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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 10

Whoever had given the map to my Dutch friend had warned him that it was difficult to find the beginning of the trail. We had been searching this mountain ridge for two hours without really knowing where to look. The directions on the map were unclear. The wind was fierce and every frozen boulder looked alike. It was a desolate place. We were close to abandoning our search and were considering trying to hitch a ride back to the capital, when a couple of Indians with a caravan of a dozen packed llamas appeared. We stared at each other in disbelief. They had come from below and, after some confusion, they pointed us in the right direction. Half an hour later we found the trail. It was wide and carved out of the mountainside. Its construction must have been an enormous undertaking and we marvelled about the great Inca empire that had built the roads that crossed these vast mountains and jungles from Bolivia into Peru and Ecuador. Recharged, and overjoyed at having overcome this first obstacle, we hurried downwards. We had wasted precious time and it was now imperative that we march rapidly so that we could get beyond the snowline by nightfall.

Later that day we met another caravan of llamas and alpacas herded by two silent Indians. This trail was the only route out for the few people that populated these valleys. The Indians looked at us with amazement, then laughed when we pointed in the distance and said "Coroico!". We would encounter very few humans over the next week and a strange aloneness settled on us. The views from the mountainside were spectacular as ever and ever the road descended. It was a well-made road, broad in parts, and there were sections of steps cut into the rock face. On the horizon lay mountain ranges and valleys covered in forests. The air was thin and I felt buoyant and happy to be climbing down, not up. Tashi was a constant chatterbox. He too was having a great time. We gave ourselves only a couple of short rests to chew on some nuts and fruit. Through a towering and forbidding landscape, home of the condor, the trail twisted and spiralled downwards past vertiginous ravines with plummeting visions of dark gorges and razor sharp cliff faces. Gradually the snow thinned out. It was late afternoon when the first shrubs appeared and at dusk we found a sheltered place between two giant boulders, lit a fire and made a meal of lentils and rice. Too tired for conversation we rolled ourselves in the sleeping bags and plastic sheet, fed the fire and fell into an exhausted sleep.

We woke early. By mid-morning we had reached the treeline and soon afterwards a small hamlet of houses by a stream. The locals were very friendly and full of admiration for Tashi, who responded to everyone's asking him where he was going with a bright "Coroico!". One man could not stop roaring with laughter when he heard the little fellow was planning to walk to Coroico. I had expected Tashi to be pretty tired from yesterday's pushed march but, no, his energy was boundless. He just kept tramping on, chattering away, informing Herman that he preferred it here to La Paz, asking questions about the Incas, requesting me to tell him yet another story with him adding parts and twists to the plot. Even when we had a rest, he continued scouring the shrubs for interesting branches or rocks. I had imagined that Herman and I would take turns at carrying him for most of the way, but until now, we had only swapped the rucksack, so that one of us always remained free of burden.

 

At midday we found ourselves in a dense jungle of creepers and vines, giant ferns, and at times, knee-deep in undergrowth. Butterflies as large as my hand fluttered in front of our eyes. The trail disappeared regularly and one of us would have to scout ahead to recover a trace of it, however overgrown. Descending thickly forested ridges, we crossed several streams on rickety bridges, anxiously watching Tashi crawl on all fours across a structure made of two long and spindly tree trunks on which lateral branches were tied, many of them loose, exposing gaping holes and the thundering river only two meters below. The Andean rivers display a spectacular fury and when we approached them from the shelter of the forest we were struck by a roar like a flight of jet planes, with as many as half a dozen large steps of cascading waterfalls crashing down at once. Indeed during these first days in the Yungas we often searched the sky looking for an airplane, only to discover soon afterwards that there was yet another stream to cross.


(To be continued)