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Bolivian Backroads

“Mama, hay un gringo afuera?” (Mom, is there a gringo outside?)

I’d heard the young child’s question when stopping to buy water in a tiny village rarely visited by tourists. As I was filling my bottles, I glanced back at the shop doorway to see the faces of three small children all huddled together, peering around the doorframe and watching me intently. When I looked up and tried to say hello, they all shyly darted back inside, although I could still overhear their hushed conversation as they excitedly advised their mother that they’d indeed seen the gringo. I didn’t know at the time, but that moment would come to resonate over the next few days of my journey.

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I was riding the 5800 kilometers from Mendoza (Argentina) up to Lima (Peru) and wanted some experience of genuinely chasing the unknown. Sure, there were established routes like the Peru Divide or popular mountain passes on the Argentina/Chile border that would form part of my main itinerary. But I began studying maps to find gravel backroads through the high Bolivian mountains that people hadn’t previously toured and written about. Finding such a route between Oruro and La Paz and having loaded up the bike with enough porridge and pasta to see me right for a few days, I set out to discover where my chosen path would take me. 

When I found the turnoff from the main drag, my alternate way began as a shoddy gravel track that could easily have been mistaken for a farm accessway. Pausing momentarily to question just what I was trying to achieve, I got underway again with the track soon skirting the edge of a high, sharp drop into the valley below. The road ahead appeared to have been hewn out of the rocky cliff sides with the resulting rubble left to add another level of challenge.

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Making steady progress, I rolled into a tiny village named Rodeo just before sunset. Comprised of mud brick and cinder block houses, I doubt the population exceeded a couple of hundred. Anticipating a night in my tent, I noticed the village had a medical center where doctors from the nearest city would base themselves a few days each month. After making our introductions, the friendly caretaker was happy to show me to a ward-style room with four empty beds—an unexpected but much appreciated opportunity to sleep inside with the night time temperatures at 4300 meters above sea level proving a tad on the chilly side. 

Despite the welcome comfort of a roof over my head, I awoke the next morning rested but with a hint of apprehension. The highest altitude I’d previously ridden on a bike was around 4700 meters on the San Francisco pass about a month earlier. Rolling out of Rodeo, I knew the road would climb sharply to over 5000 meters, and I wondered whether I’d acclimatized enough and if my lungs would cope.

As a route, the day proved nothing short of spectacular: snowy peaks, waterfalls, mountain lagoons, cliff faces of contrasting colors, with the narrow gravel road slowly edging its way through this 360-degree jaw-dropping vista. But as the altitude increased, so did my sense of fatigue, the incredible landscape at least offering some distraction as I took repeated periods of rest.

Even with these brief interludes, I was forced to climb off when I passed the 5000 meter mark and walk the remaining two kilometers to the summit, pushing my bike for a couple of minutes at a time in between short rests to catch my breath. The stop-start nature of my progress was finally rewarded as I rounded the summit to see two overhanging glacial tongues sprawling down the mountainside in front of me.

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Descending to the village of Cairoma - the steepness of the gradient combining with the loose gravel to make for an experience that was more hair-raising than speedy - I finally rolled into the settlement to find a small food cart prominently parked in the village plaza. The menu proved simple, comprising only the one dish, and I dined on salchipapas which turned out to be sliced sausage served with fried potatoes and rice. A feast for six bolivianos or eighty-five US cents.

After arranging a room for the night, I discovered that most houses in the village had no plumbing with running water confined to a couple of communal taps and a central toilet block which I went to use in the morning but didn’t linger long. The men’s facilities simply amounted to five holes in the floor with no partition walls to spare your blushes. Perhaps an opportunity for conversation between neighbors, if one were so inclined. And although empty when I entered, the thought that I might be interrupted was just a mental leap too far. So I waited until I was a twenty minute cycle out of the village before finding a secluded clump of trees where I could quietly do what was needed with the privacy to which I’m accustomed.

These villages, many not even marked on the mapping app I was using, proved to be something of a novelty and added a characterful contrast to the breathtaking landscape I was traversing. One had a small primary school where the teacher was supervising a game of soccer. But the moment I passed, everything stopped as the kids ran over to surround me with the teacher in their wake, shouting for them to come back.

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Being so very remote, I can imagine how my passing was an unusual occurrence and many of the villagers I met would want to stop to chat and ask what I was doing on their roads.  These interactions were often accompanied by the offer of water, fruit or whatever else they could spare.

On one particularly dicey descent I came across something I definitely wasn’t expecting. The road coming to an abrupt halt where it was crossed by a muddy brown river before emerging out again on the other side. Although roaring at a fast pace, the river didn’t appear to be too deep so I decided to try an exploratory walk without the encumbrance of my bike. Managing to cross with the water level only just above my knees, I returned for my panniers before crossing once again to fetch my bike. At around the halfway mark, one of my feet unexpectedly found a hole and I lost my balance. Instantly overwhelmed by the water, I was pushed over with some force before emerging, soaking wet but apparently uninjured. My bike unfortunately didn’t fare so well and had landed awkwardly on the stony river bed; the disc brakes now making a sickening creaking sound as the wheels rotated.  A little shaken by this experience, and as it wasn’t long until sundown, I decided to pitch my tent and settled in for the evening to try to pull my head together.

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Getting going the next morning was tough as the brake discs were clearly rubbing badly. I made it to a tiny village called Zona Zona, where I tried to have a look as best I could even though I’m not the world’s greatest bike mechanic. I started by taking both wheels off and washing out the brake mechanisms which were filled with mud and sand from the fall in the river. Thankfully, the front wheel now spun more freely but my attempt at fixing the problem offered only a small improvement for the rear wheel. Looking more closely at the brake rotor, I could see it was bent and out of alignment and I was clueless as to how to fix it.

Soldiering on as best I could, it soon became apparent that my situation was pretty hopeless, and everything was a struggle.  The route would have been gruelling enough at the best of times - a series of short, sharp climbs on tough gradients - but with a rubbing rear brake, it was beyond debilitating, and my average speed was barely more than walking pace. La Paz was still nearly seventy kilometers away, my determination was rapidly fading, and I was increasingly happy to cover the remaining distance by any means necessary. But that presented another problem: in the six hours I’d spent riding that remote road, I’d only seen the one car, and that had been going in the opposite direction. 

As luck would have it, the second car of the day approached from behind me.  A clapped-out old Toyota sedan from a bygone decade, but with a roof rack! I explained my situation to the two cheery gents in the car, and they were happy to help. Although they weren’t going all the way to La Paz, they could drop me at a neighbouring satellite town where I would be able to find some cheap digs for the night.

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Ignoring the unplanned end to my off-the-beaten-track detour between Oruro to La Paz, the follies of my river fall couldn’t take away from what proved to be an epic adventure. It had felt such a massive gamble to chase down gravel backroads without resorting to prior knowledge or anecdotal advice. But that constant sense of not knowing what was around the next corner ultimately made for one of the most memorable chapters of my tour through South America.

Bolivia has a fairly well-trodden “circuit” and my own guess would be that 95% of tourism dollars fall among just a handful of locations linked by the familiar backpacker bus routes.  Riding these gravel backroads by bicycle opened up a new and very real side of this beautiful and remote country, and I cherished the experience of being the “gringo” in so many small villages. My unexpected presence prompting the friendliness and generosity they all insisted on showering upon me.

Words and images by Steve Marks
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