A Bloody Big Lake and a Sizable Bolivian City… Around Lago Titicaca to La Paz

If a ‘tourist’ is defined as ‘a person who is traveling, especially for pleasure’ then I am a without any shadow of a doubt a committed tourist. At the moment I would say I am travelling specifically for pleasure, seeking out the cycling routes I think will be the most rewarding. Right now I am a cyclist first, admirer of landscapes second and person interested in foreign cultures a distant third. It is for this reason that my course through southern Peru has bypassed most of the main traditional tourist draws to the country. I am interested in Machu Picchu but it held little allure when put up against the Cotahuasi and Colca canyons. I am slightly interested in the Peruvian Selva, but it has nothing on the might of the Andes for this self-confessed mountain addict. And I have absolutely no desire to visit Cuzco and drown in its ocean of tourism. I am a tourist, but one that is not interested in most of the things that Peruvians presume a tourist to desire. Over the past few months I have forever been explaining to slightly hurt Peruvians that I shan’t be visiting their ‘top’ attractions. Not because I don’t respect them, only because for me, they live in one of the most beautiful countries imaginable and I believe their ‘top’ attractions to lie elsewhere. Peru has proven my idea of cycle touring heaven, so naturally leaving the country was not something for celebration.

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Crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia we do a great job of hiding our disappointment at leaving one of the best countries for dirt road riding in the world… I’ll be back

Luxuriating in an enormous and perfectly positioned four bedroom house inside the Colca Canyon, Cherry and I were all too aware of our time pressures. I was certain to overstay my six month Peruvian visa and she was getting anxious about reaching La Paz with enough time to relax before her friend, Charmian arrived from England. Even so, we were in Yanque on the southern side of the Colca Canyon and despite having already been deep inside it from the north, were keen to take a look at the meat of the canyon from the south. So, the decision was made to bus down canyon to Cabanaconde spend a night in a hostal whose Lonely Planet blurb hilariously concludes with the statement ‘This is travel’, and maybe have a bit of a hike. That was the plan, we were going to be traditional tourists for a couple of days. And we tried, but unfortunately we failed at the first hurdle… getting buses isn’t half as easy as loading up the bike! They should run more buses from Yanque.

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A sign of things to come? With the Bolivian Altiplano beckoning we’re able to get in some flat straight practice in on the way to Imata

Our touristic failure had the upside of getting us back on the road a day earlier, a significant help in relieving our time pressures. We also planned to swallow our feelings and take the main paved highway from the small own of Imata to Juliaca, by Lago Titicaca. Despite initial trouble adjusting to the traffic, the busy ‘hellway’ wasn’t as bad as it could have been and served its purpose, saving us over two days. From the workmanlike Juliaca we then took a day trip by bus to neighboring Puno to have our passports stamped before setting off around the eastern side of Titicaca towards Bolivia. Increasingly popular with cyclists, this is a nice enough way into Bolivia, pretty much entirely paved and generally skirting the picturesque shores of one of the most famous lakes in the world. People flock to the area to visit what is reportedly the highest navigable lake in the world but mainly stay on the crowded west side. It’s supposedly a treat to view it from the east. I say ‘supposedly’ because I remained numb to the whole experience. It was nice, but nice isn’t ‘fucking great’. These days Cherry and I operate on ‘fucking great’. Nice is only as good as passable.

Map - Yanque to La Paz

Route from Yanque to La Paz via Juliaca and around Lago Titicaca… click here to view the fully interactive map and elevation profile

Yanque to La Paz Route elevation profile

As I write I am immersed in the bustling urbanity of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, a far cry from the deserted paradise of the Peruvian Andes. We arrived here in time to meet Charmian who came bearing various bicycle related gifts (including a new seat post) and despite having overstayed my Peruvian visa by a few days nobody seemed to care and I didn’t receive a fine. Sharing the famous La Paz Casa de Ciclista here with north travelling, fat bike wielding Mike Howarth and Cass Gilbert, we are now all too aware of the treasures awaiting us in Bolivia. I am expecting big things. If Bolivia encourages even half the passion in me that Peru did then this is going to be one hell of a ride. But first, here is the story of mine and Cherry’s ride from Yanque around Lago Titicaca to La Paz, Bolivia…

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A quick pump up from Yanque takes us through Chivay and onto the long climb away from the Colca canyon

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Neither of us are impressed by the monotony of climbing on pavement…

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… and the edge is taken off the beautiful surroundings by annoying winds, bursts of snow and rain and hundreds of tourist buses full of pale gawking faces.

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Having reached Abra Patapampa (4,889m) on the brink of sunset an extremely cold descent takes us down to camp

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Next morning our day starts in search of water…

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… continuing the previous evenings cold paved descent under much more preferable conditions

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Thankfully we don’t have endure the tourist buses for long, our route splitting off onto glorious traffic free dirt

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A beautiful stretch of track takes us east…

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… briefly joining up with a busier road…

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… before turning off into the tranquil little pueblo of Chalhuanca

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After lunch our exit from Chalhuanca is accompanied by a gaggle of curious school children

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Aware that the Rio Chili lies ahead we make inquiries in Chalhuanca as to whether there is a bridge. We’re informed that there is a new bridge… there isn’t. So after Cherry has courageously gone in and found the shallowest spot to cross we hoist up our shorts and make the cold wade

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From the Rio Chili ford we plug away until nightfall. As the sun disappears clouds that have been threatening us all afternoon finally collapse into a deluge of snow. Forced into our tents for a dinner of cold cereals we don’t emerge until day break… the snow continues to fall all night

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Dense white clouds lead to a cold morning in camp but the sun does eventually emerge. The hot high altitude sun bombards the ground snow with heat causing it to evaporate. Clouds of steam make for an eerie start to our days riding

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The snow melts with astonishing speed…

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… to reveal the sandy high plateau beneath

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We try to make the most of this little dirt road adventure…

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… aware that when we reach Imata our days of Peruvian dirt will be over

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With that in mind we decide to freestyle the final few km into town…

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… where we’re forced into a whole other style of riding. After initial nervousness of joining the dense lorry traffic we quickly gain confidence and the paved Juliaca-Arequipa highway starts to melt away beneath our wheels. Weeks of tough high altitude roads have given us extraordinary strength and fitness…

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… making the 75km afternoon spin to Laguna Lagunillas…

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… and beyond…

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… to Santa Lucia a doddle. Unfortunately it’s a Saturday and a boisterous fiesta has taken over town. Finding a hotel room proves a challenge, but we eventually fall on our feet and settle in for the night

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Leaving Santa Lucia the next morning…

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… we ride onto some astonishingly quick and utilitarian miles…

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… that deliver us into Juliaca and the house of Geovanni. In recent times Juliaca has had a dangerous reputation among tourists with some cyclists apparently bussing through. Geovanni is determined to turn this reputation on its head and is in the process of setting up a Casa de Ciclista (see Warmshowers for details). We spend a couple of nights in Juliaca after deciding on a day off. Taking the bus to Puno to get our Peruvian exit stamps, we find the whole process quick and easy, leaving plenty of time to relax. I have overstayed my Peruvian visa by a few days but the immigration officials fail to notice and I escape without a fine

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The ride from Geovanni’s out of Juliaca reveals the city to be hard-working and gritty. Having become used to beautiful Peruvian remoteness the Juliaca filth brings us back to reality with a bump

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Watching people wash their clothes in a highly polluted rubbish filled river, we ponder the first impressions of Peru riders travelling north along this route experience

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From Juliaca the riding is flat and paved. Despite a headwind we make quick progress towards the shores of Lago Titicaca…

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… and after lunching in Huancane find ourselves cruising beside the highest navigable lake in the world

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The further we ride the more the traffic drops off until it’s just us and the asphalt. Families labor the fertile shores of Titicaca, men women and children of all ages taking equal responsibility for the work load

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As the light begins to fail we reach our days target and descend into Moho

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Finding a restaurant in Moho that can cater for two vegetarians turns into quite a task. But all comes good in the end when we stumble into Sara’s snack bar. Her food is so good we ask after breakfast the next morning, despite not usually opening in the mornings she agrees to get up early and cook for us. The next morning we leave Moho eternally grateful to Sara and her musician husband and with stomachs stuffed to bursting

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With blue skies…

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… and vibrant lake views…

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… our final day in Peru couldn’t start any better

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Skirting the shores of the largest lake in South America…

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… we speed through a number of small communities…

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… before reaching Conima…

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… and taking a break. As Cherry disappears off to spend the last of her Peruvian coins I get talking to this fella. He nods knowingly as I tell him about the two weeks it took to ride to Conima from England. I know it’s naughty to mock people’s ignorance but it gets so boring answering the same questions over and over

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The pavement continues after Conima…

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… eventually ending in the town of Tilali, our final taste of urban Peru. From Titali we pass through a Police checkpoint, climb a small hill…

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… and reach the border

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With no immigration facilities or anything else save for a few sheep and abandoned buildings, this has to be the most relaxed border crossing around. It’s such a picturesque spot we decide to dig out some lunch, enjoying our final moments in Peru

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After a few days of mind (and bum) numbing paved riding the stretch of dirt that delivers us into Bolivia comes as a bit of a treat

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A short rocky climb followed by a descent through the town of Puerto Acosta…

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… and we find ourselves in the Bolivian immigration office. Relaxed and jovial, the immigration officials give us a very welcoming introduction to their country. In true Latin American style though their smiles turn stern when posing for pictures

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First impressions of Bolivia revolve around food and politics. The lack of quality snacks has us both a little worried…

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… and the overwhelming support for President Evo Morales leaves us a little confused

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But life seems to be continuing in the same vein as Peru for ordinary people as they eek an existence from the fertile soils surrounding Lago Titicaca

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When we eventually leave the high altitude ‘seaside’ we’re drawn towards the magnificent Cordillera Real…

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… and reminded that Bolivia is the land where Che Guevara was captured and executed in 1967

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Surfing a tail wind we fly through Achacachi to meet the main highway to La Paz in Huarina. Continuing on to a night in Batallas…

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… only 60km remain between us and La Paz the next morning

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From Paris to New York, Mexico City to Havana, I’ve cycled in, into and out of a number of enormous world cities, but none like La Paz. The highest administrative capital city in the world, riding through El Alto to the lip of the topographical bowl that houses La Paz is something else. Bustling industry suddenly gives way to urban beauty and everything changes. I hadn’t planned on visiting La Paz but with these first views I found my hairs standing on end and my body awash with excitement

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“The thief who is caught will be lynched and burned”… any ideas I had of earning a quick buck in La Paz are soon forgotten

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La Paz is not only beautiful, it is also incredibly easy to ride into, you just cruise down the highway straight into the centre of the city. Cherry and I cannot quite believe how well put together the city is, with the sun shining it feels like a summer afternoon in Paris. Finding our way to the famous La Paz Casa de Ciclista we make ourselves at home and start to reflect on the end of an era. Since riding out of Vilca Huaman together, we’ve experienced 39 days of the most incredible cycling. A run of routes that have convincingly catapulted Peru to the top of my ‘most amazing places to ride’ list and provided us memories I am sure we shall both treasure for many years to come

Route Tips

Yanque to Juliaca
3.5 days, 162.4 miles (261 km), 9,127 ft. (2,782 m) of climbing

It was with disappointment that time pressures forced us into taking a relatively direct route out of the Colca canyon over to Lago Titicaca. Our original intention had been to follow Neil and Harriet Pike‘s back road route from Chivay through Imata and onto Juliaca. Notes on this route can be found on their excellent Andes By Bike site here. Instead we followed their notes through to Imata where we jumped on the paved Juliaca-Arequipa highway. This ultimately saved us two days but is only something I would recommend to riders under extreme time pressure.

Juliaca to La Paz
3.5 days, 220 miles (354 km), 9,390 ft. (2,862 m) of climbing

While some riders elect to ride around the busy west side of Lago Titicaca, those with any sense take the east side. A really easy stretch of riding offering great views of Lago Titiaca and the quietest of border crossings, this eastern route should appeal to all types of rider. There are few hills, plentiful villages with accommodation, restaurants and shops, and virtually the entire route (save for the first few kilometers in Bolivia) is paved. The only thing that could challenge you is the wind but that should prove favorable if travelling south. Something to take note of is the lack of Peruvian immigration office on the border. This means that you are required to visit Puno and get your Peruvian exit stamp before setting off on the route. There is now an immigration office on the road just south of Puerto Acosta who can stamp you in and out of Bolivia. For instructions regarding this process and route notes visit Tom Walwyn’s Bicycle Nomad site. The Pike’s offer a slightly different route to the border that can be viewed here.

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2 responses to “A Bloody Big Lake and a Sizable Bolivian City… Around Lago Titicaca to La Paz

  1. Pingback: Into Bolivia (Finally…) | THE RIDE SOUTH·

  2. Pingback: Loving Santiago… Loving Cities | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

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