We had two days to explore in and around La Paz. Our late Sunday night arrival meant it was too late to set anything up tour wise for Monday, so we kicked around the city that day (Kaia will describe that) and organized ourselves for Tuesday, which was our last day in South America (we flew out very late that night). La Paz is well known for its fantastic mountain biking offerings. I really wanted to ride in the high mountains one more time; Yvonne and the kids wanted to hike instead. So I booked a day of downhill riding through “Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking” (gravitybolivia.com). This company has been doing this sort of thing for 25 years and has developed many single track routes in the mountains and runs many other trips down smaller sections of scenic roads. I opted for the “Sorata Single Track” (http://www.gravitybolivia.com/index.php?mod=tempview1&id=1251407144) – it would be a full day of downhill riding around the scenic village of Sorata in the spectacular Real Cordillera (“Royal Mountains”) outside of La Paz. Sorata is an access point for hiking/trekking in the mountains, but its tourism reputation waned in more recent times as it has been the scene of government protests/blockades-turned violent and an increased role in the coca trade.
The day started with an early taxi across town to the company bike center/workshop – we needed to be fully fitted for bike, jacket, pants, gloves and especially full face helmet. It would be very cold at the top of each run – well above 4000m up. A slight delay meant we hit rush hour traffic getting out of La Paz …ouch!! La Paz has spilled out of its “bowl” topography onto the surrounding high plain and this very quickly growing settlement (El Alta) is jammed with people and has very poor infrastructure of any sort. An hour or so later … we’re heading back towards Lake Titicaca, then veered the other way and begin the ascent into the mountains.
Our very gregarious guide Andy was a Brit who basically grew up in New Zealand and had been bike guiding in La Paz for a year – he struck a perfect balance between cautioning us about the hazards of each section, and allowing us to just let loose and have fun. Also on the trip was Dave from Tasmania and young couple Isabella and Fabian from Germany. It was a fantastic bunch to spend the day with.
The van couldn’t climb the final push to the start of the descent (4300m) so we pushed the bikes up the final 200m as we gasped for precious air. I fixed my GoPro camera to mount on the side of the helmet, and away we went. The first 20 minutes were very fast single track gently rolling through the mist/clouds, past a few potato patches – a great way to get into the groove.
Here’s a short video of the fast top section of single track: http://youtu.be/K1BXONvw15c
Then we found ourselves on a ridge that had a pretty steep drop on the right side. Parts of the ridgeline involved some steep downhils, so put these two together and you had to pep talk yourself a bit before starting the descent. A couple of times my subcounscious survival instinct had me edging away from the dropoff in the single track rut, which meant my tire would catch the edge of the rut and I’d go tumbling … but this is not dangerous because you always tumble away from the drop.
Here’s a couple video clips from the GoPro
This was sooooo fabulous … exhilarating … the great smooth fast single track, and the spectacular views across the valley to the 6000m+ snow covered peaks. This was the most fun riding I’d ever done. Even though it was 98% downhill, you still had to work hard over the rocks/bumps, and even a small 10m uphill climb was enough to put you into almost panic levels of oxygen deficit! Isabella and Fabian had had less time acclimatizing to the altitude and were struggling on that count.
The trail worked its way down past the treeline then through some rural areas, buzzing past farms, down small roads and past school kids returning at lunch.
video clip: http://youtu.be/WxfoS6am93s
By the time we reached our lunch spot beside the river at valley bottom, we’d descended 1700m vertical.
After our big healthy lunch we began what has to be the most spectacular road ascent of my entire life. We passed through Sorata (it has a beautiful central park that is locked up … ), then worked our way up switchback after switchback past small settlements and farms of potatoes and beans and corn. We eventually found ourselves above the “farm-line”, then continued switchbacking up past the treeline.
Surprisingly (to me, anyway) we passed a few pastoral villages that clung to the cliff with views that I don’t know how you could surpass. We hugged the cliff as we climbed another 30 minutes, where Andy pointed to a huge scree slope coming off the peak and said “that’s where the next descent starts”. We thought he was joking. Wrong! The road finally climbed above the “moss line” and into the swirling clouds.
For the first time in the day I was wondering if I’d perhaps bit off a bit too much. But Andy assured us the slopes were “doable”, so we climbed out of the van at 4800m, put on our warm gloves, jackets, and none of us second guessed the choice of full face helmets. Andy reminded us many times over the next hour that it would not be a good place for a bad wipe-out … we had limited light, wouldn’t see the van for several hours, and hospitals were far away. Isabella was wiped out from the morning’s ride so opted to not ride in the afternoon. The views of the scree descent made her feel better about her decision.
We started with a few very steep slopes of “screeing” (yes, I spelt that correctly). You essentially lock up your back wheel and keep just the right amount of front brake on to control speed a bit but not go over the handlebars, then slide down the scree slope. What started with fear turned into pure glee – I was whooping with joy as I got the feel for it.
From there the trail descended past a few llama fields around some superelevated turns … my “Ola” to the farmer was a bit of a “drive-by” greeting. Note to self: when trying for meaningful crosscultural communication, take off your full face helmet and get off your bike.
We retraced some of the road switchbacks before getting into the “fun free ride” (as Andy called it) section – find a line, have fun, see you way down there. GO!
As with the morning descent, we eventually found ourselves riding past and through farms and barns (OK, past, not through, the barns), and in a more than a few incidents racing away from chasing, biting dogs. If there was one thing that got me riding faster that I should have been, it was these dogs!
The bottom section was quite technical and because of the trees, the corners come at you pretty fast. I had a bit of a tumble onto my shoulder that kept me awake at night the following nights, and Fabian had a bit of a nasty spill onto his head while screeing, but otherwise we were all good. We met the van just outside of Sorata with about a half hour of light left in the day. We’d dropped 2200m on this descent and it was pretty hot in Sorata. I asked Andy if Bolivia had the “no open alcohol in moving vehicles” law, because I REALLY wanted a cold beer for the drive back to La Paz. He answered “good news and bad news”. No law. But the beer is kinda warm … as he pulled out beers for all of us from the back of the van. Whihoo!
It was a pretty quiet (read “exhausted”) van ride as we re-ascended the cordillera out of Sorata en route back to La Paz. We stopped for some fried chicken at a little village (about 8PM by now …) and back into La Paz at 10:30PM. Yvonne and the kids had returned from their hike by late afternoon so had put in quite a bit of time waiting at the hotel for my return. I quickly changed out of my muddy clothes and we called for a taxi. 30 minutes later we were at the airport to begin prop for our flights to Fiji. What a truly memorable way to spend my last day in South America. Thanks Andy, Fabian, Isabella and Dave!