Why you should care
It’s cheap, uncrowded and spectacular.
The bus hasn’t even made it into third gear when the driver tells us it’s time to get out. Half an hour ago we were eating salteñas (Bolivia’s juicier, more delicious answer to the empanada) in a suburban café, and now we’re standing on a 15,000-foot Andean pass being buffeted by sleet. Before you start to question our sanity, know that by tomorrow morning we’ll be hiking through a subtropical wonderland.
The Choro Trail is a 34-mile pre-Hispanic — and may even be pre-Incan — trail on the outskirts of Bolivia’s capital. Over three days, you’ll descend from 15,900 feet to 4,265 feet on mostly paved stone paths, passing through little-changed ancient communities who still use the road daily, and experience a dazzling illustration of the impacts of altitude on climate, vegetation and the human psyche. It’s cheap, uncrowded and — perhaps most importantly — almost all downhill.
It can easily be completed without a guide and sees very little tourist traffic.
While hiking Peru’s famous Inca Trail will set you back at least $700 and see you jostling for position with 500 other people, the Choro Trail costs under $15 in permits and camping fees. It can easily be completed without a guide and sees very little tourist traffic. That is, “unless you visit during Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter) or another holiday weekend,” says Ximena Adahir, a trekking guide with La Paz on Foot who has hiked the trail both in and out of holiday season.
From the bus station in Villa Fatima, catch any bus or minibus headed for the Yungas region and ask the driver to drop you off at La Cumbre. Walking on the left-hand side of the road, you’ll pass a large lake and a statue of Jesus. Follow Jesus’ left hand along a gravel track to find the start of the trail. Alternatively, use the more prosaic signage to find the trailhead. Either way, you’ll know the Choro when you find it: The 6-foot-wide stone path is hard to mistake.
From here it’s all downhill … and then some! In the first 2.5 miles, you will descend 4,300 feet, on well-paved Inca roads featuring sharp switchbacks and impressive retaining walls. While it’s tempting to escape the icy altiplano at a trot, the centuries-old engineering is worth savoring. Besides, conditions will be a lot easier within an hour or two (the landscapes reminded me of the Scottish Highlands) and you’ll pass through a couple of communities too. Sign the registration book at the first, says Adahir, and pay the Bs 20 (about $3) fee at the second. If you’re planning on doing a three-night trek you can camp at the second settlement, Chucura, but most folks prefer to push on to Challapampa, a pleasant, covered riverside campsite (Bs 10 or $1.50 per person) where you can buy snacks, water and beer.
On the second day, the terrain gives way to something much more tropical and frivolous. Be warned though: There are occasional reports of robberies on this section of the trail. The frequent river crossings, on a variety of bridges, are great fun in the dry season but can be properly perilous in the rainy season. After about four and a half hours, including a gentle uphill, you’ll reach Buena Vista, which — as the name suggests — is a lovely grassy spot dotted with chickens, horses and banana trees and surrounded by impossibly green mountain slopes.
Day three is arguably the toughest. But the frequent waterfalls (bring some biodegradable soap for a much-needed shower) and butterflies — enough to fill a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel — make up for it. Ease into things with an easy incline before embarking on the so-called Cuesta del Diablo (Devil’s Uphill) to the imaginatively named Bella Vista and onwards to Sandillani. You won’t get to meet Tamiji Hanamura, the Japanese man who lived in this remote and gorgeous spot from 1958 until his death in 2013. But you can visit his grave, tour his gardens and check out the tiny museum erected in his honor — a collection of his notebooks and postcards given to him by travelers from all over the world — which is a hike highlight. The last two and a half hours to the town of Chairo feature very steep downhills and narrow, overgrown paths, so take your time, watch your knees and tread carefully.
From Chairo, you can catch a three-hour bus back to La Paz, charter a 30-minute minibus to the charming mountain retreat of Coroico, or turn around and walk all the way back up to La Cumbre. Not.
Go There: The Choro Trail
- When to go: The trail is at its driest — safest and most pleasant — April through August. Do not even attempt it in the wettest months: December, January and February.
- On your own: Don’t forget a tent, sleeping bag, food and camp stove. Not to mention foul weather gear, a map and plenty of common sense.
- With a guide: La Paz on Foot can take care of everything. Transfers, equipment, porters and three meals a day will set you back $395 per person.
- On your bike: Gravity Bolivia offers you the chance to complete the trail on a mountain bike in two days. Only for real pedalheads with the right insurance! Cost is $750 per person including bikes, beer and everything else.
- Pro tip: Spend a few days in Coroico. It’s not just a great place to chill out (pizza, beer, swimming pools) but it’s the spot to learn about the coca industry and the Afro-Bolivian communities in the area.