From Freezing Glaciers to Steaming Cloudforests: El Chorro Trek

Bolivia has about 736,000 square miles (roughly the size of the U.S. states of Alaska and Washington combined), one-third of which is Andean altiplano and two-thirds is Amazon basin. Were it not for losing its Pacific War with Chile (1879-1884), it would have a coastline as well. (In fact, from 1825 to 1935, Bolivia lost half of its territory to neighboring Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay.)  The combination of altiplano and jungle make for a very biodiverse country and one of the best ways to experience that is by hiking the El Chorro Trek, just outside La Paz.

The El Chorro Trek in Bolivia
  After getting acclimatized in La Paz, we made arrangements to do the El Choro trek, a 43 km trek from the snowy tip of the Andes’ Cordillera Real range to the Yungas, the dense, steamy cloudforest that separates Bolivia’s altiplano from its Amazon basin. The trek starts out at La Cumbre, atop the Cordillera Real, the easternmost border of Bolivia’s altiplano, and goes to Chairo, before a jeep takes you to the relaxing tourist town of Coroico.

The first day we drove straight up out of La Paz, the Bolivian capital which sits in a densely-populated bowl in the altiplano. We headed straight up for an hour until we reached La Cumbre (“The Summit”) at 15,502 feet. The driver dropped the eight of us off (our family of 4 plus our guide, cook, and two porters) amid alpine lakes, glaciers and rocky peaks. We hiked strenuously upward for a half hour until we reached our highest point, Abra Chucura (15,941 ft). From here, it was all downhill on paved Inca stones, past crumbling piles of flat pizara (slate), roaming packs of llamas, and the occasional donkey train transporting goods from the Yungas to La Paz. After an hour we passed pre-Inca, guesthouse ruins, where travelers long before us broke their journey. Over one mountain pass from us was Bolivia’s infamous “World’s Most Dangerous Road”, where an average of 26 vehicles a year disappear over the edges of the road from La Cumbre to Coroico. The road gots its nickname from a recent Inter-America Development Bank report and is a magnet for adrenaline junkies on downhill mountain bikes. Later than afternoon we passed beautifully paved pre-inca stone roads and finished our day at Challapampa (9,268 ft). For dinner our cook served us a delicious quinoa and vegetable soup while we were entertained by a young boy scrambling on the grassy camping area on all fours. The next morning, we brushed our teeth and all visited Challapampa’s village toilet; a makeshift wood platform about 10 feet above a large pit next to the river. This image alone will convince our kids to never drink alpine river water without it being treated.

Day two was a delightful downward stroll through cloudforest dotted with orchids, bromeliads and butterflies. We passed a shack selling Oreo cookies and softdrinks and bought a pack of Oreos. Not far before we reached the next shack selling drinks, we saw about a hundred empty plastic bottles dumped down the cliff next to the trail. For the rest of the hike I intermittently thought about the tourist's responsibilty for such an unsustainable practice. We continued to cross makeshift bridges and small waterfalls and finished the day at the village of San Francisco -- a couple of huts in a level space carved into the trail, surrounded by banana trees.

We started out Day three with sore legs and very quickly descended into a dense jungle area with hundreds of beautiful Amaryllis plants. I recalled working for the Gardener’s Eden catalog over ten years ago where we sold “forcing kits” of Amarylis bulbs with smooth rocks and a glass pot for $30. I mentioned this to my wife and she picked one and put it in her hat. For lunch we stopped and ate at Casa Sandillani (6,725 ft) and spoke with the village patriarch, Tamiji Hanamura. Mr. Hanamura was a 80-year old Japanese man, who had traveled widely for many years and once he reached Casa Sandillana, stopped travelling and never left. He’s been there for 40 years. He showed us his collection of postcards from the United States and we promised to send him a postcard from some exotic place. That afternoon we continued steadily downhill towards the town of Chairo. About an hour before getting there we saw parrots noisily chirping in a tree. We finally reached Chairo, sweaty and exhausted, and jumped in a jeep for Coroico. We reached Coroico and immediately took showers at our hotel. The view from our room revealed densely-covered cloudforest, extending out towards the Amazon basin. The first day of walking by glaciers seemed worlds away.


Bolivian Biodiversity

The Bolivian "88" butterfly
Whether you are sailing along on Lake Titicaca at 12,500 feet, tramping through the Yungas (steamy cloud forest), walking through glaciers along the altiplano, paddling a dugout canoe through the Bolivian Amazon or taking in the bizarre Salar de Uyuni salt sea, Bolivia has something for everyone. Its biodiversity is staggering. 

Bolivia is one of four countries with the highest abundance of butterflies and one of eight countries with the highest abundance of bird species. In belongs to the Tropical Andes, according to, is the richest and most diverse region on Earth, with about a sixth of all plant life in less than 1 percent of the world’s land area.

Bolivia has 4 biomes, 14 ecoregions and 199 ecosystems. The main biomes are jungle, forest, savannah, tundra, steppe, desert and wetlands. At the moment, more than 14,000 higher plant species, 325 mammals, 186 amphibians, 260 reptiles, 550 fish species and 1,379 birds are inventoried.

Don't like what you see in Bolivia? Jump on a bus and you'll be in a completely different ecosystem very quickly.