Whilst planning our recent trip to Peru and Bolivia, one of the trekking destinations proposed was Bolivia’s Cordillera Apolobamba, a remote and little visited area several hours journey north of La Paz. Unfortunately it turned out there wasn’t enough time to include a full week’s traverse of the Apolobamba range on this trip, but whilst researching, I came across some information about a shorter route – the Pacha Trek, a community based initiative that offered 3 days of not particularly demanding walking, hosted and guided by local people from the communities the route passed through.
This looked like an ideal opportunity to get to know the area, meet the local Kallawaya people and learn a bit about their way of life. The Kallawaya are a group of traditional medical practitioners who combine their vast knowledge of the preparation and use of herbal medicines with a role of environmental and spiritual stewardship. Itinerant Kallawaya healers have travelled the length and breadth of the Andean region, and beyond, for centuries. A holistic approach is taken, with the belief that human health and wellbeing is interdependent with environmental and spiritual well being.
So, the Pacha Trek appeared to offer some gentle (ish) walking, a genuine cultural experience and community involvement, all in a region with a special and pristine natural environment that sees very few tourists. As we at Mountain Freedom are tourism providers with a commitment to responsible practice based here on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish highlands (which is also also a remote, rugged, culturally unique region facing challenges in how to embrace tourism in a way that is non- destructive) it would also be interesting to hear how people felt the Pacha Trek project was working. Seeing other ways of doing things can be very useful!
I’m so glad to have done the Pacha Trek. Despite about 30 years of exploring the Andes on foot, I’d never had an experience quite like this. You didn’t need to be a hardcore mountain type to do it but scenically it was just as rewarding as many longer, tougher missions. In every village there were new people to meet, and there was plenty of time for wide ranging conversations, learning about each other’s day to day life and culture, and exchanging views on everything from world politics to the world cup.
Anyone planning a visit to Bolivia should give the Pacha Trek some serious consideration. In my mind it’s one of the very few hikes I’ve ever done in the last 30 years where it’s not really about the walking, it’s much more, a total experience that can’t be found on any other route. In fact, right now I can only bring to mind 2 other similarly unique pedestrian experiences – Spain’s Camino de Santiago and Peru’s Classic Inca Trail. With the Pacha Trek I thought a lot of this uniqueness was down to the sense of reality with which it was imbued. This was just day to day life. It wasn’t a manicured or packaged product in any way. Our journey seemed always to be simply like popping over to the next village, chatting with the neighbours as they invited you in for a brew.
How much time do you need?
You can do the Pacha Trek in 3 days, starting from La Paz around 6am on the 1st day and returning there around 7 pm on the 3rd day.
How hard is the walking?
Pretty easy – each section is not much more than a couple of hours walk, even at a fairly leisurely pace, and it’s mostly downhill on a good trail. There are a couple of rough bits and a couple of short uphills though. Bear in mind that the starting altitude is about 4500 metres so you need to be reasonably acclimatised before you start. Also bear in mind that the local guides are used to walking these routes at a local’s pace rather than tourist pace. They are friendly, helpful and informative but are not full time professional hiking guides so you may have to ask them to adapt to your pace!
What are the activities, and what are they like?
Each village has a small interpretive centre that tells you what they do that’s special. As each village is at a different elevation, they are remarkably different, with the lower ones more dedicated to agriculture, the higher ones to grazing animals. In between it’s a gradual mix of potatoes, herb cultivation and crops. Each village also presented a different aspect of the culture – in Qotapampa it was about grazing animals, in Kaluyo we learnt a bit about the Kallawaya belief system and had the chance to participate in a Kallawaya ritual, which was fascinating and quite moving. In case you were wondering, no animals came to grief for this. In Chacarapi it was all about herbal medicine, with a visit to a herb nursery and an explication of the processes involved in preparing the medicines. In Chari there was a tour of the village’s principal sacred sites with a young man who explained how Kallawaya ceremonies had not only a practical healing purpose but also reinforced respect to the natural and spiritual environment. We had a fascinating discussion about how money and politics influence the integration of traditional and modern medicine. There was a truly magnificent demonstration of hand weaving and textile art, and the evening was rounded off in style with a bonfire and a few legends and stories about owls and other animals. In Charazani there was a chance to visit the hot springs, very pleasant indeed. as was the secret, totally hidden, unmarked but amazingly popular restaurant we were taken to for lunch.
How is the accommodation?
Good! The community lodges are basic, unheated of course, but very clean, tidy, and can sleep around 8 people. Bathrooms are clean, cold water affairs with flush toilets. There are plenty blankets but it’s a good idea to bring a sleeping bag – it can get quite chilly at night.
Food and drink?
Tip top. Each lodge has it’s own spotless kitchen and our hosts prepared delicious meals, even for our totally vegetarian party. Local foodstuffs and hearty portions were the order of the day. Hot drinks and boiled water were offered the moment we came through the door. There was meticulous attention to hygiene. Freshly picked and prepared organic salads were a highlight in the lower villages where there were vegetable plots. Our hosts all told us one of the big benefits of the Community trekking project was that there was training available in things like cooking (for tourists), housekeeping, and food hygiene. The skills and the experience gained with the project were transferable and that was important.
Guiding and safety
There is a different guide for each stage of the journey – basically one person will take you from their village to the next one, where another guide and/or host will be waiting for you. This was great as we got to meet and talk to a lot of different people. Our guides were lovely people. They were considerate, safety conscious and happy to share their experience with you – each had different areas of expertise – One might be able to tell you a lot about birds and another a lot about plants. As mentioned before, they are not full time professional guides and as such, you sometimes had to ask things rather than wait for them to go into a routine or spiel like a full time college trained interperative guide might do. Although they were all Spanish speaking, sometimes if you asked them the name of a particular thing they might only know the Quechua or Aymara name. One final thing – this is a very relaxed and safe area of Bolivia – nothing bad is likely to happen to you!!
Is it busy?
No. We saw no other foreign tourists at all, from leaving the main road at the Copacabana junction a little north of La Paz until we returned to the same spot. A look through the visitor books in the community hostels shows that there were not really a lot of visitors, maybe one group every couple of weeks or so. I talked to lots of locals and they all said they’d would be happy to see visitor numbers rise. I asked at what level of visitors they would consider the community tourism project to be potentially having a negative impact – They all said they’d be happy for it to increase a lot, and it was a good thing for the whole community on every level, not just for the project members – They would even be happy to welcome as many as 200 people a year, one guy told me! Maybe I should try and convince some of our Isle of Skye visitors who can’t find places to stay here to head in the direction of Kaluyo!
This is a very immersive, interactive experience and it helps if you have a good command of Spanish. The local people are very friendly but can sometimes initially be a bit reserved or shy. Also, for many Spanish is not their day to day language. You can quickly overcome this just by starting a conversation. Soon you will be answering a whole list of questions about your home, family and a million other things. If you’re learning, then its a good place to practice your Spanish as you won’t come across much English or other foreign languages being spoken. If you don’t feel your Spanish is up to scratch then consider arranging for an English speaking guide to make the trek along with you – This trip is all about communication and dialogue.
What to wear/bring
Temperatures and sunlight levels vary a lot so bring a few layers of clothes, waterproofs, a sleeping bag and some toiletries. Bring a sealable waterproof bag so you can pack out any personal trash. You’ll need a head torch, a water bottle and strong sunscreen. Make sure any cameras or other devices are fully charged, some of the villages have electricity but it’s not always on so don’t rely on it. Be sure to have plenty of pictures from home to show people. Bring some money to buy souvenirs and stuff – Some of the textile crafts you will see are of very good quality indeed and you will doubtless want to stock up on Kallawaya herbal medicines. Don’t do what I did and buy the tester pot by mistake ;-). Bring a pack towel and some swimming things for the hot springs in Charazani.
Pack animals (llamas or donkeys) are available to carry your extra stuff so you can just walk with a minimal day pack. However, we arrived in one village to find the llamas had escaped and run off – You might end up carrying your sleeping bag and stuff for a bit – pack light! Anyway, the walking is easy enough that it’s no hardship to carry what you need for a couple of days, unless of course you are planning a fashion photo shoot.
Giving tips to guides, porters and cooks and is commonplace on many Andean treks and tours. It’s a a personal thing and everyone has different views on how, or if, to to tip. With the Pacha Trek the sheer number of people who you were interacting with and were doing things for you each day was pretty overwhelming and tipping everybody individually could have been a nightmare. I decided the best approach for showing appreciation would probably be to make a contribution to the project as a whole rather than on a individual basis. Some of our guides said they would welcome the opportunity to learn English or another foreign language – gifting the project so they could get hold of learning materials could be a good idea.
Thanks to Milenka, Stephen and Tomas at La Paz On Foot for all their assistance in organising our experience on the Pacha Trek. If you need information or help with organising any aspect of a trip to Bolivia, I’m sure they will be able to help.
Thanks also to Martha Ajururo Mamani for all her hard work with this project. Everyone we spoke to on the trek had only amazing things to say about you. It was a pleasure to meet you!
You can find the Pacha Trek on Facebook
Photos by Mountain Freedom and Pacha Trek