Trekking in the Cordillera Real
La Paz is situated on the high plateau in Bolivia, at 3,500m above sea level. The airport is at 4,000m. To the East rises the Cordillera Real which drops steeply into the Bolivian rainforest. There are a few recommended walks that start high and drop through the cloud forest into the rainforest. However, I seemed to end up doing a 4 day high altitude trek in the Cordillera Real mountain range, all over 4,400m, with freezing nights and a dash of snow. Our friend Colin joined us - as both him and Phil have some sort of mountain addiction, I think the choice of trek is their fault!
The 4 day trek was part of a longer 12 day traverse along the whole mountain range. Our walk started with a paddle across a freezing cold mountain stream. It was a ford which meant it was shallow (calf deep) but about 20 metres wide. The walking was very slow and tiring due to the altitude. Days 2 and 3 didn't drop below 4,700m. We crossed three 5,000m passes and reached a new personal maximum height of 5,300m, all the more impressive because we walked up. The weather is meant to be settled from April, but it's in the mountains where anything can happen all year, and the spectacular views we were promised on Day 3 were a white out. The weather wasn't very settled at all and the tops of the peaks appeared and disappeared through the day. We didn´t have to walk in rain, it was either hail or snow! The views were still spectacular from time to time though (see the photos!)
Some of the terrain was very much like the Lake District....but a lot bigger and without any bridges across the streams (I had to run and jump or paddle!). The paths were a little precarious in places too, in other places the path was just non-existent. We just went straight down a couple of very steep scree slopes - I´m glad I didn't know what was coming in advance.
The area is very remote so it was a wild-camping trip. Between me, Phil and Colin we had a guide, a trainee guide, a cook, a muleteer and 2 mules. It was also very chilly. In the morning the ground was frozen solid, with ice on the tent, and on the last morning a good covering of snow. We've never trekked wearing so many warm clothes. At times it was: T-shirt, then jumper, then fleece, then waterproof jacket, with hats and gloves, in the middle of the day.
From La Paz we flew to Rurrenbaque (45 mins in a plane or 20 hours on the bus). The plane was a 19 seater (even I couldn't stand up) and you could see straight into the cockpit and hear a worrying number of warning bips throughout the flight. The landing was a little turbulent as we went through a large storm cloud - the end of the rainy season. There was no sign of an airport terminal just a little transfer bus waiting for us at the end of the runway. I tried to take photos but the camera lens fogged up in the humidity! Welcome to Rurre!
Chalalan Rainforest Lodge
Rurrenbaque sits at 200m above sea level, where the last low hills of the Andes meet the flat plains that continue Eastwards into the Amazon. To the west of Rurrenbaque is Madidi National Park, a park that includes the 6,000m peaks of the Andes then down to the rich rainforest along the River Beni near Rurrenbaque. Because of this wide range it is one of the most bio-diverse national parks in the world and our lodge was situated well within the park.
From Rurrenbaque we boarded a long motorized dugout canoe to begin the 5 hour journey upstream to Chalalan Rainforest Lodge. It´s the end of the wet season and this morning there was one last deluge. We somehow managed to get the seats at the front of the boat. We had our water proofs on but the lodge staff insisted we needed ponchos as well and they were right! At the times I peaked out from my waterproof hood visibility was about 100m....just enough to see the 2 sides of the river zoom past and see all the tree debris coming right towards the boat, and to get a bit more rainwater in the face. After two hours of this we turned off the main river channel (the water became fast and grey, with less tree debris, rather than the rich brown from before) and the rain stopped and we could enjoy the end of the ride. Clay cliffs topped with thick forest, a wall of green alongside the river.
The lodge is a series of huts nestled in the rain forest, situated by a lake, 30 mins walk from the river. We went on a series of walks from the lodge though animals were hard to see...though not hard to hear! Wherever there was a bit of land there was something growing up from it. It was a riot of green foilage, you could see maybe 4 or 5 metres into the undergrowth but nothing more. The guide kept taking us off the paths for a bit of bush bashing to try and see the animals. We were rewarded with some silhouettes of spider monkeys and some wobbling branches but no photos. We saw other monkeys, plenty of birds, a few too many caiman and spiders for my liking and many mosquitos! We had a swim in the lake having been assured that the caimans in there were too small to be any threat for humans. It wasn't that hot but it was definitely humid. Anything left out ended up being damp, nothing would dry. It is also worth mentioning that the food was amazing. 3 course lunches and dinners, and lots of freshly squeezed juices.
Mashaquipe Lodge - Pampas tour
To the East of Rurrenbaque the land is flat and a patchwork of water ways, water logged grasslands and some farmland. It has many of the same animals as the thick rainforest but its easier to see as there is much less undergrowth. When we pulled up to the lodge you could see pink river dolphins in the river right in front of our accomodation, as well as plenty of water birds: cormorants, and plenty of herons.
The wildlife viewing on the pampas was a much more relaxing affair. There was no need to tramp through a muddy forest, instead you motored around the water ways watching the river banks and the tree tops, lazing back in a motorised canoe. Lots of water birds (but bizarrely no ducks), lots of birds of prey and vultures as well as 4 different types of monkey, caiman, alligator, turtles, capybara (pig sized rodent) and a green mamba too. We also went fishing for piranhas. The meat they gave us for bait was better than the meat they were serving at dinner! Our meat kept getting eaten, but we didn't catch anything. Our guide caught a couple though. As it's the end of the wet season, the water is high now. In a month or more the water level will have dropped 6 to 7 metres and I guess the area will look very different.
Please note we have not uploaded any pink dolphin shots because we didn't get any good ones, just a greyish/pinkish smudge and dirty brown water ripples! If you put your foot or hand in the water off the canoe they would come up and nudge it, sometimes giving you a great view down their mouth, their teeth and their faces, but we were too busy enjoying it to take photos! We also got to swim with the dolphins, though this was more like them swimming with us than the other way round. They kept stealing our ball, and it would then pop up somewhere else a few minutes later!