Cordillera de los Frailes community trek, Bolivia

by on 6th November, 2015

Cordillera de los Frailes trek, Bolivia

Inca Trails, copper deposits and volcanic craters and positive tourism on a fantastic two-day trek out of Sucre, Bolivia – Cordillera de los Frailes – the latest destination on Tom’s travels.

Tom writes about community tourism working positively for all…



“Take two good handfuls, strip the leaf of the coca, and don’t put the stalk in your mouth. You’ll be great for two hours.”

Our trekking team of four tourists was following our guide Johnny’s instructions on how to chew coca leaves.

Gerbil-cheeked and with breath smelling a bit like a cup of well-brewed tea, we were ready to hike Bolivia’s Cordillera de los Frailes.


Inca Trail and coca leaves

The little-known hike starts two hours away from the country’s constitutional capital of Sucre, the place that created Bolivia.

Much of the history of Bolivia can be seen in miniature on the trek. We started with a steep two-and-a-half hour descent on an Inca Trail, the views of the mountains giving way to agricultural life. Goat herders, field ploughed by hand and with ox, and sheep aplenty.

Locals, many of whom don’t speak much Spanish but retain their Quechua tongue, put our stuffed cheeks to shame with veritable tennis ball pouches of the stuff to keep them going in the day.

“We have a big breakfast, maybe a soup,” explained Johnny, “then chew coca all day to give us strength. Then at night, we have a big meal.”

Our guide stopped and exchanged words with every villager we met, offering them some coca leaves as means of a welcome and exchange.



Bolivia is enjoying a mineral boom at the moment, although it is predicted to drop soon as global demand peaks.

Having reached the bottom of the trail, as we walked along the river Ravelo, it’s not hard to see why.

Big seams of copper, quartz and silicon line the route in huge waves on the cliffs facing us, a glimpse of the mineral riches and sheer power of the Andes mountain chain.

Many people I spoke to say that Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president who is holding a referendum in February to allow him to contest an unprecedented third term (Bolivian constitution allows two full terms only), has enjoyed a boom by exploiting the land – but at least it was Bolivians that were benefitting this time.

Lunch was taken at a disused hacienda, an old Spanish haunt long abandoned and left to the locals to reclaim.

Next, we hiked up and into the Maragua crater (3,200m), called Marawa by the inhabitants, who have never managed to make the ‘gwa’ sound that I missing from Quechua but present in the imposed Spanish.


Breaking of the bread

As Johnny doled out more coca leaves in the village, we were sat down next to the shop and given some freshly baked bread on arrival, a welcoming.

Having walked a full 8-hours, we moved to our cosy refugio for the night, solid beds, a flush toilet and marvelous views of the crater. People in Maragua are welcoming controlled tourism, numbers that they decide, and to places that they decide.

Problems exist, too: I saw a girl of around 12-years-old caring for her small baby. Litter abounds. Many houses are just adobe bricks, no windows and many people live in a (elected) subsistence way.

Could it all be about to change?

Johnny said: “There are some Inca ruins around here, a huge complex, but the locals don’t want us to go there and change their lifestyle, they don’t want lots of people coming here.

“There are many pumas to see, too, but again, if they say we can’t go, we can’t, and that’s good for them and the local area. That is one side – on the other side the government wants to build cement factories.

“They’ve stopped it once, but that sort of money talks – and doesn’t go away.”


Respecting the locals

And then on the second day, after a wonderful sleep, full moon views, and hearty breakfast, you meet people like Crispin as you leave the crater, heading back to Sucre.

Crispin is a farmer who has spent his life collecting Inca pottery and fossils in the area and set up his Apus museum.

It cost us USD 1 to visit, a small room but full of pieces, and he sang us a carnival song on his charanga before we left. He said: “I would love to collect more, to preserve more, but I have to work in the fields.

“I’ve done all of this to show the history we have here, to try to help. But I cannot change my lifestyle.”

Everyone had said hi as we walked through their lands, and we were told not to take their pictures as they are shy, which we respected.

As we left, it was hard to not feel great about the entire experience, a genuine leave only footprints hike.

We acted as the locals wished, left them be, and learned a lot about their lands, their lives and never imposed. We trekked an Inca Trail but missed the ruins, mysteriously shrouded and prowled by pumas.

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

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