JARYD JUSTICE-MOOTE: Some moments simply take your breath away. I mean quite literally. You can’t fucking breathe.
As my partner Ash Lewis and I neared the ridge line of the Takesi trek, an old Inca trail connecting the Altiplano and Yungas valleys in Bolivia, the thin air at 15,000 ft. (4,600 meters) began to get to us.
The Takesi trail called to us for several reasons: First; after having spent the last 9 months or so traveling throughout South America, our budget was quite low. The Takesi trail seemed easily accessible without a guide, which meant… here comes that word we all love to hear… free!
Second, up to this point in our travels we had only camped out either in people’s back yards or at truck stops and we were yearning for the opportunity to set up camp somewhere more remote.
Third, we wanted to break away from the tourist crowds one often encounters in Bolivia and experience something unique for most travelers.
So, at 6:45 AM on April 6, 2016, after only four hours of online research, Ash and I took our first steps towards the Takesi Trail. We carried with us one MSR camp stove, one pot, two plastic mugs, a $20 tent with no rain fly (though apparently waterproof up to 400mm of rain), one sleeping bag, one small blanket, two cheap sleeping pads and some extra clothes. I wore a pair of worn down skate shoes and Ash an even worse off pair of Walmart sneakers.
In three days, we needed to hike 40 km on a trail with an average elevation of 3,600 meters (11,800 ft.) Perhaps we were a bit under prepared, but I doubt the Inca had a tent and a camp stove, and they created the trail.
As we stepped out of our hostel and onto the streets of La Paz, Ash and I hailed a cab and explained we were headed to Ventilla, a small village about an hour and a half outside of La Paz and roughly 7km from the Takesi trailhead. From what we had gathered, this was the most accessible starting point from La Paz.
The driver asked for 130 bolivianos, a little over $20 USD, for the trip. We agreed; if you’re on a tighter budget, you can catch a shuttle for 15 bolivianos per person, though these are far more complicated to get to and leave only once a day at 7:15 a.m.
After hopping in the cab, the driver, who had assured us he knew where we were headed, asked us once again where we were going. He had no clue. 20 minutes into a phone call with his boss that included periodic interruptions from myself, the driver finally figured out where we were going and we hit the road.
We distanced ourselves from the paved streets of the city, and after an hour of driving along the windy, dirt roads characteristic of Bolivia, we arrived at our starting point.
Using a paper with poorly jotted directions for a map, we got on our way.
The first 7 km took us around an hour and a half to complete and brought us along dirt roads that ran between some local villages and an old mine. When we arrived at the Takesi trailhead we met a French couple sitting down eating lunch. They informed us that they had taken a wrong turn on their walk in from Ventilla and ended up taking a 20-minute detour.
They had a guidebook with detailed instructions and maps of the trek; Ash and I had a ratty slip of paper that read “keep left at all forks and follow the trash on the side of the trail and you know you are going in the right direction.” (there is a certain lack of awareness when it comes to littering in Bolivia).
You don’t always need the proper things to get proper results.
Maybe 10 minutes into our ascent, the French couple, with their $200 hiking boots, $300 rain shells and perfectly sized backpacks, passed Ash and I. We looked down at our ripped clothes and laughed about how much more badass we were than them. This helped us feel better about being the less prepared couple.
This first section of the trek begins in an area called the Altiplano and passes through an arid landscape marked by small bushy shrubs and grey rocks. This first ascent was by far the most difficult part of the entire journey as it is not only the steepest section of the Takesi Trail but it rapidly climbs to 15,000 ft (4,600 meters), the highest point along the trek.
When your body can’t take in enough oxygen to compensate for the stress being put upon it, it becomes hard to even breathe and let alone keep moving.
As our staggered steps took us further up the mountainside the small brush began to dissipate into the rocky landscape.
Suddenly, Ash and I noticed flashes of movement in the stones.
Upon closer examination, we made out the figure of something that looked a lot like a large squirrel with the ears of a rabbit. Its motion seemed a mix between the two.
What we would refer to over the next few days as the silly squirrel chinchillas is actually known as the viscacha, a type of chinchilla with physical characteristics much closer to those of a rabbit and one of the only animals found at that altitude.
After many heavy breaths, we reached the mountain pass where a freezing blast of air greeted us.
From this point one normally sees a stunning view of the glacial peak of Mururata, but we did not. The afternoon had turned cloudy and transformed the spectacular views into a murky landscape. However, this was no discouragement to us. Instead, as we made our way down into the Yungas valley and the rock became covered in moss, an eerie mysticism engulfed us and we bore witness to incredible lakes, old ruins and llamas emerging mysteriously from the fog.
In a large marshy valley surrounded by cliffs and veined with interconnecting streams, we found a nice spot to set up camp and cook dinner before nightfall. When the sun disappeared behind the cliffs, the temperature quickly dropped below 0°C. Ash and I retired to our tent for warmth and to catch some shuteye.
In the morning, we awoke to a clear day that allowed us to absorb the vast beauty of the valley we had called home the night before.
After eating breakfast, we took the first steps of our second day. By noon, we passed by the Takesi village: an area consisting of roughly 3 homes, 5 people, some cows and one very angry looking bull.
The rest of the day took us deeper down into the lush valleys of the Yungas, where we enjoyed a jungle like atmosphere, bear poo, butterflies and, of course, more trash.
Right as we were losing hope of finding a water source for the evening, we heard a familiar whooshing noise. We followed the sound to its origin to find a large river and a perfect place to camp.
Camp was all set up and the sun beginning to set when Ash tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the trees.
Flickers of whitish yellow light began to pop from within the leaves of the trees lining the mountains that engulfed us. The treetops lit up with the life of hundreds of fireflies, something that I had never witnessed before in my life. A silent fireworks display was being put on for no-one and we were there to bear witness. The whole mountainside danced before us.
A sudden rain storm extinguished the lights and sent Ash and I rushing for our tent, quickly putting an end to our evening.
The following day, a couple of mules, seemingly bothered by our presence on their home turf. joined us at breakfast. After finishing our meal and boiling some water for drinking, we gave the mules back their territory and began the last day of the hike.
By 4 in the evening, we arrived at the stone mine that marks the end of the Takesi trail. Now all we had to do was walk along the road towards Yanacachi, the mountainside village from which the very infrequent colectivos, or buses, leave for La Paz.
Less than half way along the walk, a van pulled over to speak to us. Two men in their 30s looked out at Ash and I standing on the side of the road:
“A donde van?” Asked the driver;
“A Yanakachi,” I replied.
The driver asked if we were headed towards La Paz afterwards, and when I told him yes, he opened his door and offered us a ride.
To get from Yanacachi to La Paz via motor vehicle one has to go along the Yungas road. This road is also internationally known as “Death Road” due to the numerous deaths that occur along it annually. It is characterized by steep cliff drops that line the side of the road.
The rest of our ride to La Paz was spent staring about 100ft down the sheer drops that lay at the edge of Death Road. Nerves continued to rise when our driver stopped to pick up a six pack of beer and continued to crush cerveza, or beer, as he took us back into the city. Bouts of hysterical laughter were shared by Ash and I as we stared into the oblivion that was the edge of “Death Road,” greatly anticipating our return to the city.
Once back in La Paz, we took one last colectivo back to our hostel and collapsed, exhausted but very much alive.
Too often we make excuses for why we can’t do something. Why we don’t have the money, the time or the things.
Stop that right now and put on your ratty old piece-of-shit tennis shoes and go climb that mountain. I can tell you right now that you will be much happier having the journey behind you than you will forever looking at the peak in front of you.
Note, This article is not written to inspire unpreparedness. The Takesi trail is a very simple trail to follow, and both Ash and I have lots experience backpacking and a basic knowledge of camping survival skills. Rather, this article is a reminder that no matter the situation we find ourselves in, if we want some excitement our adventure, our goal is always attainable.