El Choro trek

71 kilometers, 3 days and 3600 meters of altitude difference – just looking at these numbers should have told me that El Choro would be a challenge for me. However when Emma told me she was doing a multi-day hike with her tent and still looking for people to join in I didn’t think twice and not 10 minutes later we were buying food supplies. A third member was added when I was told about Matthias, a swiss biologist who was planning to start the trek on the same day as us. And so we went to his hostel and arranged for a taxi to bring us to the start of the hike the next morning.

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Where it all started

The special thing about El Choro is how many different vegetation zones the trek passes in just three days. Starting at 4900 meters up in the bald mountains and ending at 1300 meters in the humid djungle I was made to believe that except for the first hour we’d only be going down. And for the first day this was actually true. Thick coulds surrounded us and made for a dramatic atmosphere, permitting spectacular views of the mountains every now and then.

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View from the highest point of the trek

As we started going down and the dry stones were slowly replaced by green grass we passed several ancient ruins, lamas grazing beside the path. The small stream slowly turned into a decent river as the landscape kept turning greener.

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Walking in the clouds

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One of the many lamas, curiously watching me

And though my backpack was heavy, the main challenge that day was not to slipp on the wet stones and grass while going steep into the valley. Even falling back behind the others I felt I did a good job when we arrived at the campsite that afternoon. The spot was gorgeous and after cooking on our gas stoves and chatting for a while we all retired to our tents.

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View from Challapampa, our first campsite

On the second day the cloudforest turned into a full blown djungle! Waterfalls and streams crossed the path, occasionally turning the path itelf into a small current. Carefully minding my steps in order not to fall or wet my feet I really couldn’t keep up with Emma and Matthias any more and we mostly met up at nice viewpoints to take little breaks together. For the first half of the day the beautiful nature made me forget all about my hurting shoulders and back. Butterflies surrounded me and I spotted at least half a dozen hummingbirds, not to mention the rich green plants.

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As the stream kept growing so did the plants around us

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Some of the smaller butterflies

Then however it really strated to bug me that I was so slow. Despite my hiking boots and socks I developed a huge blister on my right foot and my hurting legs and back made me go slower and slower. It really didn’t help that the path kept leading us down to the river only to go steep up on the other side after crossing. When we finally arrived at our campsite I was so relieved! This place was even more remote that the previous one, with an amazing view of the valley and the moon shone so bright that night that we didn’t even need our headlamps.

On the final day we woke up to pouring rain. Luckily it stopped after a short while, but the rain had made the picturesque waterfalls and streams overflow so much that I slipped off a piece of wood after what must have been 20 minutes of walking and from that point onwards my feet were soaking wet.

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Emma crossing the river with much more success than me

This morning was a constant up and down the hills and both my strengh and my self esteem started crumbling under the conditions. While the other two securely crossed rivers and climbed the paths at an amazing speed I stepped into puddles and cursed myself for being in such bad shape. I thought I had gotten to an age where I stopped comparing myself to others, focussing on my own needs and strenghts instead, but I guess realizing my own lack of fitness has always been a sure way to make me feel bad about myself. Gladly Emma and Matthias were nice and understanding. Though they’d go at their own pace, leaving me far behind, they patiently waited at nice spots and viewpoints to take breaks together, share food and good conversations. For a couple of hours I was in a bad place, but when I finally decided to go as slow as I needed, taking plenty of extra breaks, my mood started to change again.

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A bridge – unfortunately this always meant going up again after crossing

I began taking in my surroundings again, the flowers and wildlife, spotting a tiny snake, a big green lizard and two bright blue butterflies as big as my hand. Though I was too tired to chase them with my camera my mood finally lit up again and from our lunchbreak onwards I really enjoyed the last couple of hours of our hike. Still I was happy and exhausted when I reached Chairo where the others were already waiting for me.

To finish off our little three day adventure we now only had to get a ride to Coroico where we had planned to relax in hammocks for a day or two before heading back to la Paz. And this is where my post would end, had we not bargained so hard in the village that we ended up in a tiny old car that wouldn’t start unless it already moved. Driving along the uneven dirtroad was already a challenge for my stomack that was craving real food, but when a big truck passed us on the narrow street the real dilemma happened. Two of our car wheels got stuck deep in the mud. Tired as we were we now had to push, pull and lift the car together while our driver tried to place several big stones under the wheels.

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Matthias inspecting our drivers attempt to free the wheel

At least we were already so smelly and dirty that leaning against a muddy car couldn’t make a difference any more. After pushing and pulling for several minutes we attempted a last try. Slowly the car moved, but then whith a sudden noise of shattering glass it rolled back into the mud – our driver had pushed against the car window which was now in pieces all over the place. Luckily I had somer plasters on me and he only suffered some minor cuts, but just minutes later he stuck his injured hand into the mud again. Finally a car arrived and pulled us out of the mud so we could continue our ride in the now windowless vehicle. We were so happy to finally get going that we didn’t even care about the pieces of glass all over the car or the fact that for the last 20 minutes we had to take the infamous deathroad (nowadays only used by mountainbikers) because the new road was closed for maintenence.

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Emma finally relaxing in the well deserved and much anticipated hammock

In the end we made it safely to the beautiful guesthouse Valle Bonita where we treated ourselves with hammocks, yoga classes and the best breakfast I’ve had in over a month. So despite all the ups and downs of this trip I would say that my first multi day trek carrying food and equipment was a success. I am glad I spontaneously said yes to it. Maybe next time I should look for equally unsporty people to join me, but then I really enjoyed Emmas and Matthias company and maybe this is also a great opportunity to learn to ceare less about others and just take my time.

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La Paz – a VICE reporters dream

I really didn’t think I would like this city and wanted to get out before I had even arrived. After all I had heared so much bad stuff: about the chaos, muggings and dangerous taxis, about the dirt, the roughness and lack of attractions. If it wasn’t necessary to pass through La Paz on the way to many of Bolivias attractions I might have skipped it altogether – and missed out on so much!

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La Paz and its stunning scenery

The last couple of days have been crazy and full of contrasts, just like this huge city surrounded by snow-covered mountains. While in Lima I sometimes felt like I was the only tourist in town, La Paz is full of gringos and many of them have one main goal: to party! No wonder there is a whole bunch of insane party hostels. On my first night I almost ended up at the ‘Wild Rover’ – the most notorious of many which was later described to me as a never ending frat party including a seven minutes in heaven room and shots which are directly poured into the mouths of party-hungry backpackers. Luckily I was instantly put off by the high prices and drinking gringos blocking the corridor to the reception. A lot of people get sucked into the neverending party and manage to spend several days in the city without ever leaving the hostel. This is a shame, because if you give La Paz a chance it can be an amazing and surreal experience.

Party is defnitely a part of what makes the city, from its not-so-secret cocain bars to English pubs looking for gringos to serve strong beer and free shots, but it is by no means the end to its crazyness. Roaming the streets with its many markets where you can buy just about anything from car parts to lama fetusses is amazing and the mixture of typical bolivian cornershops and clutterd stores next to lovingly decorated mexican restaurants and cafes in bookshops that actually sell real coffe can be surreal. Emma, a chilled New Yorker and my new trekking buddy  is shure that La Paz will become the next trendy city in a couple of years. At the moment though it is a werird mixture of people, places and attractions. Being suspended from a curch tower wearing a spiderman or hotdog costume is only one of the weird ideas Bolivians have come up with (and no I did not try this myself).

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Cholita Wrestling – and how did you spend valentines day?

In which other city would you spend a sunday afternoon at the ‘Cholita Wrestling’ watching traditionally dressed bolivian ladies in bowler hats and layers of colourfull skirts beat up bad guys? It was incredible how entertaining the badly acted fights were and the audience went crazy while foam was sprayed, men in pink tiger underwear were thrown through the ring and kisses were forced on each male tourist in the audience. Needless to say that the lovely cholitas won each fight.

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Another random encounter in the streets of La Paz – loved the matching outfit

But even when you don’t spend money on crazy events the city holds a lot of surprises. Today I discovered a street were people sat with their old typewriters offering some kind of inexplicable typing service. To my german eyes it almost looked like performance art. I am curious what else this city holds in store and though I am excited to leave for a three day trek tomorrow I already look forward to discover more quirks and weird places once I get back…

Virgen de Candelaria Carnival

Glitter, feathers and dances while the same song is played over and over again. Carnival in Puno was great fun though I gave up on watching the whole parade after about two hours. It goes on from 7am to 1am the next day so I only managed to see the first 5 out of 86 carnival groups but to be honest the whole city was a parade for several days so even just walking around I didn’t feel like missing out on anything…

Things I learned at my first workaway

Although my first workaway experience was quite brief, there is still a lot I learned in my 10 days in the Colca Canyon. And now that the carnival in Puno is over I finally have time to reflect on all the small and big things I have realized. So here are some random thoughts and realizations in no particular order:

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Viewpoint near Cabanaconde

  • I really like waiting tables and despite my clumsiness am quite good at it
  • WiFi is usefull, but can defnitely get in the way of living in the now and getting to know people
  • It is difficult for me to give less then 100% when working, especially if people are involved in the work
  • I enjoy the calm that comes with staying in one place for a while, taking my time to explore without rush
  • Age and matureness are not necessarily correlated
  • I crave a sense of community, especially when staying in one place for longer
  • One can travel the world with very little money
  • Peruvian employees see and treat their boss much different from what I am used to
  • My german directness can easily be missunderstood for anger and grudge
  • The world is small and the chances of meeting again while travelling the same country are quite high
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Colca Canyon in the afternoon sun

 

Nocturnal adventures

He should have mentioned it. But then, how did I ever think that I could trust information I got at the tiny tourist information office in Cabanaconde? By now I should have learned to double check information. But let me start where it all began.

The remote village of Cabanaconde deep in the Colca Cañon has been my home for a couple of days now and I already learned that things work a little different here. From the weird opening hours (8am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm) of the restaurant I cluelessly run together with Laura and Alex, the two other volunteers, to the fact that the kitchen staff seems to consider it normal to buy fruits from the store whenever someone orders a juice chaos has been a constant since my arrival. At the same time the pace of living is slow here, which I quite enjoy. With the next city being 6 hours by bus from here, there is not much to do other than enjoying the spectacular scenery of high mountains and deep valleys, read in the sun and get together on the street for an improvised game of volleyball or football.

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Passing time in Cabanaconde

On my free day however I decided to finally go on a real hike with Laura, an impressively smart full-blood traveller and pastry chef from the states who happened to turn 20 that same day. So we packed lots of water, some fruits and cake and walked off into the wilderness. We had planned a full day hike to the village of Llahuar and I was scheduled to work the next day, but as there was a bus at 5am which would get me to Cabanaconde hours before my shift I didn’t worry too much. And so we walked down steep into the canyon, passing fragile bridges and washed away paths while discussing politics, travel and life in general.

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Lau casually passing a landslip

Eventually the sun started burning and while we were craving shade, we felt like explorers retracing the paths that had probably connected the tiny villages for centuries.* After a few more bridges and steamy geysers we finally reached Llahuar, which turned out to be no village, but a single guesthouse and restaurant with a beautiful view of the river.

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Views of the stunning Colca Canyon

The homemade lemonade felt more than deserved after walking 5 hours and passing 1267m of altitude difference. We went on to take a bath in the 38 degree hot natural springs right by the river, surrounded by beautiful landscape, before retiring to the lovely hut that would be our home for the night.

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A much deserved bath

Dinner was great and we even treated ourselves with a glass of Pisco Sour, Peru’s famous cocktail, while meeting the other guests. What a great day! There was obnly one problem: the bus at 5am! When the man at the tourist info had told me about the bus it had somehow slipped his mind to mention that the dirt road was about a 40 minute hike from the guest house. A hike crossing the river and going up a steep mountain in serpentines. Even worse: I was told the bus could pass anytime between 4:30 and 5:30am. Fortunately a german girl lent me her headlamp (thanks Theresa, you’ll never be forgotten) so I wouldn’t break both of my legs.

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Our little home for the night

I set my alarm at 3:30am and when it went off the real adventure started. The night was pitch black with the only light coming from the half moon in the sky and my flashlight. Walking down to the river the only sounds I could hear were flowing water and the clicking stones under my feet. Crossing the swinging bridge at the bottom of the valley felt surreal with the stars above me and the mountains reaching high into the sky in different shades of black and grey.

Going up on the other side of the stream was a challenge. My hreat was pounding hiking up in the thin air and an inexplicable anxiety was creeping in the back of my head. I was thankfull for the donkeyshit on the path leading me in the right direction when in doubt. When I reached the start of the dirt road I was relieved, but the reakl shock was yet to come. I confidently walked towards the tiny farm we had passed on the day before and had thought to be deserted. Turns out it was not. In the dark of the night, a dog was barking at me from the middle of the path, his eyes reflecting the light of my headlamp. It was clearly defending his territory I needed to pass in order to get to my bus. I cursed myself for not getting a rabies shot. Should I turn around and walk back to Llahuar? Should I search a way around the farm? I was praying for the dogs owners to wake up – but they didn’t. Then suddenly I was given a brief chance. The dog, still barking loudly and showing his teeth, ran off to one of the houses seemingly trying to waker the farmer. Without thinking I quickly walked past the farm, cursing myself for the whole plan of taking a 5am bus and just seconds after I had passed the huts the dog reappeared, now running in my direction. i remembered Jasons story of dealing with grizzly bears and attempted to bark back at the dog while walking backwards in the direction of the “bus stop”. Eventually the dog stopped and in great relieve I reached the dirt road to Cabanaconde 5 minutes later.

For the next 40 minutes I lay on the ground watching the stars, my senses still so sharpened that I sensed every tiny stone rolling down the steep hillside and every faint light in the distance. Lying there in the middle of nowhere with the mountains surrounding me, listening to the pouring river in the valley and watching the night sky must have been one ofg the most stunning moments of my journey so far. Still I was happy when the honking bus picked me up and I didn’t much care about the cold, the rough driving style and the bad roads. Surely this was both the nicest and scariest night walk of my life!

*I later found out the dirt road was only built one year ago, so all goods were actually trasported via foot or mule before that, using the exact same hinking paths.

Sandboarding with Olly and Lucy

I met two german girls and this wonderfull english couple in Paracas and gave my best to impress them by doing sea lion impressions on the beach. It must have worked, because they didn’t object to me joining them on a trip to Huacachina where we sandboarded, jumped into the sunset and had great food before going our seperate ways the next day. Check out their blog post here.