For the most part this route follows the advice offered on the Andes by Bike website by Neil and Harriett Pike. The exception being at the end of the loop where I turned off to climb to Coroico instead of taking the climb closer to La Cumbre. You can find the full route information here.
As one final sendoff to a pretty grand experience in Bolivia, I decided to ride a 450km loop through the Southern Yungas, a department to the North East of La Paz. Only the South Western corner of Bolivia is locked on the altiplano, and the Yungas represents a transition zone between the altiplano at around 4000m, and the lowlying part if Bolivia representing the start of the Amazon Basin.
I’d done my research and knew that the road was a challenging one, almost completely unpaved and collecting about 11,000m of cumulative elevation gain along the way. The promise of shear mountain landscapes coated in tropical greenery, banana smoothies and maybe even some running water in the rivers was was enough to ignore the physical challenge.
Leaving Parque Nacional Sajama I tracked a paved road for a few days heading towards the turnoff the the loop and the beginning of a climb to Paso Abra Tres Cruces. Along the way I camped out in increasingly horrible spots near the road, culminating in a spot next to a old Bolivian man’s mud hut and having to put up with his crazed dog barking half a metre from the tent all night.
Eventually making it to Konani, I intended to take a few nights off and rest before starting the climb and descent into the valley. A combination of a few rude locals and an inability to find people manning the hospedaje’s meant that it meant that I ended up pushing straight pass the town that day instead.
The climb was relatively gradual, climbing and then losing metres constantly, and I camped a few nights along the way in fields of quinoa and near a small town about 400m short of the pass. That evening a llama herder stopped by to say hi and offer some of his whiskey, and then again showed his head in the morning to check that I had everything I needed.
Pushing off for the last of the climb I quickly met Felipe, a shrunken old Bolivian standing with a goofy grin and his head out the doorway watching my approach. He promptly invited me in for tea and mixed me a sweet brew with coca leaves to last me to the pass and help with the altitude. He offered me a small piece of bread and we said our farewells after half an hour.
At this point it was only a few more short hours to the pass, where I hoped to find a marching band alongside a big sign citing the elevation so that I could rest and gloat amongst the obvious achievement and highest point on my journey to date. Instead Abra Tres Cruces had a faint smell of urine and piles of rubbish strewn about the place. You wouldn’t guess my disappointment looking at the photo below but I’d just climbed to 4729m so I was probably pretty happy with myself.
The descent that followed dropped from the pass at 4729m all the way down to 1800m or so. After 6 days on the bike from Sajama, however, I decided to call quits to the descent at 3000m at Quime to rest for a few days. The beginning of the descent was shrouded in clouds with sections of the paved road disappearing over large shear drops into the valley on occasion. Visibility was poor but you could tell you were heading somewhere special because of the damp air and the sections of shear cliff faces. Temperature dropped quickly and new fashion statements were made, not having to worry about pedalling on the descent, overheating was of little concern.
The day after I arrived in Quime the fog properly cleared and I was alarmed to wake up and look out my window and find a quaint village locked in on each side by commanding peaks, my first glimpse at the Cordillera Real and enough of a vista to have me plan to stay another 2 nights. I quickly established myself as a local with a Bolivian woman serving coffee across the road and another mixing plantain smoothies before reading and putting my feet up to enjoy the surroundings.
After Quime was a beautiful section of road which hugged the cliffs a la ‘Camino de la Muerte’ closer to La Paz. In places the drop off the road was hundreds of metres high and the dusty riding made blind corners a challenge. The end of the day of riding was a spectacular dirt descent through a set of picturesque switchbacks to truly mark your descent into the valley. The flowing river offered invitation enough to wash myself and some clothes before the climbing really began.
The next few days were spent searching for river’s to bathe in and generally lounging around in some scorching jungle sun and peeling skin off my nose. I took a day off in a small town called Circuata and refuelled on chocolate before tracking a river for 2 days towards the Southern Yungas capital of Chulumani. En route I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a deep valley that I could have avoided. Late in the day and with not many sleeping options on account of all the steep climbing and cliffs, a chap with a truck hauling stone paving yelled out to hop in back where I was gratefully spared an hour of climbing up out of the valley.
I was on the home stretch now and after another rest day in Chulumani quickly carried on through some more gruelling climbing before popping out at Coroico, close to the end point of the popular and very touristic ‘death road’. I took a final few days off perched in a little campground high in the hills above the town, and did little more than read books while I recharged for the final gruelling ascent over La Cumbre to La Paz.
The final climb to La Cumbre began at around 1000m above sea level and rode gradually over 80km or so to 4671m. In all it took quite a few days to clear the high point. I opted not to take the ‘death road’ on account of it being similar to a lot of the riding I had done through Yungas already, as well as the pods of tourists on mountain bikes hurling past every few minutes going the other way. Instead I took the newly paved road which held a surprisingly small amount of traffic and plenty of encouragement from the cars that were there.
It also offered views like this, which I got to myself with no other travellers in sight:
When I finally made the pass it was with a huge smile, knowing that it was all downhill to La Paz, where I could rest and practice my Spanish for a month before heading off to tackle a whole country of sinister mountain climbs and spectacular remote scenery and hiking in Perú.