• Steve Marks

Bolivian Backroads - Chasing the Unknown Between Oruru and La Paz

[A modified version of this article was first published by the good folk at Far Ride Magazine. Thanks as always to them for the increased exposure]

“Mama, hay un gringo afuera? (Mother, is there a gringo outside?)”, I heard a young child’s voice ask. I’d stopped to buy water in a tiny village in a part of Bolivia rarely visited by tourists, and as I was filling the bottles on my bike I glanced back at the shop door to see the faces of three small children all huddled together, peering around the doorframe and watching me intently. When I looked up and tried to say hello they all shyly darted back inside, although I could still overhear their hushed conversation about my presence in their village as they excitedly advised their mother that they’d indeed seen the gringo. That moment would come to provide an analogy for the next few days.

As part of my 5800km journey from Mendoza (Argentina) up to Lima (Peru), I knew I wanted some experience of genuinely chasing the unknown. Sure, there were established routes like the Peru Divide or popular mountain passes on the Argentina/Chile border that would form part of my wider itinerary. But for me there had to be occasional bursts into the unknown, to study maps to find gravel backroads through high mountain environments, but where I could find no information from anyone who’d toured that way before. I found such a route between Oruro and La Paz and, having loaded up the bike with enough porridge and pasta to see me right for a few days, I went to see what was there.

As I found the turnoff from the main drag, my alternate way began as a shoddy gravel track that could have been mistaken for a farm accessway. I paused on the junction and asked myself what I was trying to achieve here exactly, before knuckling under and going anyway. The track soon began skirting the edge of a high, sharp drop down into a rocky valley below. Although I didn’t know it at the time, vertigo-inducing, pants-pooping, cliff edge riding would come to form the majority of the next few days cycling. Roads appeared to have been simply hewn out of rocky cliff sides, with the consequent rubble left to form part of the difficult surface.

Just before sunset I rolled into a tiny village named Rodeo. Comprised of mud brick and cinderblock houses, I doubt the population exceeded a couple of hundred. Although I’d anticipated a night in my tent, the village had a medical centre which doctors from a larger city visit a few days each month - but not that day. I got talking to the friendly caretaker who was happy to show me to a ward-style room with 4 empty beds, and I appreciated the opportunity to sleep inside since the night temperatures at 4300 metres above sea level tend to be just a tad on the chilly side.

The next morning was filled with a sense of anticipation. The highest altitude I’d previously been on a bike was around 4700 metres up at the San Francisco pass on the Argentina/Chile border about a month earlier. But as I rolled out of Rodeo I knew the road would climb sharply from 4300 metres up to 5145 metres. I wondered if I’d acclimatised enough and how the lungs would cope, but in the end there was only one way to find out…

The route higher up into the mountains was nothing short of spectacular. Snowy peaks, waterfalls, mountain lagoons, cliff faces of contrasting colours, and the narrow gravel road slowly edging its way among the 360-degree jaw-dropping vista. As my altitude increased, so did my sense of fatigue and tiredness, but luckily the incredible vistas meant I was not remotely short of anything to look at while I took repeated short rests all the way up.

My lungs mostly coped until towards the end of the climb, then at about the 5000 metre mark they announced they’d had enough. I had to get off and walk the remaining 2km to the summit. Even then, I often found myself only walking a couple of minutes at a time in between short rests to catch my breath, and in the final few minutes to the 5150 metre summit I was alternating between walking and resting in 30 second intervals. As I rounded the summit, two overhanging glacial tongues sprawled down the mountainside in front of me.

The road bounced up and down between 4500 and 5000 metres for a while, and progress was slow on the unforgiving shoddy gravel road. Eventually I arrived at the start of the huge 1000 metre descent over 13km down to the village of Cairoma, although the steepness of the gradient married with the looseness of the gravel on narrow switchbacks flanked by cliff drops made for an experience that was more hair-raising than speedy.

Cairoma was another tiny village clearly removed from any tourism dollars in Bolivia. There were two small food carts near the village plaza serving dinner, although they both only served one thing: Salchipapas (sliced sausage meat served with fried potatoes and rice) for 6 Bolivianos (70 pence/85 US cents). It appeared most houses in the village had no plumbing at all, including the place where I found a room for 20 Bolivianos (£2.20/US$2.70).

There were a couple of communal taps for water in the village plaza, plus a communal toilet block which I went to use in the morning but didn’t linger long. The men’s was simply 5 holes in the floor with no partition walls at all, so you could chat with your neighbour while you took care of business if you were so inclined. Although there was no-one else there at the time, I had no guarantee that someone else wouldn’t arrive while I took the few minutes I needed. I’m sure these sorts of things are all relative to where we grow up, but I just could not make the mental jump to go through with it. So I held it in and waited until I was 20 minutes cycle out of the village and found a secluded clumping of trees where I could quietly do what was needed with the privacy of which I’m accustomed.

I soon found myself riding mad cliff edges again, including a freaky descent that fell around 600 metres within about 6km on hairpins chiselled into a seemingly near-vertical rocky face before being confronted by a similar climb back out.

Insane hairpins chiselled into the rockface
My impending downhill was subdued by the fact that I saw this was my uphill out of the valley

I’d often pass villages so tiny that they didn’t exist on any of my map apps, and where I usually proved to be something of a novelty. One of them had a small primary school where a teacher was supervising a game of football, but the moment I passed everything stopped as the kids ran over to surround me as the teacher shouted at them to come back. They weren’t listening to her, but despite their enthusiasm to rush over they also developed a sudden shyness at talking. For a moment, they all just stared at me in a silence which lingered on to the point of slightly uncomfortable. At other villages people would often want to stop to chat and ask what I was doing out here on these roads. They’d generally end up offering water, fruit or whatever they had to give away.

After another dicey descent I came across something I wasn’t expecting: the road came to an abrupt halt and entered a fast-flowing, muddy brown river before emerging out the other side. Although roaring at a fast pace and seriously muddy, the river didn’t appear to be massively deep. I went for an exploratory walk without any of my things and, despite being a bit awkward, I managed to get across with the water level just getting over my knees, although I was definitely put off by how strongly it was flowing. So next I managed to get across with my panniers, and then went for my bike. As I was halfway across, one of my feet went in a hole and I lost my balance, and the fast-moving water had no hesitation in pushing me over and I crashed over hard. I emerged soaking wet, although that in itself wasn’t so bad. What was bad was that the bike had landed pretty hard on the stony river bed, and the disc brakes now both made sickened creaking sounds as the wheels rotated. It wasn’t long until sundown and I was definitely feeling frazzled and a bit upset, so I pitched the tent and settled in for the evening to try to pull my head together.

Cycling the next morning was tough as the brake discs were clearly rubbing badly. I made it to a tiny village called Zona Zona, where I tried to have a look as best I could even though I suck generally at bike mechanics. I took the wheels off and washed out the brake mechanisms which were filled with mud and sand from the fall in the river. This seemed to clean out the front wheel which now spun much more freely, although made for only small improvement for the rear wheel. Looking at the brake disc, it appeared slightly bent and out of alignment, and I was clueless as to how to fix that.

I soldiered on as best I could, but it was pretty hopeless and everything was a real struggle. The terrain was a beast, with lots of short, sharp climbs on tough gradients. The route would be gruelling enough at the best of times, but with a munted rear brake it was beyond debilitating as my progress laboured along around 4 km/h. La Paz was still nearly 70km away, and I was wondering how long this was going to take. Somewhere in there my commitment just faded and I decided I was ready to sack this off and get to La Paz by any means necessary. But that presented another problem; in 6 hours on the remote road that day, I’d only seen one car going in my direction and that had been much earlier.

As luck would have it, the second car of the day soon materialised behind me. A clapped-out old Toyota sedan from a bygone decade, but with a roof rack. I explained the situation to the two cheery older gents in the car, and they were happy to help. Although they weren’t going all the way to La Paz, they were going to a satellite town just before it where I found some cheap digs for the night.

Although the last part of my off-the-beaten-track excursion from Oruro to La Paz didn’t exactly go as planned, the follies of my river fall couldn’t take away from what was an epic if perpetually uncertain experience. It had felt like a massive gamble to chase down some gravel backroads with zero information, but the constant sense of feeling unsure of exactly what was around the next corner amongst the dreamy high altitude Bolivian Andes landscape ultimately made for one of the most memorable chapters of my tour through South America.

Bolivia has a fairly well-trodden “backpacker circuit”, and my own guess would be that about 95% of tourism dollars that come into the country all fall among just a handful of locations with a familiar “ant-trail” of backpacker bus routes between them. Chasing down the gravel backroads by bicycle had opened up a whole other and very real side of Bolivia, and I cherished the experience being the unexpected “gringo” in so many small villages and the consequent friendliness and generosity they all insisted on showering upon me.


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