Lingering in La Paz: Cycle House, Comraderie and One Big Mountain

10/30/16.

La Paz, Bolivia.

It’s been many a month since I’ve been to a real city. At 2.3 million residents, La Paz would likely be quick to send me scurrying back to the mountains, but I had some items to replace that could only be found in a city. Descending into the density was certainly overwhelming, but change almost always is. Embrace the overwhelm, that was my motto…

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Quite impressive sprawl filling every available nook of space in this valley. Not much room for green space here.

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I arrived in late afternoon to La Paz’s casa de ciclistas, operated by a man named Cristian. I’d written ahead to alert him of my arrival and been given the address with explicit instructions not to invite any other cyclists without his express permission. It turns out that was the tip of the iceberg… 

Upon arrival I was greeted by another cyclist, Garth, who showed me up into the space. It was an old brownstone style building owned by Cristian’s family for many years. The official casa de ciclista was one apartment in the building. Similar to the casa outside of Quito, the walls were covered with names, dates, photos, drawings, insights, and wisdom. The casa has been here for many years and the history overflowed from every wall. When I arrived the house was pretty full. I shared floor space in one room with 4 other riders, and the 3 other rooms were equally full. It was lovely to meet cyclists from Argentina, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, the UK, all under one roof. I quickly formed a bond with these 3 Argentinians, super warm and gregarious. Within an hour of meeting we’d already made plans to visit some museums and they invited me to join them in ascending Huayna Potosi, a 20,000 mountaineering climb they were doing in 2 days. Great!

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The wall of fame was inspiring, especially when I saw the names of the few backpackers who’ve forged the routes ahead of me… First was Cass Gilbert of While Out Riding. 

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… Then Kurt from Bike Grease and Coffee. I’ve followed some of his crazy trail routes further North… 

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Of course Paul Griffiths, the founder of Alpamayo Designs, the only bikepacking bag company based in Peru. 

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My first day in town was a tour of the city in search of a replacement cell phone/GPS device (Mine popped off my bike in Sorata). I was struck by the density of development, the dirt and grime that encased every part of the city. Interesting to see the gondolas which were used to cross between particularly cliffy areas. 

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Bolivian folkloric band  practicing in a random park

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One important project that stood before me was to replace my cog and chainring, and dislodge my seatpost which had become lodged inside the seat tube. I found the biggest repair shop in La Paz, Gravity Bolivia. This is the same company that started all the bike tours down the famed Death Road, where large groups of cyclists are guided down a 7000’ descent on a winding dirt road atop steep and sheer cliffs. I’d not seen so many fancy full suspension mountain bikes in one place in a LONG time. 

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KIndly, the mechanics let me use their tools to fix what I could, then jumped in to help with dislodging my seatpost from the frame. Like King Arthur’s excalibur, no mere mortal seemed to be able to get that seatpost to budge. I was quite nervous that we’d crack the frame trying. Then one of the mechanics hatched a brilliant idea: he fastened a stem to the post, and tightened it down, then fed the steer tube of a spare fork through the other end of the stem. With much greater leverage now available, 2 of us stabilized the bike while two others steadily twisted the seatpost… and it worked! We managed to save the frame and not damage the post! 

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The following day the Argentinians and I visited the museum of musical instruments. I’m not generally a huge fan of museums, but this was a must see for me.

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Charangos made of turtle and armadillo shells.

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Oodles of Ocarinas. 

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Pan flutes made of hollowed out bird bones. 

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High Andean percussion. 

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An enormous selection of Quenas. While at the museum I got inspired by these, and got the contact information of a local quena teacher, since I’d been carrying my own since Cusco. I ended up taking a lesson with him a few days later, and learned some great tips for developing my skills. 

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 I don’t know what this instrument was called or how it sounded, but it looked really interesting. I only wish the museum had recordings accompanying the instruments so we could hear them sing!

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Enormous pan flutes. 

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You thought I was kidding?!?

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The experimental instrument section: Guitars, violins, and charangos built to be reversed so you could have two different tunings available just by flipping it over! 

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“Estrellita”, translated to Little Star. 5 different tunings in one curious instrument. Wow. 

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The Argentinians and I set off the following morning with our guide to climb Potosi. We rented gear from the company and managed to get a great group rate. This would be the highest I’d ever been on land in my life, nearly 20,000’!!!

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Small cemetery under the shadows of Potosi. 

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Of course, if there’s a trail dog, I’m gonna make friends and love it up. This lil’ fella followed me up the trail for about 2000’ to the refuge, cuddling up into my lap every time I sat down. 

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The milky glacial waters filtering down from above. 

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At least there was a quite a bit of glacier still there to behold! 

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This refuge at one time sat on a ridge high above the glacial flow. Sadly the glacier has receded so much in the last 15 years that one must hike up for nearly an hour to get to the glacier’s edge. Between ours and about 5 other guided groups the lot of us packed into this and another high refuge to hunker down and rest for a 2am alpine start. It would be nearly 4000’ of climbing from to the summit, mostly roped-in glacier travel, and we’d need to have summited and be descending by just after sunrise to avoid the dangers of crevasses shifting and spreading with the sun’s heat. 

We shared a big dinner then laid down at around 8pm to sleep for a few hours. Of course it was too early for me and I couldn’t fall asleep until nearly midnight. The wakeup alarm 90 minutes later was painful to say the least. I strapped on my extremely old and poorly fitted rental boots and began the ascent with the company of the Argentinians and our guide. It was slow going. The air was so thin that every step was exhausting. Within an hour my boots had rubbed the skin on both my shins raw, and I had nothing to treat it. I grimaced through the increasing pain and moaned my way to the top. 

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Sunrise from just below the summit!

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 Taking a moment at the top to feel what it is to be atop a 20,000’ peak. Then we turned around and worked our way back down. 

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Given the increased pressure against my shins in descending, the pain from these boots was becoming unbearable. Yet I had no options. I had to suffer through it. Made the fantastic views really difficult to fully enjoy, but at least they provided a strong distraction from the pain. 

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We made it back to Cristian’s house the following afternoon, exhausted and starving. A few big meals and cold beers did the trick, and I was up and running to prepare for my next adventure: A dirt loop of the Yungas valley to the East of La Paz… coming up next! 

2 Responses

  1. Diane Timmons
    | Reply

    What glorious beauty and inspiration!! So lovely to return from my cycling this morn and find this gem from ‘Spoke and Words’ Thank you!

  2. Box Canyon Mark
    | Reply

    Seriously impressed…nothing worse that bad boots on a long climb.
    mark

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