Sunday, 5 November 2017

Border Crossing: Bolivia into Peru Along the Ruta De Los Tres Cordilleras

Coming into Caja Cachi
As we had planned this route from La Paz, we knew we were going to have to do something different at the border crossing. The way we wanted to go along the Ruta De Los Tres Cordilleras did not have any border crossing stations. To solve this, we planned on doing what the bike packers had done originally - go off trail to Puerto Acosta and get our passports stamped. Then to go into Tilali, Peru and get our passport stamped in before we're actually in the country. It sounds kind of confusing and overwhelming. In the end it wasn't too much hassle. Here's the story:

The border office in
Puerto Acosta, Bolivia
We made our way from Sorata up and over the mountain passes to the small town of Caja Cachi. From Caja Cachi we took some local transport, winding our way down out of the mountains and along Lake Titicaca into the border town of Puerto Acosta. We spent the evening finding lodging (there are only two hostels in town, and I wouldn't recommend either), eating, and talking about how to explain our plan to the Border Guards. The next day we shopped to resupply for our next stretch and then made our way down to the Border Station on the edge of town.

Unfortunately, we had just missed the border station's morning window, and he was out to lunch for the next two hours or so. The guards next door lifting and lowering the road block were quite nice. Fidgit talked with them in hopes that they would put a good word in when it came time to explain our situation to the border guard. I think her schmoozing worked, because the guy ushered us into the office after his return and stamped our passports after minimal questioning. He then asked us many questions about our journey and even helped us find a ride to Tilali, Peru that evening by asking each passing vehicle if they could take us!

The border guard had a wall of visitors, and added us!
We bounced along the dirt road to Tilali, and the driver waited for us on the outskirts of town as we walked a couple of kilometers into the square. The border guard in Peru was very nice, and even gave us some information on his hometown of Cusco. We then went back to the waiting driver, and headed back to Bolivia.

When we got back to the hostel, we both breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we wouldn't have to go through the border hassle again for a while - Peru is our last country before returning to the U.S. to wait out the rainy season.
Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian border

The next day, we got on another van and headed back to Caja Cachi. We then headed toward the actual area of the Bolivia/Peru border we were going to cross.

Border office in Tilali, Peru

Happy to be done with passport stamps!

Main square in Puerto Acosta, Bolivia. They
were having a Sunday Feria

Sunday, 8 October 2017

La Paz to Sorata: Crossing the Cordillera Real

And we're off!
We resupplied in La Paz and went out to a small outpost of Milluni, nestled near the base of Cerro Huayna Potosi- a towering mountain skirted with glaciers. Leaving Milluni, we immediately began our ascent to our first pass in the Cordillera Real. Beginning at an elevation of around 4,000 meters, we ascended for half the day up to around 5,100 meters and crossed over into the next valley. Descending to a small group of huts, we realized it was a refugio area and ate a snack in the shelter of the small buildings. As we left our refuge, the wind died down and the hail began. Thankfully we were prepared. The hail died down and we marched on along the valley to find camp for the night. We ended up following an aqueduct to a group of ponds and set up our tent between a couple of them to tuck in for the night.

The other side of the mountain, where most of
the glaciers were hiding
A refugio hut
The next morning, we set off to cross another pass. I was surprised at how rested I felt- I don't normally sleep well above 10,000 ft(3050 meters). We continued along the expansive valley most of the morning, before gaining elevation at another pass right as the lunch hunger set in. Luckily, we were able to stop for some lunch and continue up the pass in front of us. We crested in the early afternoon, and headed down hoping to cross the next pass a mere five kilometers and 1,000 meter descend and re-ascent away. Fidgit and I made it to the bottom of the valley in the late afternoon/early evening and decided to set ourselves up for success and not try and climb over another 5,100 meter pass. There was a camping area at one end of the valley, but we didn't want to pay to set our tent up so we headed to the base of the next climb. There, nestled into the base of the mountains, we found a small building. It turns out a group of people from down the valley came up and built a refugio together. As the evening winds picked up and the clouds descended, we decided to pay a small fee to stay indoors that night.

Waking up the next morning slightly refreshed, we made our way up and up to the top of the pass. As we neared the apex, I crossed some small snow patches and my oxygen-starved brain was taken back to the last time we had snow on the trail- in Northern Patagonia. I reminisced my way to the top of the pass, where Fidgit was patiently waiting to descend. I got ahead on the descent, and found myself standing on a ledge above a glacial lake, looking to my left at a cairn on the ledge next door.
From the altiplano into the mountains
These mountains seem to create their own weather patterns
Going up and up along the trail. Can you spot Fidgit?
As I began my descent, a small man showed up at the bottom of the rocky area, asking if I was OK. I replied and continued picking my way down with his watchful eyes on me. Fidgit showed up at the ledge and asked the guy at the bottom if this was the way down. "Si, son piercas!", he replied as I reached the ledge with the cairn on it and Fidgit began making her way down/across. I made a loud noise with my poles, and the man ran up from the base of the rocks to make sure we were OK. He then helped us the rest of the way down the trail/down climb area, and, ignoring his own clients who had huffed their way up and were resting, walked with us to an overlook and pointed out the trail to take down the valley along a lake. We made our way down and along the lake to the base of the next ascent and stopped for lunch. We began talking about our gratitude that along this journey, people seem to show up at the exact right time. I don't know how it happens, and I continue to be so thankful for it.

The glacial lake was a lovely backdrop for
our ledge adventure
After lunch, we ascended to a high point which, sitting at a mere 4,700 meters seemed much lower than the 5,100 meters we had just come over. We came down to another valley and discussed the next pass, which was even lower in elevation. It was still early enough, so we began our ascent. As we went up, some clouds rolled in and we got to experience our second hail storm of the Cordillera Real, this time with the added bonus of thunder! With no trees having been in sight for days, I was grateful that I didn't see any lightning because we had no choice but to be out in it. The storm rolled through quickly, coating everything in white, and chilling the air. We made it up and over the pass, descending to the edge of a larger valley and finding a lower place to camp for the night. I fell asleep quickly after dinner, exhausted by our 3-pass day.

This captures the cairn next door and the kind
guide waiting(notice the red dot)
Waking up the next morning, we began our descent further into the valley. I was tired from the day before and grumpy, so I just followed Fidgit. We ended up having to go down and around the valley to go back up the other side. It was longer than I would've liked, but it got us where we were trying to get. We made our way over another high point, coming upon a herd of llamas and their keeper along the way. As we made our way down across and into the next valley, I realized we had made it to the valley that we planned to cross from the western side of the mountains to the eastern side. I was interested in seeing what the other side of this range would look like, so I pushed myself harder again that afternoon. We made around 2 giant glacial lakes that took up most of the valley floor, and up to another lake before finding a camp spot and stopping for the evening. I crawled into my sleeping bag that night more weary than I had felt in a long time, and slept soundly even at the 4,300 meter elevation.
This nice man held Fidgit's poles
while she was down climbing

Waking up sore though ready, and adjusting more to the elevation daily, I was prepared for the next pass. It ended up seeming like nothing because it was on a dirt road and we had already done most of the climbing. So, up and over and down we went, and ate lunch at the base of our first eastern side of the Cordillera pass. After lunch, we headed up and I noticed a pretty immediate difference- there were far more trails on the east side of these mountains. At least noticeable trails going up and over the pass. This meant to me that more humans (with or without animals)  traveled through this area than the western side of the mountains. We had heard that before, which may color my perspective a bit, but the noticeable difference in trails was more evidence. Reaching the pass, we immediately began another steep descent into a valley that we would follow. The valley from above looked like a giant marsh, so I was relieved when I looked on the GPS and saw a trail that descended more gradually along the side of the valley to keep us out of it. We made it to where two valleys came together, and set up for the night.
Lunch break

The next day, we spent most of our time climbing up and up this beautiful wide valley with its glacier-fed river flowing along beside us. We- you guessed it- reached the pass and began making our way down into another valley. Still tired, we made it to the base of our descent and set up for the night. At this juncture, we knew we wouldn't make it to our next planned resupply town of Sorata in the time we had planned to, and were running low on food. Thankfully, we looked ahead along our route and saw that there was a small town a day or two before Sorata. We began hoping and planning to at least find something there to sustain us through to Sorata.
Our second hail storm in the Cordillera

We also had one more pass to go over before we would be in the valley with the small town, so we rested up and pushed on the next morning, with lighter packs and determination. It took us into the afternoon to get over the pass, but along the descent the trail meandered down and was easy to follow. We made it to town by early evening, and to our pleasant surprise it was bigger than expected. The town's children told us where the small store was, and then asked us for candy. We didn't give them any, though they stuck around anyway to gawk at the gringas until their parents or older siblings pulled them away. We hung out in town, repacking our food and snacking, then moved on to find camp for the night up the valley.
Checking the GPS and the sunset

Beautiful sunset
The next morning we headed off, relieved to have found food, though I wasn't excited about making my pack heavier right before a steep climb. Up and out of the lush valley we went, following along a mostly visible path towards the next pass. We ran into a guide and his charges near the top of the pass, and Fidgit did some information gathering with the guide as I talked to the charges. We continued up and the weather was nice enough at the top of the pass that we had lunch up there, blocked from the wind by a large cairn. We then went down. Near the bottom of the valley, we tried to forge our own way to avoid dropping as far in elevation before once again gaining it. Failing miserably, we did have another adventure in bushwhacking, as the first trees we had seen in days showed up quite inconveniently. Making our way up part of the next pass so we would be once again  set up for success, we found some water and a flat area for our tent. Settled in for the night, I wrapped my sleeping bag around me and talked to the nearby cows as my dinner was cooking.

Following animal paths
Going over the last pass before Sorata was tiring, so much so that we attracted a few condors near the top. They rode the thermals lazily above us as I huffed and puffed up to the 4,800 meter pass. Getting to the top in the late morning and then carefully negotiating the scree field on the other side was very tiring for me, so I greatly enjoyed our lunch break that day. Fidgit wasn't in a talking mood and was moving slowly, so I assumed she was also quite tired from this last week and a half of effort at high elevation. We chugged our way down towards Sorata- the lowest elevation we had been at in many days at 2,600 meters. It was a beautiful walk, though it was also tough to see where you are going from so far away and not be able to get there any faster. We ended up making it into town right around dinner time. Another successful section done reminded me that even though they can be brutal and exhausting, I much prefer mountain walking than walking along flat, boring areas.
Haven't seen colors like this since Patagonia

Valley floor Lake selfie

Camp at 4,300 meters

The lake was glass in the morning

"I don't think anyone's been here before" has
become a running joke.

Looking out from our perch on the valley below

Sometimes you just need a break by a glacial stream

The mountains peeked out at us

Fidgit getting some instructions from a local

Another break, another amazing view

One of the gawking children watching Fidgit
while she gets us more food

Looking back from whence we came

Llamas, watching Fidgit

One of the circling condors

Near the last pass, heading down to Sorata,
12ish kilometers away

Fidgit walks along a Peotonal, or footpath

Nearly to Sorata! Coming into the valley

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Uyuni to La Paz

Walking along the tracks
As things sometimes go, I got sick shortly after Fidgit was feeling better. We believe it was with the same illness, because the symptoms were the same. We were still in Uyuni as I was getting sick, but decided to try and move anyway because Uyuni is an expensive (by Bolivian standards) tourist town. We 'slack-packed' as far out of Uyuni as we could with day packs, and then rode a bus to the next large town, Oruro. I was so grateful to have a more than competent hiking partner during that time, because I was basically useless. I just shuffled along behind her, blowing my nose, coughing and wheezing.

It was very interesting to walk along the Salar de Uyuni and get to see it from a different angle than many of the tourists. It was also quite flat and cold, so we mostly moved along with our heads into the wind. As we walked past the Salar, the land began to slowly rise and we went between some stone upheavals. I don't think they were large enough to be considered mountains, but they mounded around next to and above us for about a day of walking.

Views of the hills across the Altiplano
Some of the buildings we quite abandoned
The ground leveled out once more, and we found ourselves in another basin, this one a few hundred feet higher than the previous one. Oddly, the wind wasn't gusting as much and the temperatures seemed to be higher - perhaps from the wind not gusting as much. We walked through multiple small towns along this stretch, many of them contained roofless clay buildings and seemed to be somewhat abandoned. Talking with some of the people in the campo, it sounded like many of them are moving into the cities for better job prospects. Looking out at the vast, barren landscape, I could only imagine what their prospects were in the campo versus in a city.

We were able to follow the railroads for much of the way into Oruro, walking and walking for what felt like forever to the edge of a grand lake. Across this lake, we could see the rise that Oruro sat nestled at the base of. Surprisingly(to me), the train tracks did not skirt around this shallow body of water, instead it cut through the lake directly towards the city. Walking that section was a welcome repreive from the massive expanse of altiplano that we walked to get there.

Nearly every town had a sign at one end
Walking into the sun
North of Oruro, the altiplano resumed and we walked as fast as we could. Another bout with illness impeded our attempts at walking 30+ kilometer days, but we were able to rest and come back with a vengeance.  A day north of Oruro, we caught our first glimpse of the mountains. Our physical eyes had finally gotten to see what our mental eyes had been seeing since at least northern Argentina a month or so ago. Spirits lifted, we still had to walk  there. As we neared La Paz, the ground began to rise and fall again - hills! I thought I missed being in the mountains, but these hills were also a welcome reprieve from the monotony.

The other change as we neared La Paz was the number of people we would see. In the towns we passed through, people were out and about. They were mostly stand-offish, but we had learned that is just the Bolivian way - similar to perception of east coasters in the US, minus the passive aggression. Everyone we interacted with was kind and helpful. As we continued north, many of the community members were curious and then didn't believe when we told them what we were doing. Though I think our beat up shoes and sunglasses tans told the truth for us.
No shade unless we created it

Nearing the outskirts of the city of El Alto (ok, so we didn't actually walk into downtown La Paz), we were met with more stares, and also more people keeping to themselves. I expected this from a big city, though it is nice you can still get a response from someone when you say "Buen dia"- they will nearly always respond in kind. Walking into the bustling city, we were concerned at first because cities are stressful. However, it was surprisingly easy to find our way around. We made it to our rented apartment with no problems and flopped onto the couches, ready for a much-deserved rest and some tasty city food.
We found water! And wildlife!

Nearing the end of the line

Fidgit talking with a local herds-woman

More statues appeared as we neared La Paz

Mountains! We are so excited to get back into them!

La Paz's Teleferico system- the quickest and quietest
way to get from El Alto to city center down in the canyon