Sunday, 3 August 2014

Valle de los Condores

After a relaxed breakfast at our hostel, we're picked up by our driver from EcoSol and are on our way to Valle de los Condores. The format of this "3 day / 2 night" trip is that we spend the afternoon doing a visit to a local family's house, before having a night at a pretty incredible farmhouse in the valley. Day 2 will mostly be a trek up the mountain - the timescales given vary between 3-6 hours of walking, before we camp near the top to watch the condors. Finally, day 3 is mostly about walking back down, and then the drive back to Tarija.

Put like that, it doesn't sound like much, but overall this trip was awesome!

At this point it should be mentioned that while I was out booking and paying for the trip, CP had taken to her bed, maybe feeling the effects of the days vino tasting, or perhaps having eaten something a little dodge. By the time I return, she's feeling better, mostly because for the second day in a row she's had a little "regurgitation"...

However, she insists that she is ready, fit, and able for this 3 day trip, so on we go. The drive out takes about 1.5 hours and we cruise past the Valle de Concepcion wine region on the way.

When we arrive, at a frankly spectacular farmhouse, we're shown to our room by Sofia, who points out a couple of low beams that we need to be wary of. I will hit my head on these no less than 9 times in the short time that we are there. Only Spanish is spoken here, and in contrast to the Salt Flats trip, for me that's actually a good thing - the whole thing feels more authentic, and it's a good chance to get our Spanish skills back on track. When you stay with English speakers, or in a place where English is widely spoken, Spanish inevitably takes a back seat.

The first port of call involves a short walk through the beautiful little local town of Rosillas with Sofia and her two little dogs, one of which, Juanita, is to become our cosy companion for the rest of the trip.

Then the real activities begin, as we are introduced to a local family and invited into their house.  The family, like many others in the area, early a living by making bread, cheese, chicha (a sort of beer substitute made from corn), and many other local products which they take to sell at the markets 3 times a week. We get to help, but not before we are invited to have a hearty lunch of soup and chicken before we are set to work.

Even less Spanish is spoken here, and we're thoroughly enjoying the chance to flex those skills once again - although it's a little harder here as we find that as people get older, and/or more "local", the usually crisp Bolivian articulation disappears a little and more mumbling occurs interspersed with Quechua (local dialect) words of which we know none. Even so, we both manage pretty well, occasionally by thinking about the context and piecing it together, or CPs favourite, resorting to a brief game of charades and a smile.

We spend the afternoon "helping" to make bread and cheese, sitting in the sun and playing with Juanita. It is a really lovely way to spend a day, with a true local family and getting a feel for the absolute simplicity and, we would suspect, slightly mundane, routine that the locals have.

We return triumphant, with 10 freshly baked bread rolls and over a kilo of cheese. Sofia explains that this will form part of our food during the trek. For now though, we have a couple of hours free time, but Sofia wins major points here for giving us the options of relaxing around the house, taking a walk, or she can guide us on a walk. We don't need our hands held 24/7, so we head out for a stroll, accompanied by Juanita who has followed us everywhere since we arrived, and another dog who has appeared but who's real name escapes me - we dubbed him Chico, although he mostly walked himself and was unavailable for a photo.

We're back from our walk just in time for the next planned activity... we're going to sample a local beverage called Ambrosia, but the kicker is - we have to make it. This involves a sensibly sized measure of Singani, mixed in a glass with a teaspoon of carnella, before you add milk. Directly from the cow, into the glass. It's harder than it looks (and it really doesn't look that easy!), but we're both able to get some success. We're put to shame by the pro's though, who effortlessly unleash a torrent of milk with every pull, whereas we are only able to manage a rather feeble squirt.

It's enough to make our drinks though, and we're encouraged to quaff while it's still warm!

It's tasty enough that we go in for seconds, and it's another thing on the list to try back home - although I think it's likely we'll be sourcing the milk from the more conventional carton, or else be hitting up Mike and Susie for a farmyard visit, hint hint!

While all this is happening we meet our guide for the 2 days of trekking, Miguel. I'll admit that initially we were a little concerned - my Spanish is getting back on track again a couple of weeks of neglect, but to understand it well we need it to be clearly spoken. Franco's fondness for coca leaves on the Salar trip made him impossible to understand, and Miguel is missing a few teeth which (in our experience!) also leads to a much harder to understand lingo. However, we're more than willing to persevere.

Dinner is soon being served, the best tasting saise (a mince meat concoction that is considered to be the speciality of Tarija) that we've had, and we retire to our room to rest up ahead of tomorrow (with me hitting my head, again...and again on the wooden roof beams).

We figure they must be trying to fatten us up, as after last nights epic dinner, we're treated to a massive breakfast. It's as if someone has read a menu of possible breakfast choices, and then decided to make them all.  As CP was up again in the early hours revisiting dinner, she had plenty of space for a hearty breakfast...

We're presented with our sleeping bags and packed lunches, pack it into our bags along with most of the warm clothes at we have, and the trek begins! Yesterday the weather was stunning, and you could see for miles. Today is a little different, and as we climb higher the cloud closes in and the view reduces to nothing.

CP is definitely suffering during the climb, and while it's a decent trek, I'm not exactly on the rivet. It's safe to say that having not digested much of her main meals for the last 2-3 days there's probably not a lot of goodness left in there, plus the effects of whatever bug she's had. There was never any danger of her not doing the trek or turning back, we all know that CP is far too determined (*cough* stubborn *cough*) for that.

There's not much to say about the trek itself, other than that I was enjoying it more than anything we'd done in Bolivia to date. CP here, the smile of Rich's face every time I looked at him was epic, he was loving it!

At times the view behind us was a complete whiteout and maybe the only thing visible is the smile on my face. The view upwards is a little clearer, although it seems that every time we reach the "top" another section appears and we continue onwards and upwards.

After about 3 hours we reach a large flat section with a stone wall perimeter - this is where we will set up camp. The clouds have cleared, and CP wanders off for a photo session while I help Miguel with the tents.

By the time CP returns, our tent is up, and there's just the finishing touches to be done to Miguels... how convenient!? She is still suffering a bit though, and requests an extra 10 minutes lie down before we head higher to a frankly amazing lookout point (about another hour trek straight up) where we see more condors, and sit down for a packed lunch that is almost as good as the view, all within spitting distance of Argentina. At this point we are at 3,300m, and have climbed 1,000m of vertical today.

We head back down to camp, and Miguel goes out in search of firewood while I defend the camp against an intruder...

By now I've already decided that even if Miguel came back empty handed and announced we had to pack up and head home, this would still be one of the best things we've done on the trip. Our Spanish has got right back on track and in contrast to my initial concerns, we can understand and converse with Miguel, and have a great time doing just that, which I am sure is both a cause and effect of our enjoyment of the trip.

We then make a fire, and Miguel sets about creating dinner - pasta cooked up in a chicken soup, which is obviously pretty basic and simple, but equally tasty and effective. As this is served up, Miguel then produces a surprise - a bottle of wine that he's carried up in his pack, which he insists is just for us, but we of course share between the three of us, as we did with the variety of other snacks and treats that were dished out over the 2 days.

The cow finally gets his wish and is allowed into our camp area, where Miguel has placed a whole load of salt on a big rock in the middle. Apparently this is a regular occurrence as the cow knows exactly what he wants and gets to work, licking a dry, salted rock for the next 20 minutes.

CP then attempts to train the intruder, managing no less than 5 loops of guiding around the stone circle.

It's early to bed once the sun sets and the stars come out - the sky is perfectly clear and moonlit, and although we initially mistake the Spanish word for stars (estrella) for a question about Aus-straya, an arm extended skywards quickly overcomes our initial confusion.

We wake up the next morning after a surprisingly comfortable nights sleep, to find that Miguel has already got the fire on the go and we have fresh coffee to go with our breakfast.

Then we pack away tents (CP helps this time!) and trek down via new route, and a different lookout point in search of more condors. We see a couple, but are more entertained by a passing Spiderman helium balloon. We're in deepest Bolivia, 3,000m above sea level, 700m above the nearest town, where has that come from?

The view on the way down is a reminder of what we missed in the clouds on the way up - and we stop for a while to watch a football game going on way below us, no wait, it's a football tournament and no less than four fields in the hills are being used! This is a tiny town and to have so much football being played says a lot about it a popularity in Bolivia.

When we arrive back at the farmhouse, Tango and Juanita are quick to greet us. I have to go looking for Dulce (the cat), but he quickly makes himself comfortable.

Our final meal is incredible - we think they must have killed a cow as the slab of meet that is cooked up on the BBQ (which had been rubbed down with fresh lemons, creating an amazing extra flavour with the steak) for lunch is huge. We're joined by Miguels wife, who is a lovely but shy lady, and there's plenty for everyone, including the variety of local student volunteers and we share the bottle of wine provided with everyone. Dessert involves freshly made yoghurt, some of the best we have ever tasted, and straight from the cow(ish)!

Finally, our driver is organised to drive us back in to Tarija in time for our bus to Sucre, and we're amused as his mini-bus becomes an impromptu taxi picking up a variety of randoms along the way and dropping them off a little bit closer to their destination.

CP thinks that I'm biased because I'm happy again (or maybe I'm happy again because this little excursion was awesome?!) but for me it's definitely one of the top 5 things we've done on our travels so far, along with (in no particular order); Tikal (Guatemala), sailing trip (Belize), Ciudad Perdida (Colombia), and climbing Concepcion (Nicaragua) - included mainly for the sense of achievement. Honourable mentions to Death Road (Bolivia), paragliding (Colombia), and Stingray City (Cayman).

Even more impressive as we weren't sure if we would make the trip south to Tarija at all, and the Valle de los Condores doesn't even get a mention in the a Lonely Planet (yet)... but what do they know? We think that's actually part of the charm - they only get about 25 groups a year at the moment, so there isn't a steady stream of tourists lining up to do the same things and take the same pictures, and everything about it the 3 days just had the right amount of care and attention. It really was perfection and the reality of the life out there, with all the little touches made this trip such a highlight,  At the end we were given the guest book to sign, and a separate comments book for any improvements we thought they could make. We couldn't think of anything - and that wasn't because we were being polite, it really was pretty close to perfect.

Our trip down to Tarija and the Valle de los Condores definitely wasn't a bad decision, but we thought this pic summed up our travels so far...


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