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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Valleys, Villages and Revenge of the Jaw

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Vibrations rattled up through my arms, I could practically feel them in my skull. Cobbles have got to be one of the worst surfaces to climb with a loaded bike - or at least this road was. The cobbles were spaced unevenly, and were huge, I was finding it impossible to get into any sort of rhythm. The heat was brutal and for some reason I couldn’t use my two lowest gears. This all combined to make my exit from Cochabamba less than pleasant. I was a few kilometres up a 4500M pass, and at this rate I could tell things would be painful. Each time I reached a patch of shade or the gradient eased up a bit was a relief.

Fortunately the day passed quickly and finished with a section of gorgeous twisty mountainside singletrack, I camped right in the path for lack of any other flat ground. Before bed I fixed my derailleur, meaning climbing would be easier come morning. It was a treat watching the city lights glow in the valley below as I dozed off.

I was awoken by a large herd of llamas marching by. After a hearty breakfast I cranked to the top of the pass. Things were colder near the summit, pools of water were frozen solid, but the chill prevented me sweating. I lingered, savouring the views and the cool mountain air. Before me a huge 2000M downhill, the temperature rose again, greenery flanked the road and farmsteads dotted the hillsides. It constantly surprises me what a difference a few hundred meters of elevation makes to the climate and flora.

Another Bolivian mountain town and yet another warm reception. It was hard to make any progress through the town for being stopped constantly. The same questions, but all well intentioned; Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Where do you sleep? All on bicycle? What do you eat? Do you get cold? The town of Morochata was lovely, I bought food in the market and settled down on a shaded hillside to devour my bounty.

In the depths of a canyon a rickety bridge carried me over the jagged rocks and thundering water below. It felt like something out of Indiana Jones. I tried not to look down, but the tangle of thorns on the other side made this difficult. Back on solid ground, I worked my way up a series of steep switchbacks, pushing much of them in the roasting sun.

From the locality of Yani Alto I received a majestic view Northwards. Smoke floated across the valley from a fire, condors surfed thermals and waves of mountains stretched until the horizon. I camped between some cacti and a derelict hut.

The following day I sped to the bottom of the next valley only to begin a gruelling ascent that would last the entire day. As I was fighting my way up a particularly demanding stretch a pickup truck came revving by. The two guys in the back cheered loudly, one held up a bottle of CocaCola and gestured asking if I wanted it. I gave a thumbs up. He dropped it off the back of the truck. Seconds later I was chugging the cold sugary liquid. “Eyyyyy CocaCola!” Echoed down from the switchback above, I raised the bottle, calling back “Salut hermano!”.

With that sugar boost I powered along. At a spring in the mountainside I stripped down and had a wash. An alarming amount of dirt bikes began to pass me, engines announcing their presence way before I could see them. Stopping to talk to a man with a stopwatch, clipboard and walkie-talkie it turned out there was a large motocross race today. It was crazy to me how fast they would take some of the turns. I mentioned this to a group of spectators further up the climb, they burst into laughter saying “No, eres loco!” - “No, you’re crazy!”.

At the village of Tiquirpaya a policeman flagged me down. The road was closed for the race and I had to remain there until the riders passed. Fine by me, I was shattered. I hunted down the local tienda and got to the business of lunch. A couple of hours passed lazing in the shade and hanging out with locals. Back on the road I gained yet more altitude. Close to sunset I popped out on a lengthy ridge top that signified the end. I followed the beautiful twisting ridge, letting the strong wind cool the sweat covering my skin.

Dense cloud blew in. Laying in my tent I could already feel the moisture in the air and see it starting to condense. Looking out all I saw was fog, where just moments before I could see down the valley now I was engulfed. I took time in the morning, drying out my sleeping bag and mat. There was less climbing, the road hugging the contours of the mountain. I passed through an assortment of villages, being gifted mandarins by an elderly couple - “Give the man some mandarins!” the wrinkled man barked at his wife. I dropped down through a dirty mine, the river below polluted black by chemicals.

A motorbike pulled up whilst I was resting. Caesar methodically examined my bicycle; he was a big fan. “Vamos!” He was insistent we ride a descent together. I was powerless to refuse and set speeding off, the chug of Caesars motor just behind. It was a heart racing, adrenaline pumping ride, big rocks, bumps I could pump for more speed, banked switchbacks and then a section with a couple of hundred meters death drop on the right. I lost Caesar pretty quickly. At the canyon floor I waited, together we crossed the river. Then he pointed up a steep section of singletrack, explaining his house was up there and I was invited before shooting off. I wrestled my way up the short hikeabike.

The village seemed deserted save for a few chickens and cats. By the plaza I reunited with Caesar and his parents. They sat me down on a rickety stool, plying me with juicy mandarins and cool water. For half an hour I relaxed with the family before excusing myself - I had a large climb ahead and didn’t want to leave it all for the morning. Going was slow, just a couple of kilometres on I was stopped by a farmer named Don, his son and some neighbours. Before I knew it I was presented a glass of coke and a whole cake - still warm from the oven. I stood wolfing it down trying to make conversation in-between gulps.

Halfway up the switchbacks I set up camp, a lone shepherd came by herding his flock, as my dinner bubbled away I watched the mountains turn pretty colours. By now somewhat of a routine, this was often my favourite time of day - a chance to be still, reflect and be grateful for what I was experiencing.

Again I awoke to a world of cloud. It wasn’t long before I reached the end of the tough climbing. From there the road undulated along the edges of the mountains. My cassette buzzed, tyres crunched and I rolled along, but otherwise not a sound.

It was roughly lunchtime and at a Casa De Comida, I skidded to a halt, it seemed an easy option to grab food. In the dingy room I asked what was on the menu. “Sopa de - ” then a word I didn’t understand “con arroz y papas”. Not thinking much more of it I asked for a portion - the soups in Bolivia were usually decent. Sitting at the single table, a few other men entered and joined me to eat. Shortly afterwards the woman returned placing a bowl in front of one man with a gigantic jaw spilling over the sides. I wished that I wasn’t about to be served the same, knowing that I certainly was. Sure enough she brought my jaw soup out next.

By now the other men were greedily tucking into their jaws, ripping the fat and gristle from them. Tentatively I followed suit, not wanting to appear rude. It tasted vile and the fact that I could see the teeth didn’t help matters. I cleaned the meat from the jaw, gobbled the lumpy potatoes and stodgy rice, washing each mouthful down with a gulg of CocaCola. Whilst paying in the kitchen I noticed a large white bucket full of bloody jaws.

Cycling away I laughed to myself. Lessons learned - jaws don’t make for good eating, and make sure I know what I’m ordering in future. I pedalled for a few hours more, the road ebbing and flowing, rising and falling like the tide. Late afternoon and I suddenly felt my stomach violently rumble - revenge of the jaw. I knew it. The rest of the days riding was punctuated by frequent toilet breaks and unpredictable bowel movements. It certainly didn’t make the hikeabike over a 4600M pass easier.

I plunged into another canyon. Feeling terrible I called it a day, camping on an old football pitch. Knowing I had a 1000M pass in the morning I hoped my strength would return. Thankfully my condition had improved somewhat come morning and I started climbing. The road twisted through an active mine. It was sad to witness the damage to the environment, but also the conditions workers had to deal with. Sections of the mine reminded me of Mordor. Black smoke, toxic streams, mechanical crunching, trash everywhere and chemical odours. Nonetheless the miners seemed in good spirits and waved me on.

Proceeding up through the mining settlement; there was clearly money to be made here, it was a stark contrast to some of the poorer villages I’d been passing through. At the top of the village I raided a shop, and had a feast right on the street. With each bite I could feel strength returning.

Turning away from the mining traffic my route drifted across the altiplano, shadowing a small stream and gliding gently downwards. It was perfect riding. Late in the day I joined a paved road. A few kilometres of easy riding to the Corillera Quimsa Cruz and the beginning of the Mama Coca route.

Dense storm-clouds billowed in the distance and gathered like wraiths over the mountains. The dark grey colour and thickness of the formations was intimidating, the wind howled and as I rolled into the town of Tablachca hail pelted down. Hunting for a place to stay I found a shabby hospedaje and settled in.

The world was white, covered in a blanket of snow. If there was this much snow here, a few hundred meters higher on the 5000M passes it would be deeper. My brakes had been feeling a little weak the past couple of days. Time to change pads. Disaster. The spare pads I’d bought in Sucre and had been assured would fit - didn’t. My rear pads had nothing left and the front wasn’t faring much better. I sat head in hands and thought. A nasty situation, but the way I saw it I had no choice - riding 240km through the mountains with one barely functioning brake in deep snow was daft.

Ten minutes later I was in a collectivo, bike lashed to the roof and speeding along. The driver laughed when I told him how fast the speed felt to me - for 8 months I’d been traveling at a snails pace on my bike. Half an hour later I was in a bigger collectivo, flying down the Pan American highway, chatting away to a curious Chollita next to me. One hour later I found myself at the top of a densely populated valley, every inch of space built upon - staring down into beautiful chaos of La Paz.


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