Bolivian Oblivion on the Mapiri Trail
We all need to crawl before we can walk – but even my crawling technique needed some work when I was faced with squeezing myself under the tenth fallen log that day, whilst knee-deep in mud and trying to outrun an army of sweat-hungry bees. I discovered that it’s not just the altitude that makes Bolivia’s Mapiri Trail one of the most breath-taking experiences in the world.
This seven-day Inca trek from the chilly majesty of the Andes Mountains drags over 4,000 metre passes and on through the thickest jungle vegetation, eventually plunging down to a steamy tropical finish at a small gold-mining town on the Mapiri River which flows into the Amazon. This part-trek, part-commando run is certain to amaze, enrage and exhaust even the most hardy of would-be Rambos.
Though one of the poorest countries in the Americas, Bolivia presents a wealth of opportunities for the adventurous traveller. With the highest proportion of indigenous people on the continent, the ancient traditions of the Incas are maintained more there than perhaps anywhere else. Mixed with a vibrant and violent colonial history, this landlocked mountain republic is a fascination yet to be discovered by most tourists.
The tourist in Bolivia is remarkably safe. Travellers aren’t bombarded with brochures and tourist-based services, which allows greater contact with local people. Prices are insanely low and the people are warm and friendly without that glint of silver in their eye upon seeing an approaching ‘gringo’.
The natural environment provides almost infinite possibilities for hiking, climbing, biking and white-water rafting, across a widely diverse landscape and all without the feeling of just having walked in the footsteps of thousands of others. Only around 50 people a year are believed to tackle the Mapiri Trail. By comparison, the Inca Trail in neighbouring Peru has government restrictions limiting access to around 70,000 walkers a year.
As part of the ancient network of paths that criss-crossed the huge Inca Empire, it is likely the Mapiri Trail once provided their mountain capital of Cusco, in what is now Peru, with the gold for its temples. A hundred years ago German traders cleared the trail to export quinine, they finished the job just as the bottom dropped out of the quinine market and never got to make use of their hard work.
The rubber boom kept the path open into the 20th century but it had almost completely disappeared before some enterprising locals cut back the worst of the jungle’s excesses to develop the trail for tourism in 1990.
I met up with my fellow trekkers in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital city. I could tell that Natalie, a French-Canadian woman, and Eli, an Israeli man fresh out of the army, were both more intrepid that me, mostly how expensive their breathable trousers looked. We were all in our early twenties and keen to take on a challenge few visitors to Bolivia face.
We took a bus to the pretty town of Sorata, a comfortable base for setting out on many of Bolivia’s best hikes and climbs. We quickly arranged our guides and transportation. We were to take one guide and just one porter to carry the heaviest of our food and camping equipment. The rest was up to us.
A rickety three-hour jeep ride out and up of Sorata the following day led us to the end of the line, Ingenio. This tiny gold-mining settlement perched high upon the Illampu Massif arm of the Andes was a reminder of just how isolated we would be for the week ahead. There would be no reads, no houses, and no people at all after this point. The only other route down into the lowlands is a rough four-wheel drive track from Sorata, which loops round a hundred miles to the north.
The first two days were spent on this high ground walking along a grassy ridgeline that would eventually take us down into the tropics. We were warm while the sum shone on us, but as we disappeared into the clouds or as dusk fell, the temperature dropped like a stone and everyone was grateful for the thick clothing they had brought.
Eli had lost his penknife, something he was clearly quite proud of judging by the way he flung open every bit of his pack to search for it. As we set up camp and heated up our soup rations he disappeared back down the trail to the last place we had rested, where he had been fiddling with it. After an hour he returned empty-handed in the half-light cursing his luck. Later, as we crawled into our tent to sleep he gave a yelp of delight as the blade fell out of his sleeping bag. Eli swore he had looked there. The Mapiri Trail had played its first trick on us.
Eduardo, our guide, had walked the trail 15 times before. His tiny feet glided over the Inca paving as we slipped and splashed our way along stonework that became an ice rink with the persistent rain on our second day. Elias, our porter, wasn’t quite as graceful as his boss but with the huge cloth sack he carried across his back it was a wonder he could manage a mile. It was strung uncomfortably across his shoulder blades in what looked like a very slow form of garrotting, his calm manner belying the fitness required to carry on as he was.
The pair chuntered away to each other in the ancient language of Aymara, Spanish was a distant second and spoken only to us. Stopping only occasionally with some new revelation for us about the difficulties ahead, it seems gallows humour was the norm for these particular Bolivians.
During a particular depressing shower of rain Eduardo said that we had so far been lucky, he had once done the whole trek and not had a single moment without rain in seven days. Even more disconcerting was his confirmation of a rumour that I had refused to belive before. The previous year a group had walked the trail and had set up camp in the rainforest on the fourth day, they awoke in the morning to find their tent in pieces, eaten away by an army of warrior ants. One particularly anxious guy even found they had eaten through the crotch in his trousers.
As we sat eating lunch I looked back along the trail, wondering if it would be possible to head back. My cowardice was only overcome by the realisation that I would probably get lost on my own. I would have to push on.
For a trail that descends a total of 3,000 metres the amount of uphills were staggering. Ascending at an altitude of 4,000 metres required a considerable slowing of pace. With both heart and lungs straining at their maximum, the tiny granny steps I found myself reduced to seemed scant reward for my efforts. The payback came with the magnificent views of the austere Andes, snow-capped and serene behind us.
Our isolation on the ridge was only disturbed by a few over-curious cows. Humans weren’t regulars on their patch and they weren’t too welcoming to strangers. A herd gathered alongside the trail to warn us off with a war chorus of bellowed moos. Our pace quickened as a couple of the bravest followed us along the path, as if escorting us from the premises.
The sodden high ground gradually gave way to more lush vegetation and birdsong. Yet even the birdcalls seemed to be warning us off with their perfect impressions of chainsaws and ambulance sirens.
The afternoon of our third day brought the most dreaded and distinctive aspect of this trek. The forest closed in around the much narrower path as we snaked our way back and forth down the steep ridgeline. Rocks that had earlier formed a smooth walkway now merely jutted out occasionally at ankle-twisting angles. It became pointless avoiding the shin-deep mud as our boots and trousers had reached saturation point.
Eduardo disappeared on ahead of us, hacking down the worst of the bamboo with his machete to make it easier on us. But he couldn’t hack down whole trees. Countless times we had to negotiate trunks that had fallen across the trial. Often the only way past was to crawl underneath them, our chins dripping with mud beards as we came up on the other side.
The forest took on a magical quality as we stumbled and cursed our way along it, enclosing us in its dense canopy. Giant roots formed cooling grottoes and the trail often became a tunnel for long stretches as it ran down deep trenches covered with vegetation. The only times we were awarded a view of the impossibly steep valleys below were when we traversed landslides, where the vegetation had been swept away by the rain.
Eli and Natalie became experts in the weather. The pressure differences at this confluence between high and low created an intense micro system of weather events. After a couple of days they could tell exactly which thunder claps signalled which storms were headed for us and took great pleasure in updating me. From underneath my waterproof hood my predictions were a little more arbitrary; I thought all the storms were headed for us.
From our ridge we could see clouds gathering below and rising up alongside us towards the mountains. Mists rose and fell in minutes, sweeping over endless green canopy and chasing each other in and out of bottomless troughs.
By the fifth day the roughest sections of the trail were behind us. The rest, Eduardo assured us, was to be a much gentler affair. He pointed out the area off to the west where explorers had been searching for the lost Inca City of Paititi, believed to be a city of gold the Incas fled to seeking refuge from the Spanish. It must have been an impossible task; even leaving the trail for a few metres to go to the loo left me disoriented enough to doubt the way back.
We soon broke out of the trees onto a grassy ridge, where our clothes could finally dry in the sunlight. But despite the path being much easier going, the Mapiri Trail was not finished with us just yet.
The blades of grass were so tough that if a hand touched the wrong part it would draw blood. The heat was becoming a problem, as any shade was rare. We also saw two snakes rustling off the path ahead of us. But nothing compared to the horror of the bees.
Upon stopping for lunch and making camp in the evening, within minutes we were surrounded by dozens of the buzzing monsters, eager to taste the sweaty grime that had accumulated on our clothes. I laid my shirt out to dry and in no time it was covered with 50 bees. At times their attentions became almost unbearable and I got several painful stings as they got stuck under my shirt or trouser leg.
Stopping for even a few minutes meant more bees for company, so despite our screaming limbs we made short work of the final few miles. We bathed in a cooling stream and were surrounded by blue butterflies as wide as frisbees before reaching journey’s end and a return to civilisation. Eduardo and Elias even got changed into some fresh clothes. Such pride in appearance was way beyond the rest of us.
In 1903 the entire Bolivian Army came down this trail to lose a war with Brazil. We could see that they stood little chance as they had already fought a war just in getting to the front. Yet, as we stumbled out onto the dusty roads of the ugly little village of Mapiri, we knew our battle was over.
As we settled up payment over a basic but tasty lunch in one of the few cafes, we were barely able to express our satisfaction. I watched the others limp off to catch a four-wheel-drive back up to Sorata. Eli’s knee had seized up since we stopped and Natalie was struggling to support him. Lord knows how they would have managed without their breathable trousers. Eduardo and Elias carried everyone’s bags, almost skipping over the road, and still chattering away happily together. Barring any mishaps, their journey back to our starting point should have taken 14 hours. I wouldn’t find out. I had a better idea.
I lingered over a beer and lugged my bag over to a small pension. I took a long cold shower, which barely scraped the surface of cleaning off a week’s worth of mud, blood and tears. My room was scorching hot, with not even a fan to cool off the Amazonian heat. But I was unconscious before it could bother me too much.
I set off stiffly down to the river the next morning to a few stares and giggles from the Mapiri residents. It didn’t seem like the place was bursting with entertainment possibilities. If there was a gold rush on here then somebody had forgotten to tell them.
I caught a huge canoe that travels daily down river. It gradually filled to bursting by picking up all sorts of people en route who squeeze out a living along the banks.
I lay back with a warm breeze in my face and enjoyed the most satisfying little journey of my life. The 80 miles down to the town of Guanay was completed in around three hours of incredible speed racing past beautiful virgin forest. The boat skimmed across rapids and eddies and with the crew climbing all over me to pick up and drop off supplies, it only just appeared safe.
Yet at the end of such a spectacular ordeal it was the perfect exhilarating finish, because it required no effort on my part. Despite desperately craving a decent meal and a comfortable bed I was reluctant for the ride to end when the river grew slower and wider and civilisation came into view.
Never before had beauty seemed at once so real and agonising as on the Mapiri Trail. Much to my relief we hadn’t come across any warrior ants. But we had seen monkeys, snakes, parrots, butterflies, orchids, ferns and enough bees and flies for a lifetime. This one tiny trail had allowed us to pass through nature’s private domain: a portal into the true wilderness.