Over the past decade I have had the good fortune – as well as the time and fitness and available cash! – to trek and climb South America’s Andes Mountains on a half-dozen three-week trips. From Ecuador’s highest peaks to southern Patagonia’s hiking trails, the reward for meeting the challenge of an often high-altitude alpine environment is stunning mountainscape and photo opportunities that few get to walk into.
After one trip – the trek in Peru’s Ancash region south of Huaraz, I posted a trip report titled “The Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit – South America’s Finest High-Altitude Trek”. We spent sixteen days in the compact cordillera, which Joe Simpson helped to bring to the mountaineering world’s attention as the location of Siula Grande in his Touching the Void. The most amazing high-altitude trek indeed!
As great as that trek was, handing out first prize to the Huayhuash before I have seen all the contestants was probably not a good idea! I have just returned from Bolivia and a walk down Cordillera Real – Spanish for Royal Range. My heart – and my head – are telling me of my experience: “This just has to be the finest high-altitude trek in South America!”
Over fourteen days we walked about 120 kilometers from the north end of the cordillera below the west face of Nevado Illampu down to the north side of Nevado Huayna Potosi. We passed hundreds of peaks over 5000 meters and five over 6000. We also walked up a couple of trekking peaks in the 5300 meter range and almost daily crossed passes of 5000. To put all the numbers into perspective, North America has one 6000-meter-plus peak (Denali) and only ten which are 5000 meters or higher.
While the Himalayas and the Karakoram clearly dominate any global list of high-altitude peaks, Bolivia’s Cordillera Real comes close to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca for the most stunning collection of high-altitude summits outside of Asia. And how about the already-mentioned Cordillera Huayhuash? It remains in the conversation too! a Look at this list of the dozen 6000 meter + peaks in the 30-kilometer range, and you can see why it is in the running for South America’s best high-altitude trek . In the end, I’ll just forget about naming one of them as the best. Let’s just say that I’d be happy to have visited any, or even better, all of them!
I’ve put together a series of posts detailing our Cordillera Real route with Google satellite maps and elevation charts to give you an idea of what the trek involves. To create the route map I used the gps tracks recorded by my Spot Connect. While not as accurate as the Garmin Oregon I decided to leave at home, the results are usable. (The Spot only records a location every ten minutes while the Garmin does so each second.)
The images from the two cameras (the Sony A77 and the Sony A6000) and various lenses I brought along will show a little of the breathtaking views that were the daily reward for being in the Cordillera. I’ve also added a few of the many excellent photos taken by my trekking mates.
When To Go:
I did the trip in September – the 11th to the 24th – which in Bolivian terms is near the end of their dry season, the stretch from May to October when the skies are more likely to be clear and there is less chance of rain. It is also the time when nighttime temperatures dip down close to freezing, even in La Paz at 3800 meters.
July and August are considered high season but we would have excellent weather during our two weeks in September. It only rained twice – once on our rest day at Chachakumani and then on the last afternoon as we walked down a valley to the east side of the Cordillera and the humid air of the Yungas and Amazonia. Typical campsite altitude was around 4500 meters. On a few occasions I found the contents of my water bottle frozen in the morning. Day time temperatures were in the 15ºC range.
The Need For Acclimatization Time:
Before you head for the Cordillera and a typical altitude in the 4500 to 5400 meter range, you need to give your body some time to adapt to the new situation. (I flew in from Toronto which is 100 meters above sea level!)
Here is a graph which makes clear the impact of decreasing air pressure as you gain altitude. While the percentage of oxygen in the air remains the same – i.e. 21% – no matter what the altitude, the column labelled “Effective Oxygen” shows that the number of molecules of oxygen per given volume of air does decrease. This is what people are referring to when they say the air gets thinner as you ascend. You need to breathe a greater volume of air to get the same oxygen that you get at lower altitudes. So at 5500 meters, for example, the “effective” oxygen level is 10.5% or half of what it is at sea level. That is quite the decrease.
Given that La Paz itself is at 3800 meters and a walk down the Cordillera Real will have you in the 4000 to 5000 meter range for almost two weeks, you can see the need to spend some time acclimatizing. They key is not to rush things – and a week spent in and around La Paz will give your body that time.
La Paz itself is an incredible experience and is worth a few days of your time. Nearby are excellent cultural day trips. The visit to Tiwanaku is the most popular one. As well, an overnight visit to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca and then to nearby Isla del Sol will have you up just above 4000 meters. You’ll also get to know a little about the people who live with the Cordillera Real every day! See the following posts for more information:
- A Traveller’s Guide To La Paz, Bolivia
- Photos of Photos – A Visit To La Paz’s Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore
- Bolivian Travels: From La Paz To Copacabana & The Shores Of Lake Titicaca
- Bolivian Travels: From Copacabana To Isla del Sol
- Bolivian Travels: Walking Through The Ruins of Isla del Sol & Isla de la Luna
What To Do In the Cordillera Real:
When it comes time to head for the mountains, you can do one of two things:
The Mountaineering Option – you can climb some of those peaks. With a week of basic acclimatization done, you can follow that up with a week at Condoriri Base Camp on Chiar Khota doing some climbs that will take you up to 5500 meters or so. Then, in the third week, the climax – summits of Huayna Potosi and/or Illimani and Sajama, all in the 6000+ range. The current Lonely Planet Bolivia guide-book has a chapter on mountaineering in Bolivia with specific info on climbing the peaks I mentioned above.
The image below shows some of the Condoriri peaks that we got to see on a somewhat cloudy afternoon from Pico Austria, a 5400 meter trekking peak that does not require any specialized mountaineering gear to climb.
Base camp for Condoriri would be down below on the shore of Chiar Khota. Yossi Brain’s 1999 Bolivia: A Climbing Guide is still the best thing out there in English if the climbing option is your choice.
The Trekking Option – you can trek alongside and through the Cordillera Real and experience its grandeur from the various passes and trekking peaks that will take you up to 5400 meters. No crampons, ice axes, ropes, or harnesses required – only a little tilting of your head upwards! I went for this less intense option, figuring it would provide an excellent introduction to Bolivia and to a mountain range that deserves a return visit with my mountaineering gear.
The trek turned out to be fairly intense in itself. On ascents I sometimes felt like I was running on empty. Stepping on the scale when I got back home, the numbers told me that in three weeks I had lost 6.4 kilograms (14 pounds)!
How To Go – On Your Own or With An Professional Trekking Agency?
While the Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile’s southern Patagonia is totally do-able on your own, as are the trails around Fitz Roy across the border in Argentina, a multi-day trek down the Cordillera Real would not be easy for independent hikers. Unlike Patagonia, trekking infrastructure is all but non-existent and even the trails – of our route at least – were often little more than shepherd trails and faint llama tracks. Supplies would have to be brought from La Paz since there are no nearby villages to replenish.
There is also the safety issue – being with a guide, arrieros, and other trekkers provides you with built-in protection and security.You become part of a family and everyone looks after everyone else. Our trekking group was mostly middle-aged or older (I was the second oldest at 64). As well, most of us could be labelled as Type A personalities, somewhat obsessed with setting goals and meeting them. Three of them had done Bhutan’s month-long Snowball trek the previous year. Given the cost of the trip, all had white-collar jobs or comfortable pensions back home to support their quest for a new challenge! I felt right at home!
The most recent Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook (8th edition 2013) dealt briefly with the safety issue with comments specifically about the Sorata area at the north end of the Cordillera –
“With Sorata’s economy turning from tourism to mining and farming, there are fewer guides offering services here, and fewer pack animals for hire. Reports indicate that this could be a dangerous area for trekking and many agencies are no longer offering treks in the region. The El Camino de Oro trek is reportedly seeing little traffic these days, meaning you’ll have to clear the trail with a machete and may face some tough locals along the way. The Mapiri trek has an even rougher record, with increased reports of robberies. The villages along the way are now charging passage fees and are said to have become quite aggressive with those who do not pay.”
While the quote is specifically talking about treks down into the Yungas from Sorata, and not the trek down the Cordillera Real, it is still worth consideration. The Laguna San Francisco area has a history – perhaps not recent – of trekkers being robbed.
Given the reality of trekking in the Cordillera Real area, the best plan is to find a reputable agency in La Paz to organize the logistics of the trek for you. Guide, donkeys, muleteers, tents, food, shuttle to and from the trek – you are paying people who have the contacts and experience and equipment necessary to make it all work.
Reputable Trekking/Mountaineering Agencies in La Paz:
For me, finding a reliable agency to go with usually begins with a look at various guide books like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Footprint. That is how I ended up with SAS Travel in Cusco for my Machu Picchu Inca Trail trek; it is also how I found a mountaineering agency in Quito for a couple of climbing trips. If I can find out which local company a U.S. or British agency like Mountain Madness or Exodus turns to, then I take that as a sign that it must be doing a very good job.
My research led me to a handful of agencies – click on the name to access the website.
In The Lonely Planet’s Bolivia guide-book you’ll find this brief and fairly bland mention of Andean Summits:
Offers a variety of outdoor activities from mountaineering and trekking to 4WD tours in Bolivia and beyond. The owners are professional UIAGM/IFMGA mountain guides.
James Read in the current edition of The Rough Guide To Bolivia has a more enthusiastic review.
Professional and much respected adventure tour operator with an excellent reputation that runs “off the beaten track” mountaineering and trekking expeditions throughout Bolivia, led by experienced and highly qualified English-speaking guides,
Googling Andean Summits did result in a bit of confusion. There is another company in Huaraz, Peru named Andean Summit (no s). It gets great reviews but it is not the agency based in La Paz!
Another climbing/trekking agency with guidebook mentions is Climbing South America. Based in La Paz, it offers trips throughout the Andes. Again, the Lonely Planet entry is brief and bland. You will read this – “Climbing South America is a reputable operator.” Read’s Rough Guide entry is more positive –
Sharing the same colonial space as Café Illampu and run by affable Australian Jeff Sandifort, this professional and dedicated company offers trips to all the Bolivian peaks…
Given the reluctance of many agencies to actually post their prices on their website, it was a nice change to see this agency do that for some of their trips. I take that as a sign of a company confident in what it is offering.
Bolivian Journeys is another la Paz agency which gets a mention by the Lonely Planet writers. The summary reads like this –
A specialist in climbing, mountaineering and trekking, this company does guided climbs to Huayna Potosí. Equipment rental is available, with maps and gas for MSR stoves for sale.
A bit of surfing the net turned up this recent (Sept. 2015) thread at tripadvisor’s Bolivia forum – click here to access. The reviewer did the section of the trek from Chiar Khota to the end in Chacapampa/Botijlaca – the last three days of the two-week trip I did – and while it seems he enjoyed the walk he did not think he got value for money. “Third-world service for first-world prices” is how he put it. The responses to his post are also interesting.
Bolivian Mountain Guides is a La Paz agency which I did not find mentioned in the guide books but it does get discussed in the trip advisor’s Bolivia forum. The comments are definitely positive. (See here.) So are those of these members of the Alpine Club of Canada whose Bolivian climbing trip it organized. See here for the article. More recently, it was revealed by BMG that Malia Obama’s Cordillera Real trek had been organized by them. (see here for the story).
Update: Since I posted this blog, a trip advisor thread on a guide service I had not heard of – Andean Ascents – has caught my eye. It is a La Paz agency managed by Alex von Ungern, a German/Swiss guide in his early 30’s. You can find the thread here. You’ll see a comment I made, a few very positive comments by satisfied clients, and one by Von Ungern himself.
When I found out that the English trekking agency Mountain Kingdoms used Andean Summits to run their Cordillera Real trek, I decided to focus on it. My reasoning is that if the local agency is not delivering a quality service it is unlikely that a U.K. or North American agency would be dealing with them. A few emails went back and forth – I was impressed by their prompt and no bullshit replies – and it became clear that I, as a lone trekker, would have more difficulty in making something happen than a party of, let’s say, three or four.
They also seemed to be incredibly busy – I would later find out that they were running tours and treks flat-out through September! Then Andean Summits did a funny thing – they suggested that if I wanted to join a group, there was one that they would be organizing for Mountain Kingdoms!
It turns out that over half the trips Andean Summits does are under the name of European or British or American agencies. What Mountain Kingdoms (or any other decent adventure travel company) does is find a capable local agency to handle the actual tour. It may work with the local company to develop trips it thinks will attract potential clients. Then it packages the trips, promotes them with top-notch website support, and puts together the group which will do the trip, and takes care of all the money issues. If you are on your own, this is the easiest way to find yourself a group of like-minded travellers.
The local agency also has a strong incentive to deliver an A+ trip since it would like to keep handling the tours. My wife also felt safer with the knowledge that I was with a small group organized by a quality outfit and not off on my own with god knows whom!
And me? I was able to do the trek thanks to Mountain Kingdoms. Of the nine of us in the group seven were single travellers who would have had a difficult time putting something together without finding a partner or two or three. Most impressive was the detailed preparatory information sent via email; I was left with very little to organize or worry about. If you’ve got the money and value your time, then this is clearly the way to go. Everything is taken care of for you, including a ride in from the airport!
Our guide for the trek – on the AGMT ( Asociación de Guias de Montaña y Tekking) Bolivia’s website, he is listed as Oscar Javier Thellaeche Urdin. Along with his partner Jose Fidel Camarlinghi Mendoza, he has been running Andean Summits for over twenty years. Not only is Javier an excellent trekking and mountain guide; his wide-ranging knowledge of the mountain environment and of Bolivia – culture, history, politics – in general , made for an enriched experience for all of us gringos. The fact that he can express himself effortlessly in English made it even better – even if it meant that the Spanish I’ve been working on wasn’t really necessary. (Actually, It was very useful during the week i was on my own in La Paz!)
The Trans-Cordillera Trek: The Classic Route Versus The One We Did
Yossi Brain, whose climbing guide to Bolivian peaks I mentioned above, also did a trekking guidebook. Trekking In Bolivia: A Traveller’s Guide, released in 1997, was perhaps the first book in English to provide a comprehensive introduction to Bolivia’s trekking possibilities. With Brain, as well as Andrew North, and Isolbel Stoddart as the authors, it was published by The Mountaineers, it is still useful almost twenty years later.
The route that they describe is what I will call the “classic” route. It begins in Sorata at the north end of the cordillera and then heads to the east side of the mountain range before cutting across to the west side near Condoriri and then continuing on down to Botijlaca on the north side of Huayna Potosi. Most trekking agencies in La Paz still offer this trek – or sections of it – to prospective trekkers.
Another book, The Andes: 28 Treks and Climbing Peaks, written by Val Pitkethly and Kate Harper and published in 2009, describes a version of this mostly east-side of the cordillera trek. Since Google Books has a copy of their book online, you can read what they have to say here. (Just go back to page 94 for the start of their six page treatment.)
Here is a map of a typical itinerary for the classic route from north of Sorata (a bit odd) down the east side of the range (until Day 8 when it does cut through the cordillera for the west side) –
And here is the map from the above-mentioned The Andes: 28 Treks …by the way, an incredible goldmine of trip ideas if you’re looking for inspiration! Unlike the map above this one actually starts in Sorata.
- Day 1 – La Paz – Sorata
- Day 2 – Sorata – Ancoma
- Day 3 – Ancoma – Cocoyo
- Day 4 – Cocooyo – Chajolpaya
- Day 5 – Chajolpaya – Chacapa
- Day 6 – Chacapa – Palca
- Day 7 – Palca – Huarihuarini
- Day 8 – Huarihuarini – Lake Kottia (aka Laguna Khotia)
- Day 9 – Kottia Laguna – Laguna Ajuani
- Day 10 – Ajuani – Jurikhota
- Day 11 – Jurikhota – Cerro Austria – Laguna Chiari Khota
- Day 12 – CB Condoriri
- Day 13 – Condoriri – Liviñosa
- Day 14 – Liviñosa – Chacapampa (Botijlaca) – La Paz
- A Point of Clarification – Chakapampa or Botijlaca?
Some trek itineraries use the name Chakapampa (or Chacapampa with a “c” instead of a “k”) to indicate the end point; others use the name Botijlaca. Both are correct. Chaka Pampa literally means “the flat place with a bridge”. It was there that the electric company built the hydroelectric plant called “Botijlaca”. Andean Summits is one of the agencies that uses the name Botijlaca in its itineraries.
The Alternative Trans-Cordillera Real Route: The West Side
Given increased mining activity in the Sorata area, as well as on the east side of the Cordillera, the Andean Summits team, as well as others, have developed an alternative route that stays on the west side of the Cordillera until the last full day of the trek. Instead of the traditional first eight days of the classic route which goes north and east from Sorata, this one heads south-east from Sorata to Millipaya and Alto Llojena and then on to Lago San Francisco. Doing so, it avoids the mining roads and the potential for trouble in the sometimes boisterous mining communities on the east side.
This is the route we did. Often the “trail” is no more than shepherds’ paths and llama tracks up and down and across valleys; just as often we were relying on our guide’s experience (he has done the route several times) and the gps track on his Garmin device. To restate the obvious, this is not at all like walking the Huayhuash Circuit trail or along the Inca Trail or the trails in Torres Del Paine Park.
I found a copy of the Liam O’Brien map in a la Paz bookstore. Titled A New Map of The Cordillera Real De Los Andes, the map is a 2009 reprint of the original from 1995. The scale is 1:135,000. It is unclear if any changes were made in the reprint; the glacier limits shown on the map are based on Landsat images from 1989 and 1992 and are thus about twenty-five years old.
One thing the map definitely illustrates is the confusing state of transcribing Aymara names into English. For example, the massif referred to as Chearuku or Chiaroco on other maps appears as Ch’iyaruq’u on the O’Brien map. Ancohuma becomes Janq’uma. It will probably take a few more years before a uniform English spelling of the various peaks and valleys of the cordillera develops. Using Spanish language rules to transcribe Aymara sounds into English seems a bit silly. Until the dust settles, google a different spelling and you often get a different set of web sites!
Even if you have a really good map and compass reading skills, an extended walk down the west side route of the Cordillera Real is not the place for an unguided adventure. At the very least, you should arrange a muleteer (arriero is the Spanish term) and a donkey or two to carry food and supplies. The arriero would also serve as your guide and help you negotiate with any locals you might meet. We saw one other trekking group in two weeks; we did not pass through any villages – they were all much lower down in the valleys we traversed. We did on occasion meet people who – I learned later – had come to collect a fee for passing through or camping on their land, the campesinos seeing the upper reaches of the valley as a part of their communidad.
Here is a list of our camp spots over the roughly 110 kilometers of the route, as well as the daily lowest, average, and highest altitudes. It makes clear the high-altitude nature of the trek and puts the 1420 meters of the Torres del Paine’s highest point (Gardner Pass) or even Machu Picchu (2430 meters) and the Inca Trail’s Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 m) into perspective. (Click on the blue to access that day’s maps, images, and summary.)
Day To Dist Min Ave Max
1 Alto Llojena 8.6 3696 3870 4042
2 Lago San Francisco 9.7 4042 4559 4889
3 Chojña Khota 10.1 4504 4769 5129
4 Jistaña Khota 5.6 4567 4898 5188
5 Upper Kelluani Valley 9.1 4460 4924 5348
6 Upper Chachakumani 8.9 4460 4933 5350
8 Rio Jallyawaya Valley 11 4461 4623 5040
9 Laguna Khotia 11.5 4453 4790 5038
10 Alka Khotia 8.6 4395 4537 4784
11 Juri Khota 10 4515 4815 5096
12 Chiar Khota 7.1 4669 4895 5306
13 above Botijlaca 7.5 3811 4509 4995
14 Botijlaca 2 3578 3669 3806
The gps tracks for the entire trek (a 205 kb kml file) are in my Drop box folder. Download here. You will need to have the free Google Earth app installed on your computer or mobile device to open it.
If you’d like to see more about each day’s route – maps, elevation gain and loss, and the photos I took along the way, it all starts with the link to the next post in blue below.
Next Post: Day 1 – South Of Sorata to Alto Llojena