A shiver ran down my spine as the solemn Kallawaya hurled alcohol over
the fire to invoke the spirits of the high mountains. Leaping flames lit
up the darkened stone room and showed off the kneeling figure's striped
scarlet robes in their full splendour. The Kallawayas are the mystical
healers and fortunetellers of Bolivia's remote Cordillera Apolobamba.
This one was about to tell my future.
The Kallawaya took out a bag of coca leaves, placed one on a cloth on
which he had already placed a cross, chewed some then threw other leaves
over the cloth. After several tense minutes, the Kallawaya pronounced
that my journey through the Apolobamba mountains would go well. "Go
ahead," he said, "go ahead." I sighed with relief.
I was in Curva, the heartland of the Kallawaya culture. Curva is a
charming, peaceful village of antiquated stone houses. Pigs graze around
the village and herders drive sheep through its narrow streets. My guide
for the journey through Apolobamba was Paulino, a local Kallawaya who
had just been elected Mallku (community leader) of Lagunillas, a
satellite village of Curva.
The morning of our departure dawned bright and clear. We climbed a crest
out of Curva and the Apolobamba mountains came into magnificent,
glinting view. Not far out of the village, we passed several sacred
sites where local Kallawayas sacrifice llamas twice a year in ceremonies
to beseech Pachamama's blessing for harvests, work and health.
We climbed towards Akhamani, the Kallawayas' sacred mountain, its lower
slopes verdant, carpeted with terraces and grazed by llamas, alpacas and
sheep. Ancient, stone-walled enclosures and small streams criss-crossed
the landscape. Isolated, thatched stone cottages housed local herders.
We arrived at Jatumpampa in the late afternoon, just as the neblina was
setting in with a vengeance. We joined two local children and caught
trout by hand from a tiny stream, which we ate for supper in the dark,
cosy interior of a Quechua house.
We woke next morning to ice on the tents and a valley once again filled
with low cloud. We climbed steeply over dark rocks to the first of the
high passes and, as is the custom, placed white stones on the summit
cairn to ask for good luck and strength. Our requests were answered
almost immediately as a condor soared magnificently over our heads at
the next pass.
Chased by low cloud drifting over the pass, we descended into a misty
bleak wilderness. Dark, lichen-covered rocks towered above us in
near-vertical cliff faces, some overlain by frozen waterfalls. Small
ponds and tufts of paja brava grass broke the monotony of the thin, pale
green grazing. Not a sound could be heard and the enveloping mist added
to the eerie silence.
As we descended further into the hushed mist, the landscape finally
started to mellow. We crossed an area of open country and reached "Inka
Kancha", a site once used by the Incas to graze animals, and which still
bears the ruins of corrals.
We climbed steeply again up a path called "Mil Curvas" ("thousand
curves"), which clawed its way up the mountain by way of short, steep
zigzags. "Mil" is fortunately an exaggeration, although not by much, and
loose rocks and gravel made the going difficult. It was perhaps for the
best that a cold mist blocked the view of the pass high above us. We
could see nothing except for the next few curves as the path climbed
relentlessly into the clouds. The temperature plummeted; occasional
pockets of snow were replaced by large slabs of permanent ice.
We panted our way to a patch of level ground at a chilly 4,500m. We
decided to set up camp, as there was a tiny rivulet of water and
reasonable grazing for the animals. We rushed up the tents just in time
before a steady drizzle set in. By 3.30pm, I was dressed in all the
clothes I had, and I was still cold. We hurried an unpleasant supper in
the spitting rain and dashed for the sanctuary of our tents.
Ice made it difficult to unzip the tents and emerge into a bitterly
cold, although crisp and dry, morning. After an evening of interminable
drizzle, we could scarcely believe the sight of Akhamani bathed in
brilliant morning sunshine against the backdrop of a cloudless deep blue
sky and nearly full moon.
The elation of the view briefly obscured the fact that our camp was
still deep in sub-zero cold shadow. Everything that had got the
slightest bit wet the previous evening, including my rain jacket and
gloves, was now frozen solid. We set light to clumps of paja brava
(which burns surprisingly easily) to create instant though short-lived
fires to warm ourselves while we prepared breakfast.
We bounded to the summit of Mil Curvas and descended into a wide bowl of
golden-brown turf interspersed by tufts of ichu grass. Looking back down
the valley, once again we could see dense cloud smothering everything except the
distant glassy peaks of the Cordillera Real spearing through the mist.
Skirting trout-filled lakes and an open landscape fringed by dark
mountains and occasional gold mines, we reached the Viscachani Pass just
as some wispy clouds threatened to rise up the valley towards us.
Summiting the pass gave us a superb broadside view of Sunchulli and its
glaciers while the beautiful, snow-crowned form of Cuchillo revealed
itself to us for the first time.
After pausing to admire the view, Paulino led the animals along a high
path to pasture while I descended the steep valley to the gold mining
village of Sunchulli to stock up on provisions. Two mines had been
blasted into the flank of Sunchulli and another large mine was working
away in the outskirts of the village.
Sunchulli comprises an austere collection of tiny stone dwellings -
functional at best. Lower down in the valley stand the remains of the
Inca mining village with its large church. I was greeted in the modern
Sunchulli by a barking dog and four people taking in the afternoon sun
outside one of the houses.
Two children and two adults followed me into the village's only store,
which sells a surprisingly large range of items. "What else, what else?"
encouraged the young boy enthusiastically every time I asked for
something. I bought kerosene, bread, cheese, tinned fish, fruit,
drinking chocolate and toasted haba beans. The other child and two
adults seemed transfixed by my every enquiry and purchase. Clearly,
customers here are still a bit of a novelty.
Following the Sunchulli river upstream to rejoin Paulino, I
criss-crossed small streamlets and springy bofedales, and climbed gently
through pretty pastures grazed by many alpacas and llamas. Judging by
the size of some of the animals, the grazing here was of excellent
We camped at the foot of Mount Sunchulli, where we endured a
particularly cold evening, exacerbated by high altitude (4,700m). The
sun disappeared rapidly from camp and the temperature almost immediately
plummeted well below freezing. However, we were treated to a brilliant,
starry sky with the Southern Cross dazzling at the fringe of the Milky
Way, giving me my bearings.
Waking next day to the rare treat of early morning sun, although still
bitterly cold temperatures, we climbed towards the 5,000m Sunchulli
Pass. The view behind us of the valley and the Andean ranges beyond was
as striking as that of the mountain we were climbing.
We reached the pass and a staggering vista of the next valley. To our
left, Cuchillo displayed her perfectly formed profile while the rest of
the cordillera's snow-covered peaks stretched into the distance. To our
right, the Sunchulli glacier towered above the calm turquoise water of
Laguna Verde, beyond which scowled a dark, brooding ridge, protected at
its base by impossibly steep scree.
We plunged down a steep gravel slope to a beautiful landscape of springy
bofedales and myriad rushing streamlets and tiny waterfalls, much of
this watery wonderworld still frozen by late morning. We reached pretty,
pastoral scenes of shepherds watching flocks of sheep grazing by the
babbling river. Not quite so idyllic were some worryingly large puma
tracks heading along our path.
As we continued downwards, Paulino demonstrated some of his Kallawaya
knowledge by picking Qheya Qheya (a herb for treating coughs) and
Maych'a (an easily combustible plant used for lighting fires).
Continuing past the stone village of Piedra Grande, we followed a long,
undulating path through a valley dotted with thatched stone houses and
Several sharp peaks dominated by the spear tip form of Keansani rose
before us at the valley head. We camped in a delightful meadow and
Paulino made a soothing tea from muña plants (good for altitude and
digestion) he had collected earlier in the day. The valley sides rose
high above us to the east and west and closed to narrow points to the
north and south, creating a lemon-shaped sky above the meadow. As
darkness fell, bright stars filled the lemon, the Milky Way forming a
diagonal sash across its middle. This spot was so tranquil and still
(with just the sound of the river, grazing horses and the occasional
owl) and the sky and shooting stars so beautiful, I sat in the vestibule
of my tent for several hours, not wanting to zip away the scene.
Early next morning, we continued climbing up the valley beside the
rushing river towards the impressive, albeit snowless, peak of Keansani.
The river suddenly became silent as we reached a flat section of valley,
where the hushed watercourse meandered noiselessly beside our path. The
effort of climbing the long, arduous switchbacks to the Keansani Pass
was eased by the glorious view back down the valley every time we paused
for breath, which was often. We could follow the entire sweep of the
river, from the lower meanders upwards to the source of the tiny stream
high above us in the glaciated peaks of the cordillera.
Pausing only briefly to place a stone on the cairn, we hurried down into
another watery world of bofedales and small lakes. Mist drifted up the
valley to greet us. Skidding and stumbling down a steep, stony path
strewn with boulders, in a thick, damp, enveloping mist was bearable
only after we sighted a huge male condor gliding down the valley beneath
us. We gasped at the massive wingspan, which looked more like a small
plane than a bird and which never once deigned to flap, the
characteristic fingered wingtips, black colour and large white epaulets
on the shoulders indicating it was an adult male. Like us, the condor
was heading towards Pelechuco, and seemed to be an omen to encourage us
during this disagreeable stage of the journey.
Tired and damp, we arrived in Pelechuco almost before we could see it.
Pelechuco is a cluster of old stone houses, many thatched. By chance,
the town was that day celebrating the festival marking its founding.
Bands played the traditional Kantus music of the region, marked by
panpipes and a heavy beat of drums. Drunks staggered and danced in equal
measure. Bulls then entered the square, taunted by makeshift matadors
(some using striped tablecloths as capes) and members of the crowd. The
bulls made several charges at their tormentors, who either performed
basic bullfighting passes or rushed for cover behind benches or
Most Apolobamba treks end at Pelechuco, although the scenery gets even
grander further north. Leaving the still-celebrating town, we continued
following the Rio Pelechuco upstream on a poor, rocky path with many
long switchbacks, but fortunately also many shortcuts. In the distance,
the impressive glaciated peak of Nevado Presidente stood sentinel at the
head of the valley, before which rose Flor Nevado, with two gold mines
high up on its glinting flank. Shadowing us across the river, a ridge of
dark, gnarled mountains rose above steep scree.
We laboured slowly up a steep, arid track, inching ever nearer to the
magnificent, glaciated summits of Presidente and Flor, their white snow
tinged with glacial blue, with several sections torn apart by fields of
crevasses. Large herds of alpacas and llamas grazed on pastures beside
the river. A lone herder's hut and stone corral were the only signs of
We slogged upwards towards increasingly awe-inspiring views of glaciers,
crevasses and snowy peaks. The view back down the valley was also
becoming grander and grander as we rose high above the dark scree slopes
and meandering river into the icy world of the high Andes.
As we neared the rounded pass, I literally stumbled across a section of
Inca paving, running west towards the ancient capital of Cuzco. We were
still marvelling at the remnant of Inca road when a condor flew across
our path to a rocky perch high above the pass.
Katantika Pass is marked by several turquoise lakes and some of the most
striking scenery in the Andes: the glaciers and crevasses of Presidente
and Flor glinting in the sun, plunging steeply towards the valley far
below, and seemingly rimming a tranquil, trout-filled lake bordered by
Inca paving. And a condor perched not far above my head. A stone cross
marks the most sacred point of the pass, the landscape beyond mellowing
markedly from jagged, icy summits to rolling undulations. I laid a stone
at the cross, more in gratitude for this spellbinding vista than to ask
for good fortune. After all, what more could go right? Curva-Katantika
doesn't trip off the tongue quite as easily as Curva-Pelechuco but,
after witnessing the view from the pass, it is impossible to care.