This weeks blog is the story of adventure in cycling across Bolivia from transportation challenges to survival instincts.
Ride & River – Day 1 & 2
Gravity Assisted Bolivia
Mountain biking in Bolivia has been taken to a new level by Gravity Assisted. The long established company deliver bucket loads of high adrenaline mountain biking adventures to thousands of backpackers year in and year out. Couple that with an attention to detail and safety that is second to none, it is clear to see why they are the number 1 when it comes to the famous Death Road. But mountain biking in Bolivia and visits to La Paz should not all be about the Death Road. Gravity Assisted Bolivia have constantly pushed the boundaries when it comes to developing new mountain biking in Bolivia. This includes branching out to new destinations and bringing bespoke and exciting adventures for all levels of riders to enjoy. This leads us on to how we came across the greatest adventure in South America.
Whilst relaxing and watching football in a hotel bar in Copacabana it did not take me long with the free Wifi to come across the Ride & River (R&R) option as an alternative adventure for mountain biking in Bolivia for G and I to take on. After a quick email exchange with Marcus (head of guides) at Gravity it was apparent that if we wanted to join the latest tour we would have to rendezvous with the group as they travelled from La Paz to Sorata. After a quick chat with Marcus on Skype it worked out easier for G and I to meet them in Sorata at the first nights accomodation which is the excellent and tranquill Alti Oasis. The first days riding starts about 30k from Sorata and is a mixture of rolling cross country and road to enable the riders to get used to the bikes before taking on days 2 and 3. With this in mind we were happy to miss the first day as Marcus convinced me very quickly that the rest of the tour would more than make up for it.
s not often you wake up in a little oasis of paradise before a mountain bike adventure. With cloud forest bird song almost drowning out the alarm it was time for a hearty Bolivian breakfast with the rest of the team. It certainly set us up before we clambered aboard the fully loaded Toyota Landcruiser for the 2 hour climb on rocky Scottish highland-esque tracks to 4700m. The guides for this trip were Moe, Alexandrau (Ali) and Herman; the driver. Moe an American-Boliviano is the go-to man and the perfect host. Alexandrau, the travelling Argentinian ´hobo´ who shreds his way around South America from one guiding gig to another. Between them they are fonts of Bolivian and biking knowledge. With Herman threading the Landcruiser up through the mountain passes out of Sorata to a soundtrack of Anglo-America punky/indie classics courtesy of Moe’ MP3, the 5 of us were more than content taking in the simply unbelievable steep canyon views.
As we climbed higher to the trail head, Ali fed us with local tales of enduro racing in these parts, along with Incan history and the importance of the Coca leaf to this area. This all combined together to fuel the excitement of 60 kilometers (kms) of big mountain biking for the mixed group! The ride was going to be 90% descent and the bikes from Gravity Assisted were perfect steeds for the job. Solid, reliable thorough-bred Kona Stinkys and my Transition Bottle-Rocket made up the rental stable!
Being a XC (cross country) and AM (all mountain) man at 6ft 4″ (1.93m) there was more chance of having Condor eggs on toast for lunch then there being a bike big enough for me! This was not going to stop me enjoying the first ride on this trip. As the wining but melodic chords of Scar Tissue faded out we reached the top and the start of our day. We were surrounded by wild llamas, blue skies and silence as we all kitted up from the array of gear available from Gravity.
With the bikes given the final check, Graeme looking like a mini-Steve Peat about to rip up Mont St. Anne again and Ali taking lead we were off. Our aim was to reach a small village called Ananea for lunch. It was all downhill on swooping rocky double track, with small sections of fun singletrack to break up the high speed descent. Limitless free ride sweet spots for the adrenaline addicts. Or you can simply sit back and take in the Andean views of ice capped mountains and the serenity of the small isolated gold mines and Incan ruins.
Keeping pace with Ali was all I needed. There were plenty of rest stops to regroup and enjoy the views. For me and ´mini Peat´ it was all about the speed, flow and playground rolling out beneath our 2.6″ Kendas. With about an hour to lunch we passed through a tiny village to have one more water stop with Herman before blatting out a flat rolling section to Ananea where the famous Gravity guacamole was to be made by Moe and Ali.
With the flat section finishing with a slight up hill to a spot perched over looking Ananea, the first few stopped to wait for others. Meanwhile the locals of Ananea were all congregated for some kind of get together with a brass band just 100 meters away. The now grassy, mossy mountain side a little like a Yorkshire dale, was catching my imagination. Knowing I had 10 minutes or so my singletrack nose was picking up a faint scent leading me around the locals who were sitting on a little plateau looking out across the vast valley and circled back to the team by the Benviendido sign.
With a lovely line taking in a broken Incan wall and a couple of perfectly placed bed rock slabs as berms, I had found 30 secs of bike park Wales here in Bolivia whilst I waited for mis amigos. A simple bit of trail that was an easy session for some big smiles before the guacamole man-wich! Despite creating my own fun I didn’t realise the final descent into Ananea was going to bring about so many high fives in the tiny plaza on arrival. Just as my heart rate dropped back to normal after run 4, Ali had us weaving down a steep rocky shute before firing us down a trail that flowed between cobbled walls and village dwelling
s which was just like any one of a thousand classic British bridleways! Rolling crests, kickers, a little rock garden or two then a banked slab to filter us all into the tiny plaza was the perfect way to end the first 30km of high altitude mountain biking in Bolivia. Cue Herman and two picnic tables with more fresh food than the local market. Gravity certainly know how to put on a spread to keep the riders fuelled up.
Via pre-arrangement a local lady had brought down some fresh soup, coffee and Mate tea to add to the ample buffet. Our friends were less experienced bikers and as lunch was being prepared I passed on some pearls of wisdom regarding one finger braking, the attack position and general bike handling. With the Enduras bursting at the seams and Ali teasing us with dessert being served up as another 30km descent littered with longer sections of mule trodden ancient trails to break up the flat out double track everyone was drooling with excitement at the prospect. A quick adios to Herman and the locals and we set off like a pack of dogs pedaling hard with a brass band soundtrack out past the colonial church with the vista of cloud forest over our left side.
Ali throws on the anchors and spots our first short cut on a cacti laden trail. As we regroup Aline, Claudio and Aninia (the other members of our group) all rolled up with big smiles. Buzzing with renewed enthusiasm they all thanked me for the half time team talk. It was clear shredding all over South America in Enduro races gave Ali the perfect poise and flow as he led us down. I could not resist hanging off his back wheel as we rattled down the switchbacks and loose rocky trench. Following someone who knows the trail so well always brings a great flow and confidence. Camera out it was time to try and catch the singletrack newbies in action before the trail spat them out with even bigger smiles. Its as though the Incas knew that in 5 centuries their pilgrimage and trade routes would be used for gringo joy on two wheels. Gullies, ledgey drop-offs, sweeping lines between brush are all awesome foresight.
Pretty much the next 3 hours we descended hard and fast to the river basin with the last trail lasting around 10 minutes. Claudio showing the greatest improvement as he was giving me and G some serious heat up front. Lining up near a mining washing station we gather for the customary selfie looking like welsh miners before loading the bikes for the hours trudge to our overnight lodgings at Consata.
Humid but friendly we soon get settled into our modest digs. Kids flocked around to talk to us as Moe and Ali knock up a mouth watering pasta dish. Obsessed with Aninia’s blonde hair, my height and our general appearance the locals provided a warm and friendly welcome. This trip promises the real Bolivia and it delivers. Straw beds, cold showers, ramshackle stilted out-houses perched precariously over a water fall that doubles as the sewage outlet.
But luckily for us we had already freshened up on route with a dip at a fresh water cascade and plunge pool. Last thing to do was to call beer o’clock and savour the dinner. Tomorrows 40km of coca plantations and pantanal basin roads include a mix of uphill. Not bad considering today was 95% descent across 65km from a lofty 4700m. Some much needed shut eye was on the cards to the disapointment of the local kids.
Ride & River – Day 3 & 4
7.30am soon came round and Ali was up early making his homemade chocolate to rival Moe’s yankee addiction to peanut butter and Nutella. With toast, fruit salad, condensed milk and copious “jugo de naranja” and Boliviano coffee on tap from “Cocina Gravity” courtesy of messers Moe and Ali we couldnt fail at being fuelled up for todays remote adventure, mountain biking in Bolivia. Bubbly as ever, Herman and the Landcruiser were poised for another day of action playing mountain goat and mule.
Grappling our way up the wet, lush singletrack road akin to the Camel trophy of the 80’s. This was no tame Top Gear “death road” nonsense. Herman insisting on the romantic melodies of Bolivian folk music rather than the funky tones of the Chillies, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam or the Killers set a new vibe in the back. For me mountain biking had always been a by-word for adventure but even though G and I had joined the tour a day late, yesterday’s menu of mountain biking in Bolivia left us grasping at more. Just as Ali finished explaining the finer details of chewing coca leaf and why the cultivation is so important to the local people, we were parked up and unloading the fleet. Most a little sore with lower arm and hand stiffness partly due to their lack of bike time. And the fact that the tyres must of been running at least 60psi to prevent punctures and increase rolling resistance “apparently”. Not wanting to sound like the group “know it all”, I quietly encouraged each of my new friends to reduce the air in their tyres for the sake of their grip and comfort. Once again it was predominantly double track undulating through dense lush forest with circling Turkey vultures and vibrant butterflies the size of bats to keep us company.
With each corner dissected by a fresh water stream that were fun to manual or attempt to jump, we reeled off 10km of honest cross country (XC) in a blink of an eye considering the downhill pedigree of our rigs. I was surprised how well the Bottle-rocket rolled and climbed once I got it moving. An honest flow of sweat on everyone was evident as we rolled our fleet of XC Shermans into San Jose de Pututumi,a tiny mountain side village. The Her-meister rolled up and dished out the passion fruits to refresh the pallet. With thirsts quenched we decided the congregated mass of 7 year old school kids on mid-morning break were worthy enough challengers for a game of footy.
After 15 minutes of swarming around an onion bag (football) and being nut megged by a 2ft Etcheverry brought a lot of smiles to everyones face. But my personal favourite was seeing G weaving through Hobiton with full control of the ball before being stopped in his tracks by a well timed stern tackle. Stumbling over his own feet and only just staying up right was his only saving grace as the 20kg playground bruiser peeled off for an attempt at Ali’s goal! With humidity taking its toll on the Gringos we retreated for another passion fruit but with huge smiles. Playing footy with those village kids made my day, simply priceless experience. I had to get a photo with the G-slayer or was he the one that ran through my legs with the ball?
With the school bell ringing out it was time to negotiate the loose, muddy and rocky off-camber descent to Incachaca for a light lunch of traditional soup and more pat-a-cake with another set of excitable kids! Each dish like Ali’s trail choice just keeps on getting better. To-date this was the best Bolivian soup that fuelled our afternoon of hot punchy climbs up mining roads which preceded plummeting short roller coaster descents that left Mr and Mrs Claudio whooping for more.
The rest of the ride dragged us ever closer to Mapidi. Unlike day 2 it was devoid of singletrack. But today was always about the transition between mountains to Amazonian river basin. The riding was hard earned and soul building with enough reward on the lumpy, rocky descents through the frequent mining towns and co-operative settlements to always bring that adrenaline buzz. We rode into town amongst a flurry of fake Suzuki 125s, roaming ponies and of course the Toyota Caribs and Landcruisers.
The locals as ever very curious but happy to see us as ONLY Gravity bring outsiders to this part of Bolivia. Our blue eyes, milky bar skin, blonde locks and towering physique bring horn honking, waving and hand shaking from anyone within passing reach! Our host for the next 3 nights was Sain the “Donald Trump” of Mapidi. A hotel, two restaurants, boat with crew and doubles as a master jungle guide. Gravity have been running this expedition style tour for a few years now. Moe has completed his 32nd in the past year alone, along with Sain, who has been involved with every one! He provides the boat, the skipper, the navigator and the camp cook for 2nd half of this trip, which can only mean we are in good hands. At this stage the bikes, Landcruiser and 2nd guide are not needed so after a quick beer to welcome our arrival we say our big thanks to Ali and Herman and wave them good bye as they make there way back to La Paz via 26 hours of cliff edge dirt roads!
We settle into “Donalds” comfortable rooms at his ample casa as we all look forward to a nice hot shower even a cold one would of been nice as the hot humid Mapidi evening was drawing in. A freshen up was on the cards. But Sain’s water pump had other ideas. Settling for buckets of water as a shower was just another excellent experience in the real Bolivia.
Once relatively clean and rested we headed out to Sain’s number one restaurant that of course he owned for dinner. Which of course is all included in the price of the expedition. After a cold beer under the starry sky and croaking soundtrack it was time for bed and the eagerly awaited part two of this trip which was the 3 day canoe trip deep into the Bolivian Amazonian jungle. This final day of mountain biking in Bolivia was a real mix of cultural, visual and riding experiences and set us perfectly for the relaxing time, aboard Sain´s traditional river canoe.
Ride & River – Day 5 & 6
With breakfast demolished at Sain’s second restaurant and sharing morning Hola’s with the local workers who were also enjoying Team Sain’s hearty kick start. It was the perfect start before clambering down to the river bank and boarding our new mode of transport. A traditional long boat motorized canoe! Here we met up with Llallo (motor man), Peta (navigator), Patricia (expedition cook) and of course Sain who swapped his “Trump wig” for the captains hat! Taking our places onboard we were soon chugging down Rio Mapidi which is a tributary of the mighty Amazon.
The scenery was now deep jungle broken only by sporadic mining activity. The river flowing fast like a torrent of chocolate milkshake due to all the mining discharge introduced us quickly to life as a boat-man working these rivers! We sat back as the river calmed and read our books, listened to music and generally relaxed and took in the vast views. The canoe being expertly threaded through the rapids by Peta and Llalo which was a joy to watch. Desperate jungle dwelling families working like beavers to dam off small pockets of river bank to allow them to pan for gold.
The bigger operations will always miss something and these people work long hours in waste deep waters searching for enough precious metal to put food on the family table. As we cruise by its evident that mining is essential for this part of Bolivia. Our lunch stop today was Guanay. More delicious local fare served up alongside curious locals was a welcomed treat after our first 2 and a bit hours on the canoe. Moe ventured off with Patricia to stock up with supplies for the coming days camp and canoe breakfasts, lunches and dinner. Ever the perfect host we always had plenty of beer, vino and marshmallows for the campfires!
As we punched on to our first wild camping spot the anticipation was building as evening drew in. Forming a human chain we emptied the canoe within minutes of all the camping gear, supplies and personal belongings. If it did not feel like a expedition before, it certainly did now! Our goal was to set up camp and whilst Patricia and the crew got dinner going and the fire on. This gave us plenty of time to enjoy a quick dip in a crystal clear plunge pool before a 10 minute hike/climb to a look-out point to take in the solemn sunset and changing jungle attitude as day slipped into night.
An awesome pasta dish around the campfire as fireflies provided the twilight entertainment just rounded off the perfect introduction to the jungle part of this adventure. As the darkness took hold we all enjoyed the vino tinto that washed down the crispy marshmallows. The steady breeze and smouldering fuego kept the midges at bay and providing you kept covered up a bite free evening was enjoyed by all. The bottles running dry we all retired to our tents with the exciting news that in the morning we would hike 40 minutes to a waterfall where we could swim and wake up before enjoying deep fried empanadas, fresh coffee and a scrambled omlette packed with local vegetables.
All up and ready for our morning bath we set off in the relatively fresh morning air. Through vine laden trails, over rocks and across streams we arrived at the waterfall. The hike made things sweaty again and the pure relief and refreshment of our al fresco bath was simply exhilarating! Always looking for a chance to bomb or dive, Claudio and I set about conquering the climb up a couple of meters to a ledge that allowed us to go behind the waterfall. Aline a keen climber back home in France was not one to miss out. She got back in the water swam over to us and using brute strength we simply hoisted her up to join us for a selfie behind the cascading water.
The long awaited bomb and “in like a pin” from me was soon on the cards as we had to start our journey back to camp for brekkie! On route Sain pointed out a snake and evidence of indigenous people extracting rubber from the trees. The empanadas were that good I think 8 or 9 passed my lips. Feeling ready to burst we climbed back on board the already loaded canoe (what a crew) ready for another full day of relaxing and watching the jungle play out on the banks of the river. The hours drifted by, photos taken, naps sneaked in, chapters reeled off, onboard lunch consumed it was simply effortless to enjoy this part of the trip.
Peta offered up an idea of another swim in a plunge pool deep in the bedrock. Camp site 2 did not have the riches of a natural waterfall and pool to freshen up in so 30 minutes before we called it a day we attempted a quick head dunk to rejuvenate us. G took this one step further and decided to go in fully clothed with phone and passport! Not sure it was fully intended but it did make us all laugh and capture a soggy englishman on film!
As G started the big dry out the rest of us were putting tents up and collecting fire wood. Wild camp night 2 played out just like the previous – Muchas vino, excelente comidas (food) y fuego grande! Oh and this time the mozzies were out to play hard so covering up and spray was a must for night two! But again the moonlit riverside camp under the watching monkeys and glowing fireflies was worth every ear buzzing blighter! Experiences like this don’t happen without a bit of “manning up”.
The 6th and final day was always about the final push to Rurrenabaque where our adventure with Gravity would end. Another gut busting breakfast followed by a slick de-camp played out. Our final treat before embarking on Rurrenabaque was a 2 hour jungle hike with Sain as our master guide. The canoe dropped us off 10 minutes down the river and we looped back to rendezvous with them at a muddy stream estuary.
G and I have never never been in a proper jungle before and we loved every minute of it. Dense jungle brought the imagination alive. All the jungle based films played out as we tried to imagine what could be around the next tree. The sound effects from Arnie’s “Predator”, the ethics of Sigourney’s “Gorillas in the Mist” and Axel Rose’s screaching lyrics of “Welcome to the jungle” were rattling through my imagination and fuelling the teenager within. How on earth he navigated us through is beyond me. There was no trail and if you stoodstill for 10 secs to take a photo whilst the group pressed on you would see nothing, that was how dense it was.
Luckily we lost no one as we waded through and enjoyed Sain’s (via Moes interpretation) live jungle lecture. We did not see any major wild life but plenty of evidence it was never far away. Termite mounds the size of London’s Gherkin, soldier ants big enough to lift your foot up, wild pepper hanging from vines and a tree twice as old as the Inca that Sain claims he has climbed to the top. These were some of the amazing things that unfolded with every swipe of the Columbian swaged machete! But my personal favourite was re-living a moment from “Predator” when Arnie slices a vine in half and then drinks the water that flows from it. Its true boys never grow up and this 36 year old was as happy as an ant-eater setting eyes on that Gherkin for the first time! The jungle trek was over and I know all five of us were disappointed it was. But yet again this tour just keeps on giving. Just before we waded back onto the boat we had to have another picture for the family album.
That was it, one last time, climbing back onto and taking the padded seat on the canoe just before we ploughed on to Rurrenabaque. I could of stayed on that canoe for weeks, thats how relaxing and amazing it was to be ambling along this absorbing part of Bolivia. Everyone felt the same and every member of the crew made it their intention to give us 5 a experience we wil simply not forget. After a quick stop to register with the national park ranger and see some massive spiders it was time to disembark one last time as the trip and canoe ride ended on the banks of Rurrenabaque. An emotional and grateful farewell to Sain and his team was brief as they turned around and sailed the 3 days back to Mapidi! So that was it, Ride & River was over for the 5 of us and I’m not sure what else we can do in South America that will come close.
G and I decided that we had seen enough and we did not have a need to push on further into the jungle and do the Pampas or other tourist excursions. Our journey here was all about those 6 days. So we enjoyed a couple of nights with Moe enjoying the great food and bars of the very cosy but cool Rurrenabaque before flying to La Paz with Amaszonas Air for £65. The 30 minute flight was also great fun and a great way to wrap up our 6 day expedition!
I would like to wrap up by thanking the whole Gravity team for leaving no stone unturned and putting on a effortless and simply once in a lifetime experience. Please think twice about seeing Bolivia as simply Uyuni Salt flats, La Paz, the death road and Copacabana! Commit to this adventure, experience the real Bolivia and not see another tourist whilst doing it – well apart from members of your group of course! It is so well organised and catered for, anyone of any riding ability or fitness can fully enjoy and embrace this 6 day tour.
About the author – Sean is a guest blogger sharing his story with Trivelo. A mechanical engineer and British Cycling Mountain Bike guide, from Shoreham By-Sea, England. Sean has a huge passion for mountain biking and adventure and currently enjoying a sabbatical and travelling the world. You can follow his journey in his blog http://www.marmaladetrailbiking.co.uk/travelling-south-America/