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Numb legs and worn out brake pads: Sucre to Toro Toro, then on to La Paz

Toro Toro (meaning “Mud Mud” in the indigenous Quechuan language) is a small town 200km north of Sucre in the Toro Toro National Park known for it’s interesting geological formations and dinosaur footprints. Everyone that we’ve met that has been there said it was one of the highlights of their Bolivian trip and they couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Alestair, the French cyclist we rode with back in Patagonia, attempted to cycle to Toro Toro in March but he only made it halfway as he was told that the road further on was washed away. However we knew that the route was possible, by bike at least, because Cass and Andy, the cyclists that we met in Sucre, had come from Toro Toro and we had read about their route online (you can read it and see more photos here, http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/ruta-toro-toro-bolivia/ ). As we only had a few weeks left on our Bolivian visa we had to decide where to ride and prioritise what we were going to see, and Toro Toro made it to the top of the list. We knew it would be a hard route but we felt like we were up for the challenge.

For five days we rode over mountains, in dry river beds and on dirt roads. We love this type of riding which is well away from the main roads and busy traffic, being self sufficient and spending very little money. We were in the middle of rural nowhere, passing only the tiny villages that never see tourists and rely on the land to survive. The locals were all genuinely interested in what we were doing and where we were going, often telling us the road was “muy malo” (very bad) up ahead and most of the time they weren’t wrong. Camping was also easy, though not always hidden from road but when the only passing traffic is the cows munching grass outside the tent at 2am, it doesn’t matter! There was a lot to love about this route.

It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows though, with loose surfaces, dust caked drivetrains and ridiculously steep inclines the riding was tough going. We had one of the hardest days from the town of Poroma which when we’d looked at the map we thought might be quite an easy day. It was anything but easy. The big descent down to Poroma with 1000m elevation loss skewed the profile of the rest of day, making it look fairly mellow but the climbs were brutally steep.

One day we were treated to a singletrack downhill trail, which was the only way to access the small village of Viru Viru. It was a town of barely ten families, had no shop but did have a medical centre where we filled up our water bottles. Despite the lack of, well, anything in town there was actually 4G phone signal, as a few locals were browsing Facebook and sending WhatsApps, which was unexpected.

The building of health centres, flash football pitches and development of rural mobile signal are all the work of the current president, Evo Morales, who is either doing great work or is corrupt as hell depending on who you speak to. For a bit of background into Bolivian politics, Evo has been president since 2006 but only because he changed the constitution so that he could remain in power after his second term ended. He’s the first president to come from a campesino (country folk, literal translation: ‘peasant’) background and as 60% of the population are campesinos, he plays to this majority and proclaims that he’s doing everything for them – to provide safe drinking water, build schools, roads and irrigation systems and our favourite, to “start to plan to irradiate rural poverty”. Doing what, we don’t know but they have put a sign up saying they are going to start thinking about it! (Billboards showing what he’s doing line every road).

While all of these are noble aspirations and you can see some evidence of this work in rural areas, there’s a darker side to the presidency. For example, we assumed that lots of people must be in favour of him as “Si Evo 2020-25” is graffitied on every wall, building and stone on the main roads but we have found out that he actually has a paid propaganda team to paint the pro Evo graffiti everywhere. At the start of his presidency it seems like he did a lot of good but after gaining the majority support the power seems to have gone to his head. He not only moved the seat of government from the capital of Sucre to La Paz but he has also built a huge tower in the centre for him and his government (and friends), from tax payers money, which should have been used to actually start to reduce the rural poverty. There’s a lot more about Evo and his socialist movement, from drugs (Bolivia is the third biggest coca producer after Colombia and Peru and while most of the coca grown here is for chewing, tea or medicine, a lot is made into cocaine) to human trafficking, but more can be read about this online. It’s an interesting topic that we’ve learned a lot about from various people we’ve stayed with in Bolivia and it seems that everyone has a strong opinion on the president. Either way, it’s not too dissimilar to British politics, the only difference being that the politicians are better at covering up the corruption and lies at home.

Politics over… After Viru Viru the fun broken road hike-a-bike that we’d heard so much about started. We managed to ride a lot of it but some sections had fallen trees and narrow sections to carry the bike over. It is hard to believe that this track was the main road between Sucre and Toro Toro only two years earlier. Now only bicycles and pedestrians can make it down to the river and up the other side.

Apparently the road is due to be repaired but the cost of rebuilding the road on the side of the hill and making it stronger to withstand erosion isn’t going to be cheap and whilst the president was spending lots on roads at the start of his term, nowadays corruption has taken hold. It’s a shame though because after the broken track there is a brand new bridge spanning the wide river but it is slowly eroding away too, soon to be too expensive to repair. After getting there we felt like the only people alive after a nuclear apocalypse or like we were in The Walking Dead, about to be attacked by zombies!

The only clue that this was once a real road!

The uphill after this section started off rideable but soon we were pushing our heavy bikes up the steep gradient and losing our footing in the deep gravelly dust. Hot, sweaty and tired. That’s how’s we felt by the town of Carasi when by chance a man at the side of the road asked if we wanted a place to stay. We clearly must have looked bedraggled so he offered us a room and a hot shower for 10 Bolivianos each (£1.10) and so after a wash, we bought lots of food in town chatted to all the locals who were really friendly and couldn’t understand what we were doing here and went to bed early listening to the 80’s mix that the man in the next room was blaring out until 10.30pm!

After having a change in routine (not sleeping in the tent) we felt as though we’d had an evening off and were more rested ready for the rest of the climb. Having a target helped too as we were only 38km from Toro Toro and we pushed on to get there before the storm that we could see in the distance hit.

We had a lovely three days in Toro Toro being tourists, socialising and hiking but also having a bit of a rest (well, time off the bikes anyway). We were joined on our two day tour in the National Park by Max and Leia from Germany, who we had already met once in Sucre and randomly they were staying at the same Toro Toro hostel, Arnaud from France and Nicholas from Germany which made us a group of six. To enter the National Park you must have a guide and Emilio was our fantastic local guide. We were often entertained by being told to use our “Imagination” and say what the rock/tree/cloud/random shape looked like to us and he was fond of saying “Hakuna matata”, if he wasn’t playing his wooden flute! It was great to have such a nice group of people to share our time in Toro Toro with, especially after five days in the wilderness.

There were three places we visited on the tour, the first day we went to the impressive “Ciudad de Itas” which were above-ground caves formed by wind and water erosion of the sandstone. It involved a steep 20km drive up into the mountains, gaining 1000metres altitude. Steph soon realised that she doesn’t like being in cars anymore, especially on roads barely wide enough for the mini bus.

We also saw more viscachas, and this time closer up than the ones outside Tupiza.

After lunch we drove back down into the valley before descending under ground into the “Caverna Umajalanta” (which means “where water disappears underground” in Quechua). There were some tiny tunnels to crawl through and sketchy rope ladders to navigate while making our way through the pitch blackness. We both really enjoyed it, but it’s not for anyone claustrophobic!

When you visit the cave you realise why they declared the area a National Park. Emilio explained how in the past people would snap off the stalectites to take as souvenirs, graffiti tag the rocks and generally destroy the landscape, so although you need a guide and pay to enter the park it’s good that they are protecting the area for future generations.

Our second day was a hike from town to the “Canyon El Vergel” and while the views looking down into the 350m deep canyon were stunning, they were even more so from down at the base of the canyon. After what felt like 800 steps we were jumping across boulders, all aches in the legs forgotten, with the thought of a swimming hole ahead. Ben had his shoes of before we’d even got to the pool!

The water was freezing but it was totally worth it.

Toro Toro is also renowned for its many dinosaur footprints that litter the area. While not in as concentrated an area as the ones in Sucre there are more different types in Toro Toro and they are spread throughout the surrounding landscape.

Leaving Toro Toro we decided to take the “main” road (which is actually just a bumpy dirt and cobbled road) as it’s shorter and involves way less climbing. It meant that we could get to Cochabamba, the next big city, in 2 days rather than the 5 it would have taken following the bikepacking route. The main reason for this decision was that we only had two weeks left on our 90 day visa and we want to have some time exploring La Paz before we have to leave the country.

Reaching Cochabamba we were exhausted, smelly and hungry. We went straight to the hostel where our friends Sam and Nina from our workaway in Sucre were volunteering and made ourselves more human again. Coincidentally it was Nina’s birthday so we joined them and some other hostel guests to play crazy golf on the roof of a bar, which was a lot of fun. Ben won (obviously) and Steph was only 2 points behind. It was nice to be in a city again with all of the modern conveniences, but the traffic and general city noise took some getting used to again after over a week in the back of beyond.

With the hostel being really expensive we found a Couchsurfing host in Cochabamba for the second night in they city, it turned out to be an interesting experience. Ramiro, Juan and Elias were part of a non-profit, pro-Evo community group that aims to show tourists the more traditional side of Bolivian life and have a more authentic cultural experience. For example, we’ve noticed most Bolivian houses are unfinished and the centre where we stayed (and where they live) was no exception. It’s a good job we had a shower at the hostel because there was no plumbing, only a water tap you could drink/wash/flush the toilet from, we had straw beds in a small dark room and there was a gas burner on the floor for cooking. We already had more of an insight into how the majority of regular, poorer Bolivian folk live from cycling through the rural villages, often filling water from peoples houses and from speaking to them, but it was interesting to experience it first hand in a city.

It was nice for a day, having someone organising an itinerary for us to ensure we see the best of the city, but it was very full-on. We were taken to the Cristo de la Concordia statue, the biggest concrete Jesus in all of South America, which is around 3 metres taller than the one in Rio. Then some more sightseeing in town, including history and politics lessons as we walked and later we went to ‘Chernobyl’, a dancing and drinking place (think barn dance meets nightclub) where the local tipple ‘chicha’, a fermented corn drink is served. Very tasty it was too.

After a day off that wasn’t exactly a day off we headed out on the main road to the defacto capital, La Paz. We were faced with a two day climb to get back up to the heights of the altiplano which was an easier gradient than anything on the Toro Toro route (and it was paved) but because we were still super tired, it was a struggle at times. We made it over the 4500m high point on the second day. We had cycled from dawn until night fall and had to head off the road and camp at 4300m because as darkness fell, the temperature quickly plummeted to below zero. Finding a campsite in the dark can be difficult but handily they are redoing the road and we found a flat spot behind a mound of gravel next to the road works. Not the prettiest campsite but it was hidden and sheltered. By the morning everything was frozen including the tent which was a solid chunk of ice and ten times heavier, but being east facing everything thawed out pretty quickly.

The remaining two and a half days of cycling went pretty fast with much easier riding and we even met another cyclist on the road for the first time in ages. Filbo from Germany has been cycling for 2 years 5 months, starting from Germany and cycling through Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand before arriving in Chile a few months ago. He’s even heading to North America in a similar time frame as us so no doubt our paths will cross again the future.

It was a fun two days together, camping at a police station (they saw us looking lost in the main plaza and invited us in!) and sharing some meals (it’s nice to have two stoves to cook a more exciting meal!). We pedalled hard to try and get to La paz on the fourth day but Ben’s tyre had a slow puncture (we both need new tyres really badly!) so he needed to pump it up every hour and then Filbo got a flat tyre quite late in the afternoon, so it wasn’t meant to be. On the fifth day we arrived at Samai’s apartment, our amazing couchsurfing host for a few days off and some city exploring… but more on that next blog!

It’s been quite a learning curve over the past month with plenty of challenges to boot but was it worth the effort? Hells yeah!

Lesson 1: Bolivian downhills always have a climb, regardless of what the map shows you! You need to look at each climb/section on its own, not in relation to rest of days route because it is always bigger/steeper/longer than it looks. It might look easy but only in comparison to an even bigger one.

Lesson 2: Cass’ 8/10 is a challenging route for us mere mortals! We think we need to lighten our bikes even by a few kilograms in order to enjoy the bikepacking routes a bit more and make the bike handle better. Our coats, tent and sleeping gear, for example, are all great but a bit too heavy and bombproof for a true bikepacking set up. We also want to reassess how we pack everything and change some of our luggage, but that will have to be something that waits until the States when there are more options.

We didn’t have any touring or bikepacking experience before this trip so everything is a learning process and only by being on the bikes for almost a year, meeting lots of people with different setups and riding all types of terrain do we learn what we actually want and need. Ben constantly thinks about this type of thing when riding so by the time we get to the States we’ll probably have a whole list of new kit that we want!

Until next time,

Steph and Ben

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2 comments

  1. Hi,

    More amazing photos and great blogging! Some fantastic scenery and action shots and the crazy golf on the roof sounds fab. The dinosaur footprints look brilliant too – well worth the effort to get there by the looks of it. It sounds like you are becoming experts at finding half decent cheap/free accommodation too – that must be a relief. We look forward to hear more about your exploits in La Paz – an interesting, if at times edgy, place. Watch out for the llama foetuses!

    We enjoyed the rest of the Summer. The weather has turned distinctly Autumnal this week here, just in time for the kids to go back to school. Solana started in Year 1 this week – she seems to be settling in well. She says she is enjoying learning new things (so far) – I hope that attitude lasts! I still find it hard to believe that she has finished her first year of school though… Our big news is that we are currently going through the adoption process – we’re hoping to adopt a little sister or brother for Solana. It is an intense process but we seem to be progressing smoothly so far – exciting but also more than a little scary…

    Hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Bolivia. Where next? Peru?

    Julie, Laura & Solana x

    1. Wow congrats. That’s big news! Glad solana is still enjoying school, year 1 is such a good year. Yes we are in Peru now, excited to be in country number 7 and seeing somewhere different. We’ve loved having the list you gave us of places to see, we’ve been ticking them off as we’ve been going!

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