Descent-Bolivian-Andes

Latin America’s Epic Descents

I’ve always preferred the long-lasting endorphin high of a hard climb to the short adrenaline buzz of a steep descent. But every so often I find myself on a downhill drop so spectacular it reminds me how much of a rush cycling can be – the epic descent.

What does it take for a descent to be epic? Well, it has to be long for a start; more than 10 km of pure descending with no flats or climbing. It has to be paved and relatively smooth. Rough roads slow the descent and distract from the views too much for it to be epic. And the weather has to be good, with clear skies and dry asphalt.

The following are three of my favourite epic descents. They all took place in the Andes (I’ve had some amazing descents in Mexico and Central America, but they lacked the initial altitude to be able to match the majesty of these Andean descents). Perhaps you’ve ridden one of these descents yourself (leave a comment below).

 

Laguna Mucubají turnoff to Barinas, Venezuela

80 km of descent (approximate).

4,415 m altitude loss.

Altitude at start: 4,600 m (approximate).

Altitude at finish: 185 m.

This was the most epic of my epic descents. If you’ve ridden this one, I’d love to hear from you (comment below). With four and a half km of vertical loss over 80 km, this epic descent is not only long, but also steep (for most of the way). You begin in a cold, foggy, treeless landscape of mysterious frailejón plants. Then you roar for hours downhill, following the northern hem of the deeply forested Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada. Finally, you’re spat out into the open llanos where you won’t see another hill for weeks. Don’t start this one too late in the day; in fact, you may even consider breaking it up with a night in friendly, pretty Santo Domingo. Also, there were many inconsiderate drivers and a fair amount of traffic. Fortunately, I had a stroke of luck in the form of a small landslide halfway down that was easy to pass on a bicycle but blocked vehicle traffic for hours. No cars passed me for the rest of the day.

 

Túnel Caracoles Exit to Uspallata, Argentina

80 km of descent.

1,300 m altitude loss.

Altitude at start: 3,185 m.

Altitude at finish: 1,885 m (approximate).

OK, there’s one notable interruption on this descent – the Argentine customs at 2 km. There are also other interruptions you should probably include, notably Puente del Inca, which is well worth at least an hour’s visit if you haven’t seen it. But this is definitely an epic descent, as the road follows the Río Mendoza and bores through the living rock of giant red mountains in a series of fast tunnels (this is 007 stuff). Don’t forget to look across the river and witness the Cerro Tigre; a giant sulphuric deposit set into the red canyon walls and resembling a tiger (you have to blur your eyes a bit to get the full effect).

 

North of Ckochas to the river bridge, Potosí, Bolivia (heading to Sucre)

12 km of descent.

1,500 m altitude loss (approximate).

Altitude at start: 3,500 m.

Altitude at finish: 2,000 m (approximate).

This one’s on the short side, but if you’ve ridden it you’ll know why it’s epic. You’ll have been on the altiplano for many hours before you reach the “Ckochas 8km” turnoff sign (which you won’t be following). Just a few km more past a twisty section, then the land dramatically falls away before you. Aside from dodging one goat herd near the top and a couple of loose dogs halfway down, I experienced no real obstacles and the entire section was traffic free. This one was fast and fun; had me hooting like a fool (I don’t think anyone heard). Beware: if you’re trying to make it to Sucre on the same day you have some very long, unforgiving climbs ahead of you after the bridge.

 

 

 

descent: descenso m, bajada f

descend: descender; bajar

speed: velocidad f

fast: rápido -da

steep: empinado -da

paved (sealed): pavimentado -da; asfaltado -da

curve: curva f

dangerous descent: bajada f peligrosa

unpaved road/street: carretera f/calle f no pavimentada; camino m/carretera f/calle f sin pavimentar

section (of road, route): tramo m

 

Feature image (top of page): The start of a long descent out of La Paz, Bolivia (4,700 m altitude, approx.)

 

© El Pedalero, 2012.

 

 

Comments
5 Responses to “Latin America’s Epic Descents”
  1. Pete says:

    The descent along the Rio Mendoza can sometimes have a brutal head wind (called la Zonda by Argentines) making it almost as difficult as the ascent on the Chilean side over the Paso de los Libertadores.

    Another brilliant, steep, drawn out descent (after tough days of climbing) is down from Parque el Cajas west of Cuenca, Ecuador in the Andes.

    • El Pedalero says:

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for those avisos! You make a good point about the wind – it can turn a descent into a “climb” depending on the day you ride it.

      To everyone else reading this comment, I encourage you to check out Pete’s blog, SOUTH. It’s an honest, no-frills look at life on the road in South America with excellent photos and descriptions.

      ¡Mucha suerte!

  2. Christopher in Aotearoa NZ says:

    Thanks for these – would love to try them one day! Do you have maps of these descents?

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