Hiking the Choro Trail, Bolivia – Day 1

It felt too early. I was cold, it was dark, and I was asking myself – what I was doing there? Late the previous night, I had responded to a post on the Lonely Planet Bolivia forum from an Irish fellow that wanted to hike an Incan pathway, the Choro Trail. While chucking stuff into my backpack, I agreed to meet up with him at 6:30 the next morning in front of the central post office.

As shady characters scuttled around me, I shivered to keep warm and went through his last email in my mind: “I’m staying at the Adventure Brew.” The Adventure Brew is a hostel here in La Paz, notorious for its all-night parties. As the minutes wore on, I became convinced that he wouldn’t show up at all, and if he did, I was going to pretend that I wasn’t Paul and that I had no clue about this “Choro Trail,” or what this backpack was for.

After asking a couple foreigners if they were indeed “Sean,” I finally found my hiking buddy. Not only had he been on time, but he bore none of the telltale signs of an all-night party. It turned out he regretted his decision to stay where he did and was glad to be getting out of the city and onto the trail. My kind of person! Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Within an hour we were in a large bus heading towards La Cumbre, the high mountain pass where the buses cross from the high-plateau La Paz on their way to the tropical Los Yungas foothills. The bus was cold and packed. There were even people sitting on the floor in the aisle. Sooner than I was ready for, the bus pulled over and I hauled myself and my pack over and around bodies to the exit and into the fresh iciness of the mountain day.


There at La Cumbre “the summit”, we checked in at the empty parks building, signing our names in the guest book. We were the first ones there at twenty to nine and we were rearing to go, well, as much as one can be at an altitude of 4,700 meters (15,400 feet).


After a few photos at the trailhead, we followed the wide path towards the highest point of the trail and first place of significance, Apacheta Chucura. Although nothing more than a pile of stones, it carries heavy local historical and religious weight. Traditionally, people starting the trail pick up a stone and carry it the first 30 minutes to this high lookout, where it is placed on the pile. The belief is that it is a token for the Mountain Spirits (onus) to ensure safety on your journey. The odd empty bottle of rum also tucked into this pile hinted that previous travelers were looking for a blessing from a different kind of “Mountain Spirit.”

Apacheta Chucura

The trail, hand-paved with large stones, polished by hundreds of years of footfalls,  bent and tipped its way dizzyingly down the mountain side into the valley below. I knew I would appreciate the guidebook’s advice of bringing trekking poles along with me. In the first day, the trail jars down around 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). If my own knees are anything to go by, a good portion of that drop occurs in that first hour or so.

Summit descent



Once we reached the valley bottom, we came across the rocky remnants of a wayside inn (tambo) from Incan times. Despite the lack of roof, my legs were already tempted to check in for the night. A herd of llamas and their shepherd (wait, “llamaherder?”) meandered across the scene, just as they have done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.


In another 45 minutes we arrived at our first pueblo, Samaña Pampa, a check-in point that had a few buildings and a tienda (store). We propped up our socked feet and sipped on surprisingly icy Coca-Colas. Below us, the locals scratched their crops from the hard soil, their feet protected only by typical flimsy leather sandals. The snacks we were enjoying had been packed in by those same feet over these very same trails. Humbling. These Andean farmers are a whole different level of tough. Ruefully, I spent some time plastering my feet with Moleskin and Leukotape to prevent further bruising and rawness from the 1,000 meter (3,250 foot) descent we would be making in the next four hours.

Sheep on the trail

Refreshed, we passed small adobe houses with corrugated steel and straw roofs, saluting the owners with buenos días. The trail took us past several small pueblos, log bridges, and streams, as we descended steadily downwards towards our end point of the day: Challa Pampa (2,895 meters, 9,500 feet). With every step the wet, green growth reached up higher around us, long fingers waving goodbye to the high, dry peaks. At day’s end we popped out from under the lush leaves at a suspension bridge, which, at its rainbow-end, promised camping, lodging and food…oh, and more Coca-Cola. Everything is tastier while on the trail!

Vista of Challa Pampa

With our first day behind us, I happily set up camp on a grass hillside overlooking a crystal clear river. I took my trail runners off – much to the relief of my feet – and vowed never to wear them hiking again. From now on I’d be wearing my lightweight Columbia Powerdrains, originally only brought for river crossings.

Setting up camp

I arranged accommodation for my hiking partner (I speak Spanish…sort of) and set about making myself dinner. He got the tourist rate on a mattress in a small hut and a plate of rice, potato and boiled egg, which he said he enjoyed…until the bill came. After some debating he managed to drop the price down from a whopping sixty bolivianos (the price of a steak dinner in La Paz) to something he was comfortable paying and the owner was comfortable receiving and we each called it a night.

Challa Pampa

I tried to get comfortable on my closed cell foam sleeping pad that seemed determined to remind me that I was indeed turning 30, while my head ran through the plans for the next day. It was supposed to be a straightforward downhill section, that according to the guidebook would take us eight hours and 18 kilometers (11 miles) and land us at a much more tropical and humid 1,980 meters (6,500 feet). Little did I know how much I would curse that guidebook the following afternoon!

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