Outrunning the bandits in Bolivia's back country

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      Our guidebook said the ethical thing to do was to hire a guide through the local cooperatively run guide association. We did as we were told. Now we're pitching our tent at 4,200 metres in the shadow of Nevado Illampu, an icy massif in Bolivia's spectacular Cordillera Real. Our guide, Octavio Gonzales, attempts to coax a blue flame from his rusty and apparently broken kerosene stove.

      Two days ago we strolled into the Asociacií“n de Guí­as Turí­sticas y Porteadores, just off the main plaza in Sorata. In curiously fatalistic fashion, we were determined to hike around Nevado Illampu, a trek that numerous guidebooks promised was one of Bolivia's most scenic and adventurous but also one of its most dangerous, notorious for thefts near Laguna San Francisco. Incidents at first were of a petty nature but had allegedly escalated to armed robbery. When I inquired about this minor detail, the guide manager, a shifty-looking character who appeared more like a car salesman than an adventure-tour operator in his navy-blue slacks and polished black shoes, assured us that thieves would demand at most the equivalent of $5 or $10 from passing trekkers–news I found neither encouraging nor entirely discouraging.

      "Is it possible to get a guide and a mule and leave in two days?" I asked, businesslike.

      "Sí­, es posible," he said.

      It was the weekend of the Bolivian independence day, and none of the guides wanted an assignment that would overlap with this typically boisterous fiesta. Octavio drew the short straw, so he's spending the holiday with two gringos on a barren mountain pass struggling to light a stove.

      Eventually the battered appliance emits a pathetic yellow flame, and the slow process of heating water commences. The sun has vacated the valley, so we pile on layers and watch an indigenous Aymara shepherd and her son drive sheep down from the pass toward a collection of silent stone huts.

      Octavio, who is also Aymara, has a leathery complexion forged by altitude, sun, and wind into an intriguing topography of creases and wrinkles. When I met him that morning, I was surprised. He looked like a senior citizen, so I disgraced myself rudely by impulsively asking the manager–in front of Octavio–how old he was. The manager lied and told me 44.

      Later in the day, I learn his real age is 62, and am soon paying for my arrogance. Octavio, it turns out, is an astonishingly fit senior citizen, and my girlfriend, Lisa, and I puff and pant for most of the first day, looking at the ass end of Octavio and his mule, the beast that carries most of our gear.

      After an interminable wait to boil the water, our rudimentary repast–quinoa and packaged soup–is ready to eat. Calories are inhaled quickly, and we seek shelter in our sleeping bags. That night the altitude torments me. What begins as a minor headache intensifies to a suffocating throb. Lisa, who wisely took a preemptive fix of Diamox, a drug that helps prevent acute mountain sickness, sleeps soundly. I wake her and beg for half a pill. The throbbing subsides, and I eventually drift off into a fitful sleep.

      Three days of trekking later, better acclimated and stronger, we're still staring at the ass end of Octavio and his mule. Early in the morning, we walk through the remote mining town of Cocoya. The residents seem shy and private. For most of the morning, we follow Rio Sarani as it bubbles down a pastoral valley from unseen headwaters. Stone walls crisscross the valley, demarcating ancient grazing pastures, and in the morning light waves of ichu grass give the landscape a gold-leafed appearance. Nearing Paso Sarani, we overtake a sombre Dutch tourist with his guide and muleteer. He seems visibly disappointed to encounter other trekkers, so we don't waste valuable breath on conversation. Absurdly, a teenage Aymara boy ascending the other side of the pass asks us for Chiclets.

      That night, we camp among giant boulders next to Rio Chajolpaya. Free-ranging llamas graze in the meadows, keeping a wary distance. Tomorrow we will cross the 5,045-metre Abra de la Calzada, and then drop into the region of notoriety. So far, Lisa and I have been doing what most nervous people do–masking fear with humour. In conversation, our mythical thieves take on the cartoonish qualities of a tequila-soaked spaghetti Western bandit. Octavio hovers over the stove, which is whistling efficiently now that he's ingeniously patched a hole in the fuel line with a plastic bag. Small talk doesn't seem to be part of his repertoire. In three days, he has asked two questions. "¿Cuál es su nacionalidad?" What is your nationality? and "¿Es su novia?"–is she your girlfriend?

      Tonight we talk about shoes, or rather, shoe prices. He asks how much my boots cost.

      "Fifty dollars," I say, making up an amount.

      Octavio wears ankle-high rubber boots with laces that are perpetually untied. I ask him about the guides association. He says he earns 80 Bolivianos (roughly $10) per day for his services.

      "Es bueno."

      That concludes our conversation, and we sip shots of Ballantine's delaying a long night in the tent. I admire Octavio's peaceful disposition, his comfort with silence. In comparison, we North Americans are an impatient people. Always restless, always moving. And when we're not moving, we're endlessly talking until we move again.

      That said, on our final day we do a lot of moving. At the pass, we meander through a garden of gargoyle-like rocks. A glacier tumbles down the south face of Cerro Kasiri, its cold tongue nearly reaching the windswept saddle. After crossing the pass, an unimaginable vista unfolds before us; a pair of adjacent lakes, one emerald and the other turquoise, sit in a deep valley. Surrounding the lakes is a chaste landscape of dusty rolling foothills that are like giant dunes. Lake Titicaca is visible to the west, a vast hazy pool of deep blue in a tawny-brown landscape. But when Octavio quickens his already punishing pace and starts to look decidedly nervous, this austerely beautiful landscape suddenly assumes sinister qualities. Consequently, our cartoon bandits also assume menacing dimensions. The forced march continues.

      Hours later we trace a narrow path above Laguna San Francisco. It is here in this supposedly lawless backcountry that three nefarious brothers allegedly patrol on horseback, looking for hapless gringos. What Octavio lacks in oral communication skills he compensates for with body language. The creases in his face are now folded into anxious lines as he glances furtively up and down the valley and across the lake. Lisa and I also scan the valley and hilltops, but the only signs of life are three horses grazing the estuary at the north end of the lake. Soon we're padding across the estuary, and the ground squishes underfoot. We remove our boots to ford an icy mountain stream, and I assume that a rest is imminent. Before I can formulate the suggestion, Octavio's rubber walking boots are back on and he's leading his trusty mule onward.

      "¿Es peligroso aquí­?" I call out redundantly, asking if it's dangerous here.

      "Sí­, es peligroso," Octavio affirms, without stopping.

      The climb up the other side of the valley is steep and demoralizing. A pair of primitive stone shelters sit next to a pool of enticing thermal springs. Though I realize Octavio has our best interests in mind, I'm tempted to demand, like a petulant child, that we camp at the hot springs.

      It's not to be. "Una hora más," Octavio says–one more hour.

      The day passes in a dreamlike landscape. Nine hours, three mountain passes, and 25 kilometres after we began this morning, we stagger into what, by default of approaching darkness, Octavio deems to be our campsite. Judging by his now-relaxed manner, the threat of thievery is behind us and the cartoon bandits remain inhabitants only of our imaginations. Though we are nearly physically destroyed by the day's effort, Octavio looks like he could wake tomorrow and do it all over again. We collapse in the tent while Octavio once again nurses the stove to life.


      Links: The semitropical town of Sorata, nestled at 2,600 metres, is an ideal base for treks into the western Cordillera Real. Crumbling colonial buildings, housing restaurants and hotels, surround a central plaza. At the time of writing, we paid roughly $20 per day for a guide and a mule. The Asociacií“n de Guí­as Turí­sticas y Porteadores, a nonprofit with more than 40 guides, claims to distribute a portion of the guiding fees to community-development projects.

      Check out Bolivia Contact for information on trekking outfitters, or pick up a copy of Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Central Andes