Sorata Singletrack: A Short and Steep Detour

10/27/2017.

Copacabana, Bolivia.

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One last look at the sweet, albeit touristy, lakeside town of Copacabana. After a couple of nights in town surrounded by gringos and griguettes, I craved pushing onward to the gems of Bolivia’s natural world. Next stop: Sorata. Only a day’s ride to the East, it was rumored to be a sweet little mountain town at the base of an enormous valley with the towering Cordillera Real peaks looming overhead. The big pull, for me at least, was that it’s considered one of South America’s downhill meccas for mountain biking. Every year an avalanche style race is held here, the Jacha Avalancha. I was a few weeks early for the race but intended to find the course and give it a whirl… 

Some mornings I swing my leg over the saddle and realize there just not a lot of fuel in the tank. It’s almost the kind of lethargy I attribute to getting sick, but not. It’s as if my “get up and go” has got up, and left (yes, a ref to the 1980’s public service announcement promoting cheese consumption). Crawling up the steep streets of Copacabana toward the Eastern road revealed today would be one of those days. Days like these require a deeper dig into the wells of motivation, as if cajoling to action the small childlike spirit inside that’s glued to the proverbial couch with arms folded saying, “I just don’t feel like doing anything, leave me alone!”. It’s funny how despite this the option to just “take a rest day” rarely occurs to me. It’s more a process of assessing the internal resistance levels and addressing them accordingly. So is that denial of some part of me needing attention? Would it be better to just assume that lethargy has entered my being for a reason and should be heeded? Somehow giving in to the lethargy has always felt like a defeat, and triggers a whole historic recognition of the various times in my life when I chose inaction over action, that I could have accomplished so much more if I’d found a way to overcome it sooner. That tension forces a reaction and I push onward, both hoping to forge better patterns, but also fleeing from this internal melee for yet another day. 

The day’s ride from Copacabana to Sorata was not as easy as I’d hoped. It would start with an 1800’ climb, which by Andean standards is child’s play but by today’s energy levels was a mammoth. Part of the way up the ascent while feeling my body awkwardly pumping forward and backward in the saddle to account for the lack of juice in the legs, I heard a truck creep up from behind. It passed by in slow motion, first the driver waving and giving a thumbs up through his passenger window as it streaked across my visual field. I recalled the stories of various cycling friends who’d described grabbing onto the back of large slow trucks on prolonged climbs in order to get pulled up to the crest. “But what if I lost control and got sucked under the wheel and crushed?” I thought. The fear of getting crushed and the prospective shame of “cheating” by receiving help up a climb had thus far precluded that choice. Until today. 

As I watched that long truck creep past me, only 5-8kph faster than I was climbing, I realized how easy it would be to just grab the corner of the rear bumper… So I did. It felt naughty. And perhaps sneaky, like I was stealing from the driver. Until I caught the his eye through his passenger side mirror, a big smile across his face. He’d actually slowed down alongside me to offer this very aid, and was happy I’d accepted! Having never hung off of a truck up a hill before, it was a little scary. It’s an awkward position to hold for very long: one hand hanging onto a small metal edge of the truck, feeling the weight of me+bike as my fingers fatigued. The other hand tries to stabilize the bike in a straight line and keep the tire from getting pulled in and under the truck. After a few minutes I learned to keep my left arm straight as bending the elbow tired out my biceps. I leaned the bike a little bit out to the right to ease the fear of getting crushed. I found a body position I could hold for a while up the long and steady ascent, but my fingers were wearing out. Luckily the crest appeared around a few more bends and I could release my grasp, waving with the truck driver with appreciation as he faded into the distance. One part of me felt a little defeated to have “cheated” a climb. Another part loved having a new and exciting adventure. Ah the complexities of awareness. 

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There are two very differently oriented parts inside of me that live at extreme odds with one another. One craves rest and calm. The peace of spending my time lounging on a cliff’s edge, watching the river of life flow by below me. It doesn’t need to “do” anything and has no major aspirations. It doesn’t need to be impressive or amazing. It just wants to feel the subtleties of sensation which are only available during stillness. The other part craves the sensation of pushing my body and spirit to their edges. Perhaps it’s descriptor is “zest”, or some similar term. It’s the part that feeds on riding from dawn until dusk, choosing that tiny trail off of the two track off of the dirt road, just to see if it leads to something amazing. It is the spirit of adventure, exploration and explosive energy. Over the course of this journey I have spent time with both parts, but tend to side with the second over the first during internal disputes. I’ve repeatedly chosen to drag the “lazy” part along, hoping it will become convinced that another day of pushing is a good thing. But once in a while the lust for stillness wins, even just for a moment, and I lay the bike down in the middle of some grassy overgrown road, lay down next to it, and stare at the sky. 

Retracing my route over dirt path to pass through the familiar market town of Achacachi, I remembered riding fast through this valley a few days prior to get to the customs office legally. Now there was no rush. Despite having another 50 miles to go and unknown climbing I played to rest, and watched the clouds pass for an hour or so. A moment arrived when that part craving rest almost said, “Thank you. I’m good now. We can continue.” And so I did. 

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After a delicious fried chicken plate in Achacachi, I continued on for the final 55km ride over a high pass to descend into Sorata by dark. Atop the pass I noticed on my map a small trail that descended into Sorata paralleling the main road. But was it a bikeable trail, or a hiking trail? With no data available and only about 2 hours of light left in the day, I made the obvious choice: go for it.

NOTE: The photo above and below were taken two days later after leaving Sorata, hence the bright daylight shots during description of evening. I was just too tired to photograph anything that day.

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A small faded dirt track lead uphill from the road to a fantastic viewpoint from which I could see Illampu, the fourth highest peak in Bolivia, towering above the valley before me. From there a small but distinct trail descended East toward Sorata. I followed it for a few kilometers as it cut through boggy drainages and traversed steep loose rocky slopes. But then it seemed to disappear. Hmm… it’s getting dark, and I don’t know exactly how hard this trail will get, and Sorata seems to be quite a ways further down the mountainside. Time to cut my losses and head back out to the road. I bushwhacked across the valley for another 30-40 minutes in search of any trail to the road. I never found that, but did eventually find the road and descended to town. A quick roll through the central square revealed a cheap hotel room with internet access I needed to contact Angel, a mountain biker who lives in Sorata.

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It’s a sweet and not-very-touristy little mountain town. Kids playing in the square, vendors of meal, vegetables and basic housewares sold their wares atop tarps and under umbrellas from the piercing sun. I wandered to the small municipal market to purchase a simple breakfast, enjoying some eggs and alpaca steaks. Nummmmmm. 

Passing back through the square I was captivated by the body shapes and clothing styles of many Bolivian women. Often referred to as “cholitas”, despite their beautiful fringed skirts and lacy shawls, these powerful women are rumored to wear the pants in the family maintaining a long history of empowered indigenous women. More to come on that subject as I hope to attend an event of “fighting cholitas”, akin to the “lucha libre” wrestling matches of Mexico, but a much older and richer tradition. 

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By luck I was able to quickly contact Angel, a Sorata local and badass downhill rider who hosts the yearly Jacha Avalancha race. He was needing to place route markers on one of the trails to prepare for the upcoming event and offered to bring me along for a ride. We loaded up his enormous hand-welded rack onto his old Land Cruiser and mounted his fancy downhill bike, my enormous rigid touring rig, and a handful of tattered bikes owned by a variety of local kids who’d be joining us for the trail work. Looking at their bikes, most of which would get passed by at a rural flea market back in the USA, I wondered how steep or technical this route could possibly be, noting that half the bikes had somewhat faulty brakes and frozen suspension…

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Winding up a nearly 5000’ ascent of old windy dirt tracks, we reached a grassy knoll over which we’d begin the route. 

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Angel led the pack, barreling down the super steep mountainside, launching off of any lip or drop in sight. I took a slightly more conservative approach. Zero suspension and only moderate downhilling skills lead me to injury avoidance in situations such as these. I still had a great time. 

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The local kids followed tightly behind, digging holes for trail flags now and again. I was amazed at how adept they were on the terrain given the condition of their bikes. But you gotta work with what you’ve got, and that’s exactly what they did, artfully so. 

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The following morning I shuttled back up to that same trail I’d found atop the pass into Sorata. Angel told me it was another stage of the Avalancha race and shared some tips for how to avoid losing the trail where I had the other day. Now with unloaded bike and plenty of daylight I could discover the route with ample time on my hands. 

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At first gently traversing across open grassy plains, eclipsed by the gargantuan Cordillera Real to the South. 

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At times the trail was loose, sandy, rutted, and perched over the edges of enormous cliffs as it steeply descended a ridgeline. Ego did not dominate this endeavor as I certainly got off to walk sections that were beyond my skills. No shame in knowing your limits. 

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 Pretty amazing trail all in all! 

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Returning to Sorata for my final night in town, I was surprised to see a huge visual installation occupying a large part of the main square. It was a glorified book tour for a very important book about Bolivia’s political history and cultural heritage. Really impressive to see the amount of local interest and attendance to the event. 

The following morning I packed up the bike and began the long slow climb out of the Sorata valley, another long day’s ride to reach the capital city of La Paz. 

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Approaching a small town about 25km from the city, I caught up to two other bike tourists, the first I’d seen since Cusco. We decided to share a fried chicken meal and ride into town together that afternoon. 

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Downtown La Paz sits at the base of a nearly 2000’ deep bowl off the edge of the Central Bolivian Altiplano. The relatively level blocks immediately drop off of a cliffside into the city center via steep windy streets. 

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We happened to enter on a side street along a parade route… during the parade. Our own personal entourage! 

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We respectfully wiggled past spinning dancers, drummers and horn players as we eventually reached downtown. The guys were set to go to a specific hostel in town, and I had already made plans to stay at a famous casa de ciclista in another part of the city. We bid farewell and I made my way to the Casa de Cristian. 

But that… is another story….

2 Responses

  1. Mom
    | Reply

    No shame in knowing your limits.
    Amazing that you know what they are.
    So proud…
    Glad I am only just learning about the truck tag, though!

  2. Diane Timmons
    | Reply

    Hey Scott,

    Don’t know how this one slipped past me!?! Wow, what an elevation/grade profile!!
    So priviledged to know a real life badass bikepacker extrordinaire 🚴🏻👍💫

    Journey mercies and blessings!🙏🚲💐

    Diane

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