The small but inviting town of Chulumani lies only three hours from La Paz by bus, providing the perfect excuse to escape from the city for a couple of days or longer. Tourists visit the more famous Yungas towns of Coroico and Sorata, but one of the most rewarding things about Chulumani is the feeling of being well and truly off the beaten track.
You may be relieved to learn that the road to Chulumani, though excitingly narrow at some points, is nowhere near as hair-raising as the road to Coroico, and the variation in terrain makes it one of the most interesting journeys out of La Paz.
The best way to explore the capital of the Sud Yungas is by trekking. There are plenty of guides available who will take you up into the cloudforests, where bananas, coffee beans, oranges and the eponymous coca leaves can all be found growing in abundance. It is advisable to have sturdy shoes for these expeditions as the paths snake up and down the hills at quite a steep gradient. Needless to say, the ascent is far more challenging than the descent, but the breathtaking view at the top is well worth the effort. It is possible to take treks of up to four days in duration, which can be tailored to individual taste and experience.
For those of you looking for a bit more excitement in your exploration of the region, ‘wild river tubing’ is an excellent alternative to trekking. It is similar to white-water rafting, except each individual has their own inflatable rubber ring on which to negotiate the rapids, and the water is shallow enough to stand up should you need to slow down! You can arrange for a guide to drive you and your inflatable rubber ring to the Solocama river, which has enough water for tubing even in the dry season (April-October), but is definitely faster and more challenging in the wet season when the water levels are higher.
Alternatively, there are several paths out of the town which offer excellent views of the surroundings. These can be explored without a guide – simply discover the beautiful forests at your own pace and the higher you go, the more spectacular the vista.
The Bosque Ecológico Apa Apa lies just 9km from Chulumani on the road to Irupana and is a very worthwhile excursion out of the town. It is a private nature reserve comprising 8080 hectares of dense sub-tropical forest where a huge variety of bird and plant life can be found. Hummingbirds, parrots, spectacled bears, pumas and deer are just a few of the species you can hope to encounter on a walk around the park. You can book tours lasting 3-4 hours with English-speaking guides but you do need a minimum of five people per group. A fully operational farm is another attraction of the park, where there is excellent food and overnight accommodation available. You can also stay in a well equipped campsite with hot showers and cooking facilities.
Additionally, 359 indigenous communities live in the hills of the Yungas, many of which are self-sufficient and completely untouched by tourism. Aymara communities, descended from the ancient Tiwanaku people, live high up in the cloudforests and for travellers with plenty of time, a guided expedition of several days to meet some of these tribes could prove particularly rewarding.
There is an interesting mix of people in Chulumani. Many descendants of African slaves brought to Bolivia in the 16th century to work in the mines of Potosi migrated to the area, being far better adapted to the lower elevation and warmer climate of the Yungas than the harsh conditions of Potosi at 4000m. Thousands died because of their incompatibility with the altitude, and the remainder relocated to the coca plantations of the Yungas. For many years, the Aymaras and Africans did not mix, simply because they came from such different backgrounds, but around a century ago, schools were integrated and the two races began to unite. In the town today, it is not uncommon to see afro hair coupled with Aymara features, a product of the fascinating history of the area.
With its diverse background and multitude of activities on offer, Chulumani is an excellent location to enjoy the diversity of Bolivia’s terrain. The spectacular, untouched beauty of the area is really not to be missed.
Buses from La Paz to Chulumani leave regularly from Villa Fatima and cost $2-3.