Saturday, July 11, 2009

Searching for a Laguna in Sorata

At the top of the pass, the minivan driver pulled over, reached into the glovebox, and retrieved a bottle of spirit. He leaned out the window, sprinkled some on the front wheel and took a swig himself. The ritual sacrifice to Pachamama must have worked, because the 1400m winding descent, the final stage of the four hour trip from La Paz to Sorata, was accomplished safely.

Sorata is a small town perched at 2700m on a ridge descending into the gorge of the San Christobal valley, surrounded by steep slopes supporting small farming settlements, everywhere the view dominated by the icy 6000m summits of Illampu and Ancohoma. The climate is a lot milder than La Paz - in the evening the locals gather to socialise in the town square, dominated by a statue of Adolf Hitler: which on closer inspection turns out to be Bolivia´s 1940-43 president - presumeably the Adolf look was cool then.

At the Hostal Mirador, I score a penthouse with views up to the peaks and down the valley. At breakfast on the terrace, I chat to an Israeli-Czech trekking group who are setting out on a 3 day trip to Laguna Chillata, nestled under the slopes of Illampu. According to the guidebook, the return trip to the Laguna can be done in a day with an early start, so I decide 9am is early and climb up from the village to pick up a road sidling around into a mountain valley. I pass a group of builders putting in the first floor of rammed earth house, working their way around the wall with a box frame and cramming earth into it. As I sidle up the valley, I spot the Israelis and Czechs disappearing over the far ridge. The trail drops down to a bridge crossing the river descending from Illampu. Bolivian bridge builders could probably teach DOC a thing or two: rather than flying in expensive wires and aluminium frames that can only take one person at a time, a bolivian bridge consists of two locally felled mature eucalyptus trunks with earth, foliage, and gravel rammed tight on top. The result is guaranteed to hold a laden mule and accompanying campesinos.

From the bridge I climb steeply up to Kholani village, reflecting that the air might be thicker than in La Paz, but it´s still less than my body needs for this kind of exercise. When the local Kholani children establish that I don´t have any caramellos to dispense, they consent to have their photos taken on their homemade trolley. According to the route description, Kholani is 2 hours into the trek, and I´ve been going more like 4. So when a local in a Brazil football shirt pushing a wheelbarrow suggests I might like to check the "ruinas" forty minutes up the hill, I decide a change of objective is in order.

This trail climbs steeply past corn and pea plots, being inspected by a wheeling turkey vulture looking for snacks. I´m reflecting that at my elderly pace the forty minutes is more likely to be an hour and half, when a grandmother storms past me on her way to clear rocks from the family plot, carrying a 2m steel prybar, her shawl/backpack filled with farming implements. Eventually I top out on the gentler slopes, and sure there are rock walls and structures scattered around. Possibly not ruins in the archaelogical sense, but certainly they have the look of walled gardens - perhaps abandoned in collapse of the Tiwanaku civilisation, but also possibly abandoned in the last few decades of rural depopulation. But it´s a wonderful spot - across the high terraces, childre are keeping an eye on family sheep flocks. Above are the icecliffs of Illampu and Ancohoma, below is Sorata, and the gorge leading out to the Amazon lowlands.

After a rest I drop back down the route, startling wild guinea pigs that zig zag along the track. The housebuilders have added another metre to their wall, in three nights, the chief architect tells me, he´ll be sleeping in his new house. I haven´t made it the laguna, but I do make it back to the main square for a cerveza before dark. So has Pachamama reversed the curse of seat 13B? Only time will tell...

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