Out of the Bolivian Yungas and into the Cordillera
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
After plunging into the depths of the Bolivian Yungas, your brain likes to trick you into overlooking the relatively low altitude ups and downs of this area, while focusing in on the inevitable slog back to the thin air of the high mountains. But these Yungas roads have a way of telling you right away that just because you’re not at 16,000ft anymore doesn’t mean you’re getting away unscathed here. What the Yungas lacks in pure altitude, it easily makes up for in relentlessly steep, hot, and dusty roads that zig and zag across the rippled terrain. Make no mistake, the challenge here definitely stacks up with just about anything else in the area.
The climate also gives this region a distinctly different feel from the rest of the high Andes. There’s almost a tropical vibe going on (complete with bugs and giant spiders), and with booming coca leaf production, it is quite a popular place to live, which means the landscape is dotted with small villages and farms. Still, once you leave the semi-touristy town of Coroico, you are distinctly off of the tourist trail and onto what some locals jokingly referred to as “the road to Miami” — a reference to the portion of the coca leaves grown here that are inevitably used to produce cocaine.
The coca leaf is definitely a hot-button political issue here given that it is one of the major money makers for Bolivia, yet a large portion of the rest of the world wants it banned entirely. If you find yourself in the Yungas area and want to hear some fascinating stories, I highly recommend stopping by “The Country House” in Chulumani and chatting with the owner, Javier, who seems to have an endless supply of them. Fresh off of blasting through Narcos, I was particularly intrigued.
Following Cass Gilbert’s tire tracks from his trip a year ago, I started the long climb back to the high ground where the route runs into Rio La Paz. This area of the Andes is especially steep-sided, which can make it a bit tricky when it comes time to figure out where you’re going to pitch your tent for the night. Luckily, the locals that live around here often have a little patch of flat ground next to their homes and are typically happy to let you camp in their yard for the night.
In one case, I camped next to a small cluster of homes and awoke in the morning to the sound of a commotion amongst the locals… I popped my head out of the tent to see what was up and immediately saw a handful of villagers excitedly waving me over as they peered at something on the ground. Sure enough, a little girl had been spotted curiously inspecting a rattlesnake that was busy squirming its way toward my tent.
Unfortunately, in a settlement where you’re at least a few hours from any decent medical attention and have kids running around, this can be a tricky situation. In this case, the girl didn’t get close enough to get bitten, but with concerned parents around, things didn’t end well for the snake… In a place lacking access to many basic services, that is just the reality of how they approach this scenario. Much like the scenario of remote mountain towns dealing with the trash when there’s no truck coming by to ship it off to some designated location, the result can be ugly.
While the locals are generally very welcoming and happy to see someone who has an interest in their country, they are often a ridiculously bad source for info on distances and timing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me “Oh yeah, the place you’re heading toward is about 45 minutes away by bicycle”… Cut to 5 hours later when I’m barely halfway there muttering “45 minutes?!” to myself as I realize there’s about 7500ft of climbing in that span.
Continuing my never-ending crawl toward the sky, I passed through a few more villages before eventually hitting the small town of Tres Rios, where a shop owner tipped me off to a couple of defunct mining roads that would lead me to “the most beautiful vista of Illimani around”. It was definitely out of the way, but with no real rush to get to my eventual destination, I decided to go for it… As is typically the case, that extra “work“ paid off with views that very few people outside of a handful of nearby alpaca herders get to witness. The locals may not have any grasp on the time involved in uphill bicycle travel, but they damn sure know where the good spots are!
Eventually, I made my way back to La Paz where I could rest the legs a bit, re-stock on things that are hard to come by outside of the big city (read: peanut butter), and scour maps for more places to check out in the area. This led me to the Valle de las Animas which lies right on the outskirts of the city itself. One moment you’re engulfed in a massive urban sprawl, and the next you’re surrounded by towering spires of uniquely eroded rock with absolutely no one in sight.
From there I made my way deeper into the northern Cordillera Real for an up-close glimpse at Huayna Potosí and the famed Condoriri range along what is one of my favorite mountain passes I’ve come across in the Andes. The most impressive part about this area might be the fact that while you’re in these truly unique and seemingly isolated places, it’s often only a few hours of riding from the big city. For that reason, I can’t think of a better place than La Paz as a bikepacking “basecamp” for experiencing all of the diversity of the Andes in such close proximity.
My route for this section: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/23493594