The North Yungas: Thick into It

Fallen but Not Defeated

The beast we spoke so highly of when we first entered the Yungas has nearly swallowed us. Mud licked at our wheels, gurgled, burped, and sucked us into the folds of terrestrial digestion to the point of complete bicycle failure. Despite the knowledge that the 223-mile loop contained 34,000ft of climbing on 4×4 track, we’d chosen to visit the North Yungas. We just didn’t think it’d choose so vehemently not to have us.

On day two of the loop, we rode out of Caranavi past burned tires and the town’s cliffside dump, not altogether encouraging, but familiar Bolivian sights nonetheless. Following the river valley, we found ourselves lifted along by a cotillion of butterflies, electric and royal blues, yellow, orange and black, scurrying around and bumping our bikes and shoulders. Swinging bridges connected our route with small mining towns, where bulldozers and dump trucks worked for gold, even as fiestas sang across the river in celebration of Mother’s Day. We joined in the spirit and wished all the women we saw a happy Mother’s Day, bringing a stream of smiles.

We spent the second and third nights in the mining town of Guanay, with Katie strewn out on the bed, ransacked by the Bolivian tummy bug. To continue making progress, we’d wanted to take a boat to the next town of Maipiri, allowing us to circumnavigate the 3300m of total elevation gain we’d otherwise ride. Unfortunately, we got fifteen different answers about the availability of boats and surrendered to the lost cause (we later learned our French cycling friend caught one the next day).

Riding the ‘Ol Diesel Steam Train

Boat or no boat, on the fourth day we set off from Guanay determined to see it through. Perhaps offended by our nautical effort, James’s bike threw a fit and by the second climb, he no longer had use of his climbing gears. The chain was jumping with every stroke and inspection showed that our drivetrain was utterly exhausted. That was about the time we heard a dumptruck horn across the gulch. We picked up our speed as best we could to reach a flat to wait. Disheartened after a few minutes with no additional sound of the horn, we thought for sure the truck had stopped to pick up the ghost white bone-racked cattle we’d passed. Lucky for us it hadn’t, and it arrived moments later.

We hoisted our bikes up along three 200-gallon drums of diesel cargo and conquered at least four more massive climbs that spilled out onto knife ridges, all the while the truck blasting its horn to warn oncoming traffic to move off the single lane road. We saw distant glaciers and expansive greens laid out on mountainsides and tumbled into grapefruit paradise just before dusk.

Within moments of laying our bikes on the soccer fields to camp in Chumate, we were swarmed by curious youth staring slack-jawed. They huddled in an arc, whispering and giggling to each other, wondering what weird thing we’d do next. We took out the stove and one cried, ”Espacio!” (Space!) They all repeated the term in hushed whispers, while inching back on their knees. This went on for the evening. They never really posed questions to us, but came and went in twos and threes, stopping to sit and stare.

Too Thick to Continue 

We caught the same dump truck the next morning to Maipiri, where we sat out a tropical deluge and planned our means of escape. The following day we set off for Santa Rosa where we’d be able to find four-wheel drive transit capable of completing the loop. The roads were nearly impassible, wet paint mud that deteriorated into thick muck pots. The mud slowly encased and filled in all the gaps in our chainrings and gears, clogged the brakes, and gave us an oppressive weight to lift out of the valley. This time, Katie’s bike became unrideable, as the chain wouldn’t release from the chainring and continually tried to wrap itself between the gear and the frame. It became the first time we’d been reduced to pushing and heralded the end of our vain attempt at this loop. We stopped in a small town, where we asked for buckets of water to release our bicycles from the earthy grips of the Yungas. Over three bananas, we decided Santa Rosa would be our furthest reach for the day, totaling a meek 18.5 km.

The decision to take transport to Sorata really was our only option and perhaps as much a relief to our legs and minds as to our bikes. At 3:30am, the wild western town of Santa Rosa came alive with locals swarming Land Cruisers to ride from the bellows up toward the Altiplano and La Paz. We strapped the bikes to the roof and pinballed our way around muddy curves, guided by the tracked out ghosts of transport past. Floodlights illuminated our path while we still lacked daylight, and a passenger in the back right more than once confirmed wheel clearance when passing over stream washouts and sheer drops.

After one of the most spectacular sunrise drives, we arrived to Sorata, nestled against the sacred mountainside of Mt. Illampu. We’d arrived, overwhelmed with gratitude for having had access to more wheels than two to conquer the North Yungas. In some ways it conquered us, but adventure we sought and adventure we had.