Trip Report: Cordillera Real Traverse

I first visited Bolivia’s Cordillera Real in 1996. During that trip I distinctly recall thinking that it would be cool to return in the future, and put together an extended route spanning the entire range. As is sometimes the case in life, it took me a lot longer to come back than I originally thought. However, this past August the Cordillera Real Traverse finally became a reality. 

Ryan “Dirtmonger/DM” Sylva – good mate and trekking partner on the CRT.

Distance:  150 miles (241 km) approx.

Time:  9 days

Start / Finish:  

  • Southern Terminus:  Cohoni Village (at the base of Nevado Illmani)
  • Northern Terminus:  Sorata (at the base of Nevado Illampu)

Highest Elevation: 5295 m (17,372 ft) – No Name Pass

Lowest Elevation: 2725 m (8940 ft) – Sorata Plaza

DM on the final approach to “No Name” pass (5295m / 17,372 ft), the highest point on the traverse.

Cordillera Real Overview:

  • The Cordillera Real – Spanish for Royal Range – is a sub-range of the Andes mountains situated in Bolivia. It was named by the 16th century conquistadors for its majestic snow-capped peaks,
  • As the crow flies it is approximately 125 km long and 25 km wide. It sports nine peaks over 6000m (19,685ft) and more than 600 peaks over 5000m (16,404ft).
  • Geographically speaking, the Cordillera Real is situated in west-central Bolivia, with Lake Titicaca and Peru lying to the west, and the vast Amazon Jungle stretching out to the east.
  • Compared to Patagonia and Peru’s Cusco and Cordillera Blanca regions, the Cordillera Real receives relatively little backpacking traffic. That said, having spent extended periods of time rambling through all of those areas (including a traverse of the Cordillera Blanca in 2014), I personally think the Real rates right up there with anywhere else in South America, in regards to the quality of hiking on offer.

Overview map of the Cordillera Real (image from Albinger.me) | The southern terminus of Cohoni is situated at the base of Illimani in the bottom right hand corner.

Season:

  • May to September is the dry season in the Bolivian Andes. Technically speaking, this is late autumn/winter in the southern hemisphere, however, due to the fact that the Cordillera Real is situated so close to the equator, temperature fluctuations are relatively minor throughout the year. DM and I hiked in mid-August and had fine weather throughout the nine days.

Difficulty:

  • It’s a toughie. Ninety percent of the hiking is over 4400m (14,436 ft), and there are 23 passes in the space of only 241 km (150 miles). That’s an average of one high altitude pass every 10km. If you are looking for a flattish hike, best look elsewhere. In short, if you plan to do this hike independently, you better be both fit and experienced beforehand.
  • How long would it take most hikers to do the traverse?: DM and I are a bit quicker than most when it comes to this type of terrain. I’d estimate that independent hikers with a light pack along with a good level of fitness and trekking experience, could complete the traverse in between 14 and 19 days (including a rest day in La Paz).

Valle Chajolpaya | Day 8, Cordillera Real Traverse.

  • Acclimatization: Whichever direction you choose to do the traverse, chances are you will be camping at over 4400m (14,436 ft) on the first night of the trip. You will subsequently remain over this altitude for virtually the entire hike. In order to avoid possible issues with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), you need to be well acclimatized before starting the trek. Tip: Spend at least a few days wandering around La Paz (3640m / 11,942 ft) and the surrounding mountains before beginning your hike. In our case, before the traverse DM and I had just completed shorter hikes in the form of the Salkantay Trek and Ausangate Circuit. For more information on acclimatization, see Tips for High Altitude Hiking.

Turquoise lakes and 6000m peaks. That’s Huayna Potosi (6088m / 19,974 ft) in the background.

Transport:

  • Southern Terminus: There are irregular buses from La Paz to Cohoni (3 – 4 hrs). Perhaps we were given a bum steer, but we couldn’t get a straight answer as to where or when they left. In the end, we booked an Uber and paid about US$30. Unfortunately, the final stretch of road to Cohoni is very steep and quite sandy in parts. To cut a long story short, our ride couldn’t make it all the way up the hill, and after getting out and pushing a couple of times, eventually our driver called it quits and we started walking the remaining 14 km. After two hours we were picked up by a family of Seventh Day Adventists – Mum, Dad, and three little Ventists, who drove us the rest of the way to Cohoni.
  • Northern Terminus: Much easier. There are regular buses from Sorata back to La Paz (3-3.5 hrs).

An oasis of sand in a sea of long grass. In regards to shelters, during the traverse DM used the Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform tarp, and I used the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL | Campsite Day 7.

Information:

There isn’t a great deal of information on hiking in the Cordillera Real.

  • Maps: I put together the CRT route via a combination of Google Earth and Gaia GPS. It was the first time I had used the latter application (with an assist from DM), and I have to say I was impressed. I hope to have a mapset together for the route sometime in the next few months.
  • Guidebook – Yossi Brain, Trekking in Bolivia (1997). As to be expected after twenty years, this guidebook is a little outdated. Nonetheless, it is still full of useful information for anyone interested in hiking in the Cordillera Real. The author did a twenty day hike of the range in the 90’s. We hiked a similar route to Brain in the southern section of the range, but took a mostly different route once past Huayna Potosi.

Laguna Liviñosa ( 4244 m / 13,924 ft) | Day 5, Cordillera Real Traverse.

  • Resupply: We just did the one during our hike, heading back down the mountain to La Paz from the small village of Palca. However, for folks that are interested in doing this hike in the future, there are four possible resupply options during the traverse. They are as follows: 1. Palca – about one hour up hill from La Paz; 2. La Cumbre – This is a major road crossing between La Paz (one hour) and the town of Coroico (two hours). While there are no shops at La Cumbre itself, it would be no problems flagging down a bus heading in either direction; 3. Huayna Potosi – The route we took passed quite close to the refugio at the base of Nevado Huayna Potosi. There is a well maintained dirt road which runs from here down to La Paz. On weekends, there shouldn’t be an issue hitching a ride down the mountain, however, during the week traffic will be very hit and miss. You are probably better off resupplying via one of the first two options; 4. Cocoyo –  Situated only one or two days walk from Sorata, there are a couple of very basic stores in the village. Biscuits, ramen noodles, cans of tuna, and if you are lucky, tasty local cheese; we bought a kilo and devoured it within minutes!

DM descending to Laguna Chojna Khota (4722m / 15,492ft) | Day 8, Cordillera Real Traverse.

Route:

  • Terrain: A combination of cross country, animal trails, established paths, and the occasional stretch on dirt roads. As mentioned above, geographically speaking it was a roller coaster ride of a hike. Apart from the valley floors, there aren’t too many flat sections.
  • Passes: Geographically speaking, the traverse of Bolivia’s Cordillera Real was particularly notable for its passes. Twenty-three in total, most of which were between 4800m (15,748ft) and 5300m (17,400ft). Some of these high points were on wide open saddles, but more often than not they came in the form of notches, which were invariably rocky, windswept, and colder than a Siberian witch’s titty.

SWT Pass.

  • Camping: Abundant possibilities throughout the hike.
  • Water: Lots of water coming off glaciers and in the valleys. We treated down low where there was often livestock, but up high just drank straight from the source.
  • Dangers: While researching this trip, I’d read reports about trekkers being robbed in the northern part of the range around Illampu, specifically in the vicinity of Laguna San Francisco. While we didn’t go to the aforementioned lake, we did spend time hiking in that general area and had no issues to report. However, I will say, that the village of Cocoyo wasn’t the most welcoming place I’ve visited in Bolivia. Indeed, it was the only time on the journey that we even gave a second thought to security issues. Everywhere else the locals were very friendly and welcoming.

Looking back on Cocoyo valley as we headed up to Corahuasi Pass | Day 9, CRT.

Notes & Musings:

Back to the Future:

Since completing the 12 Long Walks in 2011/12, many of the more challenging hiking trips I’ve undertaken, have been the result of ideas I first had back in the 90’s. At the end of 2013 there was the Copper Canyon Traverse, followed by the Cordillera Blanca Traverse in Peru some six months later. In February, 2016, I journeyed to Tasmania where I pieced together a challenging route across the southwest wilderness. Finally in these last few months, I returned to Bolivia after 21 years to do a full length traverse of the Cordillera Real, as well as a 16 day route through the otherworldly Altiplano (trip report still to come).

A fresh faced, bespectacled version of yours truly in Peru in 1996. This shot was taken in the Colca Canyon region, a couple of weeks before I reached the Cordillera Real. Unfortunately all of my old pictures from the latter seem to have vanished. I suspect they are lying dormant in some dusty shoebox somewhere back in Australia (Note: For millenial readers, this was in the days before digital cameras).

Shepherds:

In another life, I think I would have made a good shepherd. I’ve always enjoyed walking long distances, have a good connection with animals, never get lonely, like sleeping under the stars, and don’t need much stuff in order to be happy.

On the Cordillera Real Traverse, DM and I ran into a handful of shepherds, all of whom were interested in what two solo foreigners were doing in their neighbourhood without the assistance of guides, porters, pack animals, etc. When we told them that we were hiking the length of the range from Illimani to Illampu, they gave us neither an over-the-top, “wow, that’s awesome“, nor a doubting “yeah, sure you are.” Instead, they listened to our words, looked us up and down, and gave us a knowing smile and nod. Coming from folks that spend their lives wandering through these mountains, a more valuable endorsement I could not imagine.

Shepherd’s hut on the Cordillera Real Traverse.

Crazy Chester:

Being followed by stray dogs in the boonies of developing countries is not an uncommon occurrence. Indeed, over the past quarter of a century, I figure it has happened to me at least 25 to 30 times. Sometimes for an hour or two, occasionally for multiple days. The latest instance was during the Cordillera Real Traverse in Bolivia. At bird’s fart 5.45 am on day 3, DM and I were joined by a indefatigable little fella by the name of “Chester.” How did I know he was called Chester? I didn’t, but that’s what I’ve called every single stray mut that has followed me over the years.

It comes from the classic tune, “The Weight”, by “The Band” (see lyrics below). Technically speaking, in the song the owner is Chester, and the dog is Jack. But I’ve always thought it should have been the other way around.

“Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
Said, “I will fix your rag, if you’ll take Jack, my dog”
I said, “Wait a minute Chester, you know, I’m a peaceful man”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can”

Chester and DM.

Dirtmonger

Between first envisaging the Cordillera Real Traverse in the 90’s, up until earlier this year when I finally put the route together on Google Earth, I had always assumed I’d be doing the hike by myself. However, thanks to a random Skype call some six weeks before departure, I ended up being joined by my friend Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva.

For readers who haven’t heard of DM, he is one of the most accomplished long distance hikers in the US, having pioneered several routes in America’s southwest, in addition to completing multiple thru hikes of both the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails. Apart from all that, the guy just has an uncommonly fierce passion for all things wilderness.

We ended up having a great time. Ryan and I hike in a similar style, worked well together on the route finding front, and the jokes were flowing thick and fast throughout the trek. It was DM’s first experience hiking in a developing country, and watching him dive in and embrace all the linguistic, culinary and cultural differences with such an open mind (and stomach), was one of my favourite parts of the trip. From start to finish he adapted incredibly well, and I have a feeling that this will be the first of many more such journeys he’ll do in South America in the not-too-distant future. Thanks for a fantastic hike, mate!

DM and Swami in Sorata Plaza, the finishing point of the Cordillera Real Traverse.

 

 


Comments

Trip Report: Cordillera Real Traverse — 5 Comments

  1. Likewise I hiked a lot of this area in 1997, including a summit of Huayna Potosi. So many trails that are only used by the locals. I’ll be back there very soon, might even follow this route. Cheers, Shepherd.

    • Hey Brad,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s definitely a stunning part of the Andes, and relatively easy to access from La Paz via a few different locations.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  2. Looks like a great trip. Can you tell me why you prefer the solomid xl over the regular? I’m thinking of picking one up for winter hiking. Thanks!

    • For a one ounce weight penalty you get a bit more space. I know Ron says the Solomid is fine “even if you’re 6’5″”, but personally speaking I feel like the Solomid XL is just enough, and I’m only 6’1″.

  3. Thanks for the great trip report with fab’ pics Cam; what a shame I wasted my youthful years on more mundain journeys. Keep trekkin’ and let me live again through your eyes; at 80 these trips are beyond my capabilities.

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