Sillutinkara Trek, La Paz,  Bolivia

1. The start.

5am wake-up in cold El Alto - not a nice feeling, doubt it ever will be.

Trufi from Ciudad Satelite, El Alto down to San Pedro, La Paz.

Cross El Prado with tiredness being overpowered by excitement, which is also fueled by giddy delirium from hardly sleeping + coffee.

Taxi from Calle Camacho to the Minasa Terminal in Villa Fátima.

Listen and find a minibus due to the usual, but nevertheless impressive and informative hollering of minibus drivers and ticket sellers - personal favourite “Chulu-, Chulu-, Chulu-, Chulumaaaani”.

Wait for our Coroico-bound minibus to fill up.

Watch as the minibus driver sells seats that are already occupied.

Watch as minibus driver predictably feigns innocence as one of the seat owners - an elderly Bolivian gentleman; returns and rightly calls the driver out.

Laugh as the other “gringa” seat owner returns completely oblivious to what has just occurred, although I am happy that in the end, all is well.

Finally leave.

Move up and out of Villa Fátima and into uninterrupted views of the breathtaking mountains of the Cordillera Real, which flanks La Paz City on the north, east and south-east sides.

Pass the Hampaturi Dam, which bears the largest responsibility for La Paz’s water supply - looks full, that’s good to see, especially after the water shortages the city suffered in 2016.

Pass El Cumbre - looks like what I imagine a quaint Swiss Alps skiing lodge might in the sparkling morning sunshine, although I’ve never been to one.

Then, we start heading down to the Yungas towards Coroico, the initial scenery reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and the scene from the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where Mitty (Ben Stiller) skateboards down mazy, mountainous roads to escape a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

The driver shows us where to get off to start the Sillutinkara trek amid the creepy and extremely cool blanket of mist.

I will see the city again in 3 days, now nature awaits and I can’t see anything except for the mountain I am on.

 

2. What goes up…

Once you get dropped off on the road to Coroico (shortly after the turn-off to Sur Yungas), you will ascend the initial part of this pre-Columbian trek for about half an hour before you start the delightfully draining descent into the Yungas. The altitude is around 3,500m here and the plant life is beautiful, creepy, mossy and a bizarre fusion between the mountainous and cold Altiplano above and the humid, tropical influence coming up from the Yungas and (eventually) the Amazon below - these almost previously unimaginable-to-me micro-climate collisions a distinct and beautiful feature of Bolivia. This mixed bag of flora is also an indicator of all the weird and wonderful micro-climates you will descend through on the Sillutinkara trek itself, so consider light walking pants and rain jacket, a hat and sunscreen as well as packing warmer clothes for the night, among other things you may desire.

This image transmits the feeling of having it all in front of us. The fog adds to the early morning feeling as well as Tom’s hair being all spiked up like he’s just woken up - which is not completely untrue given our early departure. Trek-wise, it gives the feeling of wiping the sleep out of your eyes and getting stuck in, as it is (and was to be) the only option.

 

3. Strange Fruits

I’m going to skip ahead in the narrative order here, just to give a general (and by no means complete) overview of all the deliciously different plant life you will find descending down this trek and beyond to El Chairo - where you finally get down to the river and can get transport to Coroico (around 45 mins - 1hr). I will let the photos do the talking aside from saying that the moss + fog forest combination was truly strange, as was the early appearance of palm trees in the landscape. I feel like I made my way through fern heaven whilst sliding all over, into and off the muddy path of the true rainforest section - so be careful in some parts! I rejoiced when we got down into the Yungas and the view cleared up as we set off from Sandillani the next morning, while also marvelling at the feeling of being in a natural butterfly enclosure on this last leg down to El Chairo, as if I were the house in one of those glass baubles with the butterflies assuming the part of the falling snow.

Sillutinkara Trekking in La Paz, Bolivia

 

4. Breakfast

These smiles bring us back to the natural narrative order, and I must say that few things warm the human heart more than the thought of food. Actually eating it is an even greater pleasure, and completely necessary with a long 20-something km trek ahead, as we stopped by an eerily beautiful marsh to fuel up shortly before beginning the descent. We took a bag of the wildly popular marraqueta bread rolls emblematic of the La Paz baked goods production industry as well as avocados, boiled eggs, fruit, mixed nuts, 2L of water each and a few utensils to collaborate in the construction of our culinary creations. I also had a bag of coca leaves on hand for strength and to sedate any possible wild-eyed urges to mount an assault on our day’s rations. We didn’t bring any chocolatey treats because I had thought they might melt (they wouldn’t have), although there would be other delights in store for us. I like this photo because it transmits the happiness of breakfast time in a beautiful, natural spot - it’s picnic-esque.

“Ah the fresh air, what a great idea to get out of the city for the weekend!” I say to myself, part of a broken record-like sequence I would find myself pleasantly trapped in for the entire weekend. You can also see the previously mentioned mossiness on show in this photo, which is typical of most of the trek due to the moisture in the air; as well as the different shades of green which develop into a “drunken green” when you truly get down into the Yungas, as one acquaintance aptly put it.

 

5. The Long and Winding Road

It’s funny and slightly banal how we entertain ourselves on a long walk, the sight of a winding path provoking a Beatles reference as I write this, or the fact that this trek involved making our way down and around the sides of mountains, eliciting some weird country version of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” from somewhere deep inside me at random intervals. Luckily, my friends and I appreciate each other's company and laughed the whole way. The sadness and frustration one must feel being stuck with mediocre company on a long trek could only be superseded by the self-recriminatory accusations of how they possibly allowed themselves to get into this situation in the first place.

Sillutinkara Trek Winding Road in La Paz, Bolivia

I like this photo because it shows the beautiful and unique shades of green interspersed by spots of sepia belonging to these higher reaches of the Sillutinkara trek, before descending into the tropics and another colour palette altogether. It’s also interesting because this is the path we came up, not the path we went down, yet it still gives the impression of the journey to come.

One thing a long walk definitely gives you is time to ponder, imagine, dream and hypothesise and the capturing of the imagination is one of the things that the rapid and impressive geographical landscape changes in Bolivia provides in spades - basically the perfect canvass for dreamers to roll around on with a look of amazement and dumb-luck-realisation stamped on their faces. Bolivia is already known for its dinosaur footprints in Sucre and Torotoro, but an above average-amount of this country’s other breathtaking landscapes also transport me back to the jaw-dropping locations I marveled at as a child in my Dinotopia book.

 

6. ...must come down.

Down, down, down from around 3500 metres above sea level to El Chairo at 1,300 metres(eventually).

Impermeable fog. Hairpin turns. Repeatedly slipping in the mud and stepping knee-deep into quagmires. The up-and-over / under-and-out monotony provided by the fallen tree trunks on the path.

The already mentioned cerebrum-splitting changes in landscape, which is due to the marriage of Bolivia’s closeness to the equator, with its varying altitude of 0 to 6,400 m.a.s.l; among other important geological, geographical, ecological and other natural science family factors and events. And while I’m at it, I may as well mention that these altitude changes have beautifully taken carte blanche to create as many different landscapes and climates imaginable from the peak of highest mountain Sajama, across the Altiplano and down through the valleys to the plains and the Amazon jungle.

And halfway down the Sillutinkara, right in the middle of a cloud rainforest, a surprise in the form of…

Sillutinkara Trek Beautiful Waterfall in La Paz, Bolivia

 

After about 3 or so hours bush bashing down (it’s bizarre that while time is one of your biggest reference points throughout a trek, it also becomes so elastic, subjective and so easy to lose sense of, as some parts seem to go on forever) we get a definitive response to our earlier fog-inspired “Will it be worth it?” questioning in the form of a surprise waterfall spitting loudly out at us from its mouth, which breaks through the fog so characteristic of all that was above us. And it would not be the only waterfall. No, this trek would not be a waste of time. Now, we were in true cloud rainforest and saturated in another vivid, spectacular spectrum of green in our colour poisoning experience with said colour.

As you pass through so many climates in one day, be prepared!

 

7. Salvation, aka everything always works out in Bolivia, aka Sandillani.

Well, after a slow, yet blissful, start, the slightly confusing distance markers along the track gave birth to the realization that we had to up the pace rather than die wondering, without really being sure if that would be enough to make it to El Chairo by 9pm, let alone before sunset. Talking to one member of a Bolivian travelling party along the trek confirmed this sensation as we put the pedal to the metal as best we could, based on his advice. Thankfully, the time estimations given were more or less correct, as we had no idea of what lay in front of us.

By 6pm we had made it 15 kms to the end of the Sillutinkara trek where the El Choro trek finishes as well, however we were still 3 hours from El Chairo with night descending and no knowledge of the state of the path ahead of us. Despite this, we were galvanised by the fact that at an altitude of around 1,900m the path was now far drier and less slippery, and more so by the fact that continuing to put one foot in front of the other was our only real option. Decision time in the dark is a good time for modern comforts such as GPS (I hear Maps.me is a good mobile app that provides pretty good offline maps, most of the time) to understand more or less where you are; as well as a decisiveness, determination, a sense of adventure and flashlights to get there. Depending on your state; water, food and common sense are all important when deciding whether to continue or alternatively, to set up camp for the night.

Luckily, just 50 metres further along (so much for our GPS!), the path opened up into the splendid and tranquil plateau of Sandillani, with its Japanese gardens and more importantly - directly opposite; refuge for the night and “a big cold beer for a hard earned thirst” (Aussie reference). As is often the way, things have a nice way of working out in Bolivia (provided some small or large-scale political conflict such as a blockade hasn’t held you up or halted you), and we were very happy for it as, beer aside; we were provided with a hot dinner and 3 beds in a large dorm room to pass out in. A bed only costs 20bs, however overindulging on any items which the husband carries 3 hours on foot from El Chairo - such as the aforementioned beer; will be your biggest expense. Nice people, a nice place, and as the couple live there, I imagine that they are available to receive weary travellers most of the time.

 

8. Good morning Yungas! The bottom, the end and onto Rancho Relaxo.

Sillutinkara Trek into Los Yungas in La Paz, Bolivia

This is the view we woke up to, orienting ourselves at the beginning of the tight, tropical and subtropical mountain passes of the Yungas and their ‘drunken green’ hue. That’s a banana plantation you can see at the bottom of the photo.

The walk from Sandillani to El Chairo takes 3 hours at a comfortable pace, all down-hill, and given the beauty of this section, it is recommended to take 2 days and do this section on the morning of the second day, rather than rushing through it in the late afternoon / early evening and missing it. Such was the beauty of this section - the fluorescent ferns, the purple and pink flowers, the shady mossy parts, the breathtaking views of the profound and powerful mountain range bathed in sun and the smell of life; that I spent quite a long time appreciating it. One old decaying stone house slowly turning to ruin in a shady enclave and possessed by a sense of magic particularly got me dreaming.

Luckily, our clothes - which were still wet and muddy from the previous day’s trudge - dried on us as we walked, due to the warm air and hot sun on our backs and necks. Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and even a collared walking shirt!

Aside from one tense donkey crossing, which was successfully navigated thanks to Tom’s leadership, we made it down to El Chairo in much better shape than if we had of arrived the night before. Furthermore, with other trekkers arriving from the El Chairo trek, it was simply a case of waiting for one of their contracted minibuses to fill up (after talking to the driver and securing our seats by chucking our bags onto them) and we were soon on our way to Coroico for the rest of the weekend, aka Rancho Relaxo.

Sillutinkara Trek end and relax in La Paz, Bolivia

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