The Secret Destinations of a Chia Pet

August 9, 2020

We first noticed them in a dust cloud that swirled along a monstrous alluvial fan. Like Las Vegas illusionists coming through dry-ice mist, they came from within the whirlwind, materializing out of nowhere. Rather than sporting circus suits and magician faces, these two Andean campesinos wore dirty, torn pants, wiped sand from their eyes, and shouldered great sacks filled with their worldly goods.

Day four of our adventure — the first rafting descent of Bolivia’s San Cristóbal River — brought this encounter, and much more. After stopping along shore and speaking with these overland sojourners, we returned to the river. Our disbelief at their endeavor temporarily put into perspective the disbelief in ours. A week into their walk across the Andes they faced a steep climb up a canyon wall, switch-backing up 5,000 feet before walking another few days to a strip mine where they would work and live for months. We, on the other hand, were only headed downriver, absolutely unsure of what lay around every corner.

In December of 1997 my wife, Danielle, and I first explored the upper San Cristóbal. We were searching Bolivia and Peru for exotic locales well-suited for future guided rafting trips that our adventure travel company could outfit. We spent a few days in Sorata, an Andean Shangri-La, hiking along the river that ran through and out of town, speaking with locals, and studying maps of the area, maps that did not show the entire stretch of river we were considering running. No one that we spoke with knew of anyone who had run the Rio San Cristóbal by raft, although a few people remembered a couple of German kayakers who had paddled away one day, but had not been heard from since. We couldn’t interpret if that meant they died on their trip or if they just never came back to Sorata. We assumed the latter. Armed with very little information but emboldened by gumption, faith, and lunacy, we decided to come back the following year to run the thing.

We returned to Bolivia in October with a mountain of gear, boundless energy, and two weeks of adventure ahead. As the oxygen-depleted air in the 14,000-foot-high La Paz airport drained us of energy, we loaded up Land Cruisers and headed to Sorata, elevation 8,800 feet, population 2,100. Numerous hygiene breaks (this seems more literarily acceptable than “puke stops,” the most violent of which was on a 16,000-foot mountain pass that made many of us lightheaded and nauseous from altitude sickness), one of the deadliest stretches of dirt roads on earth, and a few hours later, we arrived.

Sorata, nestled on the lower slope of 20,000-foot Mt. Illampu, served as our trip’s base camp. The town square sits vibrantly at the bottom of multiple staircases that cone down to it, the hillsides are sprinkled with homes and verdant mini-farms, and the barrel-chested residents stand proud from carving out a peaceful and rich existence in a country known to most outsiders as poor. Over three days we purchased our food, enjoyed the people and places, and became friends with Louie, the owner of the residencial where we stayed. Louie had walked much of the San Cristóbal shores and canyon rim, but was not a rafter. You could always spot Louie around Sorata. He was a slight and slightly nervous white, harmless French-Canadian expat who always wore his backpack. We wonder to this day if Louie relocated to Bolivia on his own accord or if the specter of life in a Montreal prison mandated his move.

Sorata, Bolivia. At this 8,800-foot high Andean oasis we bought food and prepped for our launch. Photo: Arun1/Getty Images/Istock

Louie told us of a potential river launch point west of the unrunnable gorge that ran through town, but the only way he knew of to access that stretch was by a steep, narrow trail down the canyon wall. He arranged for local farmers with mules to take our gear down to the banks.

Louie’s put-in spot was about ten miles out of Sorata. We piled our gear — three rafts, rowing frames, oars, a kayak, lifejackets, ice chests, camp gear, and food for a week — into the back of a farmer’s truck and headed to the trailhead. Danielle and I were joined by seven others, including Greg Smith and Brian Sykes, river guides from Oregon, plus Keith Bunney, Pavia Wald, and Lynn Schooler, friends who wanted to take part in a first descent. After a little convincing, Louie, who had never rafted before, decided to come along. We were to be joined the next day at the launch point by Sergio Ballivan, a Bolivian-American outfitter I had recently met in the States. Sergio knew of Sorata and wanted to run the San Cristóbal.

We were all driven by a sense of adventure — to honor the somewhat unexplainable urge to go outdoors, to see something different, and to be challenged anew. John Muir saw adventure and time in nature as a way to “wash your spirit clean.” Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, credits adventure and fear for growth. “As long as you can take advantage of it and not be rendered useless by it,” Hillary stated, “it can make you extend yourself beyond what you would regard as your capacity.” Amelia Earhart wrote, “The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do.” While we weren’t consciously considering the “big why” for dropping down into the canyon — to discover and push beyond self-defined limits, to recalibrate comfort zones, to grow by being in wilderness and from accomplishment — it sat deep inside each one of us.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” wrote philosopher Martin Buber, nailing how we felt as we set out for the San Cristóbal, to launch into the unknown. While I am far from Sir Edmund or Amelia — I am much closer to a Chia Pet than I am a rugged, grizzled mountaineer or pioneering pilot — I headed off to wash my spirit clean with the rest of our group. We had no idea what lay ahead except nature and risk, which, when blended, generally leads to reward.

The barefoot mule handlers walked all night from town to the trailhead ledge. We met them early in the morning and helped strap the burrito-rolled rafts and waterproof bags with camping supplies onto the mules. Pack animals on narrow trails don’t do well with ice chests on their backs, so we fashioned oars to carry them Cleopatra-style into the abyss. One person would stand with an oar on each shoulder in front of the ice chest that dangled between the shafts, and another would stumble along behind, also with an oar on each shoulder.

Rigging the mules for the trip down to the river. Notice the cliff on the edge of the road. This and below photos by Lynn Schooler.

Our appreciation for the campesino’s uphill plight was forged in part by our descent on foot to the San Cristóbal’s banks. As we walked the trail high above the right riverbank, we could look down the face of the cliff and see the ribbon of the San Cristóbal deep and straight beneath us. We shivered at the thought of a misstep. Down, down, down we went, marveling at the mules and the mountain-men handlers who took it all in stride. Two miles, 3,000 feet lower, and three hours later, we reached shore well behind the mules and their owners. Each of us acknowledged the hike as the steepest ever. The mules and their badass handlers departed. They walked all the way home that afternoon. We rigged the rafts and spent the night nervous and excited.

The biggest problem we faced on the beach was the water — or lack of it. October opens the rainy season in upland Bolivia, a phenomenon we felt was important in order to have some water, but not so much that it would prevent us from safely running the river. However, El Niño had caused a dearth of rain in Bolivia. The water level was very, very low, running perhaps 700 cubic feet per second when 2,000 to 3,000 would have been ideal.

The author and his wife at the put-in beach on the Rio San Cristobal. Yep, that‘s the “river” to the right.

Sergio arrived later that day, and we shoved off. Literally. The rafts would travel a few hundred feet and stop dead, perched on a rock or the river bottom. We got out, pushed and shoved, and floated a few more feet. Then we got out and shoved again.

After a half hour of this grunting we rounded a bend and saw a group of people about ten feet above shore, working an agricultural field along the bank, picking vegetables from the earth, and throwing their harvest into a large truck. “I have never run the river before,” Louie exclaimed with his Pink Panther accent. “I did not know. I did not know.” It seems that there was a road that steeply crisscrossed down a ravine to the San Cristóbal, less than a mile from where we started our epic descent. We jokingly discussed leaving Louie with the workers and laughed at our escapade. We kept Louie, waved at the croppers, and bumped and ground around another bend. To add insult to injury, a few miles later we came upon another truck, this one actually driving right to left across the very low river. We all looked at Louie again and watched the truck head up the other side, silently wondering how adventurous we really were. This would be the last time we would see signs of modern civilization for days. The adventure was just beginning.

“True” adventure…whatever. However, below this point civilization disappeared.

After camping along the river in what was now a very, very isolated canyon, we headed downriver the next day towards the confluence with the Llica River. From the crude maps we had studied and through conversations with Louie, we knew the Llica had a watershed about twice the size of the San Cristóbal, which meant more water to float the rafts. Our spirits rose as we saw in the distance an alluvial fan that was over 20 feet high and hundreds of yards long. It was here that we saw the campesinos and felt awe at their plight, and hope for ours. A deposit of sand and rock this big meant the river that created it should bring a rush of water to the San Cristóbal. We floated along this geology and came to the mighty confluence. We felt no change in water flow as we looked up a canyon of brackish stillwater, more of a dried-up creek than a torrent.

The lack of flow we had experienced up to this point was to continue. Louie just shrugged and stuttered, “I did not know. I have never run the river before.” As the one who had studied the map and expressed confidence in the confluence, I shrugged and muttered the same thing, butchering the accent and our hopes. After a few more miles of bumpy Class II and III rapids, we pulled ashore for another night’s camp. We cooked dinner and hunkered down for the night. From the tents we heard thunder in the distant high reaches.

Isolated camp on the Rio San Cristóbal. The river flow had increased some at this point, but little did we know.

The Andean rain gods had kept us in their good graces. By morning the water level was much higher. We rafted mile after mile of fast current and Class III and IV rapids as calm blue water intermixed with raging white. A few times we pulled ashore well above what seemed to be the roar of a freight train, which was actually the sound of an unknown rapid ahead. On first descents it is good practice to stop above a rapid and walk along the bank, scouting it from shore to make sure it is runnable. On some first descents you decide that doing a rapid is too dangerous and you portage or line the rafts through. At this point on this trip we were able to run everything we scouted, and we enjoyed the fine whitewater of the former San Cristóbal, now labeled on maps as the Rio Llica.

Two miles below one of the bigger rapids, we came to La Boca del Lobo, “the Mouth of the Wolf,” where the river constricts to less than 100 feet wide. From the map it looked like we were half a day away from our intended take-out point. We stopped at Boca, a place where the Molla people decided to construct a city, as crossings were easier at this narrow part of the canyon. The Molla predate the Inca and constructed this village about 900 years ago. We climbed up to Iskanwaya, what was once the Molla’s second-largest community. Walls and foundations for 70 buildings, intricate cobblestone pathways, granaries, a burial site, and town plazas perched on plateaus about 1,000 feet above the shore.

We quietly explored the ancient stone-walled village, left largely untouched by modern man. Iskanwaya is Bolivia’s second-largest ruins, but less than 100 people per year visit. To reach this place other than by river takes a two-day drive on dirt roads from La Paz, followed by a long hike 5,000 feet down into the canyon.

Iskanwaya. Bolivia’s second largest ruins but visited by less than 100 people a year. Tis the middle of nowhere.

Breezes once felt by ancient civilizations peacefully followed us through the maze of old stone buildings. Views up and down the canyon revealed one of the most spectacular and isolated places on earth. Except for the spirits, no one was with us, and we saw no signs of anyone having visited. We were all moved by this place, including Louie, who had heard of its glory but believed he would never see it. Exploring this holy high place took our breath away. Or maybe it was what we saw down below: a potential baptism by brown river water.

The river was beginning to flood. Our rafts, previously bobbing in a quiet eddy, now pitched up and down, tugging hard on the bowlines anchoring them to shore. The light-blue river was turning into a coffee-colored cascade. We scurried down the hill, donned our lifejackets, and pushed off, hoping to find a safe-harbor eddy below this narrow canyon. Trees in the water floated rapidly by our rafts. Shoreline sluffed off as the high current eroded the banks. We looked for places to eddy out and scramble ashore, but found none. The torrent rushed us along, unwilling to let us stop. And then, almost as quickly as it rose, the river shed itself of debris and subsided. All that remained from the flash was a river the color of chocolate milk, with fine sand from the high mountains suspended in the flow.

We ran a few more Class III and IV rapids. We got dirtier with each splash, as sediment stuck to our life jackets and dry suits. Bright-yellow river wear turned root-beer brown. My glasses were so coated with micro-granule mud that I could not see through them; I had to rinse them off with canteen water. Everyone fought to stay in the boats, as the moist silt made the raft tubes too slippery to sit on.

Mudface, aka what happens when you raft through an avalanche of silt-laden Andean whitewater rapids.

We knew from the map (or thought we knew, given my flubbed interpretation of the initial river access and the Llica adding only a trickle to our course) that below our intended take-out spot was a steep and narrow canyon that ran for miles. We did not want to enter that canyon on this trip. Our gear-laden oar boats were not well-suited for the deft maneuvers and portages that might be needed in what appeared to be a much more challenging section of river. We might run it in the future, or maybe not.

As the river calmed we laughed at how muddy and brown and wet we were. None of us had ever gotten dirtier splashed by waves. We floated in reverie for another couple of miles then drifted under a cable that ran from one canyon wall to the other. We noticed a couple of kids high up on rocks and came to a slot that provided access to a dirt trail. Townspeople quickly gathered around, trying to figure out exactly what had arrived by way of the river, as brown white people climbed off of rubber boats. Local children scampered aboard and elders pondered the meaning of our intrusion. We saw the Land Cruisers on a road by the trail, ready for our return to La Paz, and realized that this adventure had come to a close.

Playing with kids at the take-out town. At first, the locals couldn’t figure out where us gringos came from.

Our Bolivian first descent taught us that we can move forward without seeing what lies ahead. It taught us that the best-laid plans may best be laid aside. We explored the unknown and were reminded again that whether on untraveled waters or just looking at something old in a new way, adventure begets discovery and growth. As William Feather, author of the book The Business of Life, said, “One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.” I hope to see you on that river.

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