The land of the four parts together
Following the footsteps of the Incas along the Choro trail
Four appeared to be the magical number. We walked through four seasons in four days, on roads that used to connect all the different regions of the old Inca Empire: “Tawatinsuyu” or “The land of the four parts together”.
“Tawatinsuyu” consisted of four provinces, whose corners all met at the centre of the empire, in Cuzco in Peru. Here ‘the only Inca’ or Sapa Inca was seated, sending running messengers along the Inca trails to offer luxury goods to leaders of new lands he wanted to conquer. We followed their footsteps.
In the old days the Inca trails covered about 22,530km and were used almost exclusively by people walking – or running. The Choro Trail extends for 60km, and traces what used to be the major food route between the lowlands and La Paz.
Shades of red
It was autumn, or so nature would have us to believe. Our trek started at Refugio Huayna Potosí near Paso Zongo, a two hour drive from La Paz, past reddish mountains and a miniature graveyard.
On the way up to the refuge we were met by the owner of the climbing agency, Dr Hugo Berrios, on a bike, wearing a pointy, orange bike helmet and black leather glasses. He jumped into the car and chatted away in broken English. He said he would really have liked to show us his favourite road, and got back on his bike again. We followed him by car down a steep, narrow road that lead to an English building, one of the first to generate electricity to the tin mines of Potosí.
The refuge painted orange shades against an unnaturally light blue lake. Mountain climbers were spread around the living room, and the walls were decorated by flags from everywhere between Finland and Ecuador. On the windows were stickers from different international climbing agencies.
The sitting mummies
We were walking in cloud formations around the eerie lunar landscape of the mountain area to acclimatize. Light grey water flowed in over rocks the same shade of grey, and the fog flew in and put down its grey flag on the map of colours.
Standing at the bottom of the steep ascent to the mountain top, we were told that the Incas used to worship the mountains. Hence persons considered important were mummified and buried in a sitting position on mountain tops, with valuable items left as offerings to the Inca gods. “Let alone climbing the mountain, imagine carrying a dead body all that way,” someone exclaimed. Huayna Potosí reaches 6,088 metres above sea level.
Walking into winter
Before leaving us alone with the cook and the fireplace, Dr Hugo gave us half a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and a game of backgammon with llama and turkey bricks. “If you are having a party, call me,” was his final goodbye.
It was raining when we went to bed, and by the next morning the rain had frozen and turned into snow. Still inside the cabin our breath turned to fog, and we put on all the clothes we had either brought with us or borrowed from the climbing agency.
With a Cholita dressed in a skirt and a rain-poncho as our guide, we walked into winter. The snow kept falling down as we stepped along narrow mountain sides. Ten years ago a man had died falling down from these cliffs, we were told. But before we lost our breath, the guide reassured us – he had been riding a motorcycle.
Before the descent began, we had to climb over a mountain ridge at 4,700m. As we started the decline, the snow became softer, and soon tiny rivers were floating down underneath our feet. Snowcapped mountains gave way to majestic hills and valleys dressed in green.
The running messengers
Holding onto our walking sticks, the shadows of Frodo and his men on their way to Mordor mixed with those of the Incas.
The further down we walked, the wider the rivers. Soon tiny blue and white flowers peeked up from the moss. The fog came in as scene curtains draped in front of the mountains. As soon as you forgot that you were in a mountain area, the clouds lifted for a moment and revealed the massive rocks behind.
We jumped over rivers and removed rocks from fences as there were no trails or marked roads until we came down to the real Inca trail, which didn’t really start until after we had been walking for five hours. Llamas and mules kept us company as we played the scenes from the Lord of the Rings in reverse; walking from Mordor’s dark mountains down to the shire. Small stone houses came into view, and a pattern of rocks littered the green valleys.
You could easily fall into the trap of thinking that these stones around an Inca trail are completely natural. However the Incas sculptured their natural surroundings according to the sun in order to show their respect for nature and at the same time their command over it. Legend even has it that one of their gods, a virgin goddess, changed herself and her son into rocks after it was revealed that the lowly regarded moon god was the father of her child.
Slipping down the rocky steps, we felt far from being the Chasqui running messengers, who ran several miles a day in the service of the Sapa Inca, carrying a trumpet made of a conch shell or an animal horn, a knotted recording device called quipu, and a qipi on their backs to hold messages. Our guide and porters looked back at us impatiently while we were busy examining our blisters and relieving our shoulders of our small backpacks.
Smell of spring
Our guide, the Cholita, lived in the first village on the Choro trail, and we camped outside her house the first night. For a small fee you can also sleep in the school: a worn down yellow and dark blue building hidden behind a tall fence in the shire, or Chucura.
The sunset looked like the ones in children’s drawings; a pink triangle between two triangular mountains. The next morning it rained, and we found shelter for breakfast in one of the houses that belonged to our guide’s family. There was a dirt floor, and the cracks between the rocks were stuffed with mud and grass. A light bulb hanging down from the roof in a steel wire was the only sign that we were still in year 2006.
On the third day we reached spring. In two hours we walked from 3,500 metres down to 2,700 metres. We peeled off ski pants and knitted hats while the Cholita walked steadily in the same wool sweater, apron with flower patterns and light blue hat.
This far down, you really start to get a feel of the Yungas rainforest. Waxy plants and pink flowers are hanging down over the trail, and blue and black insects crawl over the rocks. Half way through the u-shaped trail cut into the mountains, is a camping site with facilities including a small kiosk in a shed, a table and sheltered space for the tents. A modern day tambo, or inn, of which 2,000 used to be evenly placed along the Inca trails to shelter the running messengers.
“El hombre japonés”
The sun was shining when we woke up on the last day. Summer was finally coming close. We continued past a few remains of the Inca rope bridges and up “the hill of the devil” before reaching the house of a Japanese guy, a bit of a local celebrity.
Mr Tamiji Hanamura de Furio reached the hills of the Yungas 50 years ago after travelling for two months by sea from Japan to South-America. The carefully constructed Japanese garden is like Eden for tired trekkers, and “el hombre japonés” takes care to write down the names of all passing travelers. Over the years he has become somewhat an expert on geography, and he made us write down the average temperatures, both winter and summer, in Oslo and London before we escaped a bit shaken.
The rest of the trek was an endless round and down until we reached the final destination of Chairo, situated at 1,400 metres above sea level. Unfortunately, with summer comes bugs, and I suddenly realised that I had become the favourite drink of sand flies. Spots like measles started spreading on my legs.
The bus to Coroico wasn’t due for another couple of hours, we were told by the lady running the local shop in the dusty village. Drops of sweat drew white stripes down our arms and legs. Luckily our helpful porters (now with their hair stylishly gelled to the side) came up with a solution.
Exhausted and dirty we accepted without even thinking about it, and regretted once we saw the white, rusty skeleton of a car driving towards us. It had no door handles, no dashboard, and the petrol was in a can between the drivers feet, connected to the car by a plastic tube. We crammed eight people in the car and started humping our way up towards Coroico, letting out nervous giggles every time we felt a rock underneath our feet.
When we finally saw Coroico, its buildings spread out at like mushrooms at the end of the hills, we worshipped the city as the Incas worshipped the sun.
Huayna Potosí Tours
Calle Sagarnaga 308 / Illampu
Tel. 02 - 231 73 24
Fax. 02 - 245 67 17
09:00 - 12:30 and 15:30 - 19:30
Go on your own
You can catch a bus from the Villa Fátima area of La Paz and be dropped at La Cumbre, the high point of the Yungas road where the trek begins. The first daily departure is usually around 07:00 or 08:00
The Choro trail is easy to follow. The NGO Trópico has published a guide and a brochure on the Choro Trail, which can be obtained at the La Cumbre ranger station. Park rangers at this and at the Puente Elena Station ensure visitor control and provide information to all of the tourists that hike the trail
The one hour bus drive from Chairo to Coroico cost about Bs 180, divided among whoever catches the bus
From Coroico, you can catch a bus back to La Paz for Bs 15
When to go
Best between June and October