Bolivia: Feet of endurance

Burnt offerings and strong spirits are a crucial part of the journey along Bolivia's demanding Choro Trail, says David Atkinson – but he could do without the blisters

Every good journey in Bolivia starts with a shot of moonshine and an offering to Pachamama, the Mother Earth. This one is no different. On a bright but autumnal Bolivian morning I'm standing at La Cumbre, the entrance to Cotapata National Park some 28km from downtown La Paz, knocking back a throat-scorching gulp of singani, the local brandy. My guide, meanwhile, is busy preparing the ch'alla, or offering, to ask for Pachamama's blessing on the trail ahead. I look on as he sprinkles coca leaves and splashes of hooch on the rough earth at the foot of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, then I strap on my boots and rinse my mouth from my water bottle. Coroico is 52km of wilderness, or three days on foot, to the east – and there's no turning back.

The Choro Trail is the best-known of Bolivia's spectacular, high-altitude trails. It offers more scenic contrasts than most, with a trailhead amid the snow-strewn 4,000m-plus peaks of Bolivia's Cordillera Real and a descent through lush sub-tropical valleys to the Yungas region, which lies at less than half the altitude. Better still, it feels gloriously unexplored, with empty trails shrouded in mountain mist and near-deserted campsites along its length. With fewer than 2,000 trekkers per year (compared to the 500 people still jostling elbows along Peru's Inca Trail each day), there's a sense of remote tranquillity.

The first morning of the trek feels like a classic Altiplano hike, with the windswept path forged across rough-hewn rocks and bare, open pasture. As I get into my stride, I pass the occasional adobe shack, or a weather-beaten farmer tending his flock of llamas. There's a stop for lunch at the remote pueblo of Samaña Pampa. Andean condors soar overnight as I devour my sandwiches and flask of coffee. A perfect sense of calm reflects off the mountain as far as the horizon.

The afternoon, however, brings the first real test of my trekking mettle: blisters. The trail may be well marked, but the route makes for steep, downhill progress at times. My knees and feet take the full brunt of the descent. By the time we stop to rest at Chucura, a huddle of lost-in-time village huts at 3,600m, I'm imploring Pachamama to save me from the hell that is the grinding friction of ill-fitting hiking boots on a precipitous decline.

I make it to the camp at the small village of Challapampa at dusk, tired, hobbling and woozy from the dull ache of my throbbing feet. As I collapse into my sleeping bag after a supper of soup, macaroni and sugar-coated bananas by candlelight, I fear our offering had failed to please the capricious ancient spirits.

The next morning I awake to find the gentle glow of sunshine warming the tent and the cooling water of a nearby brook to freshen up before breakfast pancakes. In the daylight, too, I can see how the landscape is starting to change: from the high-altitude Altiplano of the previous day to the lush semi-jungle of the Yungas. Our tents are pitched in a green clearing fringed by wild flowers and the path ahead looks softer, grassier and, mercifully, more even.

It's a hot and sweaty descent following the River Chucura, but orchids and butterflies bring exotic splashes of colour to the trail. The lunch stop is at Choro, where four families live in a cluster of broken-down shacks by the river. An old crone flashes a smile that attests to a lifetime of poor dental hygiene as I buy one of the greasy bottles of water she hawks to the occasional passing trekker.

The next stage is a slog uphill to the tiny pueblo of San Francisco. The friendly locals have converted farm stores into rudimentary shelters and rigged up a makeshift shower with a drip of water and a platform overhanging the lush, palm-fringed valley. The view as I'm sluicing my aching muscles before bed is quite spectacular.

The last day starts with a heart-in-mouth scramble over slippery rocks under a cascade of water. After crossing the River Coskepa, we start the steep incline of the Devil's Hill, a 45-minute yomp over ancient steps with views across the banana and citric fruit plantations. The leafy Yungas village of Sandillani is home to Tamiji Hanamura, a Japanese hermit who runs a small campsite in his orderly back garden, complete with picnic tables. As we open our snacks and rest our aching feet, Tamiji-san peers out from behind the garden fence like a forest spirit: tiny, wizened and stooped over with the weight of his grubby baseball cap. He came to Bolivia as a traveller and fell in love with the Yungas scenery; painfully shy, he has, he tells us with some pride, not even ventured as far as the next village in more than 10 years.

The final leg of the trek descends towards Chairo, a village on the shores of the River Huarinilla, where buses and trucks connect to Coroico, the transport hub of the Yungas. It's a soft decline for the first hour but then, just when you think it's all over, there's one final crushing irony: a steep descent over loose stone fragments in a zigzag formation. Halfway down, scrawled across a huge trailside rock, some graffiti reads: "I'd prefer to die of the pain in my feet than to continue walking on my knees."

Finally, I stumble into Chairo on a sunny Yungas lunchtime. It's a biblical moment for many trekkers. Some cast themselves into the water to be reborn, others fall to their knees sobbing and clutching their blisters. I found the only working fridge in Chairo and handed over a few bolivianos for my first genuinely cold soft drink in three days. But before I took that first delicious, thirst-quenching sip, I sprinkled some of the liquid on the earth at my feet. I owed Pachamama a debt of thanks.

David Atkinson is the author of 'Bolivia: The Bradt Travel Guide' (£14.99)

Traveller's guide

Getting there and around

The best connections from the UK to Bolivia's capital, La Paz, and the city of Santa Cruz, are on American Airlines (020-7365 0777; via Miami. If you prefer to avoid the US, Aerolineas Argentinas (0800 096 9747; flies from Gatwick via Madrid and Buenos Aires.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444;

The best agency in Bolivia to arrange trekking trips locally is America Tours (00 591 2 237 4204;, run by English-speaking Bolivians, which deals in low-impact walking holidays with an emphasis on community projects and respecting the environment.

Staying there

The Hotel Rosario in La Paz (00 591 2 245 1658; has been adapted from a 19th-century hacienda built, in typical colonial style, around a sunny courtyard dotted with plants. Doubles from US$50 (£27), including breakfast and internet access.

The Hotel Esmeralda in Coroico (00 591 2 213 6017; great views. Doubles from US$24 (£13), including breakfast.

Red tape

British nationals receive a free 90-day visa upon arrival at La Paz or Santa Cruz. Keep a photocopy of your passport in your daypack at all times for identification purposes.

More information

In theory, proof of vaccination against yellow fever is required (bring the certificate). The main problem in the Altiplano, however, is altitude sickness – take it easy at first and drink the local coca tea to help you acclimatise.

For more details about travel in Bolivia, contact the UK-based Latin American Travel Association (020-8715 2913;

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition