You’ve probably heard of the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu. Hundreds of dollars. Waiting list months long. But what most folks don’t know is that there are Inka Trails all over the Andes and even treks that follow trails made by llamas. I just hiked one of these high country treks in the Cordillera of Bolivia. Here is what it was like.
There are no trees or bushes at this elevation of about 5,000 meters above sea level. Ichu bunch grass covers the ground. Llamas and sheep nibble it down to a buzz-cut stubble. Tiny white star-shaped flowers bloom in private crevices. Volcanic rock shoots craggy black spires against the sapphire August winter sky. Glaciers shimmer white in the changing light of the sun. We hear only the crunching of our boots on the shale gravel, the gentle laughter of water trickling over rocks and ice, the cry of a lamb scampering to its mother and the tinkle of a bell tied around the neck of a grazing llama.
I chose Adolfo Andino out of the many tourist trekking agencies that line Sagarnaga Street in La Paz, Bolivia. Since I am 51 years old and overweight, I requested a “lite” version of a trek. Adolfo recommended Tuni to the base camp of Condoriri for Day 1; for Day 2, a day hike as desired around that glacial valley or an attempt to reach Pico Austria; and for Day 3 a hike back to Tuni. For $110 each, he organized everything for our expedition—loaned us Doite Tents and Northface sleeping bags (a bit worn by much use), bought our food, coordinated our private transportation to and from the trailhead, and hired a guide and her mule to accompany my friend and me, carry our gear, and even set up our tents and cook our meals.
Regina, an Aymara woman, and her mule were our companions. She strapped on the back of the grey fuzzy-faced creature our backpacks, borrowed tents and sleeping bags, a kerosene cookstove, and a box with three days’ worth of food. The trek started at Regina’s home in the rural community of Tuni, which we reached from a dirt road that crossed the highway to Copacabana in the pueblo of Patamata. The first part of the hike crossed marshlands (jump over the rivulets!) then followed a dirt road that runs past a reservoir monitored by the water company EPSAS. After passing small dams with stonework that my friend Barb commented resembled the work of the ancient Tiwanaku culture, we left the dirt road and followed a llama path up a grassy slope.
The path led us through a glacier-carved canyon where flocks of llamas grazed and occasionally approached us out of curiosity. At a resting point, one of the llamas facing me made a hacking sound and started moving its jaw around as if ready to launch a major loogie. I asked Regina what I should do to avoid being spat upon. Should I freeze? Should I run? She said not to worry about doing anything. The llama was irritated by another llama. They only spit at each other. Unless, that is, you try to grab one.
The loogie never got launched and that llama shared part of our journey with us at a companionable distance.
We camped near an adobe house on the shore of a lake formed by the melting glaciers, which looked so close it seemed as if I could reach out and touch the horizon. Although daylight was t-shirt weather for Barb, at sundown we put on all the layers we had brought. The stars came out with a clarity seldom seen by urban eyes. The Milky Way was truly like milk spilt across a glittery black velvet tablecloth. The Southern Cross was harder to find now that gazillions of its neighbors were out and about. Orion had all of his accoutrements on display.
The woman who lives in the adobe house offered to cook us fresh trout she had caught from the lake. We accepted and enjoyed a delicious meal with homegrown Andean native potatoes.
Trout are not native to the Andes. They have been “planted” in many lakes for commerce or to control mosquitoes in man-made reservoirs. Further North, in Lake Titicaca, the trout are reducing the native fish populations. But in this isolated high-altitude lake, it appears that there would not have been any fish except for the introduced trout that we were savoring.
In our tents, our water bottles froze in the night as we tossed and turned, trying to stay warm. (Hint: bundle up in so many layers of clothes that you could sleep warm with just those clothes. Then the sleeping bag is an extra bonus. Do not rely on the borrowed bag and foam mat to keep you toasty when temperatures drop below freezing.)
Sunrise of warmth and joy. It is easy to sense why the sun was and is a major deity in the cultures of the Andes: Inti. Life-giving, life-nourishing Inti. I felt like singing in appreciation for the sun, like the Inkas sang for two days, according to a Spanish chronicler over 400 years ago. The whole town, he wrote, sang a ceremony with the sun. The song started softly with sunrise, crescendoed to a climax at high noon, and slowly subsided in the afternoon to the final note ending with the last ray of sunset. That was verse one. Verse two they sang the second day. The chronicler was stricken with fear at the majestic power of the people singing in harmony with the sun.
After this three-day hike at the top of the Andes, I felt like my spiritual batteries had been recharged and my mind had been defragmented.