01 February 2000
"Mountain biking in South America - are you guys completely nuts?" Almost certainly, but over the years we've often contemplated the possibility of a few Latin American epics. A randomly spotted article about riding in Peru defended our sanity and catapulted us into planning a trip. The wonders of e.world allowed us to quickly make two virtual friends - Julio in Huaraz, Peru and Alistair in La Paz, Bolivia. Both locations sounded amazing, and in the absence of any additional intelligence we settled on a couple of weeks in each. Pete Braggins was roped in to make it a cosy threesome; we all managed to absent ourselves from work over May and soon found ourselves clocking up air points en route to Peru.
Both we, and more surprisingly our bikes, arrived intact in Lima. A day was spent in recovery before catching the bus to Huaraz. A non-stop, eight hour trip on a pseudo-swank Volvo-type conveyance that featured on-board lunch, toilets (the trip is truly non-stop), sub-titled action videos and a hilarious game of bingo... not a bad way to crash start one's Spanish. It transpired the winner had to karaoke the other passengers - fortunately luck wasn't with us that day!
The landscape north of Lima is like something out of Mad Max. The road is carved from giant sand dunes; industrial sites are surrounded by prison-like walls with guard towers on every corner (sobering reminders of the terror inflicted by the Shining Path over the late 80's and early 90's); and there are endless slums - home to several million campesinos searching for "prosperity" in the big city. Eventually we left the coast, zig zagged inland over the 4100m Conococha Pass and were greeted with spectacular views of the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash as we hooned towards Huaraz.
After rolling into town we hooked up with Julio. He is quite the dude - speaking great English (which is not something that can be said of our Spanish) and together with his six brothers forms the local tourist Mafia. Tito runs the family home as an invitation-only hostel, Mauro and Beto print and distribute T-shirts, and Lucho owns the trendy Aquelarre bar in town. Julio has the local trails well sussed and as local knowledge is the only source of information (no trail guides or accurate maps), we hastily engaged him as our guide. We set up camp in Olaza's Guest House and settled into our routine... breakfast created by Senora Olaza (scrambled eggs, avocado, papaya juice - yum), riding by a leisurely 9am and back by mid afternoon to blob out in the sun before cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Cruising the market for ingredients was a gas - there's a huge variety of organic fruit, vegetables, herbs ... and mystery delicacies like cuy (guinea pig) which we weren't so keen to experiment with.
Huaraz is one of those nauseating places that has you continually uttering senseless clichés about its grandeur. The city is nestled between the Cordillera Negra (a bunch of hills the height of New Zealand's Mount Cook) and the Cordillera Blanca - with its huge 5000-7000m peaks looming above the valley. It's a sizeable place with over 100,000 residents, Internet cafés and pizza parlours. And with the town itself at around 3000m, the lads weren't exactly sprinting up the hills in middle chain ring. But the mountain biking is extraordinary with more singletrack than is healthy for a bunch of excitable boys. The valley and foothills are littered with villages that are inter-connected with 4WD roads and walking tracks. So it's easy spinning up the roads (if you can believe hill climbing at 4-5000m is easy) with literally endless singletrack descents. The tracks are "direct", with multiple rock steps, drop-offs and sketchy surfaces - making the riding often very technical. Pigs, sheep, burros and snappy dogs add to the challenge of choosing the good line. The local farmers (campesinos) seem merely bemused by our antics.
Any ride into the Cordillera Blanca is mind blowing - but our highlight was a two day jaunt to the other side of the range. It all started painfully early with a chilly drive up the Quebrada Honda. The boys were rugged up on the back of a pick up, frost hanging off our imaginary moustaches while Julio and the driver kept the cab warm. We bumped and grinded our way up a steep track into this awesome valley guarded by sheer rock walls. The valley floor was a jigsaw of stone walls, mud huts and subsistence agriculture. We lamented not taking an extra day to ride this section. At the head of the valley we met up with our arriero (mule driver) and his two burros. Our bikes were strapped on board and we hiked up the pre-Inca trail to the Portachuelo de Honda (a 4750m pass). The burros made for a pleasant change from the usual epic-carry-mode and were great for novelty value. Dave took about a thousand photos and a lifetime of video. A quick snort of lunch before unleashing ourselves on the valley below - initially steep and committing singletrack, then easing to lumpy farm track. About halfway down we were ambushed by a drunken assembly of farmer types. Julio was able to decipher their ramblings - a slip had made the usual track unpassable so we discovered the "kiwi alternative". A derelict mining track etched high into the valley wall. Perilous drop offs and narrow track encouraged us not to look down. About five hours after leaving the pass we arrived in the quaint village of Chacas for the night. The lodgings were basic and the dining fulfilling - with huge helpings of traditional fare that even put a smile on hungry Pete's dial. We had to endure several mangy dogs lurking expectantly under the table - and they did reap the benefits of our poor etiquette.
The next morning found us crammed into a collectivo (mini van), winding up a narrow road out of the valley. A fit of enthusiasm overwhelmed the Peruvian government in the 1980's - where once there were only trekking routes there are now roads. This temporary route was just waiting for the next landslide. Julio seemed keen to drive the whole way but was eventually convinced to stop short of the saddle. We rode the final 45minutes to the Punta Olimpica - hard work at 5000m but we were rewarded with million dollar views of everything, including "Huascaran" which at 6768m claims to be the tallest hill around. An unimaginable section of zigzags cut down from the pass to the valley floor below. We lost count while being subjected to hours of bone shaking masochism... but reaped plenty of visual rewards including the sighting of two condors cruising the thermals. In total there was 51km and 2200m of continuous downhill back to the main valley... and this wonderful ice cream parlour that does two scoops for 1.50 soles. A fitting climax to a spectacular trip.
The two weeks ticked over pretty quickly but was long enough to get a taste for the area. And we felt properly acclimatised for Bolivia - where Alistair likes to warn tourists that his lounge is higher than Mt Cook. History has not been kind to Bolivia - first it was raped by the Spanish and then by its neighbours, leaving the country landlocked and with dwindling natural resources. In modern times it is mostly recognised for its cocaine production and propensity for military coups - chalking up a staggering 147 governments in 100 years. As we breezed through customs, we figured there was little illegal or immoral that a bunch of scruffy mountain bikers could add.
We were greeted at the airport by Alistair and Nicola... and their newly acquired old-style Toyota Land Cruiser - complete with its massive overhead roof rack and "Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking" signage. They earn their crust by taking tourists to the top of "The World's Most Dangerous Road", putting them on a mountain bike and hurling them down the other side. Alistair was keen to explore some new trails - as respite from the free-fall, guided excursions and so he could suss out some new rides for his business.
La Paz is touted as one of the world's most spectacular cities - nestled in a canyon below the bleak Altiplano with the snow covered Cordillera Real beyond. We used it as a base for completing two big loops out into the hinterland... and to catch up on pseudo western indulgences. After a night of pizzas, bike assembly and tall yarns we headed north on our first loop - nursing the overladen Land Cruiser past Lake Titikaka (the world's highest navigable lake at 3810m) and on to the quaint village of Sorata. Nicola was the official driver of the mother ship for the next few weeks as we lurched back and forth across the Andes. Anarchy rules the road in South America and a woman driver is considered an oddity - making road travel entertaining, especially Nicola's tongue-in-cheek interactions with officialdom at the numerous drug check points. Even the main roads in Bolivia are rough, so travel is inherently slow and uncomfortable. When we reached a high pass above Sorata we were eager to abandon the truck for the treadlies. The maps promised singletrack and we were not disappointed. After some superb riding we ambled into town and found our way to the Residencial Sorata - the hopelessly dilapidated but still rather grand former home of a nutty German family. The Germans had long since departed the scene leaving a French Canadian called Louis in charge. We leant on his encyclopedic knowledge of the local tracks and were amused by his eccentricity - highlighted by the sighting of a person-sized safe and an army surplus Geiger counter in his office.
The next day we followed Louis' directions and climbed 2000m on a shingle road up to a 4500m saddle. This connected with an old Spanish Trail - a rocky number that followed the contours for a few klicks before plummeting towards Sorata, losing altitude quicker than a Russian space station. Riding was exhilarating and on the edge. Further down we found ourselves among terraced fields and a maze of tracks. The locals helpfully yelled instructions across the valley, and we pretended to understand them with our hazy Spanish. We eventually figured the puzzle out and made it home okay.
Meanwhile Nicola had been frustrated trying to gas up the Land Cruiser. Sorata's only gas station was dry - the tanker was due two weeks earlier but still hadn't turned up. In true South American fashion we were assured it would be here "manana". It arrived eventually, in time for us to push on to our next destination - Lago Tuni. After a freezing night camping by the lake, we headed over a 5200m pass and down the Zongo Valley. Alistair had a hunch this old pre-Incan trail was rideable - and once again he was right on the money. Thin air and heavy breathing were rewarded with dramatic alpine vistas and 2600m of fabulous singletrack zigzagging down to the lush bush of the Zongo. Llamas cruised the high plateaus guarded by sheer granite walls, and mist swirled up from the rainforests to complete the exotic ambience. The fun lasted forever until we popped out onto the road to find Nicola and a hot brew waiting.
We concluded that Bolivia is a sort of heaven for civil engineers: scary roads and impossible hydro electric projects abound. It was a long and precarious haul by car out of the Zongo and back to La Paz the next day. Although we were happily distracted by the aqueducts perched impossibly high on steep cliffs feeding the power plants below. We jumped out at the base of Chacaltaya (the world's highest ski field) and struggled up to the road. The ski lodge at 5300m was a welcome sight as the icy cold blasts chilled us to the bone. The plan was to scale the ridge above the ski field and ride some old mining roads back to La Paz. But we wimped out - we had our inoculations for all sorts of weird tropical diseases, but not hypothermia! So we bombed back down the road and over the canyon rim into La Paz via some cool singletrack.
A day was spent in La Paz maintaining bikes, doing our laundry and playing tourists before heading east on our second loop. We road some fun singletrack before enduring an honest grunt up to Mina San Francisco. Pete and Dave were punished for being over enthusiastic - racing ahead only to miss the crucial turn-off. Nicola retrieved them as they neared the top of the wrong pass! Another freezing night in the tents before an early start over the mountains and down the Takesi Trail. This was another great trail built by the Incas - we're convinced they were closet mountain bikers. Although 500 years of weather has attacked their handy work, long stretches of this paved track with interlocking stones remain intact. We emerged from the trail that evening unable to wipe the grins off our grubby faces. The trusty Land Cruiser was there and carted us off to this amazing (but cheap) hotel called El Castilla (literally "The Castle"). This formerly grand residence was built with prison labour by some dodgy official back in the 50's. In its dilapidated state it was more like a cross between the Munsters and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We had a ball there, although Guy scored some extras with his meal that made him a sick boy, and the next day's ride more challenging than usual. This was Alistair's infamous Jungle Rail Trail. A crazy British engineer managed to convince the administration of the day to construct a railway from La Paz over the Andes and down to Coroico. The concept was clearly nuts but that wasn't obvious to those involved until they had almost completed the project - only the tracks remained to be laid before it was abandoned. The resultant benched track carved into 500m cliffs is nothing short of extraordinary and superb mountain biking. Alistair mischievously holstered a machete for this one - the jungle has swallowed much of the trail - so it's triffid fighting on some sections. We chiselled away until we reached the pass, fed our appetites and then coasted down to Coroico. We lounged by the hotel pool for the day, killing time until 5:30pm when the now one-way "World's Most Dangerous Road" was open for traffic returning to La Paz. As Alistair observed, "it's not really the road that is dangerous, it's more the drivers". It reminded me of mad Sunday at the Isle of Mann. We lined up with a host of other cars, mini buses, big buses, trucks and petrol tankers. The barrier was raised, engines raced and in a cloud of dust we were away. Chaos ensued but Nicola managed to get us back to La Paz safely in time to score some mandatory alpaca sweaters and catch our flight back to kiwi land - where you can drink the water, eat the lettuce and some people drive sensibly.
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