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Climbing Down a Bolivian Mountain At Night, or Why It’s Sometimes Best To Leave Before It Gets Dark

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Leaving my hostel under sunny lunchtime skies, and the approval of the receptionist abated my fears that it was getting a little late for a full days’ value, I set off for Sucre’s Sietes Cascadas. I compiled the necessities for a killer picnic and met with my friend in the main Plaza 25 de Mayo as arranged. We even completed the one chore we had in quick time: buy bus tickets to La Paz for the following evening. However, with grey skies, the sound of thunder rolling in and the time pushing into mid-afternoon, my fears returned that we had left our day trip too late, yet I was to be proved completely wrong in spectacular circumstances.

By the time my friend and I arrived at Sietes Cascadas, I had given up on the idea of swimming. With a cold shower already under my belt that morning I couldn’t be bothered creating unnecessary problems for myself as the heat had peaked and the day just got colder. By now it was around 3pm and we started to pick at our picnic as we walked from Alegria, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Sucre, into the hilly maze in which the Sietes Cascadas lies.

More reaffirmations of our tardiness presented themselves as we descended down a sandy green ridge into the dry riverbed gorge below which we would follow to the first of the cascades. Yet, the closer we got to the Sietes Cascadas, the more people who greeted us as they filed out under darkening skies and the heavier rumblings of thunder. Neither my friend or I were deterred in the slightest however, and we happily continued our journey to find the ideal picnic spot near one of the cleaner and more beautiful cascades.

I had visited Sietes Cascadas about two months previous so was more or less familiar with my surroundings. However, it was around the first cascade I also realised that while my memories of our surroundings were more or less the same, there were also slight differences. For example, the slightly alternative route we took to the first cascade, the slightly more dangerous scaling of the ledge that separates the first set of cascades from the second and likewise a slightly different descent down the opposing hillside. A new bush had sprung up here or the light shone in different ways on different places, obscuring the route and the memory I had of it my mind. Just as I would soon be proved wrong to worry about getting a full days’ value at Sietes Cascadas, likewise, I would pay for my heightened sense of familiarity and security.

After a slow descent down the opposing hillside, using the roots of shrubs to protect against sliding down the sandy surface of loose rocks, we arrived at one of the nicer lagoons that we had set out for, showing that my mental compass was only half a degree off. Just in time too, as we were afforded protection by a shallow cave as small pellets of rain started to drop from the sky. My friend, not deterred, took a swim in one of the cascade’s pools, although as lighting flashed over the next rise I gently tried to convince her to get out as I prepared some DIY guacamole in avocado skin shells.

So it wasn’t to be the glorious return I had envisaged, I thought as I squeezed lemon into a smashed-up avacado. I would not be able to throw my head back laughing into the sun as I did dive bomb after dive bomb into the shimmering aquamarine lagoons of the Sietes Cascadas on this grey day. Yet we had arrived before the bad weather could chastise us for our hardheaded persistence, with a good picnic and in a nice spot. We could eat and return to Sucre in time for dinner.

Yet, as we were making to leave with bellies full, I asked my friend if she wanted to explore a little further along the cascadas. I knew from my first time that the landscape only got more beautiful as the last cascade opened up into a gorge hugged by auburn green hills. There was more climbing and clambering over rocks involved and it was a fun journey. She asked me if I had a flashlight as it was getting a little late. Surprisingly, the flashlight I had bought in Melbourne, under the impression I would never use it, was in my bag. I said yes, she said yes, so we started to clamber over the now wet rocks, further into what would become our very own personal labyrinth.

Getting to the next cascade I realised the lagoon below had dried up somewhat since my last visit, another small reminder that things were the same but slightly different. Instead of directly scaling the rock face of this cascade, which I done previously with the aid of water below and a sunny day in which to enjoy the plunge should I fall, we moved to the next cascade via an overland path in the hills to our right.

(©ALAN LEONG)

The Sietes Cascadas on a better day. (©ALAN LEONG)

The next cascade was even drier! Where I had once been able to gleefully jump from the cascade’s rock face into the water below and debate “how high is too high?” I was now faced with a dried-out sandpit, poetically completed by an errant bicycle tyre. The only presence of water was the slow trickle coming down the cascade’s face from the stream that moved through the gorge above and the earlier rain which had made the rocky landscape slippery and slightly perilous.

With this in mind, in true amiably boyish fashion, I quickly found myself stuck halfway up the final cascade’s rock face and had to crab across, going slowly because of the lack of grip the rocks provided. My friend also found herself stuck a little lower but managed to extricate herself back to the sandy basin. I climbed up to the top in the best way I remembered to look for the safest and most manageable ascent with the aid of a bird’s eye view, trying to figure out whether continuing this adventure was a calculated risk or just sheer foolishness.

Moving across the top of the weakly flowing cascade with the gorge ahead and my friend and the other sorry cascades behind I tested out the descent on the other side, as I remembered it was safer. However, in running shoes in the wet, I wasn’t afforded the same safety a dry surface in bare feet had provided the previous time around. Returning somewhat nervously to the bottom I asked my friend whether she wanted to try the ascent, mentioning it was a little more difficult. We debated looking for a path over the straddling hills, but in the end just decided to climb up the little cascade’s front.

It was pushing past 6pm by now but we had the flashlight and pressed on. My friend was up the rock face quicker than me, as I moved my sprawling legs in foreign directions to return up to the gorge I had just recently been. Both at the top, we began to walk through the rock filled gorge as the light started to fade, exaggerating the reds, greens and browns of the wet trees and bushes on the steep hills surrounding us. Some gargantuan rocks lay strewn about us at impossible angles, as though this was the ancient playground of a grumpy baby giant who had thrown their ancient toys out of their primeval pram for us to gape and wonder at millenniums later.

After five or ten minutes, we were more or less as far along the gorge as I had gotten on my previous visit. A trickling creek suggested the presence of another cascade or water source further along the gorge, but an accessible peak to our left proved too good an opportunity to resist, as we could survey what was ahead as well as the surrounding lands in the evening light.

It was beautiful.

After the rain, everything glowed in the soft light of the early evening. Lighting flashed behind hills on hills as the claps and rumbles of the thunder rolled around the pocket filled countryside. We arrived at a peak and my friend was soon surveying some old stone farming constructions and pondering their origins. Egypt came up.

However, we became totally distracted by the view. From our vantage point in these rural surroundings, a shard of sun burst forth from the grayness to illuminate a factory perched on a green top mountain in the distance, with white bluffs falling away out of sight behind the many rises in between us. This rare light held the factory like the mesmerizing brilliance of a lava lamp, elevating the scene to mythical qualities akin to the magical Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. Shifting my view from the celestial mountain top factory, with Alegria to the right and the specter of Sucre behind; I moved my eyes across the riverbed and cascades in the gorges below and the green hill tops and spasms of lighting above, until my eyes settled on a rainbow.

The elevated factory which had transformed into the shining Emerald City of Oz to my right combined with the rainbow to my left made a magical view that shimmered and smoldered after the recent rain. A view I hope I can remember in such sharp detail as the years undoubtedly start to softly corrode the details and other memories crowd in. In this moment, I started to think that maybe magic does exist on this earth. Not in a Harry Potter witches and wizards sort of way, but just in the sense that the world is our playground and despite the scientific explanations available, these moments of beauty and our perception of them makes us aware that the grand scheme of things is totally beyond our comprehension in a beautiful childlike way. It is also these moments and the time to appreciate them that makes me sincerely grateful for the opportunity I have to travel and explore.

Separating ourselves from this view and these sentiments, we could see Alegria to our right, and although we were on the opposing hilltop, I was hopeful if we walked far enough the separating gorge would end and we could make a crossing. At such a late stage of the day, this would cut the time and difficulty of our journey, rather than having to descend back into the gorge and climb up the opposing ridge that we had entered from earlier in the day. My friend was happy enough to go along with this so we started to walk further away from where we had left the Sietes Cascadas. We passed by a vegetable field and a small hut. In possession of a vivid imagination since I was a child, I began to ponder whether Bolivian farmers were the violent, serial killer type. Voicing something a lot more subtle, my friend pointed out the obvious in telling me that this was merely a hut for the farmer to use when working the field and there was no one here.

Onward we went. My friend laughed and said we probably had about 15 minutes until sunset. I laughingly retorted that the sunset was now, as we happily continued our aimless bash over the hilltop. Unfortunately for us, there was not to be a crossing point to the other hilltop, Alegria and home.

Then the sun had set and we were scurrying back across the hilltop the way we had just come amongst the falling darkness.

I wasn’t worried yet because I knew our orientation and knew there was a dirt road down to a property close by. I wrongly presumed we could continue down to the riverbed and then back up the way we had come earlier in the day via this path. Smashing down the dirt road with huge strides and the use of the flashlight we moved towards the buildings and where I thought would be our safe passage out. As we got closer to the property the loud, violent barking of several dogs in the darkness made me feel uneasy. I couldn’t see a noteworthy fence around the property, didn’t know these dogs and it was therefore quite easy to give the place an ominous vibe. On the edge of the property my friend called out to alert anyone inside to our presence and so we could ask for directions out of the darkness.

No one answered.

I could say it was my better judgement, my “instincts”, or some strain of feminine perception that said we should leave, but in reality it was my imagination kicking in as I said “I don’t like this place, I don’t want to cross the property with these dogs lying in between, let’s find another way down please.”

Or words to that effect in the Spanglish we had reverted to out of our tiredness and which would go completely out the window later on as facial expressions and our native tongues took over.

By now I was starting to seriously worry about how the hell we were going to find a way down the unknown and potentially dangerous mountainside and source a path home in the pitch black. Not typifying the strong male stereotype I knew from all bad sexist Hollywood movies but feeling slightly more responsible for our current predicament due to my penchant for dumb adventures and knowing my imagination could see me surrender control to my now simmering fear, I internally decided my role was to maintain a calm disposition, a clear direction and push the quest onward to safety. In reality, the less we thought and the more we moved, the less chance my highly self-created fears would make an unpleasant situation for the both of us and potentially see two young adults getting lost in the dark, jumping at shadows. Although with night only recently falling, this silly situation was still within our control unless we suffered the deflating prospect of a major setback that would force us to pause and take serious stock of our predicament.

Walking back the way we came we quickly picked a spot to attempt a descent. I went first with the flashlight before stopping, turning and lighting the way for my friend to follow. In truth it was quite enjoyable as we bashed, slipped and laughed our way down the hillside with our small circle of light, always with the fear that we might encounter a dead end and somehow have to find the willpower to ascend back the way we had come before trying another descent with a recent failure fresh in our minds. Yet in this moment, we laughed as we clumsily helped each other down the hillside. We laughed out of fear when we threw a rock down to try and measure the distance and could hear it tumbling for longer than we expected. We admired the exotic bugs we lit up in the dark, and the pretty little flowers growing among the rocks that we only noticed because of our close proximity, the small sphere of light and the painstakingly slow process of our descent.

Five metres foward. Stop. Check ahead. Turn around and light the way for my friend. Repeat.

Down the small crumbling rock faces we continued, around or through prickle bushes, always checking a little bit ahead to make sure there was no sheer drop-off to the riverbed below, sometimes slipping into potholes and taking turns to help each other down or out of tricky situations as the sound of the river below grew stronger and stronger. I laughed after I realised the flickering, flitting lights were fireflies and not the amazingly mobile Bolivian serial killers I had initially feared.

“These are the stories you hear about crazy idiotic tourists who get lost and die in the wilderness,” I joked, a comment which was slightly unfair as my friend is neither a tourist as a Bolivian native, nor in quite the same good-willed idiotic category that I like to straddle on the grounds of keeping things exciting.

Eventually we arrived at the bottom of the gorge, our sweat momentarily cooling in the fresh night air. I considered a celebratory hug but then my thoughts turned to horror movies or sporting matches were the protagonists celebrate a little too early. I thought we must be close to where the river bed dries up and meets the opposing ridge that would return us back to the outskirts of Sucre. With the flashlight creepily illuminating the fast flowing but shallow river, we struck out left, now continuing our slow but well-rehearsed process of movement through the rocks and water. However, as the minutes became a more significant chunk of time and the strength of water did not abate to indicate we were any closer to our intended destination, the initial relief of reaching the river dissipated and we started to grow tired and frustrated.

My friend became worried we were lost on several occasions and as we were seemingly no closer to arriving I began to question myself, which I knew was a surefire way to get lost. Because of this, and my growing fear, I became tense and terse and implored by friend that we should just keep going. I believed I still had my bearings and was resolved that it was better to have a plan than no plan at all. However, it was hard not to let doubts creep in that we were hopelessly lost and I could no longer make any reference points from the overhanging hills that were almost completely obscured by the darkness. It was becoming boom or bust.

I dragged my friend along by the hand, my other hand gripping my pocket knife as internally, my imagination had started to take over and I was now definitely scared. Trying to lighten the mood I begun singing Merry Christmas in Spanish to which my friend laughed before quite reasonably telling me to shut up. We continued bickering soon after because in my hardheaded determination that I knew the way and didn’t want to stop until we had returned to safety, I wasn’t at my attentive best to the concerns of my friend, regarding these as a potential and unnecessary derailer.

However, my friend wanted to get out of the ravine pronto and when she put her foot down I swiftly and stiffly made for a relevant part of the adjacent hillside and started scrabbling up, pulling her arm rather roughly so we could continue at a quick pace. We slipped and fought our way up the slope, as I had blindly chosen a part of the hillside that was full of unstable sand stalactites in my agitated haste. We pulled ourselves over the top onto the hilltop, but not before I nearly fell back down the hillside when I misplaced my foot on some baseless undergrowth.

By now we had stopped talking. My friend was tired and worried about where we were and I was annoyed because I was confident I knew the way by my perceived sense of direction and wanted her to trust me and press on. Now at a higher altitude since ascending out of the gorge, I could see roads and lights I believed to be certain positive landmarks. Close to the summit of this hilltop, my friend wanted to rest and sat herself down in the dark. Annoyed, I continued to the summit and found the lights of what turned out to be Alegria and the rest of Sucre in the distance, providing my ego with some cold comfort and justifying my stubbornness.

So we had made it more or less.

With every tired step my fear began to abate as more familiar landmarks came into view. We were completely worn out and without water as we finally stumbled across a vegetable patch into the neighborhood of Alegria at 9.30 pm. As if to serve as one final reminder of our ill-advised adventure and our subsequent misplacement, it seemed as though all the dogs in Alegria were waiting to hustle us out of town with their incessant and aggressive barking, each bark bringing a new mongrel into the fray. In my bad humour, I turned my flashlight to the repeat flash setting and shone it in the dogs’ eyes when they got too close to us. The makeshift bus terminal was deserted but luckily, a cab was dropping someone off in the exact moment we arrived and we fell into the backseats, exhausted and relieved.

“What are you guys doing?” was more or less the sentiment we received from the cab driver who later told me Sietes Cascadas and Alegria were dangerous places to be at night while making the stock joke about kangaroos upon learning of my Australian origins, as if to rub salt into my wounds. In no mood for jokes I told him that there are kangaroos in every city and in most houses in Australia more or less.

The lesson: sometimes it is better to be sensible and leave a place you don’t know rather than risking being the stupid, unprepared tourist who gets lost at night in the wilderness. However, both because of and thanks to my small flashlight I can reflect on a stupid but nonetheless excellent adventure that was similar in length, but far better than the last two woefully bland Hobbit movies. While I didn’t get my money’s worth on those two movies, my earlier worries that the same would apply on my return to Sietes Cascadas were well and truly blown out of the water as I got far more than I bargained for in the stupidly fun adventure that transpired.

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Filed under: Bolivia, Mountain Climbing

About the Author:

David Fegan is a freelance journalist from Melbourne currently travelling through South America, reporting what he discovers for Vagabond Journey. has written 19 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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David Fegan is currently in: Samaipata, BoliviaMap