The View from the Top
Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
December 24, 2002
The Last Eden Sorata, Bolivia
Wednesday February 21, 2007
Links to John's (nearly) round-the-world trip are on the left under "All Chapers>"
From my brother Matt's trip to South America in 2007...
Sorata, Bolivia, is the kind of place that makes me want to buy a house. It磗 one of the world磗 Edens, high in the Andean altiplano north of La Paz, epic, indescribably beautiful. The town lies near the end of the road coming from the south--the cul de sac adds some to the mystique. A handful of North Americans and Europeans have wandered in, gotten entranced, and bought property, mostly old fixer-upper estate homes built for the gold barons during the mining boom days. They restore them and revive the gardens, which will grow anything. In comparison to what磗 normal in real estate, they磛e probably gotten it for next to nothing. And certainly the same set of Americans who today are snooping around Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a steal on the perfect getaway-second-home will be showing up in Sorata within a few years. The formerly terrible road from La Paz is being paved, and once it磗 finished Sorata will change. An ATM will appear, seven internet cafes will open, every storefront property on the main plaza will be converted into a fly-by-night travel agency (each with exactly the same handmade sign--创Horseback Rides to the Caves, 3-Day Treks to the Glacial Lake, Bus Tickets to La Paz, Laundry Service, Spanish Classes.创), a British traveller will decide to open a bar and serve Guiness, and the leaky-crumbling hacienda on 4-1/2 acres will cost a fortune.
For now though, it磗 rainy season and I felt like one of the only travellers there, few enough that I felt obligated to say 创hello创 to anybody with a sunburn. Maybe 800 or so people live in the village and around, kids play soccer in the street, women walk their pigs into town for slaughter, and the only thing 创happening创 is a bus leaving for La Paz every hour, which is announced by the drivers yelling up and down the streets 创LaPaLaPaLaPaLaPaLaPaaaaaaaz!创 off and on, beginning at 3.30am (rude awakening), and continuing all day, every day, as if there were someone in town who didn磘 know.
I haven磘 done such strenuous walking in years. It was like two days on a Stair Master with a view. After waiting out the rain the first morning, I set off to see a cave in the next village down the road from Sorata, about seven miles away. It磗 so satisfying walking away from the mud, noise, smell, and disorder of a little poor town and into the calm and emptyness of mountains like those. Besides a truck passing every 20 minutes and the handful of men heading back into town with sacks of onions strapped to their back, it was just mine for three hours. The cut of the road perches over a steep-falling valley down to a racing, muddy river below. Above was the occasional view of the grassy peaks, above the treeline around 13,000 feet, where the llamas and alpacas have to stay to keep from overheating.
I was the first person of the day to sign the roster at the entrance to the cave--all the Argentinian backpackers in Sorata had slept in. It was one long room, maybe 50 feet from floor to top and around 200 feet to the hilt, with bats about as big as a fist and a little lake that the attendant let me take a dip in but wasn磘 supposed to. Refreshed and ready to go back, I opted for the return trail that, according to a believable-looking sign, was marked and followed the river back up to Sorata. But not so. The farther I went down toward the river, the more complicated the route became as a maze of trails, all apparently in the same general direction, branched off one after another. I never made it to the river but instead got channeled onto a continuously narrowing path that stayed at the same level, heading in the right direction, and fairly smooth underfoot. But as the slope I was walking across became steeper and steeper, the path became more of a narrow ledge carved into the side of the mountain. When I saw a 10-inch steel pipe surface I realized I wasn磘 on a path but the water line from Sorata to San Pedro, the village with the cave. It turned into an obstacle course: several times the line spanned over a gully, maybe 15 feet below, and I had to tightrope-walk over the pipe, at other points where the slope was too steep the pipe ran through a narrow tunnel in the cliff, maybe thirty feet from end to end and barely wide enough to crawl through. I got dirty, it got hotter, and I ran out of water but somehow I was perfectly happy, at least until the last hour when I was ready to drink from the next stream I came to. About then, pretty late in the day, I met two Argentinian girls going the other way to see the cave. Neither had a backpack, neither was carrying water, and they asked me how the route was. I thought I might be the last person to ever see them, but they were back at the hotel a few hours later after wisely deciding to turn back early. I limped back into the hotel and didn磘 have enough energy to shower before I fell in bed.
Day Two managed to be even more difficult. I hired a guide to take me to the lake on top of the mountain directly above Sorata. I went to the only tour office I could find open and had a chat with Willy, nearly toothless but friendly. We made a deal, but in Spanish, so I missed the part about it being his fifteen-year-old son who would be taking me up. Willy said the guides food was extra, but that he would bring his own water.
His son, Vidal, met me shortly after, equally nice, with teeth, ready to go. I already had food for myself, so I asked him what he wanted me to get for him. He seemed confused, as if having a choice was something completely new. I asked him if a sandwich would do, he said yes, but then stared at me as if he were the new guy in town and I were the one who knew where the sandwich place was. I nearly had to force him to get something for himself. Things were starting off underwhelmingly, and weren磘 helped when, about forty-five minutes up the trail from town, I went for my water, expecting him to pull his own bottle from the backpack he was carrying. He didn磘. He had no water. 创Your dad told me you would bring your own water创, I told him. 创I forgot创, he said. 创We磖e going for an 8 hour hike up a really steep mountain and you didnt bring water? How exactly does that happen?创, I thought but didn磘 say. This meant we would be sharing my two liters, not nearly enough. Now I was ready for my money back, and for punishment started thinking, 创all right you little Inca, we磖e going to see who can go the longest without water创. We stopped to rest maybe three times over the next hour, and each time he磀 stare at me, obviously wondering if the bottle was going to come out as I stared off in the other direction. We were talking to each other with cotton mouths. Finally I caved, went for the bottle, and he lit up when I offered it.
But my anger faded as we went, I couldn磘 be mad as beautiful and strenuous as it was, more and more the higher we climbed. We passed the last little mud-and-brick house about half way up and had the rest of the mountain to ourselves. The forest gave way to llama and sheep pasture with clouds brushing across so close it felt like being indoors. Sorata came in and out of view every few minutes, smaller each time. We slowed down continuously as the air got thinner, eventually down to a numb slog. No matter how hard I pushed, Vidal stayed ten steps ahead with ease. He looked like he was walking to school. I felt old, but not so much when we made it to the lake in just over three hours and he told me it磗 a four hour hike. We had gone from 7,200 feet in Sorata to just over 13,000 at the lake, basically a staircase. The lake was more of a pond, but I didn磘 mind, it was spectacular enough and I was spent. There was barely enough time for bananas and a few pictures before the rain started, though it seemed less like rain and more like being inside a cloud.
We took an steeper trail down, steep enough we were often skiing down the wet grassy spots. The rain faded, the air warmed up and I could breathe again, and shortly we made it to a windy road and more men with sacks of onions on the backs. We came to a little girl racing her Big Wheel down the hill and walking it back up again. She said Hi to Vidal, calling him by name, but he barely nodded back. I asked if he knew her, he said she was his sister and I realized we had come to his house. He ran in to change his soaking clothes and came back with two pieces of corn bread and offered me one. It seemed like forever getting back to town. We could see it around each bend, but it didn磘 seem to be getting closer. I ran out of water, again. I couldn磘 feel much when we got to the edge of town where Vidal abruptly said goodbye with one hand behind his back and with the other gave me a dead fish handshake (they don磘 squeeze). I felt like Rambo walking back across the main plaza toward my hotel, this time with just enough left to pick up a large beer and take it to my bed. I hadn磘 been so tired or satisfied in a while.
La Paz is my next stop, and on south from there toward Argentina, which might be the finish line. More to come from other places.