Justin Barnes on the Ruta de Las Tres Cordilleras
Justin Barnes reports in after solo riding a sizable portion of the Ruta de las Tres Cordilleras, a challenging traverse from the high mountains of Bolivia to Peru. He shares a useful detour that allows for easier visa logistics, uncomfortable news on the mining situation in the area, and a poignant, personal tale of what he learned from the route’s many challenges…
I’ve always loved traveling in the mountains under my own power. Although bikepacking is relatively new to me, I’ve grown up riding bikes, climbing, skiing, and exploring the backcountry. Earlier this year, I found myself at the end of a work contract, and after a little digging around, booked a cheap flight to Bolivia. The Ruta de la Tres Cordilleras seemed like a good chance to satisfy the draw of riding a bike above 4000m, experience the allure of the Bolivian Altiplano, and revisit South America after a long hiatus from my Peace Corps days.
The ride starts in the mountain town of Sorata. After arriving in La Paz and getting the lay of the land, I hopped on a minibus straight out of Bolivia’s capital. After a pavement stint out of Sorata, the trail throws you into the business with a fast 1500m descent, only to climb it again and again over the next two days on quiet dirt roads, two-track, singletrack, and “no track.” My first camp was just outside the small village of Sorejaya on an old Aymaran walking path, one that was sometimes washed out on a 45-degree slope, with long run-outs or over cliff bands. The next day was spent pushing cross-country to an abandoned jeep track that was my first introduction to 4000m+ riding. After that, the roads descend and climb again until you pass through picturesque farming villages, climb back up to the altiplano, top out at 4600m, and repeat a few more times until arriving in the first resupply town in Tajani. The views in this section are stunning and you get a sense very early in the ride that you are out there. It’s just you and the local farmers as you leave the handful of other travelers behind in Sorata.
Lago Titicaca Detour
In order to avoid some of the logistical visa issues of the ride, I chose to detour down to Lake Titicaca and Tilali, on the Peruvian side, instead of bussing from Ananea to Puno via Juliaca for visa stamps as Cass and Michael did in the original route. The ride around the eastern side of the lake was quite nice, with incredible views of the sapphire water and similar to riding to the area around Lake Tahoe. I stopped for lunch in Moho, which was very charming. There’s a cathedral on the square and plenty of places to grab a set lunch – an almuerzo – or an ice cream, the ubiquitous helado. Once digested, the climb up and out leads to an incredible dirt road to Rosaspata, where some laborers in the square invited me to have shots of beer with them. I was happy to oblige.
That night, I ended up camping just northwest of Rosaspata in a beautiful valley that was home to a handful of Aymara households. The police and community paid visits to my tent that night as they’d never seen a gringo in that area before and were highly suspicious of my motives. After a few hours of negotiation, in which I was able to convince them that I was neither a robber nor an evil spirit, I was able to stay put for the night. But it wasn’t a particularly warm reception. It was cold and there were dogs circling my tent all night, so I got up early and made breakfast a few miles down the dirt road.
The rest of the ride to Cojata was on the road and it climbed steadily for hours. It’s mellow riding up a valley with river access and lots of water options. As you climb up and cross the altiplano back to the mountains, you get your first glimpse of the Apolabamba Range. In Cojata, I ate at one of the two restaurants, run by a tiny old Aymara woman, where I had some mystery meat soup that may have been rubber. The road turns to dirt again between Cojata and Suches, with plenty of washboard and incredible views.
The settlement of Suches felt like a Wild West frontier town and marked the beginning of the mining traffic. House-sized earth moving dump trucks passed me all the way to Ananea, but they gave me lots of space and were otherwise respectful. After seeing the contaminated moraine lakes below La Rinconada, traversing the top of the pass now involves finding the best way to avoid the mud of tailings (mine dump) water mixed with the pulverized earth that would quickly destroy a derailleur hanger. I threw my bike in the bed of a mining truck to get across a quick section. Negotiating that tailings area is something of a post-apocalyptic moment. We don’t know how lucky we are, do we?
Rider Background: Justin Barnes
I live in Vancouver, B.C., where we have a lot of riding options and a growing network of bikepacking routes. Last year I rode the Baja Divide, the Oregon Outback, and the BC Epic 1000, along with a handful of smaller trips. Between 2001-2004 I lived in northern Ecuador with an indigenous community as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was there that I learned how to speak Spanish, became familiar with Quichua, and learned how to handle the sticky situation of receiving an unexpected gift of a meal full of mystery meat while the eyes of the entire community are waiting for your reaction. I took my dream bike with me to the Tres Cordilleras, a frame my friend Nick at Kermode Cycles made for me, designed around the 26×4 platform, with a Rockshox Bluto suspension fork. While that much rubber is overkill for most of this route, it sure was a lot of fun tearing down dry river beds and skidding around hairpin turns.
La Rinconada Gold Mine
As far as the mine development around Ananea is concerned, it’s rampant and at a fever pitch. Descending into town felt as though I was inside the mine itself. I made my way downhill eventually, via a network of tailings ponds and new embankments that had been freshly excavated to house a new network of pools.
The sound and ubiquity of the two-stroke generators spotted across the landscape and in front of La Rinconada, along with the Burtynsky landscape at sunset, was surreal. It’s horrific, tragic, and affronting; one of the most striking places I’ve seen. I would say the route immerses you into it, to the point that you not only see the tragedy of it, but are bathed in the pulverized earth from the massive dump trucks using that road to get to from one pile to another.
Leaving Ananea, I ducked under an old barbed wire fence and tried to stay as close to the trajectory of the path downwards and into the choke of the valley towards Cuyo Cuyo. It was messy, leading me through an active mining and tailings area. But after some terrain negotiation I found a road that exited the mine and took me to an old shepherd’s settlement. The owner was home and we discussed how he was sandwiched between the mine above and the one below.
It was a stunning area to experience – just before the rock steps into the canyon began. As for the canyon itself, looking back on the bike carry it was probably something best commiserated amongst the company of another companero. It took me maybe 2.5 hours to make my way slowly down the overgrown, 1000m descent, acutely aware of the 100% lack of rescue should I have tumbled down the kitty litter scree. The trail was quite faint and difficult to find at times, particularly with the bike pulling you downhill. Once I hit the two-track, the ride to Cuyo Cuyo was outrageous, complete with locals asking, “Usted vienes de donde?” Just where you are coming from?
Cuyo Cuyo was a real treat. I loved the stone houses and the river was out of this world. I was pointed to a walking track that led to a hot spring off the road. Built by the Spanish conquistadores, it was like going back in time. The hot springs were rejuvenative, the food less so. I watched a high school soccer tournament with the rest of the town and all eyes alternated between the kids on the field and this strange gringo eating popcorn and shouting “Venga! Venga!”
Beyond Huanjollo, the overland section to the abandoned jeep track was confusing and taxing, but I met a very nice family who fed me fried bread and mate in the early morning, which set the tone. The descent down into to a tiny village on the banks of a pristine river was incredible. The climb back up and over was the only time I saw rain, but it was such a gentle grade of climb that it didn’t seem to matter. Before long I was at the top and ripping down that descent into Cucero at 50kmh, which was entirely redeeming for a three-hour climb. It was super cold, though it didn’t matter as I bunked in the small junction settlement of Crucero and had a solid cuarto de pollo for dinner that night.
Onwards, the road riding was super fast. But once I hit Antuana, the dog situation changed. It was as though a switch had been flipped and they were all attracted to my ankles, fiercely. Losing the track, I fought past two very brave dogs and realized that I would have to regain the route by either fighting them again or going overland and down a river. I ended up choosing the latter and it cost me hours and hundreds of calories of effort to regain the road. It was probably a low point of the trip, but looking back, at least my ankles survived intact. I probably should have zeroed again in Macusani, the main town on the route, but I foolishly pressed on. To be honest, I felt more relaxed in the campo than in towns. Peruvians are a loud bunch, and I grew rather tired of waking up with the rest of the folks in the hotels.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to ride the Ausangate loop. I sat just above the junction and asked myself some heavy questions that ultimately led to the conclusion that I didn’t have enough energy, food, or strength to take it on. It broke my heart to make my way down the valley instead of up it. Walking away has been the kernel of my learning about personal limits and pacing. No easy lessons, but good ones to take on.
All in all, this was an incredible route, deserving of the 9/10 difficulty rating. I certainly learned a thing or two about pacing in the Andes, rest days, personal limits, and riding at altitude. Also, I learned about the challenge of finding good food. I was only really able to find bread, galletas (cookies), some canned tuna, and toilet paper in small pueblos. It made me even more grateful when I could find an almuerzo or cena (a set lunch and dinner), but the timing of the day is critical for getting fed in town. I’m going to take more bagged meals for future trips like these. I’ll also take dehydrated veg on future trips to remote areas with limited culinary options. It also goes without saying to keep things clean – I probably should have been more vigilant about washing water bottles, for instance. It’s so important to keep a healthy gut. Mine staged a coup on the way to Pitumarca and onwards to Cusco – during a traffic strike complete with picket lines and burning tires.
As far as the rest of the bikepacking routes that I’ve done, I’d estimate that this one relied on every bit of Spanish and cross cultural skills that I developed in Peace Corps, along with the ability to ride a laden bike at altitude for 16 days. I’m relatively new to bikepacking; in the context of alpine climbing, I’d give the route at least TD 5.11. I rode the Baja Divide with a few folks last January, including Nick Carman and Lael Wilcox, and the Tres Cordilleras is another level altogether. The food, elevation, remoteness, necessity for Spanish skills, micro terrain management, and decision making requirements made it more committing than that odyssey, which offers a different set of challenges.
TIPS, HINTS, AND PITFALLS
- I carried 3.5-4l of water, which was overkill for most of the sections, especially while climbing up and over multiple mountain passes. There were tons of small streams and other water sources that would be easy to filter and drink from. I took an MSR GravityWorks filter system that worked well, but I wrapped it in a plastic bag and put it in my sleeping bag at night to protect it from freezing and cracking.
- I’d also take a pair of lightweight synthetic or down socks/booties next time. I didn’t anticipate how chilly things can get camping between 4200-4800m and my toes suffered the brunt of the cold. Once the sun sank below the horizon around 5:30, I put on all of my layers to retain body heat.
- Finding good quality food in developing parts of the world is a real challenge. We take for granted the ability to find fresh fruit or veg, but I didn’t see anything besides processed foods between La Paz and Cusco, especially in small villages. I’m going to take dehydrated veg and fruits on my next trip to add some nutrition to the rest of my meals. Cooking on an alcohol stove at elevation proved to be no issue at all; I carried too much fuel thinking I wouldn’t encounter a resupply opportunity, but alcohol was available almost everywhere.
- Finding time for (or in my case forcing) a non-riding day to recover is something I should have done more of. When the daily elevation gains vary between 900-1700m and riding is already at high elevation, recovery and proper nutrition are essential. I think I would have been able to ride the Ausangate jewel of the trip had I been better fed and had more rest.
- Looking at the track from Cass and Michael’s original route, I’d say they made the best use of their time riding to Ananea and bussing to Juliaca/Puno for the visa exit/entry process. I missed what was surely a beautiful and remote section by going around Lake Titicaca, and is likely good timing for a rest day after the Bolivian section of the route. Riding around the lake is quite nice, provides a welcome change of pace, and helps avoid some awkward visa logistics, but the mountains of this route are something special.
La Ruta de las Tres Cordilleras
As the name suggests, the Ruta de las Tres Cordilleras is a ride that revolves around three mountain ranges – the Cordillera Real, the Cordillera Apolobamba and the Cordillera Vilcanota. It connects the mountain settlements of Sorata in Bolivia to Pitumarca in Peru, providing a beautiful and incredibly remote, high elevation traverse between the two countries, as well as an assortment of Andean passes, backcountry singletrack, and a few committing hike-a-bikes. For more info, see here.
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