Days 150 to 155: Off the Beaten Track Between Oruro and La Paz
[This blog post was the field notes which later turned into my article for Far Ride Mag ]
“Mama, hay un gringo afuera? (Mum - is there a gringo outside?), I heard a young child’s voice ask. I’d stopped in a tiny village in a non-touristed part of Bolivia to buy water, and as I was filling the bottles on my bike I glanced back at the shop door as three children all peered around the doorframe watching me. They darted back inside when I looked up and tried to say hello, although I still overheard their hushed conversation among themselves about my presence in their village.
That moment came to provide an analogy for the next few days. To get from Oruro up to La Paz I’d taken a deliberately elongated route through the mountains that lie between the two cities. There was a main road but that seemed boring, and looking at routes through the mountains there seemed to be two main options. One of them was quite popular with independent travellers of various shades - cyclists, motorbike tourers, 4x4s etc - and I saw plenty of information on the web. The other mountain route, however, was drawing a complete blank. I literally could find no info. I had no idea why, and in the end curiosity got the better of me. I loaded the bike up with enough porridge and pasta to see me right for a few days, and set off to see what was there.
As I found the turnoff to pursue my “alternative route”, it was an ominous moment. The sealed road continued into the mountains following the route clearly more popular with independent travellers, but my way was simply a shoddy gravel track. I paused on the junction and asked myself what I was trying to achieve here exactly, before knuckling under and going the way I’d planned regardless. The gravel soon ended up skirting the edge of 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.
About half an hour before sunset I started thinking about where I might sleep and rolled into a tiny village of mud brick and cinderblock houses. Although I’d anticipated a night in my tent, the village did have a medical centre which doctors from a larger city visit a few days each month, although there was nothing happening there as I passed. I got talking to the caretaker who was happy to show me to a room with 4 beds, and I appreciated the opportunity to be 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 excitement and trepidation. The highest I’d been on the bike so far on the trip was the San Francisco pass on the Argentina/Chile border at around 4700 metres, but as I rolled out of the village I knew the road would climb from 4300 metres up to nearly 5150 metres over the next 16 kilometres. 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 up into the mountains was nothing short of spectacular. Snowy peaks, waterfalls, mountain lagoons, vertical cliff faces, and the narrow gravel road slowly edging its way among them all. The lungs mostly survived pretty well, although towards the end of the climb they started to protest. At about the 5000 metre mark they announced they’d had enough and told me since this was my bloody stupid idea then I could get off and walk, although luckily there was only about 2km left to the summit so it wasn’t so bad. Even then, I often found myself only walking a couple of minutes at a time in between short rests to catch my breath.
Once over the summit, the surroundings shifted a whole other gear. The road was perched delicately high above a couple of lagoons, and almost did a complete loop around them before moving on. The sheer height of the vertical drop off the edge of the road wasn’t worth thinking about for too long, but my view was mainly kept upwards anyway not just by more towering mountain peaks but also a couple of enormous overhanging glacier tongues which rolled part way down the mountainside. The remants of a few tiny mining villages occasionally came into view, at first I assumed they were abandoned but every now and then I would see the odd person moving about.
Having passed the summit didn’t mean the end of climbing though. No sooner had I rolled down to 4800m, I was forced to climb back up to around 5000m again, and even after that once I descended to 4500 metres another 300m climb back to 4800 was thrown at me. Only then, did the big 1000 metre descent over the next 15km down to the village of Cairoma really begin. As I was about to begin the descent, a group of about 7 Bolivians jammed into a standard-sized sedan pulled over and asked me what I thought I was doing. They had a 2-litre bottle of a local Bolivian cola in the car and insisted on giving me some, which I appreciated as I felt like I needed a solid sugar hit in addition the water I’d been drinking.
Cairoma was another tiny village clearly removed from any tourism dollars. There were two small food carts serving dinner, although they both only served one thing: Salchipapas (sliced sausage meat served with fried potatoes and rice) for 6 Bolivianos, or 70 pence. 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).
There were a couple of communal taps for water in the village centre, plus a toilet block which it appeared everyone used. I went to use it in the morning but didn’t linger long. The men’s was comprised of 5 holes in the floor with no partition walls at all, so you could chat with your neighbour if you were so inclined. It kinda reeked and some people’s aim was clearly off with plenty of shits lying around the outsides of the holes. 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. 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 usually accustomed.
Before long I found myself riding mad cliff edges again, including a hair-raising descent that fell about 600 metres on hairpins chiselled into a rocky face. My front disc brake had packed a sad ever since my misadventures on the Salar de Coipasa salt flat, and despite asking around the city of Oruro I failed to find a bicycle repair shop that knew anything about disc brakes. Some of the cliff-edge descents were freaky enough in their own right, without needing to worry about my failing brakes.
I’d occasionally pass more tiny villages where I 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 off the field to come and 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 silence when I tried speaking. I heard one of them turn to another and whisper “Como te llamas (what’s your name)”, and prodded their friend to ask me. But the friend just did the same, whispering the question to another and prodding them to ask me. And so it continued via 5 or 6 kids before I finally just told them my name anyway since they failed to be able to sort out among themselves which one was going to ask the question. At other times in the day I’d pass other tiny villages where people would always 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 more insane cliff climbs and descents, I arrived at a junction where I planned to cycle down to the village of Lurata to pick up a road with a gradual ascent up to Bolivia’s largest city of La Paz. But I got chatting to a local passing by, and although there seemed to be some struggle with communication across languages, he seemed adamant it was a tough way to go. Instead he pointed up the hill and suggested it would be easier if I went that way. I had a quick check on my maps app and his way looked like an awfully big climb; I guessed he was just more used to a car than a bike so I decided to ignore him and stick with my plan. As I was leaving he said something about taking care of water, but I told him I had plenty but thanks for offering anyway, and he just looked at me confused. I soon passed the village of Lurata and as I was cycling out the edge of it a small boy aged all of about 5 years old was playing by himself. He stopped and told me very informatively that it would be a tough way to go on a bike! Random thing for a little kid to say. I explained as best as I could to a 5-year old that I’d already done some tough cycling on this trip, as far as I could tell I should be alright on this next stretch. He then also said something about taking care of my water, and I told him also that I had plenty but feeling a bit confused about where all this was going. 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. “Take care with the water”, they’d all said, as the penny dropped as to what they’d all been trying to warn me about!
Although roaring at a fast pace and clearly filled with mud and dirt, it didn’t appear to be massively deep. I went for an exploratory walk without any of my things and despite being a bit dicey and awkward I managed to get across with the water never much above my knees. So then I managed to get my panniers across, and next went for my bike. As I was almost 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 and the bike over, crashing into the water. 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 brake discs had clearly taken a hammering and now both made creaking sounds as the wheels rotated. This was just more than a tad concerning.
Cycling the next morning was tough as the wheels were clearly rubbing on the brake discs. 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 sort 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 appear 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. My maps app had told me the incline would be even and gradual, but it clearly had no information on which to base itself. At times my road didn’t exist on either GoogleMaps or Maps.Me, which I mainly use. It would be gruelling enough at the best of times, but with a munted rear brake it was just beyond debilitating as my progress laboured along at about 5km/h. La Paz was still nearly 70km away, and I was wondering how long this was gonna take. I decided I was done, and I was ready to sack this off. Problem was, in 6 hours on the remote road that day, I’d only seen one car going in my direction and that was a few hours ago. How long until the next one?
As luck would have it, the second car of the day soon materialised behind me. A clapped-out old Toyota sedan, but with a roof rack. I explained the situation to the two guys 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 out of it where I found some cheap digs for the night. We also eventually left the gravel behind and got on to smooth tarmac, and the next morning I finally managed to heave myself along the final 20km up to central La Paz where I ditched the bike at a bike shop who are in the process of giving it a complete service.
I’ve also been forced to admit that I’m feeling a little beat by the last two months. The north of Argentina was tough, but my insistence on off-the-beaten-track routes through the Bolivian Andes has really taken its toll on my body. So I’m now off the bike for quite a few days, and heading on a “side-excursion” (without the bike) today. Although Brazil is the country most famous for the Amazon, a decent stretch of the world’s largest and most famous jungle does cross the border into Bolivia as well. I’m heading off first in a small plane and then a 3-hour river ride for a 3-day excursion based out of an eco-lodge in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, plus will have another couple of days chilling back in La Paz on my return. Hopefully my body will appreciate the rest and time off. Given some of the roads you see in the photos in this post, I’m just beat from cycling for a while.