The ‘Pico Tunari’ is something you must do when you are in Cochabamba. If you live here, the subject will invariably come up, “Have you been to the Pico yet?”. It’s beautiful!
A few weeks ago a large group of volunteers had gone and come back tired, sunburned and thrilled. “You have to go!” they exclaimed. So when the subject came up again, those who hadn’t been (and some who had) jumped at the opportunity.
Pico Tunari is a peak (yup, wouldn’t have guessed that one…) that sits 5200 m above sea level, and about 2700 m above Cocha. You can see it from the city on sunny days, peeking out from behind the hills to the north. But all too often it’s shrouded in a thick, menacing cloud, a fact we may have taken too lightly in planning our trip.
We set off, on a Saturday morning at around 6 am Bolivian time – (i.e., it may have well been a bit later) 8 of us humans and Piña. Getting from Cocha to where the hike begins is in itself an adventure. You have to trufi (mini-bus) to Plaza Bolivar in Quillacollo, a busy town now glued to Cochabamba, but that’s actually another province.
In Quillacollo (which, by the way, has a great market on Thursdays and Sundays), we bought water, a bag of coca leaves, and any other hiking essentials we may have forgotten (candy is crucial, and wondrous Bolivian street goodies such as puffed corn or roasted habas, soya, or poroto are also highly recommended ).
To continue the journey from Quillacollo, we employed a technique that in Bolivia is always entertaining, generally confusing and sometimes downright misleading – we asked directions:
“Como llegamos al Pico Tunari?”
“Ah, a Morochata quieres ir?”
“Sí, Sí!”, you nod as if you know what they are talking about, head in the general direction they point, and then ask again. This is where you will most likely get contradictory information, don’t be alarmed, that is the way of the Bolivian – if you don’t know, invent something.
To arrive at a consensus on the real direction to your destination, ideally you want to involve as many parties as possible; start a discussion between vendors, eavesdroppers, and even better, start an argument! If all goes well, you will eventually hone in on the correct course of action.
We were directed to a different trufi stop a couple of corners away at Carmela Serruto and Av. Santa Cruz. This is where the trufi’s actually do go to not only Morochata, but also to the hot springs Liriuni, definitely another outing to keep in mind!
After some friendly negotiation, we agreed that our driver Hugo (“Hugo Chavez!” he joked) would take us to where the hike started and then come pick us up in the afternoon – all for 300 Bs. Reasonable! So we piled in, and after a stop at the gas station, took off through the back streets of Quillacollo.
I got to sit beside Hugo; a nice man, born and raised in Quillacollo, who had been to the Pico a few times. He wasn’t terribly talkative, but did tell me of seeing wild foxes on the mountain and the time he and his friends had seen two condors eating a dead horse on the road.
The mini bus took us up the valley, past flowering hedges, the hot baths (!!!), climbing until we reached the Altiplano – the highland Andean tundra -like ecosystem above the tree-line.
We were dropped off at a dirt road that winds outward, disappearing into the mountains. The few of us who had already been there led the way, veering off the path and cutting across the mountain side to the right of the first lake. From then on, it was only llama paths. At some point Piña gleefully took off after some stray sheep, earning us a dog death-threat from the shepherd on a distant ridge “Voy a matar a ese perro!”, that hurried us on, heading out directly toward the right side of the second lake.
It was after pausing for lunch that the fog set in….
Until then we had all been somewhat optimistic that the sky could clear by the time we reached to top. The nearer we got though, the more apparent it became that the weather would not get any better. And coupled with this, the climb began getting steeper. We were soon scampering painfully up the mountainside.
It’s hard not to let imagination take over in such landscapes – sharp jagged cliffs, shrouded in a thick bone-chilling mist…and where the sole inhabitants are the vicious poison-spitting llama … (I know they look cute, but humor me). This was no longer a recreational weekend adventure, but a cold, treacherous quest into the unknown…and we were but a frail group of weary hobbits (oops, I meant travelers!), completely unprepared (and embarrassingly ill- equipped) to face the adversities of these treacherous lands.
After passing the first crest beyond the lakes, we scrambled up a rocky valley- El Valle de la Muerte– nothing but steep barren slats and stone walls. At this time the fog was so thick that the cliffs loomed menacingly over us. Every now and then eerie little ‘cairns’ showed up assuring us we were on the right path.
This was also when the altitude really kicked in.
A little tip for ‘zoroche’ (altitude sickness): respect the altitude! Don’t be cocky, go slowly and rhythmically, keep hydrated, chew coca leaves, and eat lots of candies.
The valley of death is stony and slippery; we advanced painstakingly and breathlessly. Except Piña, who would run ahead effortlessly and prowl on the rocks like a lion while she waited.
We then reached ‘Hell’s Gate’s’. This is where you should be able to see the peak. Of course, thanks to that accursed cloud, we couldn’t see farther than a few meters. (There was however, a fascinating rock. It looked like the sea bed had popped up and sat happily on the top of this mountain.)
A final effort and we were at the top! Well, at least I assume we were, was it not for the tattered Bolivian flag which Pina insisted on attacking, it would have been hard to tell.
The summit holds its own magic- a power to make aches abate and feed new energy into tired bodies. After all we had made our quest. But Pachamama (Mother Earth) hadn’t finished with us – it started to hail, or sleet – some sort of freezing and wet precipitation.
Though we’d left Hell’s Gate behind, the way down was our hell. It was slippery, wet and miserable. Even Piña was miserable and to top it off we had to put her on the leash so that she wouldn’t run after the llamas and consequently risk getting shot at by our friend the shepherd.
Most of us had on light clothes, sneakers and some of us even had the brilliant judgment to wear shorts that day. By the time we made it back to the dirt road, we were all shivering and cursing the Pachamama.
We were concerned about Hugo. We had paid him for half of the deal, and aside from his word, there was no assurance that he would come back for us. It was 4:30 when the first of us arrived at the RDV. At 4:50, lo and behold! Our savior! Hugo had come back for us.
We could have cried (a few of us may have), and no sooner had he stopped the car, we were jumping in to the warmth and safety of the trufi.
Piña was one of the first to jump on the mini bus and gregariously spread her soaking and muddy body across the two front seats. It would be ridiculous to even suggest that she sit on the floor like a mere dog.
It was this, and certainly not the fact that we were all exhausted, emotional, wet and cold, that prompted us to ask Hugo to take us all the way home for whatever price. I think he took pity on us, charged us 40 extra Bs, and dropped us all off at Plazuela Sucre. We gave him a handsome tip, and struggled home to hot showers!
Coming down that hill all we could think of was getting out of there, but now that I am home, dry and warm, I can say it was a wonderful adventure. The feeling of achievement, pushing through under the physical stress; sharing glory and pain with friends and being part of nature, even when nature is not hospitable. All that and more. Next time, though, I will remember that wise adage I learned on a trip to Sweden: there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes…
Hugo the Savior – 77450565 – for anyone interested, he is honest, reliable, and knows a good place to eat Charque in Quillacollo!