Nothing beats the feeling of walking down an ancient Inca road, heavy rain softening to a light drizzle and eventually fading into a fine mist, green mountains rising all around, and the rich aromas of cinnamon, fruit, clay, and wet stone overwhelming the senses. It never ceases to amaze me that if I just take the necessary steps to leave the city; if I stock up on packaged food, ask around for bus numbers and trailheads, guard myself and my gear against the driving rain, and trust myself enough to only stay a safe amount of lost, then every ounce of effort will be worth it. Once on the trail, I will be filled with inexplicable energy, an uncontrollable smile will spread across my face, and all of my muscles will relax in a way that makes me feel more like a graceful jungle animal than the stiff and burdened human that I am. Within minutes, nature´s cathartic effects will take hold, and I will once again be reminded of my true self and my real source of joy.
I am aware that this is not everyone´s experience when they go backpacking, but I often wonder if that is mostly because they are missing some vital piece of information or comfort that ruins it for them. During the first few hours of our trek toward the small village of Chaunaca, Bolivia I kept bringing various people to the front of my mind, imagining an apparition of them walking just a few steps behind me, a fabricated conversation forming in my head. Could I imagine any of them wanting to go home? Wanting to be anywhere else but there? It seemed far more likely that they might have questions, but that with the right encouragement, they would let their fears go, experience the present moment, and indoubtedly share in the big smiles, exclamations of wonder, and endless picture taking. This got me thinking that perhaps more people would enjoy the natural world, and even find healing in it, if they had more answers and more help in getting to that point. This thought stayed with me as we passed farms, crossed rivers, set up camp on grassy patches of land, and eventually hopped on a bus back to Sucre. It is hard for anyone to create a backpacking trip out of thin air, but once you´ve completed a trip, it is not hard at all to share your story, including the various logistics and details that you learned along the way.
This particular blog will not help the next person backpack out to Managua Crater without a guide, but I hope to soon write a blog that will. That blog will be detail-laden, complete with numbers, descriptions, and helpful advice. But first, I want to tell our story, not so much with the goal of supporting the next adventure-seeking tourist, but more to motivate whoever will listen to get outside, explore the natural world, and not be afraid of a little physical challenge. Because in my experience, it is always worth it. Our trip from Sucre to the Managua Crater to the small town of Potolo was another one for the history books (ours at least) and left us full of wonder and admiration for Bolivia´s land and people. It all started when we got up early in the morning to leave the town of Sucre.
After catching a bus to the outskirts of town, we debarked and walked past a variety of kiosks to a small gathering of trucks with drivers outside yelling out names of nearby rural towns. It hadn´t yet started to rain, but dark grey clouds hung threatentingly above our heads, and to our dismay the truck with a driver calling out ¨Chataquilla¨ had a completely open-air bed, with people slowly climbing in and claiming their piece of wooden ground. We joined the small throng of indigenous Bolivians in the back and, with all eyes on us, waited almost an hour for the truck´s ignition to turn. Eventually we found ourselves on our way, flying around curves on a paved road that quickly wound it´s way out of Sucre and into the mountains. The scent of pine filled the air, and Don and I smiled sheepishly at one another. Our teeth had begun to chatter and my hands were feeling stiff from cold as I grasped tightly to the truck´s wood-planked wall. After a short time we turned onto a cobblestone road, and less than a minute later, the road turned to dirt and the truck slowed dramatically. As we crawled over potholes and around steep, narrow curves, the air became misty and visibility diminished. We were up in the clouds and it didn´t take long for the mist to substantiate itself into large, heavy rain drops. We hopped off the truck at the first stop, an old pink church building that we had been told was the start of our trail, and walked around the ancient walls in the pouring rain, hoping for even the smallest patch of shelter. We found refuge in a small cement room, presumably a place of worship as suggested by the shrine at the far end and a number of small white candles that lit the space with a mysterious glow. After getting ourselves organized we headed back out into the storm, in search of a sign that would point us in the right direction. We found our trailhead with ease and had only walked for a few minutes when the rain began to let up and enough clouds rolled away to give us a view of a valley that left us speechless. We hiked on for a few hours, all downhill, and all in a state of pure ecstasy.The trail was perfectly paved with large stones, just wide enough for one person and possibly a donkey, and each turn left us gawking with even more amazement. I´ve mentioned the scent, and it is worth mentioning again not only because of its pleasantness, but also its strength. The rain had made the forest come alive, and we couldn´t help but attempt a description with each deliberate inhalation. Was that apple pie we could smell? Fresh laundry? Iced tea? Christmas? The smells were intoxicating, and it felt as though they were rushing through my body, purifying me of weeks of bus smog and pollution that I had inhaled in the city.
When we neared a small town named Chaunaca, a young girl came running toward us, expertly balanced in her thin rubber sandals. She had tickets in hand and attempted to inform us that in order to continue on, we would need to pay an entrance fee to the town. There was some skepticism and frustration on our end, but after a lengthy conversation (all in our broken Spanish of course) we paid the young lady, and went on our merry way. We ate a delectable lunch of peanut butter and jelly tortillas (why is it that food always tastes better while backpacking?) under a bridge while it sprinkled around us, and then continued on a bit further to our first night´s stay. A large expanse of hillside covered in grass, looking out over the river we had eaten lunch by earlier in the day served as the perfect campsite, and we divied up chores in order to crawl into our dry tent with as much speed as possible. The rest of the evening was free for reading, thinking, chatting, and of course, eating a tasty pasta dinner. Before falling alseep we flipped through photos taken throughout the day, already recalling interesting moments and the feeling of first glimpses.
Being out in nature is akin to being in a giant classroom. There are always lessons to learn, and opportunities to grow. You are never fully in charge, because nature is not beholden to our desires or plans. On a trip like this, you rarely know how long a day will last, how hard you will push your body, or even where you will spend the next night. Being able to let go of some control is just one more practice that I am constantly trying to carry with me out of the woods. Our second day on this journey was to be a long one, complete with hot sunshine, cold, blowing rain, deep stick-to-your-boots mud, and an unexpected but precious new friendship. The day began with more wonder…a feeling that is difficult to get tired of. Just stepping out of the tent and attempting to take it all in will sometimes bring tears to my eyes, and on that morning the white, slanting sunlight that broke through low-hanging clouds necesitated some early morning picture taking. We got packed up with the ease and routine comfort of two people getting dressed and ready for work. We followed a dirt road past farms, mud-brick huts, fields of flowers, and the occasional indigenous passerby, distractedly herding a dozen or so livestock, and always asking for a Boliviano if they saw us taking their picture. We were headed for a massive crater that we could see in the distance, outlined by a layered ring of hardened molten rock that after years of existence was covered in its own assortment of plant life. A few hours of uphill hiking, marked by enlightened and passionate discourse on everything from the meaning of life to the intentionality of serving others, brought us to the edge of the Managua Crater. We could see the entire crater, though it must be at least 5 miles across, and right near the center sat a small village, a large white church at its entrance. The weather had been pleasant all day, puffy clouds overhead and a few darker patches in the distance. We dropped into the town and were surprised to find it nearly deserted. We walked around with the confused curiosity of a stranger in a new land (which in fact quite accurately describes us), looking for anyone who could point us in the right direction. We knew that from the crater we wanted to follow a trail to a town named Potolo, but there didn´t seem to be any sign or clear road that pointed us one way or another. After a few loops through ¨town¨ (the abandoned school felt especially eerie, until we remembered that it was in fact summer vacation) we finally found a nice young woman who told us to follow the river out of town until we came to a road. Armed with a plan, we settled onto a grassy patch of land for lunch.
It didn´t take long for a small, sickly looking dog to sniff us out and stand at a safe distance, contemplating her next move and drooling shamelessly over our food. We were in the middle of farmland, days from any city, and the dog looked as though it was truly starving to death. We finished our lunch at about the same time that we felt our first raindrop, and perhaps out of a sense of pity for the little creature who would also get stuck in the pending rainstorm, we offered up a handful of salted peanuts that we had had enough of. The pup ate them up frantically and we should have known in that moment that we had earned the sort of loyalty that only ¨man´s best friend¨ is capable of demonstrating. We have been followed by dogs before while hiking, sometimes for surprising distances, but we never expected our new friend to follow us as she did. Perhaps we thought her overall well-being would force her to give up eventually, but we had underestimated the strength that hope gives a hopeless creature. As expected, the rain came quickly after that, and with loud thunder in the distance, and grey clouds encircling us in darkness, we knew that this was a storm that demanded our respect. With full rain gear in place, we began trudging our way up and out of the crater. The road started out as well-maintained dirt, but as rain flooded the valley, and as we walked beyond the most managed section of road, we found ourselves hiking uphill through deep, sticky mud that sucked at our shoes and made the act of walking a ruthless business. Occasionally we would glance back, rain slapping our faces and seeping past our raincoats at the chin, only to exclaim that there was still a puppy trailing about 500 yards behind us. Once or twice Don attempted to throw a rock nearby or yell at her, we didn´t want to be responsible for the dog getting too far from home, but it did nothing to deter her. The hand that fed her was now plodding through thick mud and torrential rain, and so would she. At one point we encountered a young woman practically skipping along a trail up the hill from us, carrying a load on her back, and not looking the least bit disturbed by the change in weather. She came to speak with us, and to try to sell us a braided bracelet, but I was in the process of sinking into mud and after a few pleasantries I turned to go and found myself completely stuck. I asked Don to come help me and when she realized my predicament it was all she could do to not crack up laughing. She headed back up the hill, where it turned out her home was, and we continued on our humble pilgrimage. At some point the road became impassable and we found ourselves slipping along a steep grassy hill parallel to the road, dropping into drainages only to scramble back out again a minute later. Pup never fell behind, although occasionally we would turn back and see her resting in the mud, allowing us to get ahead before catching up.
After what felt like an eternity, we were back on the road and had found one small grassy patch not far away where we could pitch our tent. We moved like trained infantry in the rain, putting up our tent and getting ourselves and all our gear inside while still staying dry. We actually impressed ourselves with how comfortable, warm, and dry we were once everything was said and done. Occasionally we would step outside to use the bathroom or collect water, and that was when we saw our little friend curled up in a tight ball, rain drenching her fur. Out of pity, love, and comradery, we invited her under our vestibule, where she could at least find refuge from the wind and rain. She accepted gleefully and, curled up close to the door where she could share body heat with Don´s leg, managed to fully win over our hearts. We spent too much of the evening brainstorming how we could keep our new pet, or at least provide a better life for her, but in the end we knew we had little power or control over the situation. We agreed to love her as much as possible for the time we had, and then attempt to leave her with good people, or at least near some potential food.
When we woke the next morning the sky was overcast but it wasn´t raining, and we packed up our gear for another long day of hiking. A young local girl had told us the afternoon before that we had about 2 hours of hiking to the town of Potolo (where we would catch a bus back to Sucre), but we figured that with our packs and all the mud, it might take longer. In fact, the hike took over 3 hours, and wound through various mountains and a number of small mountainside communities. We fell into a relaxed rhythm as the sun broke through the clouds and the day quickly warmed up, pup following us the whole time with her determined loyalty. Our legs had begun to drag a little from all the effort of carrying an extra pound or two of mud on our shoes, but the sun kept our spirits high and before we knew it we were gazing upon the rather populated indigenous town of Potolo. To our surprise, it was only 11:30 in the morning when we stepped into the town´s main plaza, and after a chat with a local kiosk owner, we learned that we would need to wait until 3pm for the next bus to Sucre. We spent the afternoon (which unfortunately had clouded over and turned to rain) sitting in the plaza under a gazebo, occasionally chatting with locals that came and went. We had heard rumors that there in fact wouldn´t be a bus that day for reasons we couldn´t understand, but sat there hoping nonetheless because we had nowhere else to go. In the afternoon a playful group of kids joined us in the gazebo, chatting excitedly with the ¨gringos¨ and showing off in front of one another. I had just begun to read them ¨Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal¨ out loud in my rudimentary Spanish when a bus pulled up and they quickly ran off to meet the newcomers. We hurriedly gathered up our belongings and ran after the children, relieved that the bus had come after all. However, when we caught up with the driver to confirm that he was going to Sucre, he shook his head aggressively and rattled off a detailed explanation that we only barely understood. Come to find out, there was a ¨blockade¨ between Potolo and Sucre and he wouldn´t be heading that way again until the next morning. Still a bit confused, we surrendered to the fact that we´d be staying in the town for the night, and began making a sort of plan. Our tent was soaked, we were in the middle of a town, and we were out of food, so rather than attempt another night of camping, we stopped into the town´s only pension (so we´d been told, however we highly doubted this fact) and paid for a night in a room. We were forced to piece together a dinner out of ingredients from a small kiosk, so we ended up with a chicken powder-potato-pasta-spam meal that Don expertly cooked up and a celebratory bottle of wine to help wash it all down. It turned out to be a relaxing evening and a good way for us to help our pup with the transition into her new town.
The next morning we took our time getting packed up. We had been told that 8 am was a good time to be in the plaza in order to (possibly) catch a bus, but when we heard honking out our window at 7:30, we peeked outside just in time to see the bus driving by. We frantically gathered our belongings and I ran out to the plaza while Don stayed behind to pay. Don ran out just in time, and after a far-too-hurried goodbye to our sweet puppy friend, we hopped on the bus and headed for Sucre. The route wound up into the mountains and gave us a bird-eye´s view of much of our 3-day hike. We drove past our first trailhead on the way back to the larger paved road, but didn´t make it quite that far when the bus stopped and everyone started climbing off. It turned out the the blockade was still in place so we gathered our luggage and walked about a mile down the road in another light drizzle. We weren´t sure exactly what they meant by ¨blockade¨, but when we saw multiple buses, semi-trucks, and even felled trees blocking a 200 meter section of road, we began to understand exactly why our bus couldn´t have gotten through. On the other side of the blockade we loaded onto a small micro and, full of beautiful memories and a deep sense of gratitude, we drove the remaing 30 minutes back to the town of Sucre.