The prize for the cutest, most beautiful, quietest-without-being-boring, small town goes to … Guatapé, a small town two hours from Medellín.
When I stepped off the bus, I was greeted by a few colorful buildings and thought “how cute”. But then I began walking through the streets in search of lodging, and I realized this was a city like no other. There weren’t just a few cute and colorful buildings, but looking down every single street my eyes were rewarded with a burst of color – and not tacky colorful houses but really cute, orderly and coordinated colors that made the atmosphere of the whole town feel pleasant.
Turns out, this Colombian lakeside town of 5,000 people is known as “la ciudad de zócalos”, because of the colorful, artistic baseboard decoration on the outside of each house.
The decorative band of designs typically depicts an aspect of daily life, history, or the homeowner’s or artist’s interests.
Though sometimes they are just colorful designs accenting the colors of the house.
The town reinvented itself in the 1980’s after the construction of a dam protected it from future flooding, and the town came together with the idea to adopt this signature style throughout the whole town. The result of their unified efforts is astounding.
This quiet town, 2 hours from Medellín is a popular weekend getaway for Paisas and a common stop for international travelers.
It is quiet most days of the year, except during the approximately 12 holidays of the year – during a holiday, the population explodes from 5 thousand to up to 15 or 20 thousand as visitors flood in from Medellín or other parts of the country. On the busiest days, there isn’t enough lodging and people have to return to Medellín for the night.*
I am not at all surprised at the popularity of Guatapé as a relaxing weekend escape.
First, it is most famous for “la piedra”, which is a tall rock rising above the landscape, offering an incredible view of this interesting lake-filled region.
The town has built stairways of 659 stairs up to the top of the rock and charges an entrance fee. While the touristy part at the entrance and the top didn’t appeal to me much, many would appreciate the opportunity to buy a cold drink or souvenirs, especially those who just do a day trip to the area. Either way, the view at the top is well worth the climb. It was really unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Back down on the ground, you could do lake activities like paddle boats, kayaking, going out in big boats, or renting jet skis.
You could walk or bike to the monasteries (one for women and one for men, though only the one for men was active).
You could rent a bike and do a loop around Guatapé, which of course is something I chose to do.
And this is where I really got a sense of how chill this town is. The bike rental place rented me a bike with zero collateral. I just wrote my name on a paper and said I’d bring the bike back before 6pm and they gave me a bike and helmet and said I could pay when I got back.
I got another feel for the small town life the day I walked around town and got my haircut. In the salon, I was greeted by a mestizo guy who informed me that the stylist was finishing lunch, and as we chatted I realized he was a neighbor just hanging out there. He was proud to be a Paisa, and enjoyed explaining to me how friendly they were.
While the woman was cutting my hair, two black teenagers came in and the woman greeted them enthusiastically. Turns out they were from Guatapé, but one was visiting from Medellin where he had gone to study. The woman had an aunt-like manner with the young neighbor boys, highlighting for me that small-town feel where everyone knows everyone and looks out for everyone.
In addition to the mix of mestizos and blacks (seen all over Colombia not just in Guatapé), the majority of people tending the restaurants (and those managing my hostel) were Venezuelan – also a common occurrence throughout Colombia right now.**
Turns out that I was in Guatapé at just the right time too … I was safely enjoying small-town life during the planned protests in Colombia this past weekend (21 Nov). While some of the bigger cities experienced cases of looting or disturbances that led to curfews, things in Guatapé were calm and quiet.
I am so lucky to have experienced this little gem in the middle of Colombia! Hopefully you will one day too!
*Oxapampa, twice as large as Guatapé with an urban population of 10,000, experiences a similar phenomenon during holidays as Limeños flee to the rural city looking for a quiet, nature-filled, relaxing holiday. Ironically, in both Oxapampa and in Guatapé, this surge of tourism turns the quiet town into a busier and noisier city – though still much quieter and relaxing than Lima or Medellín.
**As a neighbor to Venezuela, Colombia has received around 1 million Venezuelan immigrants in the last two years due to the economic crisis there.
The Metro is the pride and joy of Paisas* in Medellín. I admit that I was surprised to hear our tour guide say that and more surprised that the Metro was actually a stop in the walking tour! But he explained (through a very well-told and emotional story) that it is one of the city’s key symbols of a transforming and progressing city.
Like many mass transit projects, it took decades to complete, having to overcome political and financial hurdles, among all the other problems Medellín was suffering at the time. So when it did come to fruition, it became celebrated and is still a respected place that is clean and well-kept – and people behave themselves inside the Metro system.
(I was impressed with the public service message I heard on the train saying that women and girls ride comfortably and safely on the metro, free from comments or any type of harassment. Many metro systems in the world could use those messages, including DC!)
The train efficiently gets you from one part of the city to another, and there are plenty of buses where the train doesn’t go. And my favorite part of the metro system…
The teleférico! The elevated (ski-lift-type) cable car! Yep, similar to La Paz, (but different). In La Paz, the entire transport system was a teleférico. In Medellin, the main system is made up of trains (many elevated), and then a few final parts of the system include transfers from the train to a teleférico, which takes you up to parts of the city built on the sides of a mountain.
To get to Parque Arvi, a public nature reserve, we took the train, transferred to one of the teleférico branches of the train, and then took another teleférico that would take us on a 30 minute ride to the park.
It was an incredible public transport experience, as the cable car carried us up a mountain, over the top of a densely populated community on the side of the mountain.
Then it continued as the community became less densely populated and later transformed into forest.
We sailed over the top of the forest in the pod, enjoying the view of the wilderness from above, and I was impressed by this low-impact way to transverse a natural area.
About 30 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Parque Arvi, a public natural reserve with hiking trails, a river, and picnic and camping areas.
While the park was a great way to escape the city scene and immerse ourselves in nature, I have to say that the mass transit experience was the highlight of the day!
Paisa refers to a person from a cultural region in Colombia around and including Medellin.
I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.
Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.
But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.
Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)
It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.
Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.
Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).
The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.
Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)
Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.
As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.
Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.
For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.
Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.
Sucre is a colorful city, full of signs of its colonial history and teeming with life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Bolivia, and the seat of the judicial power*, to me it felt strangely like a big city with a small town feel.
People from Sucre call themselves Chuquisaqueños because Sucre used to be called Chuquisaca and is the capital of the department Chuquisaca. During colonial times, the Spanish called the city “la plata” and it was the center of the region of Spanish rule called Los Charcas.
It bears the nickname “ciudad blanca” because of the traditional Spanish style white houses (not to be confused with Arequipa, Peru which has the same nickname but for the white stone of the region used in construction there.)
I only barely scratched the surface of this little gem (multiple other tourists had told me they had planned to stay only 2 days and had ended up staying a week or more), but I was just there a couple of days.
The best way to bring the city to life is to visit the “casa de la libertad” in the main plaza de armas, which is one of the best museums I’ve been to, and where you can see the original Declaration of Independence and get an excellent primer on the colonial history of the city…actually of all of Bolivia – and most of South America!
The guided tour of the museum explained the history of Spanish colonial rule, from the robbery of precious metals and the brutal treatment of the natives and African slaves, to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule – a history that is shared by the majority of South American countries, with heroes such as Sucre, Simon Bolivar, and Juana Azurduy.
Later I wandered into an art museum that gave a modern history lesson, told through alasitas – miniatures of everything. One day every year in Bolivia, vendors in the street sell everything in miniature, and this miniature version of things are called alasitas. I know, I didn’t get it either. But it’s a real thing. One day a year you can buy a doll-house sized version of just about every normal thing you might buy (toilet paper, detergent, clothes, everything!)
This little exhibit in the museum had collected alasitas throughout the years and told the history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Bolivia (mostly La Paz) through alasitas.
To my surprise, everyone I talked to told me I had to visit the cemetery. Finally, a French friend I made convinced me, and I have to say it was quite an experience. Not a Halloween-type experience. More like visiting a huge, beautiful, sacred park.
The entrance was as grand as the entrance to a palace, and it opened up to a huge manicured park with walkways lined with trees. It was so expansive it would have literally taken hours to walk all the different walkways to see all the different graves and mausoleums.
The walkways were lined with trees, and the air was filled with the sound of birds chirping on top of a very peaceful silence, the smell of flowers and cypress, and a mix of warmth from the sun and cool air in the shade. Workers were tending the grounds and planting flowers, and a few visitors were trending to their loved ones’ graves. At one point, in the distance I heard a woman sobbing loudly (wailing, really), and I felt the sadness of her loss, reminding me of the solemnity of the place.
The main walkway was lined with massive family mausoleums, and the other paths led to walls and walls of graves with locker-sized boxes decorated with memorabilia.
Interspersed were a few grave plots, and a few more large family mausoleums. There were large buildings dedicated to specific groups like rural teachers, union workers or people who had constructed certain roads.
The differences between the family mausoleums and the walls of hundreds of graves was both artistically interesting and also a distinct reminder of the huge class, power, and wealth divisions put in place by Spanish colonialism. (Not to say that previous societies didn’t have class divisions, just saying that in this particular place those divisions created by colonial rule are what are evident.)
I couldn’t have visited Sucre without some kind of outdoors adventure, so I went looking for the “7 cascadas” that the military guy in the taxi had told me about. It was an hour bus ride leaving the city, and from there I asked the locals to point me in the right direction. “It’s straight ahead, just follow the path”, they all said. And that’s when I realized I’m not as outdoors-expert as I thought I was, even after living in a rural place for three years, because I kept losing what they claimed was a clear path. Some young teenage girls trending a flock of sheep helped me find my way (after first laughing at me).
But I did eventually find all 7 of the waterfalls and was rewarded with a delightful swim in a pool beneath a waterfall.
On the way back (after getting lost one or twice), I ran into a group of Spanish, Germans, and Argentines also coming back from the falls, and we made our way back together, just catching the last bus back to the city and then exploring one of the markets together. This is why traveling alone never really feels like traveling alone.
*La Paz holds the seat of the executive and legislative powers, which is why many call La Paz the capital, though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia
**The hostel I stayed in, Villa Oropeza, had a lovely garden area, good WiFi, and a super friendly staff, definitely one of my favorites so far!
Today I woke up in Torotoro (the rural, mountainous, Jurassic Park of Bolivia) and I am going to sleep in Sucre – the bustling capital city of Bolivia that somehow also has a kind of small town feel.
By direct travel, Sucre would be just 3-4 hours from Torotoro, but there is not a developed direct route, so I had 10 hours of travel – going north to Cochabamba and then south again, to Sucre, passing Torotoro on the other side of the mountains.
On the way from Cochabamba to Sucre, the guy in the seat next to me kept falling asleep half on top of me (I’m used to that now after 3 years of colectivo rides in Peru), but he very kindly happened to wake up just when we passed a key landmark and he told me, “hey we’re about to pass the bridge and the famous road that Simon Bolivar took in the fight for independence for Bolivia!” Then he went back to sleep. (Unfortunately we passed it so quick I couldn’t snap a photo.)
Later, he woke up and we chatted and I found out he was in the military, from La Paz but living in Sucre, which he said he fell in love with because it is much “nicer, smaller, quieter, and safer than La Paz”*. In the military he travels most of the time, so only has short bouts of time with his family. He commented that his daughter likes to dress like “people like you” (I was in dry-fit, outdoorsy clothes), and that she loves learning English and wants to study in the US or England.
Since elections were coming up, we talked a while about it but I noticed he was trying to be very neutral, so I finally asked him directly if he wanted Evo Morales to win again. He said he hoped not because under Evo’s isolationist policies his daughter would likely not have the opportunities to study abroad and travel.
Evo Morales was re-elected in October and there were a lot of demonstrations in the country, many people claiming corruption in the election process and calling for a change of government. My super simplistic understanding based on the conversations I’ve had traveling through Bolivia is that Evo has done some good things for the country, including promoting recognition and rights of indigenous people and trying to keep benefits and profits from natural resources in the country, but his government is also know for corruption, and he changed the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.
I paid extra to arrive in Sucre in one day and not have to sleep on a bus, and I was rewarded with the biggest fiesta of the city – the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe – which happened to be closing that night with a huge parade through the town – They said it had been going since 11am!
The best way to describe it would be “it’s not done till it’s overdone”.
Just when I thought I’d seen the craziest costumes and best music, something crazier came next.
By 10:30pm many of the people marching were so tired and/or drunk they could barely walk and hold their eyes open.
I found anticuchos and, for the first time in South America, street pizza made in a portable oven.
The bands played and as they came closer and got louder it became impossible to not dance and join the fun.
People from the crowd hopped into the middle of the parade to take selfies with the marchers. The marching band played a pop song and the crowd went wild. If the US marching band kids got to lead the town’s parties like this, they would be more popular than the football players.
(Shout out to Megan Eileen-this reminded me of your wedding, proof that you really did it right!)
The partying here is insane. It goes into the night and once you are tired the band just plays louder and they drink more and it just keeps going. Work hard play hard.
The best way to see a city is to do a run or bike ride through it, so in the morning I put on my running shoes (the only pair of shoes I brought this trip) to do a run through Sucre. The predominant style was houses with tiny balconies and hanging plants.
Between the paved main roads were cobblestone streets and lots of public green spaces. Having heard that Sucre was small, I found it much bigger than I had imagined, with many major thoroughfares throughout the city.
I ate lunch in the “Mercado Central” where there were about 20 food stations all serving the same options and each yelling the popular dishes they served trying to convince visitors to come to their restaurant (despite the fact they all were serving the same thing.)
I randomly chose one and say at a table with a young couple with a baby. We chatted and I asked if they attended the parade fiesta the previous night. Being from Sucre, they had attended the fiestas when they were younger but now they tried to avoid the crowds. They explained that students from different organizations in the universities from different parts of the country typically were the ones that dressed up and marched. Before leaving, they asked the server/cook/owner for an extra cup and then poured me a drink of their soda, generously leaving me with a parting gift.
The next day for lunch, I chose a different restaurant and sat at the table with an older, expressionless man that didn’t smile. I wondered if I should even try to talk to him… but of course I did. And after chatting a while he opened up and I learned that he has a daughter and a son in the US. In the end, he gave me a really sweet and very warm smile wishing me well as I left.
Next up, sight-seeing around Sucre…stay tuned!
*As my friend from the taxi said… “Sucre is incredibly safe. With the fiesta you have to be careful – it is less safe because of pick pockets taking advantage of crowds, like in any place, and also drunk people can do stupid things. But Sucre is generally a safe place, and while there is the possibility of pick-pocketing, you won’t be robbed, you won’t crime of force.”
One of the cool things about traveling is meeting other travelers. I have met people from so many different countries, each with their own itinerary, their own purpose of traveling, their own way of traveling, and their unique perspective on the people and places they are seeing.
Many people have some artistic and/or social goal as their vessel carrying them through their travels and guiding them along the way, like me and my blog-writing project.
Like Lucas, the photographer from Denver who was trying to capture photos of people who still maintain some practices from their indigenous ancestors and who hopes to be able to portray their culture in cool ways so that it is enticing to youth to learn and preserve their culture. (He was just the second other American I have met so far traveling!)
And like Noel from Switzerland who is traveling volunteering. She hasn’t seen all the tourist sites in Peru but rather has spent more than a month in two sites, volunteering and getting to know the place and the people on a deeper level. First she did a volunteer program in Trujillo that she paid quite a bit for but didn’t actually receive much help from the organization she paid, and finally towards the end of her 5-week stay she started to get a feel for how she could actually be of service to the community. Here in Iquitos she did a 19-day boat ride with 9th wave along the Napo river border with Ecuador where they stopped at communities along the way. There she connected with one community and decided to stay for about 5 weeks to teach English, now that she would be able to use what she learned from her first experience to make this one more impactful.
Then there are the parapenters. This couple from France worked on a farm in California to raise money to be able to travel and with that money has been traveling for about 8 months. They are traveling with an extra backpack that has their parapenting gear because everywhere they go, they look for spots to go paragliding. Since there’s a whole community of people who paraglide, It’s also a great way that they are able to meet locals in each place they go as well as meeting other travelers from around the world who paraglide.
And recently I met a 26-year-old Swiss woman who looked suspiciously Latina… and it turns out that she was born in Colombia and adopted by a Swiss family when she was 6 years old. She doesn’t remember her life before adoption, including didn’t remember any Spanish, so she had come to Colombia to attend a Spanish school in Cartegena. Having finished classes, I met her when she was speaking Spanish quite well! She is a nurse and had taken a month off to volunteer at a clinic in Peru and then travel a little around Colombia to know her homeland a little more.
These are only a few snapshots of some of the different people I have met along the way and the motives that drive them in their journeys.
Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.
I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.
I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*
Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.
Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.
In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):
First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.
The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)
Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.
The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).
Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)
The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)
That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?
The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.
All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.
Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.
We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.
What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!
The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.
We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.
The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.
Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.
We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)
Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called “Tcha’lla”.
We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.
After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!
Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).
However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).
I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***
*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.
** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!
***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)
Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).
Since I wasn’t able to hike to the Yungas (the lower altitude, subtropical side of the Bolivian Andes) from the mountains, I decided to bike there. In bicycle you can really see the scenery, feel the change in climate, and really experience each moment along the way with all your senses. Sometimes you can even see the change in wildlife along the way.
Since I didn’t know where and how to rent a bike, the easiest and quickest way was to go along with one of the touristy tours that rent you the bike, gear, guide, support van, and transportation to a starting point and back and that advertise the route as Death Road or “the world’s most dangerous road”. Actually called “North Yungus Road” or “Coroico Road”, the route is a windy, steep downhill dirt road that used to be the primary route to Coroico, before they built a new paved route that is supposed to be a little less windy and steep and therefore has fewer incidences of cars going too fast and finding themselves flying off the cliff. (An estimated 300 travelers were killed annually when this was the primary route to Coroico).
As a mountain bike route, it’s not too dangerous since it was designed for cars and so is actually fairly wide. That said, it would be dangerous for someone that isn’t used to biking and tried to ride like a crazy person. I found it to be a challenging but not too unlike many rides I did regularly in Oxapampa. Going with the tour had its pros and cons*, but overall it was awesome, and definitely a great way to get to the lower jungle town of Coroico where I wanted to go.
To get to Coroico from La Paz, you first have to pass over the mountains, so the van drove us a few hours to the starting point in the mountains at 4,700 meters (15,400 ft) above sea level. We would then ride down to 1,100 meters (3,600 ft) above sealevel. It had snowed the night before which complicated our arrival to the starting point but made for a beautiful, of very cold, starting point.
From white mountains, freezing fingers, and multiple layers, we quickly descended to green hills, greeted by the smell of the moisture and vegetation characteristic of the tropical jungle, (and making me nostalgic for Oxapampa). The views of the hills and valleys, and the river cutting through the valley below (way below), were indescribable. (Sorry, don’t have photos.)
Arriving in the valley, one perk of going with the tour is that we had access to a beautiful little resort with an all-you-can-eat buffet, rustic showers, and even a pool.
The two guides were also cool. One guy was a medical student and was explaining that to be a doctor in Bolivia, one has to study for 5 years, then do a one year internship in a hospital where they don’t pay you anything, and then ANOTHER one-year unpaid “rural internship” where you work in a rural site in “provincia”. (Ok, so this one’s not completely unpaid – the interns receive 15 pesos bolivianos ($2) per day.) Just when I thought the US doctor training program was not ideal…
As the van then continued back to La Paz, I caught a car for a 15-minute ride to the little city of Coroico. I arrived just as it started to rain, so I spent the evening resting and cooking myself a meal in the hostel.
Coroico is a small town with the streets buzzing with activity. There are many little stores (tiendas) and restaurants on every street, vendors selling vegetables and fruits in the street during the mornings, and kids running to and from school in the mornings and afternoons. At night, kiosks open up selling fried chicken and fries – which seems to be the Bolivian evening meal choice, second only to Silpancho – rice, potatoes, carrots, beets, tomato, chicken fried steak, with a fried egg on top. (To avoid an early heart attack and to be able to sleep at night, I cooked a stir fry of vegetables and quinoa for my evening meals, with the bonus of spending less than I would have eating out.)
The town was small enough that I quickly felt at home there. People weren’t immediately warm – everyone was busy living their lives and didn’t even notice a random tourist walking the streets, which I kind of liked. Often they didn’t even hear me greet them, (or were so surprised at a tourist greeting them that they didn’t know what to do.) But when I did get a chance to chat with someone (like the woman who sold me juice or the guy managing the hotel), they were super nice, chill, and helpful.
I read that there were three main sights to see in Coroico – the stations of the cross that lead up to a chapel on a hill with a nice view, and then from the chapel there are two 4-ish-hour roundtrip hikes – one to a hill that overlooks the city and the other to three waterfalls.
I packed my bag with swim gear, asked a couple of people how to get to the waterfalls, and then headed off, running, following a trail that wound around the side of a few massive hills. I was pretty disappointed when I arrived about an hour later and only saw a tiny fall with nowhere to swim, and it seemed that it was just a water capture point for the city. Maybe an appropriate thing to find, since I’m a water engineer, but disappointing.
So I ran back to the chapel, arrived at 4pm and decided to try to climb the overlook hill. The hill started as an open, desert-like hill covered with rocks, dry grasses, and only short bushes.
After about 30 minutes I was surprised to suddenly enter what was like jungle – thick trees blocking the sky and the smell of moist soil and vegetation. After a few minutes, I emerged again from the jungle and the trail opened up again to less dense vegetation and dried grass, only to turn into jungle again a few minutes later.
When the vegetation cleared, there were incredible views of the valley and the towns down below, including the little city of Coroico, which appeared much bigger from above than it seemed being in the city.
Towards the top, the hill turned into pure jungle, and I was sweating even though it was getting chilly as the sun started going down. Jogging uphill, I was thankful for the extra lung power I had gained being at altitude for almost two weeks. I didn’t want to get caught in the night in the jungle, so I decided I would turn around at 5:45 even if I didn’t make it to the top. I kept thinking I was near the top but would find that there was still more climb. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to the top, and then magically, at exactly 5:45 I arrived to the clearing at the top of the hill! Win!
The next day, I was just about to leave Coroico and I learned that the waterfall I went to was definitely not the waterfall that everyone goes to. I decided that I couldn’t leave without going to the waterfalls, so I started walking (this time the right direction), and then found a car to take me the rest of the way. When I got to the waterfall, I decided it had definitely been worth it! There was not much water in the cascade because I arrived just at the end of dry season, but there was a beautiful pool under the falls calling my name, (and two guys swimming there also calling me to join them).
The guys were from La Paz and had come out for the weekend just to enjoy this specific spot. With little hesitation, I was soon splashing around in the pool beneath the waterfall with them. Within a few minutes, another guy from La Paz showed up – he was showing around a friend from Quito, Ecuador who had come to visit Bolivia for a few weeks. We all became friends for the afternoon and I even ended up catching a bus back with the Ecuadorian woman and her Paceño friend.
Turns out that Coroico, and specifically the falls, are a nice little weekend escape for Paceños. With its warm climate and green hills, it’s a nice escape from the cold, altitude, and busy, tree-less city. I’m so glad I went off the beaten path to find this little gem (and to make a few more friends along the way)!
Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content
* The pros of going with the mountain bike tour were the sag wagon and the food included, but the cons were the cost (it was outside of my low budget but I gifted myself that day), and that it was so touristy that the group had to stop every few minutes so the guides could take photos of each person to later send us.
**I somehow lost my water bottle in the car that I took to the waterfalls, and I was pretty bummed, but then the driver showed up at the falls within 5 minutes, having noticed that I left it. Good, kind people in Coroico!
***Often when I mentioned that I went to Coroico, Bolivians asked me if I saw any black people. Actually, I didn’t. But Coroico is apparently part of the area where many African slaves were brought to work on haciendas and so many Afro-Bolivians live in the surrounding areas.
After a ridiculously cold and uncomfortable night (the first night camping is always the hardest), I was happy for day break so we could start hiking to go find the glacier lake.
If the first day was pure climbing, the second day was pure rock scramble – my favorite way to hike (and I’m not being sarcastic).
Add the fact that there was snow on the ground, and I was in heaven! Actually, it was more like hail or frozen rain because it was tiny little white ice balls, like I’d never seen before. But whatever it was, it was white and beautiful and made that wonderful crunching sound beneath our feet.
We climbed up and down (mostly up), over about 4 ridges on the side of a mountain, crossing a few landslides, literally climbing on the face of the mountain much of the time, and it was exhilarating. I fell once but I caught myself and didn’t die! Win!
We didn’t talk much because we needed all the air for breathing, as the air was getting thinner and thinner as we gained altitude. We both were chewing coca leaf to keep from getting altitude sickness.
As we crossed over the side of the great peak Illampu, the view suddenly opened up to reveal the beautiful glacier lake.
The grand Illampu rises over the left of the lake, while Ancouma rose over the right side (though Ancouma was hiding in clouds).
At the far end of the lake, the snowy side of a mountain seemed to be constantly feeding the lake with a glacier and avalanches.
The lake created an optical illusion such that it was actually much larger than it seemed; after 20 minutes of hiking I still hadn’t arrived to the far side where the snow and ice was falling into the lake, so I headed back since my guide was a little anxious to get back.
Every few minutes I would hear the distant sound of avalanches, but I could never find them when I looked up into the mountains.
The next day, we headed across the mountain pass to see some ruins, a couple of overlook points, and the Spanish Gold trail. We were walking in the clouds the whole way down, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see some of the amazing views. Despite the fog, I still loved it!
We normally would have hiked about 5-6 hours and camped one more night, with a campfire at a mirador, but with all the fog and my stomach acting up, I convinced Eduardo to to do an 8-hour hike that would bring us all the way back to Sorata in one day. Turns out we would have gotten rained on in the night if we had camped, and I didn’t have the most waterproof tent. Win #2!
The day was long and challenged my glutes again, but I enjoyed it just the same.
We hiked along the Spanish trail or the Gold trail, which is the trail that was used by the Spanish colonial rule to deliver gold from a mine in the mountains down to Sorata, carried by the locals who were used as slaves in the gold mining business. (My first night in Sorata I had stayed in a hostel that seemed like a really old house, and I later learned that it used to be the place where the slaves (indigenous people) delivered the gold to the Spanish.)
Walking along the Gold Trail, glutes screaming, sore shoulders, I thought about how this would be torture if someone was forcing me to do it, (especially for their own profit and not for me). But since I had chosen to do it, and I could go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, and I was not doing it every day, it was something I actually paid to do. Privilege.
Eduardo continued to tell me the history of Sorata while walking this trail. He explained how the Spanish enslaved the locals not only for mining but they also set up the big haciendas, where the Spanish “patron” treated the locals like slaves to work the land and produce crops as efficiently as possible while the patron then got rich from selling the products, sometimes on the international markets that he had access to. The conversation invoked memories or reading Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits”.
Eduardo went on to say that there came a time when the young rebelled and received a few more rights so they weren’t so much like slaves, but it wasn’t until later with the big land reform policies that the patrons left and locals could own their own land and reap the benefits from it.
Since then, he said, the community has organized itself so that each person owns their land where they live, and then the land in the hills above the community is common land so that anyone in the community can farm it. They meet once a month to resolve community issues and they rotate the leader of the community every year. Anyone with land in the community is registered on the “roster” and therefore has rights to farm the community land and also has the responsibility to serve their rotation as leader of the community for one year.
As I arrived back to Sorata, I could not believe that we had walked that entire distance. I had left behind the busy world of getting everywhere fast, and I had reunited with the age-old tradition of walking. I was just stunned at how two legs, two feet, could take me across massive hills and high up into the mountains, across distances and through terrain that seemed impossible, or difficult at best, to cross. It was a reminder how much I appreciate my feet and also the power of the human spirit and body.
Bonus Content: What do the kids do in the evenings in Sorata? As I made my way back to my hostel, all along the way, kids were playing with the same top-like toy in the streets, so I stopped at one group of kids and asked an older kid to show me what they were playing. He was super shy at first but I finally got him to show me on camera, and he let me try a few times too.
(Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties uploading videos here, but you can find the video on Facebook).
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!