Via Condoriri

Bikepacking to La Paz by the back door - tracks and trails of the Cordillera Real via Condoriri basecamp. Bitterly cold with snow to negotiate on the high passes above 5000m.

“Three nights you are staying, yes? Here you are..” said the girl at my hospedaje in Copacabana as, to my surprise, and to a degree, shock, she handed me three rolls of toilet paper… Bolivia being the place it is however perhaps her generosity was not entirely unjustified. I was very sick here nine years ago, but this time managed to leave town with a credit of one complete roll and only a slightly grumbly stomach.

Not unsurprisingly perhaps I enjoyed a spot of street photography in Copacabana.

From Copacabana it is possible to ride to La Paz in a long day, or day and a half, but there is a better way. I would have liked to have made a full traverse of the Cordillera Real but worries over the lingering effects of bronchitis on such a demanding and remote route of many, many days meant it wasn’t even worth considering. Thanks however to the inspiration of a couple of friends I met in Arequipa, who came this way two years ago, I planned a foray up in the cordillera for a few days before arriving into La Paz via the ‘catflap’ so to speak rather than on the main highway.


It is probably better that I tell the story in pictures rather than words, there are quite a few however so I do apologise if this post is slow to load.

The 5-seconds before of that first pic.
Copacabana is unashamedly a tourist town. It hadn’t changed a bit since I was last here with the exception that ‘local’ tourists – weekenders and vacationers from within Bolivia and across the border in Peru now appear to outnumber the foreigners.
The faded pedalos on the lake shore hadn’t changed a bit either, perhaps just a bit more faded.
There are two ways to get from Copacabana to the Strait of Tiquina some 40km away.. one is the asphalt road, the other is not asphalt… Dirt being the preferred choice I went that way.
The Strait of Tiquina connects the larger and smaller parts of Lake Titicaca. 850m shore to shore, vehicle traffic is carried across on these large wooden rafts, even buses and trucks.
They’re powered by a single outboard motor and are amusingly flexible and creaky as they creep across the water..
You’ll be used to seeing all the brochure pictures of pristine tourist destinations throughout South America. The just-out-of-shot reality however is often very different. The likes of Coca Cola, Nestlé and a host of other businesses force their packaging and commodities on communities ill-equipped to cope, combine that  with the pressure of mass tourism and this is the result. Coca Cola and the like always trot out the line “we provide information such that the consumer can make good choices with regard to recycling” or some such crap, but the consumer has no choices here, there is no infrastructure yet the multinationals, the plastic industry and so on take no responsibility for the damage they cause. The problem is so bad that a clean up would take decades and cost billions.. per country. When will business be held accountable for the damage it causes…
Anyway.. I digress. It is a dull stretch on asphalt of about 30km from Tiquina to the town of Huarina. My legs felt utterly empty, a stop for sugar (in a returnable glass bottle) was mandated. Bloody Coca Cola, bloody everywhere.., it’s a corporate hegemony.
Huarina was a desolate place, happily I’d brought a few days worth of supplies from Copacabana knowing how hard it can be to find supplies on the road here. As such I was able to take a left turn and follow a quiet dirt track up onto the pampa, heading in the general direction of Palcoco…
… where I found a quiet spot to spend the night with a fine view of Huayna Potosi (6088m / 19,974ft)
Fine views of the Cordillera Real accompanied dinner.
Frost bike, it was a bitterly, and surprisingly cold night for just 4000m altitude.
The village of Peñas. I found a very cheery chap here with a tiny shop and some fresh bread with which to supplement supplies from Copacabana.
Altiplano towns and villages can be desolate places. Bolivia is very much poorer than Peru, and it shows. This is Palcoco. Friendly place however, a tiny shop on the plaza had some onions, carrots, and very black bananas. Knowing it would be the last place for any kind of supplies for a few days I stocked up.
From Palcoco a terrific track climbs for 27km up into the Cordillera Real.
With some fine views of Huayna Potosi to enjoy along the way.
The track ends at the trail head of the climb up to Condoriri basecamp… It’s a fine trail with some decent singletrack and some awkward/difficult hiking/carrying/climbing with a loaded bike.
The trail is that slightly worn area of rock to the right of the pic.
Mountain friend
Fabulous riding
It made for quite a tiring end to the day…
… but well worth the effort.
This is Condoriri, the name applies to the three peaks from the right, so called because together they resemble a condor sitting with its wings outstretched. Camp is at 4660m (15,288ft) while the highest summit is at 5648m (18,530ft). Nights here were the coldest of the trip so far. With a -15C combined rating of my outer bag + down-filled liner, I needed to wear all of my base layers and other clothes, plus down jacket, and I was still cold. Possibly somewhere around minus-really-f**king-cold.
The area is visited by climbers and trekkers.
Morning glass. I took my coffee down to shore to enjoy the peace.. only to have it ruined by the high-pitched buzz of a drone ten feet above my head filming my morning contemplation. A trekker on a guided trip had arrived and thought it a good idea. I can understand the attraction of drone photography but right on top of me… honestly some folk have no boundaries. Happily the frigid air meant the batteries were holding no charge and the stupid thing died after a minute or two :-)
Mostly however such places attract really great folk. A few folk did pass through and proved great company. This is Mark, a mountaineer from South Africa. A super chap, we were able to catch up in La Paz for lunch earlier today. He treated me which was very kind, probably thought I looked a bit thin or something… You’ll notice I upgraded my riding head gear from army surplus jungle boonie hat to “vaquero Boliviano”. Better sun protection, and caked with dust and a bit shabby from the road I rather like it.
I stopped two nights. The plan was to climb the neighbouring peak, Pico Austria, at 5300m. I reached about 5000m at which point the increasing snowcover and my lack of hardware.. crampons, and, at the minimum, a pole together with the exposure meant I thought it prudent to descend. The snow is somewhat unseasonal. A big storm swept through about 10 days ago. Normally the climb is a straightforward scramble.
No bad thing however. I enjoyed a super day of drinking tea and exploring around the lake. The bird in the pic was the one bird on the lake. It followed me everywhere….
The air is cold but the sun strong. I can say in all honesty I have paddled and lounged on a beach that is almost the same altitude as the summit of Mont Blanc. The water is icy but good for stinky cycling feet…
There are trout in the lake. The caretaker of the basecamp hut has this very, very leaky old boat. Three people are required, one to row, one to deploy the net, and one to bail as fast as possible.
Condoriri basecamp. Hut lighting is solar + batteries.
Condoriri and the fabulous southern sky. Just the very faintest remaining glow of dusk on the summit.
Big cat. A puma trotted by in the night. Probably just as well the empty tin of tuna from dinner was by my bike rather than in my tent..
I left Condoriri on some more fine singletrack heading down the valley…
..before making a left turn onto a deserted track heading for Huayna Potosi.
It was a fine ride through mostly wilderness, and a couple of tiny pueblitos.
Always llamas and alpacas in attendance.
Inevitably however there was going to be a climb. In this case a long, and in places very steep, one on a little used track to cross the shoulder of Huayna Potosi.
I love the terrain at around 5000m, the desolation has a particular flavour… Photo doesn’t show the howling gale blowing across this ridge. with an almost sheer drop each side I did hesitate briefly in the wind before riding across.
In this case at 5034m (16,516ft) the going wasn’t entirely straightforward… a little bit intense at times working my way across snow slopes, occasionally steep, hauling a loaded a bike..
It was clear the only traffic to have been this way since the last dump was of the camelid (llama/alpaca) variety.
Hard work and slow going… but terrific fun.
some stretches were rideable but only just, the melting snow meant very soft, muddy going.
But oh so worthwhile…! You can see the track as it descends..
Such a fantastic massif.
Clear of the snow. It was a tough slog over the pass but the good bit is knowing that when you’re that high the track can only go down…
On the descent I met Toby, from Kent. A thoroughly super chap he was making his way north through the cordilleras. Don’t meet many folk on these kinds of road so it made my day. The dog was just a random one that appeared from a nearby mining camp…
I also picked up a hitchiker while stopped. A tiny kitten materialised, climbed up my rear tyre and onto my rear bag. Might have been the tuna smell coming from the garbage bag, but it then climbed my back up onto my head, and although in need of a shower I don’t think that smells like tuna…
Police checkpoint above La Paz. No issues, seemed happy to see me.
.. and finally the catflap in the back door of La Paz, a steep, dirt track descent into the canyon. It took almost 8hrs to cover the 60km from Condoriri. I didn’t stop to eat more than a couple of chocolate bars, a little concerned at one point as to whether the snow meant I’d be going till after dark; I had no food left for a camp. I’ll be in La Paz for a few days I think. I haven’t been sleeping well at altitude, particularly with the extreme cold at Condoriri, so am lacking in rest. I’m feeling quite tired…

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