A Yaw into the Yungas: Inca Trails and Endless Climbs

 11/08/16

La Paz, Bolivia.

 

After a full week of city living in Bolivia’s dense capital, it was time to get back on the bike. My plan: ride a big loop down into the famously beautiful Yungas mountains and valley to the East, then cut back through La Paz toward the big volcanoes, vast salt flats, and high alpine deserts of Southwest Bolivia. I’d be straying from a Yungas route created by Cass Gilbert to add exploring an ancient Inca Trail called the Camino Takesi, then looping back up to ride the famed “Death Road” to link back onto Cass’ route. Lots of climbing and descending in lower altitude, meaning it’s about to get hot up in here! 

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The loss of my Garmin gps and bike computer during a shuttle ride in Sorata had forced me to seek out a cheap Android phone which would have to do the trick for mapping and tracking. It was quite an endeavor to weave through the dense side-streets of “cell phone alley”, where the highest density of cell phone dealers could be found and bargaining back and forth between them would be required. I am not much of a haggler so this process was pretty draining!

Now the LONG process of installing all the mapping apps, offline map data, and gpx files. Fiddling with electronics: such a fulfilling way to spend a day… especially with painfully slow download speeds all over La Paz. I finally loaded the new phone up with 5 mapping apps and all the maps I’d need, ready to roll!

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Locked and loaded, I rolled down the steep urban streets to the East. I’d have to cross the bottom of the city’s huge valley and climb out the other side, so stopped off at a park to listen to an Andean folkloric band rehearse while I inhaled a cool ice cream in the late morning heat. 

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A few hours of steep climbing later, I reached the small village of Ventilla, from which I’d start my first rugged section of the Yungas route: The Takesi Trail. A famous Incan trail frequented most now by guided hiking groups, I’d been told it was moderately bikeable. Good enough for me! Having forgotten to stock up on food and supplies in the various urban supermarkets, I foraged in Ventilla’s 2 tiny closet-sized shops for the next 2-3 days of food. Oatmeal, stale bread, sausages, cheese, crackers, and sardines. Nothing but the finest. 

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The “trail” started as a wide road climbing up toward enormous peaks in the distance.  At the end of the road a wide stone-laden trail curved up at steep grade. With no clear sign of flat ground ahead and the evening light approaching, I camped a bit early in an old animal pasture enclosed by 6’ rock walls. Perfect wind protection, especially as the evening breeze began to mount. 

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 Early the next morning, I pried myself out of the tent to stare up the steep mountainside. It wasn’t going to climb itself. Despite my fatigued legs’ cries for rest, I loaded up the bike and began riding/pushing up the steep rocky Inca trail.

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Sometimes it was like easy cobblestone riding, with the odd steep staircase to break up the monotony.

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Most of the time is was loose rocks and slippery gravel, but all worth it when I reached the top of Abra Apacheta.

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Descending from the pass, the trail was wide and smooth. Generally totally rideable until I’d reach regular deep ditches across the stonework designed to keep water flowing off of the trail. It was a bouncy good time.

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Fog rolled in by mid day, keeping the exposed trail cool and refreshing. Many, many more stairs followed.  

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An hour or two into the slow descent, I crossed the small farming town of Takesi. Rolling past sweet stone abodes, I was greeted with warm smiles by locals who seemed surprised to see a bike on the route. I imagine it’s not all that common…

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Here’s why. 

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Steep, rocky with slippery sand on top to add to the treachery, I rode what I could, walked what I couldn’t. Really, really wishing I had some suspension on this bike right now.

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Eventually the trail smoothed out onto some fast, flowy single track… for about 1km!

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A short section of trail laid on top of a water canal system and I landed in Yanacachi, the end of the Takesi Trail. A $4 hotel room was delicious after this extensive jarring jaunt.

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 The next day I started back up a long climb in order to gain the Death Road, a famous old transit road into the Yungas long-since replaced with a paved highway. Now it’s used almost entirely as a “downhill” bike route by local tour companies. All over La Paz one can see advertisements for riding the Death Road, for a pretty penny. I figured I’d see what all the hubbub was about…

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Legs well warmed up from a nearly 5000’ climb back up to the Death Road, I began descent #2.  

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 Pretty deadly looking, eh? 

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As far as I can guess, the Death Road is named less for how technical or rough the road is, but for how many people’s lives have been lost to the shear cliffs just over the edge of the narrow, unrailed road. So good advice might be to mind your speed and enjoy the ride. The views were stunning nonetheless. 

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 A narrow road bisects a sheer cliff of lush greenery. Hats off to the road builders here. They had their work cut out for them. 

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7000’ of descending later, I reached the valley floor and cleaned up in a small stream. I was greeted by a small family washing their clothes a little ways upstream from where I was dong the same, then moved on to Coroico. A sweet mountain town, Coroico had the classic Latin American central square (plaza central) with steep streets climbing and dropping from it in every direction. A short conversation with some locals led me to the cheapest hospedaje in town. After stowing the bike, I dropped down to the plaza for a cheap fried chicken meal and climbed up and into my bed. 

The next day was filled with ups and downs. Literally. Endless steep climbs followed immediately by loose-gravel, windy descents to cross some river only to climb back up to another pass. It was sufficiently exhausting in boiling heat that no motivation remained to unsheathe my camera from its case for nearly 2 days of riding!

On day one I passed through the tiny towns of Arapata, Coripata, Huancane and eventually a dirt cheap (stress the dirt!) room in Chulumani. Around mid-day, I rolled around a corner after a small creek crossing to find a crew of road workers, resting in the shade by the roadside. They kindly offered me a pinch of coca leaves (EVERYONE chews coca leaves around here. For clarity, coca is not cocaine. The leaves do contain a moderate stimulant akin to a cup of coffee and are said to help with managing altitude climatization for many people). I sat with them for a moment, and once communicating my country of origin was promptly asked what I thought about “President Trump.”

Huh? 

When I was last online 2 days ago, Hilary was slated to be the obvious winner. Those Access Hollywood tapes had just been released and nobody thought Trump had a chance. But now on November 9th, I was given the news by a road crew in rural Bolivia that indeed Donald Trump was my new president. I thought surely they were joking. I was mortified. Embarrassed. Ashamed. How could this happen? The men and women working the crew seemed more entertained by the news than particularly concerned. It didn’t really effect them either way, they explained. Presidents come and go, and their lives will continue the same as they always have out here. Very interesting… I rolled on filled with fear, confusion and curiosity about what the next four years will bring, and whether I will choose to return to the US to experience it, or remain down South in relative ignorance. It would be so easy to just avoid things up there. But so irresponsible feeling. I needed time to process all this, and luckily time is exactly what I am rich in right now. 

The following morning I rolled out of Chullumani, back up, down and up again to reach the small town of Chicaloma for lunch. I was struck by the sudden high density of melatonin in collective dermatology here. Evidently this town maintained a high density of ex-slaves from the African diaspora, and the communities have remained tight here over generations since. Interesting to note how different I felt being a random visitor in a town where my skin color drew even more attention to me than the bike, my height or my obviously non-Bolivian nationality. Having spent most of my South American travels in the mountains I did not realize how under-represented the populations of blacks are up high. Most are located by the coastal towns and cities, places I’ve not spent much time in due to my love of the big mountains. That said, I felt as welcome by the locals here as anywhere. 

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By evening I decided to take my rest in the small mountain town of Irupana. I could have travelled another couple of hours but a close look at the upcoming topography revealed a huge descent to my lowest elevation of this loop, and I knew the heat would be unbearable. I again scouted for the cheapest lodging in town, but was surprised to find the prices more than double what I’d been normally finding around here. A room here would cost me about $12USD, and that was out of my budget. I asked a woman at an open storefront a few blocks off of the plaza, who said she just closed her small alojamiento as it was too much work for her to maintain. But after sharing some inspired conversation she decided to make an exception and open her doors to me, for a great price. After dropping my stuff and taking a quick cold shower, we sat and chatted for a couple more hours. She shared about her children who live in La Paz and took her to see Ricky Martin at a huge arena in the city. I loved the idea of this sweet older woman rocking out with her kids in a standing room only concert! But the kicker was the photo she brought out of her skydiving into town during an annual local skydiving festival. She had housed some of the professional divers and was invited for a free dive. People are just amazing. You never know what stories they hold within… 

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Evidently the local culinary speciality in the Yungas is the jawita. Kind of like an empanada, the jawita is a deep fried dough with tons of cheese in the middle. Sooooooooooo good. 

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 I bought a handful of them for the following day’s ride, and they lasted only an hour due to repetitive cravings for these delicious treats.

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The long descent into the depth of the Yungas valley involved fantastic views and screaming loose turns. So so so fun. 

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Unfortunately reaching the river floor I realized my fears of overheating were well founded. It was boiling and humid. The road which was slated to climb out of the river valley was far from a steady climb. Punchy steep ascents directed me over steep cliffsides only to drop me back down to the river floor various times. The stagnant air was as relentless as the burning rays of direct sunlight, only mitigated by the warm breeze from those short, fast descents back to the valley floor. 

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 By early evening, the climb committed to gaining elevation, and maintaining a frustratingly steep grade. But the views… pretty amazing. As the golden rays turned magenta I feared I would not find a flat spot to camp. The road was cut sharply into a very steep hillside, climbing above and dropping off below. Finally I rounded a corner and saw to my right an abandoned house. To my left, an old horse pasture, just far enough off the road to create a perfect stealth campsite for the night. I love when things just work out right in the nick of time. 

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 Last day on this little detour, just need to finish the 11,500’ climb I started yesterday from the valley floor up to the high point at 15,000′. So nice to feel the temperatures drop as my altitude gained! 

 

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Looking way up the mountainside to see a tiny town I’d be passing through eventually. If you squint, you can see it up at the top of the photo! 

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 From my final campsite, looking up at a peak-a-boo view of Mt. Illimani, second tallest in Bolivia at over 21,000’! 

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Peculiar to one climate level at around 12,000’, I saw all these cacti. Closer investigation of each one revealed that each button-shaped plant that was about 1-2 feet across was full of miniature cacti!

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Getting higher!

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… And higher…

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Final climb up to the high point…. it’s been a grind!

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Cresting the final hill before descending down into lower La Paz I looked up to see these enormous basalt cliffs towering over the highway, the sun backlighting their fabulousness. 

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Seemingly moments later I was back in the urban sprawl of La Paz. I returned to the casa ciclista for one last night to rest and prepare for the continued push South… this time toward the tallest peak in Bolivia, Volcan Sajama… But that’ll have to wait until the next installment!


 

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