To Palca and Back

Hiking in the La Paz Basin
By Peter Hutchison
  |  Gorp.com

As destinations go, the village of Palca does not overly stimulate the mind with boundless possibilities. Despite the lack of restaurants and intricately decorated churches however, Palca is the end of a trail of stunning beauty. The eroded sandstone and flint scenery of the La Paz basin extends over the hill towards Illimani, where the solitude of the barren land landscape leaves you to truly enjoy the peace of the area.

Transport out of Palca is limited. A few buses drift towards La Paz up until the early hours of the afternoon but apart from that, the generosity of the the irregular road traffic is your only hope. The walk itself should take four to five hours. So, planning in reverse order rising with the sun, a painful but somewhat refreshing experience, gives the best start.

Beginning from the end of the N bus route on the other side of Chasquipampa, the trail heads upwards to the rim of the La Paz basin rising up through the valley, the gravity-defying houses of central La Paz no longer obstruct the view of the naturally eroded columns and valleys.

The top of the hill provides just reward: Not only is the trail downhill hereafter, but with clear skies Illimani—hovering above the Palca Canyon—offers a truly breathtaking site.

Naturally eroded organ-pipes follow the descending road before the path falls away to your left. From there navigators may carry a compass whilst the rest follow instinct. Fortunately a few rather impressive natural features offer clues as to the general direction.

The valley floor is an over-eroded area scattered with the debris of heavy rains. Bordered by immense cliffs of red, brown, cream and gray sandstone, the floor is your target. Plenty of paths lead from the road and instinct will tell you when you've had enough of the road scenery.

Meandering alongside small huts and patchwork fields, the occasional donkey or llama glances up with comfortable nonchalance. In the Palca Canyon nothing moves fast and if it did, few would care. Descent to the valley floor is a series of polite questions to anyone you may meet.

As the floor appears closer, the vegetation changes in keeping with the landscape. Flowering cacti of blue and red cling to the barest of soils. Equally painful bushes block your journey back to the path that you, unconsciously, left a short while back. But there is a path and with perseverance seek and ye shall find.

Failing that, clambering down into one of the tributary canyons will get you to that same valley floor and will involve the kind of scrabbling around that will take you back to a childhood you never remembered, twisting and winding down the steep-sided stream beds.

The erosion of the canyon walls exposes all the structural weaknesses in the rock. The jagged silhouette contrasts against the clear blue sky and the temptation to climb out of the canyon is natural. But to head downstream provides more than wonders of nature: That's the way out. Continuing past the 100-meter-high natural obelisk likely to collapse soon, a path eventually leads out to your left. When you get there it's obvious, so wander through the valley floor and enjoy the scenery.

From the path it's a short hike to Palca a where the journey ends. What you do there is down to your personal preferences on food and mode of travel and your time of arrival. Journeying back late in the afternoon shouldn't be too difficult if truck-travel is your style, otherwise a couple of basic hostels can provide a night's accommodation, or a rather pricey chauffeur and car just out of town will get you back to La Paz. A few small restaurants provide local food with stylized serviced.

Whatever you do from Palca though, the hike through the canyon offers an insight into what the La Paz basin may have been like without La Paz. And as for those who prefer to explore by four-wheel mode, this is strictly leave your keys at home. Although the road offers impressive views, the beauty of the canyon below is well hidden from the motorized-hiker.

Special thanks to the Bolivian Times, Pasaje jauregui 2248 (Sopocahi), Cassila No. 1696, La Paz, Bolivia, for providing this material.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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