Cuchillo (Bolivia), Chaupi Orco (Bolivia), Sajama (Bolivia)


By: Rich Henke


The Country Bolivia is one of the best-kept secrets of South America among independent travelers. It is one of the safest and most culturally interesting countries in the Americas. 60% of the population of 8 million people consists of indigenous people, primarily Quechua and Aymara. The landscape is extremely diverse. At the western part of this landlocked country is the Altiplano, a huge plateau that averages around 12,000 to 14,000 feet in elevation. Most of the high mountains are on the eastern edge of the Altiplano. These mountains plunge thousands of feet to the Amazon jungle of Bolivia, which covers 2/3 of the country. Flying into the capital city of La Paz, one lands in the suburb of El Alto at the highest international airport in the world at 13,300 feet. It is so high that they have oxygen available for incoming passengers. From the airport you drop down into La Paz, where the city center is at about 12,000 feet. Obviously, the first activity is to acclimatize to the extreme change in altitude.

The "winter season" in Bolivia from May to September is characterized by cold, dry, and stable weather, which is perfect for climbing. The most popular climbs in Bolivia are very near La Paz (Illimani, Huayna Potosi, and the Condoriri area). A second climbing area consists of Illampu, and Ancohuma, which is accessed from the picturesque town of Sorata, about a 4-hour bus ride from La Paz. The Apolobamba, our area of interest, is further north and sees few tourists. Finally, Sajama, an enormous isolated volcano further south near the Chilean border, is the highest peak in Bolivia.

Overview My wife, Rena Tishman and I spent 3 weeks in Bolivia in 1998 when we traveled overland from Santiago, Chile to Lima, Peru. We did an 8-day high altitude trek around the Illampu range and I was struck by the many climbing opportunities. I started talking to my friend John Otter about a 'challenging' climbing trip one where we would explore some of the less visited areas. We decided that we had at least one more 'real expedition' in us before we got too decrepit with age. John has been climbing for a long time - he completed 6 of the 7 highest summits of each continent in 1986, long before this goal became commonplace. He missed only Mt. Everest.

The 3 of us, John, Rena, and I arrived in Bolivia on 6 June 2003. We initially trekked for a week in the Apolobamba area in Northern Bolivia. Rena then returned to La Paz for a homestay to study Spanish (a long time goal) while John and I stayed in the North to climb. Rena left for home after her Spanish lessons while John and I spent another week to climb Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia. The following describes the trek and climbs.

Curva to Pelechuco Trek Information about the Apolobamba is scarce. The rumor is that good maps do not exist because of the many gold mines in the area. Through some contacts in England, I learned about an agency in La Paz called Azimut. Here we met Juan Villarroel an experienced climber, who had detailed knowledge of the areas we wanted' to visit. After a planning session with Juan, he furnished us a Spanishspeaking guide, Antonio, to accompany us. Antonio knew the trails and approaches to the climbing basecamps and also helped us hire mules to carry our gear and food. We brought our camping gear and climbing equipment from the US but had some fun buying food and fuel in the colorful La Paz markets. A 7-hour local bus took us to the pretty town of Charasani, where we spent our first night in a guesthouse overlooking the mountains where we would trek. After a session with the local witchdoctor who told our fortune, we sampled the wonderful hot springs nearby.

The standard Apolobamba trek described in the guidebooks is a 5-day, 4-night trek from Curva to Pelechuco. We added 2 extra days by starting at Charasani and adding a climb. The 7-day hike crossed 5 passes ranging from 14,000 feet to 16,700 feet. One of the passes was almost too steep for our mules. The first camp was spent near the village of Curva, located at 11,800 feet on top of a ridge. Some of the gold mining activity was visible as we passed through isolated settlements of llama herders. During the day, light cotton shirts were sufficient but the temperatures dropped to below freezing at night. Along the route were scattered dozens of turquoise colored lakes. Finally, after the last pass, we dropped 4,000 feet to the small community of Pelechuco. The town was nested in the mountains overlooking orchards and a deep canyon. There was no electricity, but a comfortable hotel on the main square had basic rooms, served good food, and was next to the road back to La Paz.

Cuchillo Climb (5655 meters I 18,553 feet) Our first climb was on day 4 of the trek when we passed very close to Cuchillo, a beautiful snow capped pyramid. John and I left our 15,100-foot camp early in the morning and followed some old mining roads and trails. We climbed some steep scree to reach the snow line about 1000 feet below the summit. With crampons and ice axes, we negotiated the perfect 40-degree snow to the summit. It took us 4.5 hours to go 3400 feet, a time we would not equal on our other climbs!

Chaupi Orco Climb (6044 meters / 19,824 feet) After a day in Pelechuco, Rena returned to La Paz to start her Spanish lessons (see references). She was lucky to be offered a ride in a jeep chartered by some people from Atlanta, Georgia. She thus avoided taking the crowded bus, which would have taken 14-16 hours. The jeep took 9 hours. She had lunch by a beautiful high lake and many photo opportunities along the way.

John and I, along with Antonio, hired a new set of mules and began the long 2-day trek to the Chaupi Orco basecamp. The Chaupi Orco range is a complex set of 7 or more summits, the highest being above 6000 meters, making it the highest peak in the Apolobamba. Near the end of our first trekking day, it started to snow and we camped below an overhanging rock, which provided shelter for us and was a good place to cook. When we awoke the following morning, there were 8 inches of snow on the ground. We took a rest day, since the new snow made it hazardous for the mules to cross the next pass. By day 3, much of the snow had melted and we crossed 2 more high passes (Yanacocha, Puro West) and arrived at the Chaupi Orco basecamp (14,200) south of Lago Soral.

The following day, John and I started off with 55+ pound packs to reach a high camp on the glacier below Chaupi Orco. Antonio remained in camp serving as a camp guardian while we were climbing. It was a very strenuous day, starting with climbing loose rock up a moraine and ending by having to negotiate crevasses on a high glacier. We stopped to camp at 6 pm and had our coldest night of the trip. The thermometer in the tent read 5 degrees F when we awoke in the morning. The cold temperature delayed our summit bid the next day, as did the loose unconsolidated snow, which we had to struggle through above our camp. At one point, we were climbing up through waist deep powder. But conditions improved and soon we were moving rapidly up 45-degree ice, just perfect for ice ax and crampons. We were carrying rope, ice screws, and pickets but ended up not using them. We followed the directions in the late Yossi Brain's "Bolivia, a Climbing Guide". At 3:30 pm we reached a saddle just below the peak, toward which we had been headed toward all day. But we were dismayed to see that the peak on our left was clearly higher. We were misled by the guidebook! We just didn't have time to go for the higher peak. We summited the lower one, the most northern peak of the Chaupi Orco group. We later learned it was called Angelicum (19,122 feet). The summit view was spectacular in all directions. But we had little time. We quickly retraced our steps back to our high camp, taking care on the steeper slopes. We reached our camp at dusk. After another cold night, we lugged our big packs down the glacier to our basecamp. We were disappointed that we had not climbed the highest peak but we had given it a good try.

The Miner's Pass To avoid retracing the path back to Pelechuco, Antonio suggested a different trail, which involved crossing a very high pass above a gold mine, a route too difficult for our mules to follow. The mules went back the way we had come and we arranged to meet at the camp next to the overhanging rock where we had spent 2 nights earlier during the snowstorm. We went upstream from Lago Soral and climbed up into a cirque where we had stupendous views of Chaupi Orco. Surrounding us were cascading waterfalls fringed by ice tumbling down 3000-foot walls. Had we come by this route, we would have changed ~our climbing plan because we could easily see from here that the peak we climbed was not the highest. We stopped at the gold mine on a broad ledge at 15,500 feet and watched miners pound stones using hand hammers and then crush the gravel to powder by rocking a rounded boulder back and forth by standing on it. An unbelievable scene! We continued up to a pass with no name at an unknown elevation. I named it "Miner's Pass" and it was well above 16,000 feet. At the top, we had a 300 degree view and I rate it as the most impressive pass I have ever crossed anywhere! Huge stone slabs had been layered into steps to descend the cliffs as we descended the other side. As we turned a corner, we found on our left a glacier calving into a completely frozen lake. On our right were huge slabs of red-striped rock that rose several thousand feet. A wonderful looking low angle rock route looked very appealing. After descending 2,000 feet, we climbed up to Paso Rite, which finally led back to the overhanging rock camping spot. It was a long day but one of my best trekking days ever.

La Paz After returning to Pelechuco, we took the 2 am bus to La Paz. Leaving Pelechuco, the bus climbed 3,000 feet on a winding I-lane road before descending to the Altiplano near the Bolivia/Peru border. The bus stopped at a market where all types of goods were being traded between the 2 countries. Everything from gold to electronics to vegetables. We never did learn why the bus stopped here for 2 hours! As we continued in daylight, we saw hundreds of vicunas as we passed through the Ullu Ullu wildlife preserve. After 16 crowded long bumpy hours, we arrived in La Paz where we reunited with Rena, ate ice cream, and planned out the remainder of our trip. She was living with her excellent Spanish teacher, William and Angie Ortiz, while studying Spanish. After a wonderful 1-day tour to the archaeological ruins of Tiahuanaco near Lake Titicaca, John and I made plans to do one more climb while Rena headed back to the US.

Sajama Climb (6549 meters / 21,486 feet) After a discussion with Juan Villarroel, John and I paid $200 for the transport to and from Sajama. Local transport required time, patience and hitchhiking, which was not compatible with our airline schedule. The Toyota truck we hired delivered us to Sajama Village in about 5 hours. With our limited Spanish, we managed to fill out the climbing registration form, find housing, obtain food for the night, and hire a mule to take our gear to basecamp the following day. Sajama village was located at 13,700 feet, just west of Sajama Peak, and east of two twin volcanoes on the Chile border called Parmnacota and Pomerata. Parinacota is one of the easiest 6,000 meter peaks in the world to climb!

The following morning, our mule and driver arrived at 9 am, as promised, and we were on our way to the Sajama basecamp at 15,100 feet. It was a pleasant walk without packs. In 4 1/2 hours we had arrived at a huge flat expanse just below the imposing cliffs of Sajama that rose 6,500 feet above us. We had lots of time to relax and to talk to some other climbers who had just climbed the peak. The report was that conditions were good. After a good dinner and a long nights sleep, we awoke in the morning to pack our gear and wait for the porter we had hired to help us to high camp. We had planned to carry our packs ourselves as we did on Chaupi Orco but we unsure about the route. Using a porter insured that we would end up in the right spot. It was a steep loose 2800 feet to high camp and we appreciated using the porter, who reduced our loads to 30 pounds each. Not a bad $10 investment! It took us 4 1/2 hours to reach high camp, which gave us sufficient time to pitch our tent to be secure from the winds and to relax.

Guided parties start quite early. The guide knows the route in the dark and the clients follow tied into the rope. But since we were climbing ourselves and had to find the route, we chose to start in the light. We were moving up steep scree at 7am. A narrow ridge led to a steep headwall followed by another narrow ridge requiring mixed climbing. After this ridge, we reached the bottom of a huge snow dome and had 2000 feet of 35-40 degree snow all the way to the summit. We arrived in beautiful conditions in 7 hours from camp. Similar to our climb of Chaupi Orco, we carried screws, pickets and rope but used only ice axes and crampons. After 1/2 hour on top, we descended back to camp in 3 hours. The most strenuous part was the 600-800 feet at the bottom of the snow dome, which consisted of small penitentes, which were difficult and time consuming both up and down. Our late start required us to spend a 2nd night at 17,900 feet but our camp was all set up which we found much preferable to climbing an unknown route in the dark. The next day, we descended with big packs to basecamp in 2 hours (no porter this time) where we met our prearranged mule driver who took our gear to Sajama village in 3 hours. The following day, our truck picked us up and took us back to La Paz, after a short, but welldeserved soak in the hot springs near the village.

Thoughts on Climbing and Trekking I am a strong advocate of hiring local guides and support for trekking in underdeveloped countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Nepal, or India. Trekking in these countries is really a cultural experience combined with exercise. It is not the wilderness experience that we are used to in remote areas of the US. The trails you follow are not marked and usually lead to houses or villages. Hiring local guides, mules, and porters enhances the interaction with the local people. And having them cook for you gives you much more time to enjoy what you came to see. You also bring much needed income to people who live an almost subsistence lifestyle.

On the other hand, I strongly disagree with the concept of guided climbing. People who hire guides to lead them to the top of a mountain do not experience one of the key elements of climbing - decision-making. Choosing a route, evaluating the snow conditions, deciding when and where to use ropes, protection, and technical equipment, are all part of risk assessment, an essential part of climbing. You do very little of this when you follow a guide. Using local support to trek to a peak, which you then climb on your own, is a very satisfying and rewarding way to climb in many of the great climbing destinations of the world.

To develop these skills, practice on easier terrain in less demanding situations. Before heading to Bolivia to climb with a guide, climb Mt. Shasta on your own, progress to Mt. Rainier, and learn how to evaluate risk and make decisions. Climbing a mountain relying on your own decision-making is a very different experience than following a guide.

Logistics We paid $1000 for a Delta/LAB flight from Los Angles to La Paz via Miami. It is cheaper to fly to Lima (sometimes for $400) and take a connecting flight from there but you will have potential overweight charges for your equipment since internal flights usually limit you to 20 kilos (44 pounds) per person, versus international limits of two 50 or 70 pound bags each.

Costs in Bolivia are very low. Lodging in La Paz costs $5 per person per night. In the mountains, such as Pelechuco, it is $1.50 per night. A good set lunch or dinner costs less than $1. Eating pizza or tourist food costs $ 3-4. Local buses are cheap. Our 16-hour bus ride from Pelechuco to La Paz cost $5. Private jeeps which many foreigners use to approach the mountains are expensive, as much as $350 one-way. But we found that competition reduced these prices considerably. We paid $100 each way to Sajama. La Paz abounds with trekking and climbing agencies. The quality and capability varies a great deal. So it is best if you get some recommendations beforehand. I talked to some people who paid $100/day for a complete full service climbing expedition; a trip where all equipment is provided and you are roped to a guide who leads you to the top. We paid $18 /day for Antonio and found him to be good value. A mule and driver will cost about $12 /day, a porter, about $8-$lO /day.

US citizens get an automatic free 90-day visa for Bolivia but unfortunately they only stamp 30 days in your passport when you arrive at the La Paz airport. A 1/2 day visit to immigration in La Paz is sufficient to upgrade it to 90 days at no cost. Although the Bolivian countryside is very safe, visitors are targeted in the tourist areas of La Paz. Be careful of pickpockets and never set down your daypack even for a moment. Keep valuables in your money belt. And in some areas, muggings occur, especially after dark.


  • 'Bolivia', Lonely Planet, March 2001 Bolivia, a Climbing Guide', Yossi Brain, 1999 - It led us to the wrong peak in the Apolobamba.
  • 'Bolivia, A Trekking Guide', Yossi Brain, 1997 - Our main source of information for the Charazani to Pelechuco Trek.
  • Azimut Travel Agency, Juan Villarroel,
  • 'Peru and Bolivia, Backpacking and Trekking'. Bradt, 7th Edition
  • Spanish School for Travellers - 'ABC Spanish Tuition', William Ortiz,, Calle Linares 980, 2nd floor, Apt. 202, La Paz

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