The Choro Trek: Three Days in Inca Footsteps
Brilliant white glacier-capped mountains, grazing herds of llamas and sweeping valleys greet hikers on the Choro trek. The trail starts just outside the city of La Paz, then follows a steep downward route through the Cotapata National Park, covering landscapes from dry high-altitude mountain passes to the rich green slopes of the Yungas region.
The altitude, almost constant downhill and frequent hanging bridge crossings mean you need strong knees and a strong heart for this trip, which is normally done over three days. For those with both, Bolivia's extraordinary beauty is laid out all along the route, which passes through small Aymara Indian villages and was once an Inca trade route. Parts of the Choro are paved with Inca stonework, and it's thought the route was important because it allowed transport of food from the warm Yungas valleys up toward the high plains.
Most tours begin in La Paz, and after a short bus ride hikers are dropped off at a peak known locally simply as “the summit,” which sits over 15,000 feet above sea level. That's where the journey begins, surrounded by rock and gravel fields in the midst of a mountainous extraterrestrial landscape. The weather is often cold, damp and windy, and occasionally it snows. From there a steep, stone-paved path winds down into misty green valleys where llamas graze and small homesteads peek from behind the hills.
Despite being one of Bolivia's better-known treks, the Choro remains fairly uncrowded and services are basic, limited to families who have set up small camp areas or picnic sites where one can get a cup of tea, soda, and sometimes a hot meal. It's best to come fully prepared with food and water.
After a day of climbing down through high-altitude valleys and crossing rivers, there is a green space where an Aymara family has set up just such a camping area where hikers can pitch tents for a small fee. Visitors sleep to the sounds of a fast-flowing, clear river that passes a few yards from the campsite.
The second day of the trek climbs and falls into the emerald green of the Yungas region, and the temperature usually warms considerably. These rolling mountains mark the edge of Bolivia's high plains, and begin the long decent to the Amazon jungle that dominates the eastern part of the country. Here small-scale farmers raise coffee, chocolate and the coca leaf. The coca leaf is the base ingredient for cocaine, but in Bolivia it finds many uses in its natural form. In particular, it is always present in offerings to the Earth Mother, Pachamama. A mild stimulant, the leaf can be brewed into a tea that calms the stomach and helps fight altitude sickness, and it is chewed by farmers and miners to fight off thirst and fatigue. In fact, it's often said that the Yungas produces the finest coca for chewing in Bolivia.
The Choro clings to the edge of mountainsides, and often leaves trekkers looking down long valleys at clouds floating far below. After a night of rest on a Yungas mountainside it's a day's walk down toward the town of Chairo. There you can arrange transport to tourist-friendly Coroico, where restaurants and hostels with hot showers await. Coroico is about 5,000 feet above sea level, meaning hikers on the Choro descend more than 10,000 feet in just a few days. It's a trip that lets you help out the local economy in a small way while taking in a tremendous variety of Bolivia's extraordinary landscapes.
IF YOU GO:
-Respect the local people whose homes are along the route. Ask to use any facilities and never take pictures without asking. Many people you encounter along the route will speak Spanish and Aymara, while other speak Aymara exclusively. If traveling without a guide you may want to pick up a Spanish and Aymara phrase book.
-The trail can be hiked independently, or visit Sagarnaga Street in La Paz to find agencies that contract with guides and rent equipment. To further help the local economy, ask the agency if it works with guides from communities along the trail.
-There are only basic latrines along the route, and you must pack out all your garbage. Also, there are many biting bugs in the Yungas region. Bring strong bug repellent and avoid sleeping under thatched roofs.
-A waterproof poncho is a must for this trip, as are good hiking boots. The trail can be rough and paving stones become slippery in the rain. The dry season in Bolivia stretches from June through October, but there is a chance of rain along the trail all year.