There is just no good information on anything here. I am determined learn about the wonders that surround me, but tour guides in the city have almost no knowledge of the area, and the villagers all seem to serially confuse legend, desire and reality. Nothing is measured in distance, since that can be very misleading in the mountains, however, even estimates made in time can very between hours and days depending on who you ask. This makes solo exploration quite adventurous and dangerous.
Thus far, I have trekked around the rivers, finding two three hundred foot waterfalls (which no one bothered to tell me about), dinosaur foot prints running up rock faces, ancient rock art, caves, and a handful of surrounding villages. However, I have also often climbed myself into some precarious positions in the mountains, and try not to venture too far off the map on my own.
Last time I was in the city of Sucre, I went to the Military Geographical Institute, who have some of the best topographical maps of the regions. The maps were too expensive for me to buy, but they let me stay there and copy down the details I wanted by hand. These are the best pieces of information available, but they were drawn in the 1950s, and show roads and lakes in places I have been, which I am sure never existed.
I now have some poorly hand drawn maps, and a lot of territory I would like to scope out. Two of my best friends came to visit me, Matt and Joe, and both of them being accomplished backpackers, we set upon the little information I had, and planned an epic wander through some of the more interesting features I had heard about, like hot springs, ancient burial sites, the highest peak in the region, and a sleepy little riverside village. Unfortunately for us, all of the unknowns added up to us trekking over 87 kilometers through the rigid peaks and dusty goat paths of the Andes (see detailed map here). It was extremely difficult.
We took out all the non-essentials and left them in the hostel in Sucre. We loaded our packs with supplies, hopped in the back of a truck full of animals, grains and people, and rumbled up the Cordillera de los Frailes mountain range and down to the village of Chaunaca in the river valley on the other side. This is where the river crossing is to the mighty River Ravelo, and where the 12 kilometer hike into Maragua starts. It was a grueling day, as we had brought a lot of supplies with us, and the sun was hot.
The following day, we rested in the morning, and then wandered along a little waterfall circuit I had created, which starts at one 300 foot waterfall, and traverses through five other major waterfalls before ending at another 300 foot waterfall in the neighboring village of Irupampa. We climbed up to the cemetery in the middle of the crater, visited the little tourist cabanas we were building and then went to go say hi to the kids in the school.
The next day we woke up early and set out to venture beyond what I knew. We trekked up and out of the crater, and then down into a cluster of several houses, known as the village of Niñu Mayu, where they have some very impressive dinosaur tracks running up a sheer rock face. Passing through the village, we came to Humaca, a village on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Pilcomayu river 700 meters below. We spent the rest of the day descending into the river bed ourselves, and then looking for shelter. Our “map” told us there was a town, or at least a school somewhere in the river valley, but after climbing a peak to have a look around, and seeing nothing but endless rolling valleys, most big enough to hide a village, we decided we would not be able to locate it before dark.
There was nowhere flat to set-up camp except the riverbed, so we chose an elevated island and pitched tents. We were not entirely comfortable there, as we knew rains upstream might flood the river bed in the darkness, but all that descended that night was a piercing alpine cold. We had not brought sleeping bags to save weight, and long before dawn we were all awake willing the sun to pass over the surrounding peaks and flood the river valley below.
After the sun sunk life back in to our bodies, we focused on our next immediate need, water. We were out, as we had planned to find the village the night before and replenish our supply. I knew the river water contained farm run-off and was also likely to be infused with tailings from the mines upstream in Potosi. We managed to find some muddy little springs on the side of the river and filled our bottles. We then started tracing the river downstream, keeping an eye out for the elusive village of Talula, but also some hot springs that had been on some maps.
We never found the village, but had to cross the Pilcomayu twice. The first time, Matt pioneered a route, getting stuck in deep water, and was nearly swept away. The hot springs had been decrepit for a long time so we ventured on. We then marched up a mountain road, past the village of Marca Rumi, where the children all ran to the school house windows, yelling “gringos, gringos, gringos”, in glee as we glided past. My friend Don Roman greeted us in the village of Quila Quila, and had his wife boil us some soup. He took us on a side trip to the rock art at Marca Rumi and an ancient burial site.
The first hours of the morning were spent pushing ourselves up the slopes of Mount Obispo, which stands at over 3,500 meters. With the soup still in our bellies, we summited and then traversed down the trail-less backside of the mountain in search of a lazy riverside village called Cachi Mayu. We stumbled upon some small communities too small to even make the maps, who pointed us down river valleys, over passes and finally to Cachi Mayu where we negotiated with some village leaders to allow us to sleep in one of the school classrooms.
We had to wake up with the sun to be out of the school before the children came for classes. We had a tip that if we followed the river upstream for a while we would come across a large sand embankment with trucks loading sand and taking it back to Sucre. We found it, but after sitting and watching a man with a very small shovel try to load a dump truck with sand, we decided it would be quicker to walk than wait for a ride. We climbed up switchbacks from the riverbed, and after 17 kilometers of grueling hiking in the sun, we cruised into the main plaza of Sucre, victorious.
It took our broken bodies a couple days to recover from the abuse of the mountains. However, the journey was very important to me, as it taught me that in the worst case scenario, as long as I was healthy, I could find my way back to the city, a phone, electricity and safety. It gave me the sense of self-sufficiency and confidence I needed to live out in the village for the next year and a half.