A lesson in self-reliance: The Choro Trek
Posted on 06 May 2013
Relaxing in each other’s arms and sipping our local organic coffee we are now enjoying the stunning subtropical vista of the mountainous Andes from an eco-lodge in Coroico, Bolivia. We are surrounded by diversity, coffee plants, avocado trees, bananas, hummingbirds, butterflies and myriad of insects. It feels like bliss, however this moment of peace and quiet has been well deserved…
When we were preparing for the 4 day Choro Trek (most people do it in 3), we knew it could be difficult as we had to carry all of our camping gear, first aid kit, food, water and clothing to suit everything from the cold dry Altiplano at 5000m to the subtropics at 1300m. I was already skeptical. With myself only weighing 43kg my pack weighed in at a hefty 16kg and Jean’s at 22kg. However, everywhere online said this was an ‘easy’ trek, downhill all the way. We could do it!
We woke up at 430am to get ready and travel to La Cumbre, the starting point near La Paz, so we could begin walking by 730am. The view was breathtaking! Bare, enormous mountains towered over us as we descended into the valley. Iced waters became flowing rivers. Llamas, small yellow flowers and red beetles appeared. We were thrilled to observe this gradually changing landscape and so happy to be walking this ancient Inca path. I soon began struggling with the weight but the view kept morale high until my left knee gave way. Thankfully Jean had packed some knee braces and while it certainly helped with support it didn’t take the pain away and I wondered how on earth I would continue for 3 more days. I won’t lie – there were tears! When we finally reached our first campsite, at Challapampa, the vegetation was already dramatically different. In contrast to the bare rocks at the beginning of the day we were now surrounded by lots of greenery, including large trees and bushes – in just 9.5 hours of walking. We settled in for the night, cooked our dinner and decided we’d need to reduce the weight we were carrying for the coming days.
Day 2 of the trek started with an adorable white puppy introducing herself over breakfast. We called her Sheepy because of her fluffy white appearance. I was in pain. My muscles were stiff but more worryingly, my knee had not improved. So, we gave some of our heaviest (canned) food to some locals and Jean transferred all of the heavy items to his backpack, leaving me with a lighter load. Now he was carrying probably more than 25kg! I felt so guilty. We set off, surprised to see Sheepy leading the way. She actually ended up staying with us through to the end of the trek and her presence helped me enormously. That second day, there were more tears but that little girl with her joyfulness and desire to be with us kept spirits high. During the pain, I would feel my heart swell with happiness as I looked ahead to see Sheepy playfully observe the butterflies rising from the piles of manure, running through the wild strawberries, grabbing our walking sticks, following right on Jean’s heals or waiting ahead for us to catch up. Why was she with us? Where would she go? We had many questions about her, but for the time being we were loving getting to know her. That day passed without seeing another person – at all. We camped high in the mountains at Buena Vista with a couple of chickens and a cat for company. That night as darkness set in we saw the silhouettes of mules and my hopes were raised that we could finish the trek with help. When Sheepy saw these seemingly threatening creatures, she ran to my side and growled at them. Was she scared? Was she protecting us? Why? Whatever her reasons, there’s no doubt that she had decided to choose us – that night she slept right outside our tent door, occasionally growling at disturbances in the night and joyfully waking us by tapping her paw on our tent before jumping all over us excitedly.
Day 3 and the realisation that we would have to finish this trek unassisted set in. Actually, this helped me a lot. Despite the pain, I focused on simply placing one foot after the other, knowing that this was the only way forward, the only option and no way out. I was making sense of things again – my internal battle, finding gratitude despite pain and falling in love with Jean all over as I appreciated his support, love and strength. I thought about something I was told by a friend… there are 2 ways to get to know someone, through talking and through doing. It’s true that during this trek, due to our physical exhaustion, deep conversations were limited but through walking together, supporting each other, being kind with one another and sharing responsibilities we felt our respect and love for each other grow deeper.
I also accepted that a) despite the ultimate changes in altitude the walk itself was NOT all downhill b) carrying all our own gear (especially food for 4 days) makes any walk more challenging and c) I was not physically fit enough prior to doing this. Lastly, being in nature with no services en route (contrary to what the maps indicated) meant it was our first true self-reliant expedition :). This meant that we were fully responsible and had to constantly think ahead in terms of access to water (normally collecting and purifying stream water) and finding a balance between walking more and choosing a place for the night. With no guide and inaccurate maps (we had 3 maps that were all different!), these decisions were important to our safety and well-being. We were really making sense of self-reliance… In saying that, our struggles were both a reflection of Bolivia`s poor organisation and tourism support and our limited experience. Many tourists hire a guide despite the path being clear and we can understand this decision as it takes the pressure off. Also, we were surprised to meet some locals as well as a handful of foreigners actually walking in the opposite direction, from low to high altitude! Whilst walking mostly downhill was tough on our knees, we can’t imagine doing this trail with all our gear the other way round!
Our third day ended at Bella Vista, but not before a 45minute climb up the aptly named Devil Uphill Slope. It was here that we were once again reminded that this is the ancient so-called Inca trail. This pre-Columbian road network, which actually preceded the Inca Empire, was one of the most extensive and better infrastructures of its time, linking what is now Colombia in the North all the way South to what is now Argentina and Chile. The pavement, platforms, terraces, channels, contention walls and other formal works of construction show evidence of its continued use from ancient times until present day. The ‘Choro Trek’ constituted one of the principle access routes to the Northern Yungas where coca was produced and used as a stimulant for manual work and for performing rituals. It’s hard to believe that this path has been walked and maintained throughout centuries and it felt humbling to be part of this.
Day 4 we woke with enthusiasm, partly due to a very excited puppy who was bursting with energy and love to start the day. It’s hard not to feel good when engaged with that purity. What struck us most with Sheepy was her loyalty. She had only known us for a few days but whenever we met other hikers she would be wary of them and constantly come back to us, choosing us. We thought about our friend’s facebook page, Known not Owned. Sheepy had chosen us and we had been blessed to get to know her but now we worried about what would happen next. Should we take her home? Would it be right to confine her to a small urban apartment in La Paz? But would it be right to leave her to fend for herself out here? When we arrived at Sandillani, a stop for hikers 3 hours before the end, we noticed that the elderly man living there was alone and his face lit up on seeing Sheepy so we suggested that she could stay with him. My heart broke as we tied her up to prevent her from following us, but we really thought this was the best decision. As we left, I cried thinking about how this beautiful free puppy was now restrained but I hoped she would have a better life there. However, 45 minutes further we were suddenly surprised and thrilled by a very excited Sheepy who had chased after us as soon as the elderly man had released her!
Even though we were close to the end of the trail the last 2 hours proved very difficult as the sun was hitting us hard, the path seemed endless and the humid, dense, claustrophobic jungle felt heavy. Snakes, parrots and other wildlife continuously sharpened our senses. As we entered Chairo we felt a growing sense of pride, joy and relief. We had made it! The most difficult was now to say goodbye to Sheepy to leave her to live her life as she chooses. I don’t think there was any right decision but we are so grateful she accompanied us on our journey. In some ways I wonder the real reason she was with us… her lively presence helped me overcome my struggles and taught me, yet again, about this incredible connection we have with all other beings.
Looking back on these 4 days we feel grateful for what we have learnt and seen. Although difficult at times, walking the Choro Trek was also a great adventure and armed with this experience, we are looking forward to our next hike!
Enjoy the following photos which are from our time relaxing in Coroico….