Last winter I was approached by my good buddy Kyle who was looking to do a two week bike packing trip in South America for a project he was doing with Yonder Journal. The guidelines were simple; find a remote route with little to no services and to our knowledge yet to see bike tires. I had been home for less than 6 months hustling to get back on my feet after depleting my bank account on our 10 month South American moto trip, the last thing I imagined I would be doing was jumping on a plane back to South America.
Signing on was a no brainer and we set dates for early April. Over the next couple of months we bounced location ideas around, but everything came up lacking one thing or another. During our previous TransAmerica trip, Anna and Miguel, the couple whom we met in Colombia hiking 6 days in El Cocuy, had spoken of a trek they did in Bolivia back in the 90’s with great fondness. The incredible stories that they shared with me never left the back of my mind. At first we wrote it if off as unridable on bikes, but more research on the route uncovered information that gold miners had been cutting new roads into the remote valleys connecting settlements once isolated from any vehicles. With no detailed maps of the area available we worked off google earth and with help from Anna put together some dotted lines connecting the town of Pelechuco and Curva, making what looked to be a 200 kilometer ridable loop starting in Charazani.
Traveling through Bolivia offers all the challenges anyone seeking a real adventure could ask for. Mining and resource exploration have riddled the land locked country with primitive roads into large tracks of remote wilderness. Trekking routes follow ancient trading networks and the lack of tourism infrastructures outside of a couple main attractions leave you with the unique experience of being fully engulfed in the environment and people that call it home.
The route would take us to the remote north west corner of the Bolivian/Peruvian border in the Apolobambe mountain range, sandwiched between the Altiplano and the Amazon. Elevation would average above 12,000 feet with 5 passes over 15,000 feet. Paso Sunchuli being the highest at just under 17,000 feet. We had no confirmed knowledge of the current condition, but knew that it would be muddy and wet with April being the tail end of the rainy season and transitioning into the colder winter dry season.
The month prior to leaving was spent making racks and bags for the Specialized fat bike that I would be riding. After years of trash talking on them I now found myself eating my words and blown away by its capabilities. After trying several layouts I settled on light sleeping gear up front, heavy food and water in the frame bag, tent and rain gear on the rear rack, while trying to keep as much weight low to the ground. We did not know what the water situation would be like, so I went on the safe side with the ability to carry 4 liters in bottles and another 3 liters in a bladder if needed. The set up would allow for 4 day stretches between resupply if need be, and water would be filtered on route.
Departure day came fast and after 27 hours of airplanes and layovers we landed in El Alto, the highest commercial airport in the western hemisphere at 13,323 feet. It was 6 AM and the elevation hit my head like a baseball bat, and the Altiplano looked grim with cloud filled skies dumping rain. Bikes and baggage were gathered and we took a taxi into La Paz to check into our hotel and build up the bikes. The wonderful thing about elevation is that even after not sleeping for over a 24 hours your oxygen depleted brain tortures you with the inability to calm the fuck down. Trying to rest only makes you notice that your heart is beating way too fast and the harder you try, the worse it gets. This would be the theme for the next three days.
With sleep not an option we hit the streets of La Paz to collect last minute supplies and track down bus tickets that would take us to our starting point in the town of Charazani. After an hour of wandering the various market districts, we found the local Trans Altiplano bus station, a tiny office filled to the brim with supplies and live chickens waiting to be shipped with the next bus out. For a couple bucks we had tickets in hand for the 6 am departure the next morning.
Morning once again brought rain and we were beginning to feel like this would be a trend for us. We made our way to the bus station and watched as the quiet side streets turned into diesel belching clusters of cars and trucks. Bolivian busses are like nothing we have at home. To cope with the roads in Bolivia they simply make the busses tougher, adding lift kits and off-road tires to deal with the terrain. Over the next 8 hours we made our way across the Altiplano and into the foothills of the Andes watching rural Bolivia pass by.
Bus tip #1 for Bolivia: Don’t eat or drink on the bus unless you can hold it in real good, or do as the locals do: piss in any receptacle and throw it out the window, spilling a little on yourself and the person behind you as you set it free. Ladies bring a small plastic bag. Don’t expect the bus to stop more than once for a pee break, and if it does stop do not go far, the bus leaves and doesn’t care if you're there or not.
After hours of narrow dirt roads we descended from the Altiplano into the small town of Charazani were our bus ride would finally end. We gathered our bikes out of the cargo bay and were on our way, enjoying the lower elevation and warm air.
Bus tip #2 in Bolivia: When the driver wants to charge you triple the quoted cargo fees because he thinks your fat bikes are motorcycles you only argue for a second before you realize he is your only ride back to civilization next week when you finish your ride. Shut up and pay.
We checked into the only accommodations and gathered food to cook in the center square. The rain finally let up and for the first time since landing in Bolivia we saw the sun. Even though we were still at 9,000 feet it felt like sea level and we all finally felt tired after no rest in over three days. None of us fought it, falling fast asleep before the sun went down.