The Cordillera Quimsa Cruz (a mixed Aymara-Spanish name meaning ‘Range of the Three Crosses’) is a largely undiscovered realm of magnificent 5,000-m+ mountains located in the Bolivian Andes. Its western slopes are covered in thick ice-sheets, while its eastern slopes are carved by deep valleys that drain to the Amazon basin. The highest point is the heavily-glaciated 5,820-m Nevado Jachacunocollo, a name which I’m told means ‘The Grand Ice Peak of the Aymara People’.
Geologically, the range is actually a southern outlier of the well-known Cordillera Real, but separated by the deep canyon of the Río La Paz and thus properly isolated. Despite its relative proximity to the city of La Paz, the mountain range is completely blocked from sight by the massive 6,438-m Nevado Illimani. It takes several hours of travel on rough mining roads to reach the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz. The area has been explored for its extensive natural resources – copper, silver, tin, and other metals – and therefore contains a smattering of (mostly abandoned) camps high on the mountainsides.
This story follows my five-day journey through an extremely remote region of the Bolivian Andes. Alongside seven strong young Israelis, all of them just recently out of the military, I followed a Bolivian guide up and across the rugged Cordillera Quimsa Cruz. We set off to report on the general conditions of a section of the mountain range that is seldom visited by outsiders.
SATURDAY AUGUST 3rd, 2013
In my days wandering around La Paz I’ve heard of an Israeli man named Shaul who organizes shoestring expeditions into the most remote areas of Bolivia. I’m told that I can find his house on a side-street just down from Avenida Illampu. His door, as explained to me, is marked by a sign that has the name Shaul written in both Hebrew and English.
So for two hours I wander around the same city streets in hopeless circles, tiptoeing over old Aymara ladies sitting crosslegged munching on incredible wads of coca leaves and selling everything from flowers to sink faucets to chickens (dead and alive). Besides the usual hubbub of La Paz markets, the amount of shops with Hebrew signs are overwhelming and I don’t see the name Shaul written in English anywhere.
My mistake, I realize later, is that I’m looking for a proper sign outside a proper shop. In reality, the outside of Shaul’s house is nothing more than a nondescript black gate covered in graffiti. Taped to the door at eye level is single 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper has Shaul’s name printed in English and (I presume) Hebrew.
I ring the bell and moments later hear a window creak open two floors above me. Once I explain my purpose of visit, a key is passed down to me on a string. I use it to open the graffiti-covered gate, then return it to the air and enter. A young lady greets me and shows me upstairs.
In the main room, several people are hanging out on couches. A wildhaired man is bent over a table of maps, notebooks, and photos. He jerks his head up and I see that his eyes are wilder than his hair. He introduces himself as Shaul; I give him my name and say I’m keen on joining an upcoming expedition. “Good to meet you,” he says, offering me a seat on the couch. “I am trying to send a group to the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz, if you are interested.” He describes to me the soaring granite peaks, the pristine lakes, the majestic valleys… I’m sold on the trip instantly.
When I ask for more information on the route, he fetches a topographical map and, running his finger over it, produces barely-audibly mumblings like, “…then up to this pass… then all the way down to the foot of this valley… then up and over this ridge… then across this plateau and down to this lake…” and so on. I notice that only a fraction of the geographical features are even named on the map.
So I lay down a small deposit (this ‘5-7 day expedition’ will cost me a little over $100 USD to cover food, transportation, equipment, guide, and all) and agree to return early on Monday morning.
MONDAY AUGUST 5th, 2013
As planned, I show up to Shaul’s house at 5:30am. The whole group of us (me and the seven Israelis and the Bolivian guide) gather and sort all food and gear. I’m told that the transport will take the better part of the day. From Shaul’s house we all jam into a cramped old van. I am left to sit on the packs with my head pressed uncomfortably into the thin metal roof. Thankfully the van serves only to take us across town to the bus station. At the station we pile into a flota (basically a school bus turned into rural transportation) and, to my slight disappointment, again I’m left to sit on the packs.
From my makeshift seat in the center aisle, I crane my neck to look over a sea of Bolivian bowler hats and out the left window to watch the sun rise over the peaks of the Cordillera Real in the east. For three hours we bump southward along the cold, dusty Altiplano (‘high plain’) while I strike up conversation with a young girl named Ayelit, one of my fellow group members.
It’s mid-morning when we arrive in Konani, where we are forced to get on a new bus and switch directions from south to east. Konani is a sad dusty village with sad dusty streets, eerily deserted but for the bus stop corner. Around the bus stop is the standard assortment of vendors, including old coca-chewing women selling stuffed potatoes by droning on in a slightly melodic, “Papa rellena, papa rellena…”
About an hour after arriving in Konani, another flota arrives and our guide Leonid instructs us to board.
The next four hours are like a nightmare for me. I’m forced to sit in the middle seat of the back row (seriously, the Israelis don’t like sacrificing the good seats to the ‘outsider’), which is missing a cushion and therefore nothing more than bare metal. A large round woman wearing half a dozen skirts sits directly at my feet. Over the speakers the driver is absolutely blasting at full-volume his favorite Andean tunes, giving the bumpy crowded bus an unpleasant carnival vibe.
The road up into the mountains is in horrible condition and we rarely have the opportunity to go faster than 30 km/hr. It’s cut into a severely steep mountainside and lined with dizzying drops. The pathetic school-bus frequently bounces uneasily close to the edge. At first I worry about safety, pressing my nose against the window to see exactly how close we come to oblivion on every turn, but eventually I realize there’s no point: if we’re going to die then we’re going to die and there is nothing to do about it.
The bus climbs out of a valley and begins zigzagging up to a high pass between two snow-covered mountains. As we ascend higher and the road steepens, I seriously doubt the ability of our vehicle to make it over the pass. Amazingly, we succeed in reaching the top. We all get off to stretch our legs and let the poor bus cool down. “Our trek starts here?” I ask Leonid in Spanish (he does not speak English). He shakes his head and replies that we have far to go. “Más allá…” he muses.
To my utter disbelief, our bus completes several more of these incredible passes, each one higher than the last. We pass lakes and glaciers and villages on our way up hairpin switchbacks while the speakers blare that goddamn Andean music at full volume. One or two locals get off the bus at every village we pass through and I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to actually live way out here in such a remote area.
At last we disembark in one of these villages, named Viloco. Nestled in the bottom of a grand valley, guarded by towering black mountain peaks, it’s a collection of simple adobe homes, each one adorned with a Bolivian flag, arranged around a futbol pitch. Feral hogs run around and sniff the food in our rucksacks.
Leonid leads us outside the village and we make a picnic. Here I am introduced to the lunch that we are to eat every day on the expedition: sandwiches with avocado, cheese, tomato, cucumber, and liver.
It’s late in the day now; we each hoist our heavy rucksacks and begin the trek. We use a dirt road to ascend out of the village and up onto the nearest mountainside. Some time later we crest the ridge and an awesome view opens up before us. Innumerable terraced canyons crisscross the golden landscape below us while the imposing tri-peaked Nevado Illimani dominates the northern horizon. Rust-colored copper bleeds from the thin rivers below us and also from the craggy mountains above us.
We ascend steeply to a cirque at 4,000-m elevation and make camp beneath a foreboding wall of dark mountain peaks. Leonid informs me that these peaks reach to elevations above 5,200 meters. The fact that they are relatively unexplored keeps my eyes captivated on them until the last remaining sunlight. Leonid says there is a 4,900-m pass that will take us up and over to the other side.
But that’s for tomorrow; this evening we heat soup and sing songs around a fire. Nightfall brings a full sheet of stars and I desire to sleep openly beneath them, but Leonid insists that I settle inside the tent in order to keep warm against the subzero temperatures.
TUESDAY AUGUST 6th, 2013
I sneak out of the tent before 6:00am, past three slumbering females, and pull on my shoes in the crisp dawn air. I scramble up the nearest ridge and watch the sun gradually illuminate the 5,200-m peaks above our camp. Morning light does not reach our valley until 8:30am, by which time I begin to notice activity of people waking up. I slide back down the mountainside and join the group for a breakfast of eggs and tomatoes.
As a unit we begin to ascend the great mountain pass. We’ve got a stiff 900 meters of vertical ascent. Feeling fresh, I do my best to stay close behind Leonid while the others drag along in the back. Two hours into the climb and one of the girls has already smoked five cigarettes, earning her the nickname Cigarretta. Leonid, 62 years old and in amazing shape, races on ahead of me. I find myself slogging up towards the pass by myself, alone with my thoughts.
Coming to the brink of the pass, I take a deep breath and turn around. The group appears to be stalled some 200 meters below, visibly exhausted. But the scenery serves to invigorate me; I forget about waiting for them and head for the pass alone. As I climb higher, I am forced to walk over large patches of snow. Nearing the pass, I expect to be able to look straight down the eastern escarpment to the Amazon Basin, but this is not the case. In fact, even higher mountains stand on the other side of the pass. These mountains are giant black spikes jutting dramatically up from the snowfields. My eyes dance over the incredible number of pinnacles and spires, imagining the most spectacular routes to climb to the top of each one.
My desire to ascend one of these peaks becomes too great; I leave my pack at the pass and begin scrambling quickly up the jumble of rock to my left. Some 4th-class climbing moves are required to pull myself up to the summit, which from up close is a terrifying cluster of jagged boulders. I climb carefully up towards the highest of these boulders and balance myself delicately on the very top. Above 5,000 meters and with an unobstructed view across the canyon of the Río La Paz to Nevado Illimani, I feel on top of the world.
On the way back down, I experience a near-death moment when trying to take a self-timer photo. I place the camera on one boulder, hit the button, and begin hopping towards a different boulder. Turns out I had greatly misjudged the final jump, thinking it to be a small crack when in fact it was a perilously deep chasm far too wide to jump. By the grace of my quick reaction, I barely come to a screeching halt with my toes hanging off the edge. Trembling, I sit down and try to calm my racing heartbeat.
Now with a more cautious step, I descend off the peak back down to the pass where the group is taking another break. We start walking again, following a knife-edge ridge with steep drops down to turquoise ponds on both sides. I feel like a little puny human compared to the terrifying peaks that loom above me.
We circumnavigate each vertically-oriented pillar of rock because they are much to difficult to climb without protection. However, I notice a perfect hand-sized crack leading up to one of the pillars, and I can’t resist climbing it. The Israelis watch from below, mortified at my fearlessness. I admit it’s more exposed than I had expected – more of a 50-foot free-solo climb than anything – but anyway I muster up the courage to reach to the top. From there, I spy Leonid several hundred yards ahead on the trail below. I call to him and, when he sees where I am, he shakes his head in disbelief.
We traverse the high area of jagged pinnacles and then climb a second pass to an incredible pillar of rock over a hundred feet tall. At the base of this pillar we eat lunch and take a group photo.
Coming over the wind-swept pass, we enter a new valley. Carved deep by the past action of glaciers, this valley is said to contain several remarkable lakes. Leonid yells, “Vamos!” and spurs us on towards the 900-meter descent.
So we descend the valley, and it takes a toll on my body. My back and legs ache but my mind drinks in the glorious surroundings. Turning around, ominous black rock spires pierce the fantastical mist.
The cloud lowers to our level as we scramble over moss-coated boulders. We trace around a total of four lakes, each of them draining in a dramatic waterfall. Leonid keeps pushing us onward, repeating the phrase, “Más allá!” meaning “Further!”
At last we reach camp, a superb basin fronted by a 100-foot cascade, flanked by jagged peaks and drained by the river down to the cloud forest below. We set up the tents, cook pasta for supper, and play card games together until about 10:00pm.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 7th, 2015
Over the course of the night I somehow became horribly ill. As such, I carry a sour face through the morning, battling a sharp stomach pain. I have no clue where I contracted such a sickness, but it’s not pleasant at all.
The good news: today is our ‘easy day’. We leave our tents set up and go explore down the valley. A 3-km walk along a llama trail brings us to a dramatic escarpment where several waterfalls pour from the highlands to the jungle. The upper tier is a harsh landscape of barren rock and ice; the lower tier is a lush sea of green jungle. From the edge of the cliff we watch condors soaring majestically among the huge granite walls.
A fin of resistant rock juts out over the brink of this escarpment. Leonid, sensing my affinity for testy climbing maneuvers, challenges me traverse out onto the exposed ledge.
Turning to the north, we head in the direction of a side-valley. We trace along the brink of the escarpment to a small peak, thus gaining our first view of this side-valley. On this peak we soak in the view and enjoy lunch.
I complain to Leonid about my stomach pain; like a true Bolivian he prescribes me copious amounts of coca leaves. For the rest of the trek I carry a sizeable wad in between my cheek and gum. This seems to alleviate my stomach pains and my headache as well. He also gives me 190-proof alcohol, “to keep me strong.”
Anyhow, we plan to descend to the shore of the first lake, and then make our way up the valley to two further lakes. It’s a marvelous valley flanked by towering granite walls and anchored by gargantuan ice-covered mountains; we are all eager to explore it.
We find a way down the steep grassy mountainside in order to reach the shore of the lake. I strip down and wade into the frigid waters, paying attention to all of my senses. I hear multiple waterfalls all around me. I appreciate the snowy granite peaks. I notice how the still lakewater shows ripples only in the center of its body. I nod to the resilient yellow grass that grows in every possible location, yielding only to the sheer walls of dark-coloured rock.
While the group prepares snacks for themselves, I venture down the length of the creek to where the water takes a dramatic leap off the escarpment, falling as a powerful white stripe to the jungle below. To get the best view, I scramble down to a small ledge tucked into the grass.
We probe up the valley, a happy team of nine, skirting the shores of the first two lakes. To reach the third and highest lake we must climb very high onto the wall of the valley. We follow a llama trail, cutting a risky path along the steep mountainside. After about an hour we are looking straight down on the first two lakes.
In about an hour we’ve reached the third lake. Everything is covered in a dense fog, and we can only see partway across the lake. There are likely 1,000-ft cliffs bordering the lake (as at the lower two lakes), but it is impossible to tell. Nonetheless it is a magical setting.
A moment of quiet reflection at the serene lake, then we return along the llama trail to the main valley. As we begin the 3-km climb back up to camp, the clouds let loose a storm of hail and snow. We hustle along the trail as fast as possible, arriving to camp in the midst of a ferocious thunderstorm. Still feeling ill, I crawl into my sleeping bag at 6:30pm.
At 11:30pm I’m awoken with the sudden need to relieve myself. I fumble outside and emerge from the tent. It’s a dark stormy night, well below freezing. A layer of snow coats the ground. Business done, I tuck back into the tent, only to find that I am unable to get back to sleep. So I lay there freezing, listening to the sound of the angry wind, until 4:00am when I finally lose consciousness.
THURSDAY AUGUST 8th, 2015
Oh, miserable wretched morning. I moan with intestinal pain and alternate diarrhea and vomit. My sickness is at its worst this morning; I can’t stomach even a bite of bread for breakfast. My hiking companions give me army-strength diarrhea pills and offer to carry parts of my rucksack up the 800-m mountain pass.
It’s a brutal climb – I collapse several times out of weakness – but somehow I put myself in the correct mindset to reach the top of the pass. It turns out to be a broad plateau, and we have to cross several kilometers of surreal 4,500-m grassland to reach the true pass. The hard work is all worth it for the views.
We descend a small grassy valley and then climb up to a lake at 4,400-m, a hidden jewel called Laguna Escondida. Instead of partaking in lunch, I take a stroll down to the sandy beach and gaze upon the edge-of-the-world scene. Cows graze the opposite shore, venturing down to the water’s edge to drink.
Leonid shoos the cows off so we can circumnavigate the lake. We make another small climb and then begin our descent in earnest. We stumble down a ridiculously steep canyon, waist-deep in wet grass, trying to avoid dangerous potholes. It turns into a bit of a comedy, with everyone slipping and sliding down the sleep slope.
After a good deal of this ridiculous descending, we switchback down to a large valley containing a meandering stream and five curious llamas.
Another series of switchbacks leads us all the way down to 3,700-m, into the jungle where its humid and prehistoric. Cliffs still surround us, but now moss-covered trees and tiny stone huts join the scene.
At sundown (6:30pm) we reach camp, thus completing a grueling 15-km day. Camp happens to be located adjacent to a natural hot spring. One of the local inhabitants of the valley has made an attractive stone tub to hold the thermal water. The group is concerned about immediately making a fire, but I can’t wait to jump in the hot pool and relax my muscles.
As I’m drying off from the hot soak, I see lightning flashes in the distance. Deeming them to be of no real danger, I choose to roll out my sleeping bag under the stars. After some tea around the fire I settle down for a night of clear rest.
FRIDAY AUGUST 9th, 2015
Best sleep I’ve had in a while right there in the cool Yungas (Bolivian cloud forest) air. I awake at 7:30am feeling refreshed and healed of my illness. I join the group for a morning soak in the hot spring, then we pack up our rucksacks and hit the trail.
We descend quickly to 3,400-m and then stay level for quite some time, weaving through the cloud forest. After several hours we emerge from a thick cloud and enter the tiny ridgetop village of San Juan de Díos. Leonid speaks with the inhabitants to allow us to pass through in good blessing.
Past this village we join a road. Apparently it is just now in the process of being built, and not yet complete. It blows my mind to look at the terrain that the construction vehicles are cutting into.
Nevertheless we are able to follow this road for five kilometers all the way to our endpoint, the village of Choquetanga. These 5-km are a brutal slog up a tortuously consistent grade through the cloud forest. At it’s highest point, we sight our destination village tucked into a cozy distant valley. The time is merely 4:00pm so I drop to the back of the pack and admire the scenery at a slow pace. Lush green valleys, tall bronze mountaintops, vibrant rivers, and prehistoric-sized waterfalls.
Just before 6:00pm we find ourselves in the main square of Choquetanga. Each person greets us with “Buenas tardes!” and a homegrown smile; chickens and dogs and llamas scuttle all over the cobblestone streets. We drop our packs in the small plaza and await the only bus of the day, a night bus scheduled to leave at 8:00pm.
Near the schoolyard I meet a group of playful young kids. I teach them some English words; they teach me the translation of their Aymara town name. Choque means potato and tanga means women. The kids also show me Bolivian music on their 2000’s-era MP3 players.
The youngsters end up following me all over the village, eventually challenging me to a game of soccer. Only there isn’t a ball to be found, so we play with empty Coke bottles. I scrounge up a few sticks and turn it into hockey. However, the kids become overly riled up and this ‘hockey’ game quickly escalates to a game of ‘whip the gringo with the stick’.
I return to the plaza where my trekking mates are sipping on celebratory beers. Even though it is scheduled to leave Choquetanga at 8:00pm, the local bus Paraíso does not depart until 10:20pm. We all pile sleepily into the bus. As it rumbles and bumbles along the Yungas roads, my stomach also rumbles and bumbles. I feel the gut pains returning and can’t possibly sleep.
Around midnight, the bus makes a sudden stop. Friendly voices are yelling to get out of the bus; I motivate my weak body to get out of the seat and out the door. To my shock, I see that we’re near the top of a snowy mountain pass, perched dangerously on the edge of a huge cliff! The driver instructs everybody to stay outside the bus while he attempts to complete the hairpin turn. Apparently he had gotten himself into a precarious position and wanted to have everybody off the bus while he attempted to get the machine back on track.
With snow falling outside, the bus is absolutely freezing. For me it’s like being trapped in a moving refrigerator. At some ungodly hour in the morning, maybe 3:00am or 4:00am, the bus breaks down. We wait inside the bus for an hour while the driver solicits assistance from the nearest village. The bus gets fixed and we continue on our way.
It isn’t until 6:30am that we reach the safe city lights of La Paz. In a collective daze, we disembark and wait – for our minivan, and for the damn sun to finally rise.