The one thing we love most about our blog is the incredible encounters it has allowed us to do! And the one with our friends Anais and Bruno, who did this trek aroud Illampu, is an excellent example. After using our blog to help them realize their long-term travel project, they invited us to their home for a weekend in Strasbourg to thank us for helping and inspiring them on their trip.
Both are nature-lovers, they appreciate, like us, this incredible freedom that independent hiking provides (they too have climbed the Parinacota volcano and trekked from Choquequirao to Machu Pichu). So, after having trouble finding information about the Illampu tour in the Royal Cordillera in Bolivia, they wanted to share with you their experience on our blog so that you too could do this wonderful 6 to 7 day hike. We let them speak:
Located about a hundred kilometres northwest of La Paz, this beautiful trek follows a loop around the imposing Illampu massif. A journey through remote valleys passing through several high passes at an altitude of more than 4500 meters… Pure hapiness! 🙂
The Illampu trek: table of contents
- Illampu trekking: general information
- Preparing the Illampu trek
- 0 : Getting to Sorata
- Day 1 : From Sorata ton Lacathiya
- Day 2: The Illampu and Korahuasi passes
- Day 3: Cocoyo and the Sarani Pass
- Day 4: Over the Calzada Pass
- Day 5 : The San Francisco Laguna
- Day 6 : Millipaya
- Day 7 : Down to Sorata
Illampu Hike: general information
- Duration of the hike: 6 to 7 days
- Start and finish of the loop: Sorata – Charming little town
- Distance: Approximately 110 kilometres
- Lowest altitude: Departure to Sorata around 2700m
- Highest altitude: Calzada Pass at 5045m
Illampu Hiking highlights
- High mountain landscapes, magnificent and very changing
- Many llamas and alpacas encountered on the way
- remote alleys where ancestral cultures are relatively preserved
- Almost no tourist traffic
- View of Lake Titicaca and the peaks
This hike is difficult
- Walking at high altitude, above 4000 meters and which requires a correct acclimatization
- Night-time cold, down to -10 degrees celcius, which requires good sleeping equipment
- Path not always easy to find, the use of a GPS or Smartphone in addition to the map is useful
- Only 1 possible supply in Cocoyo on day 3, which requires carrying food for 4 days.
Recommended season and weather
Dry season from June to September. For our part, we did the hike at the end of August. The weather was generally stable and the temperature during the day was pleasant. The nights, on the other hand, were very cold beyond 4000m and rain or snow showers fell on us. At the end of the day, it was common for cloud cover to develop. Thunderstorms at the end of the day or beginning of the night are also possible, especially in late southern winter.
Preparation of the hike
Little information is available about this trek and it was not easy for us to organize ourselves. This trek is done in total autonomy because there is no accommodation or camping on the circuit. This allows a great freedom in the length and difficulty of the stages. The “classic circuit” consists of crossing a pass every day of walking. For our part, we have seen gradually according to our form and motivation of the day. We only took care to always sleep as low as possible at altitude (to limit the night-time cold) and quite far from the hamlets.
It is not difficult to find a few flat square metres to pitch the tent near a water point, but there are areas that are more favourable than others shown in the diagram.
- Maps :There is a map of the Cordillera Real North (Alpenvereinskarte) at 1/50 000th which covers almost the entire route except for the easternmost part (about 1 day’s walk). Despite our research, we did not find this map in La Paz. It is supposed to be available (copies) at the Sorata guides’ office but again, no luck, the office was closed when we went there. We were lucky that the owner of the campsite where we were had a black and white copy that we were able to take with us. Phew! Phew!
There is also an English topoguide that is a little dated and does not mention all the new roads built. We had a copy of it that only helped us to find the nicest campsites.
- GPS tracks : Exist on Wikiloc.com. It has helped us a lot and it seems essential to us to leave with it (there are even several traces).
- Guides and muleteers services: easy to organize in Sorata, we did not study the price as we intended to hike alone from the beginning.
Equipment we used for this hike
Shared equipment for both:
- 1 BIG AGNES tent Fly Creek UL3 model
- 1 multifuel stove, – Only in La Paz (Rue Illampu) can you find gas cartridges but at a high price. Count 40 bolivianos for a small cartridge (230g) and 80 BOB for the large model (450g). By way of comparison, 1 litre of petrol costs 6 bolivianos in Sorata.
- Quantity of gasoline: As an indication, we consumed 1 litre of gasoline in 6 days with 3 hot meals per day for 2 people.
- 1 pot and 1 pan
- LIFESTRAW water filter – very practical because there is water (rivers) regularly on the way and the filter avoids carrying a lot of water reserves.
- Food: about 125g starchy food (oats, pasta, polenta, rice, mashed potatoes…) per meal per person + sauces (tomato, cheese…) or freeze-dried soups and about 100g snacks (corn, peanuts, etc.) per person and per day. TOTAL = about 1kg of food per day for 2.
- First aid kit
- Sunscreen cream
- Smartphone with GPS and application Maps.me
Equipment that we each had
- 50 litre bag – Osprey and Deuter
- Air mattress type Therma Rest
- Sleeping bag with a comfort temperature of -5 degrees celcius + a silk sheet
- Clothing for all weather conditions: sweater, raincoat, buff, down jacket, hat, gloves, warm socks, hiking pants, leggings for the night, hat or cap well covering…
P.S. If you are interested, we have also written a full article on how to organize an autonomous trek during a long-distance trip
Day 0: Join Sorata
The small town of Sorata is easily accessible from La Paz and it is after a chaotic journey in a combi that we arrive. When we arrive, the heat comforts us. Here, we are much lower than La Paz and especially the valley plunges into the Amazon and enjoys a much more temperate and pleasant climate than the Altiplano.
- Transport: Departure from Bustillo Street, near the Cementerio in La Paz / Travel time: about 4 hours. price: 20 BOB / person
- Accommodation in Sorata: There are many hostels on the main square side. For our part, we were at Camping El Vergel, at David and Gisela’s house. To get there, go down towards the river from the main square and do not hesitate to ask. Everyone knows about it. The site is on the banks of the river in a magnificent vegetal setting. Kitchen at your disposal. Room: 25 BOB per person. Camping: 12 BOB per person
- Other: There is no ATM. You can do all your shopping for trekking here but the choice will be less than in La Paz (especially for snacks).
Jour 1 : De Sorata à Lacathiya
The backpacks are zipped. We are ready. The trek starts from the main square of Sorata. There are many streets and tracks leading to the surrounding villages. The easiest way is to regularly ask local residents for directions. Well, you’ll guess we’ve already gotten lost by then. We never found the bucolic path that was supposed to lead us to the QUILLAMBAYA community after about 2h30 of walking. Too bad, we took the track through JUMULO and took a winding track at the exit of the hamlet that led us to Quillambaya. But let’s face it, it was much less pleasant.
In Quillambaya, the ascent continued along a small path lined with exotic plants and along an irrigation canal. The bags are heavy, Anaïs complains. It must be said that not knowing if we would find food along the way, we have 7 days of food on us. Arghh!
We finally arrive in Lacathiya, at about 4000 meters of altitude about 2h30 after Quillambaya (excluding lunch break). The sky gets overcast, the wind rises, it is much cooler. We realize that we are finally entering the massif. The difference in altitude and our bags made us very tired, we chose to stop at the first camping spot, about 1 hour above Lacathiya. A large, comfortable grassy plain welcomes us. There is plenty of water and lots of llamas. Our first ones!!!
- Cumulative height difference of the climb: approx. 1400m
- Cumulative height difference of the descent: approx. 100m
- Hours of walking (excluding breaks): approx. 6 hours
- The journey to QUILLAMBAYA is entirely on track and is not the most interesting. To shorten the hike it is possible to take a taxi to this village.
- It is possible to start the trek from Lacathiya by taking a 4×4.
- There is water all along the way, no need to carry large reserves.
- Altitude of the arrival camp: approx. 4100 metres. A second camp site exists by climbing another 45 minutes up to the pass. There is water but the place seemed less flat and less comfortable.
Day 2: Illampu (4740 m) and Korahuasi (4480 m) passes
When we wake up, we discover for the first time (and not the last!) a frozen environment. After a good breakfast made of oatmeal, we set off to climb the first pass of this journey. The altitude is felt. We are rather short of breath but fortunately no symptoms of soroche. After 2 hours of effort, we reach the Illampu pass (4740m). The Illampu rises above us at more than 6300m. Beautiful! Beautiful!
After a short snack and photo break, the descent takes place in a pretty sunny valley occupied by many llamas. At the bottom of the valley, we pass small sheepfolds and llama pens. But we don’t see anyone. We reach ESTANCIA UTJAÑA (approx. 3900m). It is just lunchtime, we decide to push back the camp and attack the second pass.
We enter the valley but unfortunately on the wrong side of the river. The path stands before us on the other side of a raging torrent. We find a fairly suitable place and take off our shoes. The water is freezing! We’re clenching our teeth and here we are on the right side. If you don’t want to do like us, you have to stay on the right bank of the river.
Then, the ascent is done quietly to the KURAHUASI pass (4480m) in about 3 hours. This time, we are less lucky, the pass is in the clouds and it is cold. We don’t linger and start the descent. We set up our camp about 30 minutes below the pass.
- Cumulative height difference of the climb: approx. 1300m
- Cumulative height difference of the descent: approx. 1100m
- Hours of walking (excluding breaks): approx. 7 hours
- There is water on all the way except for 1 hour before and 1 hour after the Illampu pass.
- Altitude of the camp below the pass: about 4300 meters
Day 3: Passage through the village of Cocoyo and the Sarani pass (4600 m)
After a heavy thunderstorm during the night, the tent is frozen again when we wake up. We are really happy with our sleeping bags because we don’t feel anything and have a very good night’s rest.
The descent from the camp is first made by the right bank of the river. We have a breathtaking view of a large postglacial plain in which a river meanders. In the distance, we can see the village of Cocoyo. Amazing! Amazing!
Arrived in the plain, we follow the left bank of the river until we reach Cocoyo (3500m) after a 2-hour walk. We were expecting a hamlet. It is a real small village that we discover, recently opened up by the arrival of a track that allows it to be connected to the rest of the world. But above all we discover the presence of small tiendas that sell everything. In other words, enough to replenish your reserves for the rest of the trek. And we have been carrying everything from the beginning. Grrrrrr!
We cross the river and climb up through the village crossing the warm smile of the inhabitants.
The Sarani Pass
On leaving Cocoyo, we set off again to attack a new valley where cows, llamas, sheep and even pigs graze. We go up for about 3h30 to the SARANI pass (4600m). The climb is very progressive and offers beautiful views. Fortunately, because when we arrive, this new pass is also in the clouds.
We start the descent by relying more on GPS because the visibility is very poor. Here a recently built dirt track has destroyed the hiking trail, which makes our progress even more complicated.
But after 1 hour of hesitation and alternating track/trail, we arrive in a marshy plain. We set up our camp at the end, a little high up, at the foot of a pretty waterfall.
- Cumulative height difference of the climb: approx. 900m
- Cumulative height difference of the descent: approx. 1300m
- Hours of walking (excluding breaks): approx. 6 hours
- Altitude of the camp: approx. 4100m.
Passage of the Calzada pass (5045m), the highest point of the hike
At the risk of repeating ourselves, this morning too, it’s freezing. Under the effect of frost, our tent pole breaks. Fortunately, we had the repair kit with us.
We’re having trouble getting started. The valley is still in the shade and our muscles are not yet warm. We first follow the narrow and very pretty Chajolpaya valley in which flows a pretty stream still partly frozen by night. We follow the river along a partially paved pre-Columbian path.
The valley then widens. Everything is frozen and we see our first ice falls. Some rivers no longer flow and are caught in the ice. We do not regret our decision to organize our walking days in order to avoid sleeping in this valley. It is beautiful but there is a freezing atmosphere here that the ambient sun can hardly warm up. Especially since throughout the day, we are experiencing a headwind, persistent and icy too.
The Calzada Pass
The bucolic path quickly disappears under the rubble of a track under construction. No choice, we continue on the track. The climb up to the pass is progressive and the panorama on the snow-covered peaks is striking. But it gets endless. Every time we think we’ll reach the pass, new shoelaces appear. The wind tires us and slows us down. It takes us 5 hours of walking to reach the Col de Calzada at an altitude of 5045 metres, the highest point of the trek.
We are then at the edge of a small lagoon at the foot of imposing glaciers. As we move forward a little, we find ourselves facing the Chojna lagoon below. The wind is still not subsiding but we are taking the time to enjoy this moment.
“Here we are at the top of this trek, the air is rarer and icy, time seems to be suspended”
But we must leave quickly. The objective? Sleep as low as possible to avoid unbearable night temperatures. We mistakenly try to return to the path but, as is often the case, it is partly destroyed by the new dirt track. In short, we struggled in a scree and Anaïs even had a severe dizzy spell. We are really getting tired from this day.
When you arrive in the valley, the vegetation is made of cactus and grass tufts making it difficult to find camping spots. Damn it! We finally find a spot that is not very comfortable to set up our camp slightly above the lagoon. It’s 7pm but we’re going to our sleeping bags, exhausted, already a little cold but conquered by what we’ve seen today.
- Cumulative height difference of the climb: approx. 950m
- Cumulative height difference of the descent: approx. 350m
- Hours of walking (excluding breaks): approx. 6 hours
- Altitude of the camp: approx. 4700m.
- There is water (and some ice cubes) throughout the day’s walk. We tried as much as possible to avoid walking on the trail by returning to undestroyed trail ends when we saw them. But if we had to do it again, we wouldn’t try it again. Several passages were quite dangerous, filled with unstable rubble. The track is more boring and longer but much safer!
Day 5: To Laguna San Francisco, first glimpse of Ancohuma and Lake Titicaca
That morning, we hit the coldest peaks. There is snow in the tent, the water bottles have completely frozen and even the river flowing next to the tent is frozen (who knows at what temperature the rivers freeze?). As soon as we fill the pan with water, it freezes instantly. We’ve never seen that before!
So we decide to hang around a little bit this morning to wait for the tent and our feet to thaw!
Then, we follow our favorite GPS track that tells us that a path climbs on the right side of the valley. It is more or less visible but we manage to climb gradually up to a new pass at 4900m and then we arrive in 1 hour of climbing. The landscape is beautiful! We enjoy the most beautiful panorama of this trek. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains and glacial lagoons, we feel alone in the world and privileged to be able to attend this show. In the distance, we can also see Lake Titicaca and Nevado Ancohuma, which rises to 6429 metres.
And then, the cold, fatigue, hunger (or any other excuse) makes us lose our motivation. To save time, we cut without looking for a path to what we thought was the San Francisco lagoon. Manifest error of direction!
After a few difficulties in the rocks, we understand our mistake and turn around and complain. A few peaks later, we see the right lagoon and the path that leads to it. This hook extends the hike course by 1h30 and plays a little with our nerves.
As fatigue builds up over the days, we decide not to go any further and set up our camp near the waterfall on the right bank of the swamp upstream from the lagoon and we took advantage of a sunny afternoon to rest. What a joy to be able to do a little laundry and a real deap cleaning in the middle of a river covered with ice cubes;)
- Cumulative height difference of the climb: approx. 500m
- Cumulative height difference of the descent: approx. 600m
- Hours of operation (excluding breaks): approx. 4 hours (including our itinerary errors)
- Altitude of the camp: approx. 4450m.
- From the pass, the descent to LAGUNA SAN FRANCISCO (about 4450m) normally takes about 2 hours. All you have to do was follow the path. On our side, we made a mistake and it took another 1h30.
Day 6: Towards Millipaya, return to populated and cultivated valleys
This afternoon of rest has given us a boost and we leave the next morning very lively to tackle the last pass of this circuit. An “unnamed pass” located at 4867m. Once again, a track has replaced the trail and we follow it for 2 hours by rising above the immense San Francisco Lagoon.
When we reach the summit, the Altiplano and Lake Titicaca can be seen in all their splendour. We believe we can see the sea with its myriad of islands, in the middle of which is the Isla del Sol. I can’t believe we were there a few days ago.
We also saw the track that goes down in turns to the Altiplano. What, another endless track?
The weather is fine, visibility is perfect and our legs are in better shape. So we decide to cut off the trail.
After crossing grassy areas and then cultivated fields we arrive at the ALTO LLOJENA community after 3 hours of descent. The children play in the village. Pigs, sheep graze along the track. The men are in the fields and preparing the land for the new season. They greet us. Life is back and it makes us shy. It’s been four days since we’ve seen anyone.
Another 1h30 of descent and we arrive at the village of MILLIPAYA (approx. 3500m) following the track on the left bank of the river.
After Millipaya, the path normally continues along the left bank of the valley. As the locals indicated that it would be difficult to find, we chose to take the track on the right bank of the valley. This track is not very frequented by vehicles and we have not been disturbed. We go down towards the Amazon and leave the space of the summits. The views are less impressive. We feel the end coming.
We camp near the mining company about 1h30 after Millipaya, near the track on the right bank of the valley.
- Cumulative height difference of the climb: approx. 600m
- Cumulative height difference of the descent: approx. 1600m
- Hours of walking (excluding breaks): approx. 7 hours
- Altitude of the camp: approx. 3300m.
- Unlike the other valleys crossed, this one is much more populated and cultivated. From Alto Llojena, unless you ask a farmer for permission, it is quite difficult to find a quiet place to camp.
- The hike can end in Millipaya. Every day, combis go to Sorata and even to La Paz.
Day 7 : Getting back down to Sorata
During this half-day without much interest, we walked on the track crossing hamlets. We witness scenes of rural life from here. We quickly see Sorata in the distance but since dozens of paths lead to it, it is difficult to find the shortest one. After turns and detours, we finally reach the road to reach Sorata and its welcoming warmth.
- Elevation gain : about 100m
- elevation loss : about 700m
- Hiking time (excluding breaks) : about 2,5 hours
” We had the impression to approach the stars in this trek which was undoubtedly one of the most difficult but also one of the most surprising with new views at every turn. Thank you Illampu! “
We also wanted to thank Anaïs and Bruno for their sharing of experience and their warm welcome in Strasbourg… We hope that they have made you want to surpass yourself and try this adventure in the heart of the Royal Cordillera in Bolivia.
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