Outside Books, Chapter: "The Andes," Pages 184-193
A ride that begins on a scree slope at 18,000 feet can end in machete jungle bashing; velvety smooth llama pastures tumble into Inca staircases.
As my friend Aaron Teasdale tells it, “Alistair and I had taken the old jeep as far up as the Andes would allow, to around 14,000 feet, but the pass we sought was still a good hike higher. As we stepped out of the battered Land Cruiser, two young boys jumped down from the rear bumper and offered to porter our gear. They’d leapt on a few miles back as the jeep passed their village; the famed Taquesi Trail starts here and they were used to trekkers passing through en route. Except we weren’t trekkers. We had come to ride.
“An hour of bike-on-back hiking -- well ok, so I paid the little urchins $2 to carry mine -- and we crested a rocky, sun-blasted saddle. The nether opened to a great valley framed by sharp ridges that spilled off frozen peaks and sank into the labyrinthine blue depths of misty cloud forest ravines and, in the distance, the soft white cloud cover of the Amazon. Tumbling through it all was an ancient trail -- and nearly 10,000 feet below, at ride’s end, a rickety wooden bridge spanning a rush of white water awaited our arrival.”
This is Bolivia, the undiscovered mountain bike paradise of the Americas. La Paz-based New Zealander Alistair Matthew had been Aaron’s guide for several weeks of passes and peaks, first descents and some of the biggest, wildest downhills on earth. His favourite was the granddaddy kingpin of Bolivian downhills, the Taquesi Trail. One of a mind-boggling network of Inca, or pre-Inca, trails that web Bolivia’s mountains, it cuts up and across a 15,200-foot pass before plunging through cleavered cloud forest valleys for more than 9,000 ferociously technical feet in less than 17 miles. No, that’s not a typo. A 9,000-plus foot descent down an Inca trail. On a bike. Bring your camera.
The highest and most isolated country in South America, Bolivia was called “The Himalaya of the New World” by European explorers. It has approximately 1,000 peaks higher than 16,000 feet. Many of these plummet almost directly into the Amazon Basin via lush, jaw-droppingly steep canyons and valleys. One of the poorest and least developed nations in the world, Bolivia has foot and llama paths older than history lacing through it. Some regions have yet to be accurately mapped, much less mountain biked. For die-hard adventure riders, this is the promised land.
The first thing you notice upon arriving at the La Paz, Bolivia, airport is the wall of spectacular ice-capped peaks in the distance. The second thing you notice is the distinct lack of oxygen in the air. Perched at 13,000 feet, the La Paz International airport is, by far, the world’s highest, and La Paz itself, a thousand feet below, is the world's highest capital. Set in a sprawling badland canyon against a backdrop of glaciated alps, it’s also one of the planet’s most spectacular cities. The great Andean spine dominating views to the north and east is the Cordillera Real. Riddled with Inca trails and 20,000-foot summits, it’s the most readily accessible chunk of Andes from La Paz -- several 10,000-foot descents start only a short drive from the city. A day in a jeep can bring you to any number of other far-flung, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style riding stashes.
Long known more for its turbulent past -- 188 coups in 157 years; yup, that’s a record -- and robust cocaine output, Bolivia has settled into a relatively stable democracy as of late. While La Paz sports skyscrapers, vegetarian restaurants, and the occasional Mercedes, the rest of Bolivia operates on a much lower frequency. It is now considered one of the safest countries in Latin America for travellers. The Bolivian people are, on the whole, sweet, quick to smile, and supremely laid back. This is good, unless you happen to be in a hurry. Bolivians are never in hurry. In fact they seem to live their lives completely independent of bothersome notions like time. Which is great if you are a hard-driving yuppie stockbroker burnout looking for a new way of life, but frustrating as hell if you are trying to get anything done. The only solution is not to be in a hurry.
There’s little money or development here, which means travel, food and lodging are typically very cheap. Dirtbags will have no problem getting by on $10-$20 a day. Quality standards vary, and travellers to Bolivia should brace themselves for this. Bolivia is not Colorado. Accommodations are simple. People speak Spanish, if you’re lucky. In the countryside they often speak Aymara and Quechua, ancient languages of the Inca and pre-Inca civilisations. Indeed, the culture here may be the most intact, that is, the least Westernized, of any South American nation. This alone is a good reason to visit.
Hell, the Taquesi Trail alone is good reason to visit. Says Aaron, “From the pass, Alistair and I shot down mile after mile of off-the-back-of-the-seat steep, zigzagging, stone paths and steps. The valley walls grew higher and higher, until we came to the village of Taquesi. Llamas grazed and a family tending a patch of potatoes tried not to stare as we passed.” Little more than a small cluster of stone and thatch huts, life there has changed little since its ancestors built this trail.
The Incas ruled here 500 years ago, but archaeologists agree that many of the trails in Bolivia predate their empire. Little is known about these early civilisations, but it’s clear the Incas learned much more from them; the stone paving in Bolivia bears much similarity to the great Inca trails of Peru in both construction and grandeur. But in Bolivia, wild ungoverned Bolivia, you can ride them.
When Aaron plunged down the Taquesi’s twisted path, his guide suffered a total front-disk meltdown. “Well this is going to be interesting,” Alistair said, and had to ride the lower half with only a rear brake. The air turned liquid, trailside grew into cloud forest, and the paved path transformed into thin dirt seam overhanging the jungled depths below. Says Aaron, “And we rode and rode, picking and jabbing forever downward until muscles I didn’t know I had screamed for mercy and blisters broke out on my fingers.
“After crossing the river at trail’s end and riding the last stretch of dirt road to our jeep -- twilight air turning a cool misty blue, jungle spilling and arching over our heads -- fireflies sparked along the greenery like dancing beacons. Above, back from where we’d come, a snow-mantled peak emerged through dark blue clouds and night’s eager stars began pricking the sky. Though we were utterly and completely shattered, all thoughts of ‘must…reach…jeep’ were lost in the pure perfection of the moment.
“Waking up the next morning in a $2 room in the village of Yanacachi, a breeze blowing the songs of birds and frogs through the open window above my bed, I looked out across towering green valley walls and smiled as my mind flashed back on the previous day. Damn if I hadn’t just ridden the best downhill on the planet. And I had the blisters on my fingers to prove it.”
What to expect
Bolivia sits dead centre on the South American continent, landlocked and bordered by Peru, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. American Airlines offers the best air service to La Paz, with daily flights from Miami. There are no national tourist organisations to speak of.
This is frontier-style, high-adventure riding at its finest. Be self-sufficient. You will not be rescued. Be fit. These rides demand it. A good strategy is to spend a week chilling in La Paz upon arrival, as your body needs time to adjust to the (lack of) oxygen. Altitude is a serious factor in riding here. Work your way up to the higher rides slowly. Once you’ve gotten your lungs, do some warm up rides from La Paz. There’s plenty of technical slum riding, or check out the singletrack to Muela del Diablo (the Devil’s Molar) just outside of town.
Consider packing lightweight body armour. Rides here are often obscenely technical and witch doctors are the norm in the remote areas. The best strategy is to avoid serious injury.
Be prepared for surprise intestinal guests. Wild stints of volcanic expulsions are the norm in Bolivia, where hygiene is a trend that hasn’t quite caught on and the bacteria live free. Every traveller here gets sick at least once, but it typically lasts only a day or two.
It can be hard to find basic items in Bolivia. For example, if you lose your fleece, destroy your headset, and snap your Oakleys, all in the first three days of arriving, you are up a certain well-known creek. If, on the other hand, you need llama foetuses, coca leaves, or Panoasonic (sic) radios, simply head to the chaotic street markets. In other words: bring all your own gear, for bike and body.
Outside of coca, mining has traditionally been Bolivia’s economic backbone. While much of Bolivia’s mineral wealth has now been tapped, mining’s legacy to mountain bikers remains in the form of a vast network of remote mining roads. They can provide a welcome respite from the oft brutal trails, and can be excellent rides in their own rights. They also open the door to the possibility of serious back-country, high-mountain touring.
The rainy season lasts from November to March, give or take a few weeks, when daily downpours are the norm. The cool sunny days that are prevalent the rest of the year are ideal for riding. It gets cold and windy in the high mountains and muggy in the cloud and rain forest year round.
In La Paz cheap, clean, hostel-style lodging can be found at El Carretero. Also recommended are the Happy Days Hostel and Hostel Naira, which are comfortable and centrally located. For truly posh digs head to El Rey Palace, where both your mind and your wallet will forget you’re in the Third World.
As for the trails, like Bolivia itself they are rugged and incredibly varied. A ride may begin on a scree slope at 18,000 feet and end in machete-required jungle bashing; velvety smooth llama pastures may tumble into rocky Inca staircases. Shouldering the bike and hiking is an ever-present possibility. As these ancient byways are still primary routes for many rural Bolivians, nearly every village, canyon, and many high mountain passes are interconnected. User conflicts are not an issue -- just let the damn alpacas by. And watch out for llama dung. When fresh and stepped in it has incredible cement-like properties and will take a very, very long time to clean out your SPDs.
A good welcome-to-Bolivia ride is the La Paz-to-Coroico road. Don’t let the “road” part fool you. It’s a ragged, serpentine chute of mud and dust that rockets down 11,000 feet in 49 miles, from a frozen, desolate pass through cloud and cloud forest and waterfalls that land mid-road, into muggy tangles of jungle that spill over the roadside like groping green tentacles. Call it road biking, Bolivian style. Tagged the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” by the Inter-American Bank, it features 10-foot widths, sheer 1,000-foot drops, and a multitude of small white crosses to remind drivers of the motorcycles, jeeps, and buses full of people that routinely pitch off its precipices. In short, it’s a bitch to drive, but a rip-roaring hoot of a ride.
The downright pitiful ski area on 17,695-foot Mount Chacaltaya (just outside La Paz) is technically the highest in the world. If it’s worth skiing, it’s only for that reason. A better bet is to hike from the “lodge” to the summit with your bike and shoot the massive scree slope on the eastern flank of the mountain. There’s an old mining road below that is a virtual BMX course of banked turns and perfectly sloped airs that contours snow-fringed lakes and towering cliff faces on its way back to La Paz. The many trails down the canyon walls into the city can be steep and thrilling.
The quiet, idyllic village of Sorata, a half-day’s drive from La Paz, is nestled in palm trees at the base of an ice-covered 21,000-foot massif. It’s the kind of place a writer could spend his or her later days taking walks and filling notebooks. It’s also the kind of place a mountain biker could go absolutely nuts bombing singletrack down the surrounding mountainsides. There are many riding option here and the setting is as fine as any in Bolivia.
The trail from Lago Tuni to the Zongo Valley is one of Bolivia’s best. A challenging hike over a 16,500-foot pass is rewarded with dramatic views of the surrounding peaks and a never-ending singletrack decent through a gaping maw of a valley beset by icy, plaque-encrusted, black granite canines. It ends many hours later deep in cloud forest.
The Taquesi Trail is the ride you’d do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow and you could choose any trail on earth. Take the steepest, rockiest trail you’ve ever ridden, combine it with the tightest, most exposed trail you’ve ridden. Throw in the ghosts of an ancient civilisation and the biggest, most savagely beautiful landscape imaginable. Shake, stir, and descend for 10 straight hours. That’s the Taquesi.
NOTE: The Taquesi trail is currently closed to mountain bikers during discussions with park officials about access rules.
Outfitters and Bike Shops
Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, Alistair Matthew’s guiding outfit, is the only choice for the hardcore biker. No one knows Bolivia’s network of foot trails and Incan and pre-Incan pathways better. Probably because no one else is riding them. He has a fully supported, 13-day trip that covers the rides mentioned above and a variety of ripping 1-day trips down the World’s Most Dangerous Road, Chacaltaya, etc. Customized expeditions, including mellower jeep-road tours, are also an option.
Colorado-based KE Adventure Travel runs a 19-day, fully supported tour every summer. Largely focused on jeep and mining roads, it covers and incredible variety of terrain from the high mountains to the deep jungle.