After four days of stools that resembled a kale smoothie, I finally took my first solid stool. When you’re down, and robbed of your ability to poo properly, you think about all the things that were once great in your life. I’d been sick three times in one month. My Bolivian chapter was ready to finish, so I mustered all the energy I could, and decided to escape Sorata, for the endless climbs and mountain passes that make up the infamous Tres Cordilleras route, in good time. I had only 4 days left on my Bolivian visa.
I met my first bikepackers in a very long time whilst exploring Sorata. Iohan and Mathilde had been bikepacking for almost the last year from Brazil south to Ushuaia, then north through Chile, Argentina and all of Bolivia. They started with a touring set up riding the renowned Kona Unit X, and slowly turfed everything they didn’t need refining to just the essential, to make high mountain passes and big days of climbing easier. Whilst in Santiago, Mathilde had her bike stolen out the front of a supermarket. Yes it was locked, right beside Iohans bike. With a super limited budget, she scoured the marketplace advertisements and found another 29er that’d do the job, setting her budget for the rest of the continent back a little, only accentuating the adventurous spirit, making do with what you can. Things were falling apart everywhere, but is wasn’t holding them back at all.
One particular thing that stood out was that she never asked for donations or complained about the incident on social media, she just made of it what she could and got back on the road, with what she could, a little more frugally than before.
We decided we would meet and finish the Bolivian side of Tres Cordilleras together. Unfortunately, i had to bail out after that, as i needed a bus to Huaraz to meet Kai, Kyle and Guillaume to ride the Alpomayo circuit.
On my day of departure, I had no idea where i’d find them, but halfway up a pavement climb, they appeared out of nowhere after staying on a sports oval in a nearby town. After our pavement climb, we seemed to be riding downhill or pushing back up steep Andean shoulders. I’ve come to the conclusion that in Bolivia, I have probably pushed my bike more hours than I have ridden it. But, the rewards are always worth it.
We wound our way around a few mountains, climbed some more, pushed and as the sun was setting, found the only flat camp spot for kilometres. Iohan and Matilde went to look for an owner to ask permission, whilst I studied a very confused dog. Primero el hefe quickly appeared and all was “todo bien” (everythings good). He asked lots of questions, smiled frequently. Before too long the whole town knew we were there.
I woke up to 10 Bolivians crowded around my frosted tent at 7.30am whilst I cooked morning coffee and devoured oats. Lots of smiles, laughter and amazement, from such a compact kitchen. I was thankful the call to the wild hadn’t come so early today.
We probably pushed our bikes close to 5 hours the next day, following some nice little sections of single track, and occasional double track on ancient Incan pathways. In one section, a trombone playing in a distant valley caught our attention. The strange noises and silly sounds made the perfect compliment to our push along a “pre Incan path” now, a rock strewn donkey trail. Beautiful nonetheless.
Though our riding was pretty sporadic, sharing the harder times with company was a beautiful thing. Iohan and Mathilde were total strangers a few days ago, and quickly became all the company I could ever want. Finding people who want to ride similar stuff out here is quite a rarity. Yet we had a lot in common, and more to talk about. Despite the long and sometimes demanding days, smiles were common, good conversation flowed, and the riding when possible, incredible.
I remember after one particular descent, Iohan asked why I never wore my helmet. We hit 45km/hr on gravel, if i had fallen my brain would be mush. I wondered for a few seconds, as I always wore it at the beginning of my trip. Quickly became uncomfortable due to it being of bad quality and bad fit, so it just dangled on the back of my bike. Iohan proceeded to tell me the story of his friend who had finished his trip very early due to a crash without a helmet, and a very close call with a brain injury.
Without a helmet, I justified myself as taking things slower and not taking as many risks, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew they were excuses.
Hundreds of people I met travelled without helmets, though rarely riding similar trails as myself. They had all survived, what made me any different? It pulled a chord in me somewhere, and the following months i would have my own experiences with the capacities for helmets to save lives.
Our final morning together we woke up to a man chanting and singing prayers for our safety from the divine. He was so persisted, hanging around for at least half an hour. Mathilde got roped into a long one sided conversation with the man. The sun was still yet to hit our frost covered tents. As the words of the man turned to steam, I thought about the generous and welcoming people of Bolivia, a land of people who often have less total worth than your bike, yet everything to give. When the people in the country aren’t terrified by you, they’re curious and interested. However, unshowered, dirty, tired and cold, sometimes you just want the company of yourself and your sleeping bag at such hours in the morning. Such was the case this particular morning.
Mathilde and Iohan had their eyes set on a few more valleys on the Tres Cordilleras route, whilst mine were on the distant Lago Titicaca. So atop one pass, we said our goodbyes before kicking up dust in our own directions. The banks of Lake Titicaca weren’t the easiest to access, but eventually I found my little spot, made dinner and watched the sunset over Lake Titicaca, eyes set on Peru.
I kept in touch with Mathilde and Iohan over the rest of the journey. They had their fair share of challenges in the months ahead. After riding through Perus infamous rainy season, Mathilde ran out of money, to the point that she couldn’t afford new tyres, so she finished riding in northern Peru. Crossing into Ecuador, she had all her important belongings stolen whilst in a restaurant just before she flew out.
Iohan, in the final weeks of his journey in Ecuador was involved in an accident with a drunk driver that almost took his life. The driver lost his arm, suffered a brain injury, and damaged his family’s reputation within the community. Iohan, managed to get away with only a sliced open arm, destroyed bike, a rattled brain and a very difficult end to his trip, navigating health care, and a flight out of the country back home.