolivian gas conflict exploded, with the country divided between plans to build a gas pipeline to export gas to the US and Mexico and a growing movement calling for Bolivia to build a local processing plant to get more value from their product and to meet internal gas needs before exporting. Between internal protests and international relationship problems, the booming tourism suddenly halted.
Since then, tourism in Sorata is starting to pick back up, but now most of the tours are dominated by agencies out of La Paz that charge double or more and often contract local guides anyway. When Eduardo goes out with big groups, his wife sometimes comes along to help, and his sons had come along a few times too, (but they didn’t enjoy it as much).
We ate lunch at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), (the same altura as lago Titicaca), and then after about 3 more hours of climbing, we arrived at our campsite at at 4,200 meters (13,800 ft), a mountain lake “Lago Chillata”.
“Chillata” is Aymará for “the sacred lake where people go to pray, sobbing for help from the divine”). Or, to the Incas before Catholicism, the lake was called “Kotaato” – Aymará for “the lake in the middle of the rocks”.
Here, the clouds roll in thick around 4pm every afternoon and the fog hangs around until the middle of the night, where it clears up and the temperature drops below freezing.
As the clouds are rolling past, visibility sometimes would clear for just a few seconds, leaving an incredible view of the sun setting on the great white peaks of Illampu and Ancouma. (Many times I ran to a high point to get a photo, and within 10 seconds it was already covered in fog again by the time I got there.)
Tomorrow we’ll be able to leave the heavy stuff at the campsite as we head towards the great peaks to find the glacier lake that is tucked between them.
*Famous Footnote/Bonus content:
While wandering around the plaza the night before the trek, I saw a group of people speaking English in the plaza. I approached them and learned they were a chapter of Engineers Without Borders doing an Eco-bathroom project in a nearby rural town! I find my people all over the world!