Condor Trekking, the organisation we choose for our 3 day tour of the Bolivian ‘Inca Trail’ and Managua crater, is a non-profit company started a few years back by a keen (and slightly crazy) Australian. He employs some great local guides but also relies on foreign volunteers to help prepare and run 1-4 day trips in and around Sucre. It is the only non-profit organisation running such tours, and as the guide book recommends taking a guide to a) avoid getting lost and b) avoid paths with bandits we thought we may as well use a company that gives something back to the community. Thus we found ourselves in the hands of Elvis and David (our trusty local guides) and Travis (our American volunteer).
Day 1 started at 5am at the Condor Trekking office. Overnight two other people had become 10 other people, so departure was rather chaotic while everybody got sorted with equipment, sleeping mats, foam rolls, payments and introductions.
After a drive of about an hour and a half we arrived at Chataquila; Sucre’s highest church. Any chance of getting a bit more much needed shut eye was unfortunately impossible due to the horrendously bumpy roads. This is Bolivia after all.
Breakfast consisted of a mountain of home-made chocolate and banana bread and a local hot drink made from red corn, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Both were delicious. Then it was time to distribute the food! A ridiculous number of plastic containers were laid out along with individual fruit bags containing three apples and three oranges each. One thing was certain; we were in no danger of starving. I had Mike’s little day pack which filled up quickly with a sleeping bag, a few spare clothes (not enough it would turn out), the camera and a raincoat. I didn’t have a lot of extra space, nor did I want to carry tons of heavy food (enough for 15 people). Selection of my plastic containers was therefore crucial, but I’m no dummy: I choose one medium sized one with lettuce in it. So super light. Result. Mike on the other hand chose not one but three enormous containers, one with two chucks of cheese in, another with about 7 blocks of chocolate and dozens of soup packets and the final one had 4 avocados in it. So super heavy. Muppet! But a very lovely Muppet for obviously carrying my share as well as his own.
Luckily the walking was mostly downhill the first morning and we ate some of Mike’s chocolate and cheese at the first stop on day 1. A couple of German lads carried more cheese and a ton of bananas until the third day, the bananas slightly the worse for wear for being in the bottom of their bags for three days.
The scenery was spectacular. Everywhere one looked green fields could be seen, farmers tending livestock, donkeys grazing and thousands of wild yellow daises. But what really caught my attention was the colour of the soil. Purple, red, orange, silver, brown; I have never seen such multi-coloured soil before. It was incredibly beautiful. That is until the heavens decided to open and change the previously beautiful red and purple soil to rivers of mud. I no longer cared what colour it was. The only upside of the thunderstorm was the lightening. Thunder would boom in one place, and then zigzagging lightening would flash across the sky in another. Grey cloud was rolling in from somewhere but the lightening was so bright the path was illuminated for several seconds afterwards. By this stage the camera was safely tucked away in a nice dry-bag but unfortunately the rest of our clothes were not so lucky. We normally use plastic bags to keep everything dry but didn’t bring any this time (brain melt). Luckily the accommodation was more than decent – real beds with linen – so having a slightly damp sleeping bag was no big deal. Having no dry trousers to wear once we reached the crater was also no big deal: no-one seemed to care I wore my pyjama bottoms to dinner!
After dinner we braved the chilly temperatures for a fine visual display. In one part of the sky we had lightening, in another a red glow across the horizon after the sun had set, and straight up a million stars. Some saw a shooting star but I wasn’t one of the lucky ones. Seeing the ‘southern cross’ always makes me think of home and when I’m far away miss it just a little bit.
The crater itself was nothing like what I was expecting; a steep sided and totally isolated barren depression for instance. But no: a whole community lives down there, tending crops and keeping livestock inside its gently sloping sides. It’s fertile and it’s green. There’s accommodation for travellers (although we had the place to ourselves), a school, several houses and a church. No shops though, and no-where to buy beer. Interestingly beer is about the only thing that is expensive in Bolivia.
Day 2 was much the same as day 1, with the exception of some rather cool dinosaur prints. One minute we were lugging our bags up a small hill, huffing and puffing and sweating in the midday sunshine, and the next we were enthusiastically climbing all over the hill looking at the indentations. The most impressive set belonged to a T-Rex (4 legged) with flat feet but I also liked the 3-toed 2 legged dinosaur impressions. The prints, estimated at 65-69 million years old are in exceptionally good condition; especially considering the complete lack of protection either from the elements or from people touching them. This is Bolivia after all. With a little bit of imagination the inner kid was unleashed in us all and I think our guide Travis had the right of it in simply declaring: “dinosaurs are cool”. Well said! (Jurassic park is not surprisingly one of his favourite movies).
Over the three days our path crossed that of several locals; here a few of my favourite situations:
•On walking out of the crater on day 2, we encountered quite a few children running down into it. Their journey to school takes three hours each way so not surprisingly they were pretty pleased when our guide gave them some crackers. They only just remembered to shout “gracias” over their shoulders as they raced on by.
•We came across a woman who looked about 100 judging by her skin and lack of teeth but who was probably more like 50 years old. I’m not entirely sure what happened (as I’m not fluent in Spanish) but we traded her 5 Bolivianos and a huge handful of Coco leaves for some of her home-made bread. Only trouble was she had no-where to put the Coco leaves, so what does she do? Take off her hat, put them in and then plonk the hat back on her head. Simple yet effective – but that’s the way of the Bolivians.
•While waiting for the local bus to take us back to Sucre on the last day, most of us realised we still had quite a lot of fruit left in our individual bags. Mike, like a few others, still had all 6 pieces. You would have thought we were giving the kids candy or Christmas presents based on the expressions and shy smiles we got.
•Bolivian women use strips of brightly coloured fabric to carry things on their back; anything from firewood to small children. According to our guide David, the locals find us back-pack wearing hikers a strange sight; so unused are they to seeing foreigners.
•Most Bolivians don’t have nice sheep-dogs to help herd goats or whatever. Some have a shaggy skinny sorry excuse for a farm dog but these tend to be rather ineffectual. Solution? Throw rocks at your sheep/goats/donkeys. Simple but brutal, seems to work every time though.
After getting back to Sucre for a much needed shower and a sort out of the bags (with still slightly damp clothes) we had just enough time for some lunch and a bit of football watching at the pub before yet another over-night bus loomed: this time to Tupiza.
Overall we were thrilled with our Condor Tour, especially knowing our money would benefit the local community: they certainly need a helping hand. After a week of hanging out in Sucre it was also good to get out and about and see a glimpse of rural Bolivia, away from the main tourist route. The people at ‘Condor’ are in the process of opening a non-profit café in Sucre where tourists can meet and sample traditional food with locally grown produce. At the moment the project has been buried in Bolivian red tape but we wish them all the best when (not if) the café opens.
1. The Inca Trail
2. Green pastures, day 1 scenary near Ravelo river
3. Don't look down. Spot the trekkers on the ledge, left hand side
4. One of thousands of yellow daises
5. Maragua crater, local farmer
6. Herding sheep, donkeys, goats and pigs in the evening
7. Walking out of the crater, day 2
8. Local woman chewing coca leaves, just chilling
9. Unleashing the inner kid in us all, Dinosaur Time
10. Potolo valley, way home 1
11. Potolo valley, way home 2
12. Do you want my fruit...
13. The road home