We Are What We Eat
Bikepacking the Bolivian Altiplano
Words & Photography by Michael Dammer
The overwhelming silence of the high mountains is disturbed only by sudden gusts of wind and my own heavy breathing as I fight my way up loose moraine. My bike, which weighs a crushing 60lbs, rests uncomfortably on my back. The combination of high-altitude alpine terrain and the remoteness of these passes leaves no room for error; a mild injury up here could bring serious consequences, and I’m acutely aware of this as I move slowly, deliberately, one step at a time until my legs demand a rest. The others are somewhere behind me; I’ve got time for a break.
I carefully lay my bike aside and reach into my snack bag, rummaging for a handful of coca leaves. After chewing them, a tiny bite of llicta follows. The llicta consists of quinoa ashes and it triggers the action of the natural alkaloids contained in the plant as I chew on it. My mouth goes slightly numb, and my body welcomes the mild energy boost, but what I appreciate the most is performing this simple ritual that defines Andean culture. Although energy bars, gels, and pre-packed expedition foods would be the default choice, many years of exploring the high Andes have taught me that coca leaves and traditional foods are far more versatile and effective at keeping my body going.
I sit and contemplate for a few minutes. The views are spellbinding.
We are about halfway through our bikepacking traverse of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. Over the last few days, we have rolled past scattered herds of llamas and alpacas roaming freely across one of the most spectacular mountain environments on Earth: the Bolivian Altiplano, a vast high-altitude plateau that extends from northern Peru all the way to Chile and Argentina. On its eastern side the Altiplano is flanked by the impressive Cordillera Real, home to some of the most beautiful glaciated peaks in South America.
Along with my brothers Thomas and Mathias, and my good friend and fellow bikepacker Cass Gilbert, I had been planning this ride as a contribution to a long-term project that we started back in 2011 called the Great Andes Traverse. The objective is to develop a remote bikepacking route that will eventually traverse the whole length of the Andes, from northern Colombia to Ushuaia in the southern tip of Argentina. The finalised project will connect roughly 8,000km of ancient footpaths and mountain roads following the spine of the longest mountain range on the planet. Our current effort is minor compared to the scale of the complete ride, as we only plan to cover about 500km, but it will serve as a keystone to merge previously developed sections of the route.
The next morning, at almost 5,000m above sea level, the air is light and crispy and biting with cold. I see no clouds, and the summits are just starting to welcome the first rays of sun, blushing rose and gold over the upper snows. Our tired bodies take time to warm up; Mathias is diligently brewing a second round of mate de coca, and the rest of us are slowly dismantling our tents, a silent morning routine that happens automatically now.
Our journey that day follows a faint trail deep into one of the many gorges carved by massive glaciers aeons ago. The riding is not as hard as the previous days, where despite our efforts we regularly had to dismount and hike our bikes to clear some of the steepest and most technical mountain passes. But our legs and bodies are feeling the toll of several days of constant movement through this rugged environment, and everyone is quietly enjoying the flatter terrain as we approach the river at the head of the valley. Here the trail narrows and big granite boulders make the riding techy once more. My mind goes blank as I focus on keeping my bike on track, my legs and body making the best out of the sparse oxygen available up here.
Eventually the trail opens up and the riding becomes pleasant again. ‘Look over there,’ Thomas calls out, and in the distance I spot a small hut surrounded by concentric dry-stone walls. We often see these structures in the Altiplano, but most of the time they are empty. They are primarily used as temporary shelters for shepherds, who wander through the mountains living a nomadic life with their alpacas, looking for clusters of green grass to feed these sturdy Andean camelids.
As we get closer, we can see that one of the rock walls is almost entirely covered with delicately sliced meat and the butchered carcass of a freshly slaughtered alpaca. No-one seems to be around. My adventure partners keep riding as I stop to take a few pictures of this fascinating if grotesque scene.
I leave my bike behind, walk closer and into the labyrinth of stone walls. A pack of skinny little dogs, peacefully enjoying the first rays of sun, quickly notice my presence and start barking. Smoke wafting my way overtakes the smell of raw meat. Someone is here, I think to myself. I don’t speak Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by more than eight million people in this part of the world, but, having been born and raised in the Ecuadorian Andes, I have picked up a few words to get me around and break the ice.
‘Alli Puncha [good morning],’ I shout, facing the rock structure covered by a tiny thatched roof, where I realise the smoke is coming from. No answer.
The dogs have changed their initial defensive stance and now move in circles around me, swaying their tails, perhaps hoping that this intruder will give them food. I dig into my pockets and pull out some breadcrumbs left over from the day before. They devour everything in a matter of seconds. Seeing these sentries sufficiently distracted, I pull my camera out and snap a few more pictures of the meat-covered wall.
We are guests passing through a land in which they are stewards. A smile, a bunch of coca leaves, or a wave are simple gestures of gratitude as we trail the dust of these ancient lands.
‘Suma Uru!’ I insist with a loud voice, this time using the only words I know in Aymara, an ancient language used only by those who inhabit the most remote corners of the Bolivian highlands. This time, my words seem to stir some movement inside the rustic stone shelter. Finally, the small figure of an elderly woman appears from behind the walls. ‘Suma Uru,’ she murmurs as she uncovers her head. I’m humbled by her presence. Her hands are still covered in blood from the butchery she’s been doing, and her bare feet shuffle slowly towards me, indifferent to the carpet of thorny plants and sharp rocks that covers the ground – not to mention the biting cold.
I put my camera away. I know that many Andean people are reluctant to have photos taken of them – there is a common belief that cameras can steal your soul. Instead, I reach for my bag of coca leaves inside my backpack and pull it out.
Chewing coca leaves is a widespread habit in this part of the continent. In fact, much of the history and culture of the Quechua and Aymara people revolves around the growth and consumption of this sacred plant. Most of the ancient trails we are riding were established in pre-Incan times to facilitate the trade of coca leaves coming from the Yungas, the belt of cloud forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes, and then spreading all along the Altiplano. Up in the mountains coca leaves are harder to get and therefore have a high trade value amongst the locals. Besides carrying coca leaves for when I need a boost of energy on one of the many long steep climbs, I keep them as a means to connect with the local people we encounter along the way. A handful of leaves has opened doors even with the most shy and reluctant shepherds. We are guests passing through a land in which they are stewards. A smile, a bunch of coca leaves, or a wave are simple gestures of gratitude as we trail the dust of these ancient lands.
It is immediately obvious that communication is going to be a challenge. I have already used all my Aymara skills and she makes it clear that Spanish is not an option. I open my bag of coca leaves and offer her some. With a smile and a dip of her head I interpret as gratitude, she grasps a huge handful and puts it all in her mouth with no difficulties. Her lips and teeth are tinted green – evidence that she has been chewing since well before the sun came up.
With gestures and smiles I ask about the meat drying on the rocks and offer to buy some. She grabs several pieces and then opens a nearby grain sack full of chuño, a unique-tasting freeze-dried potato, before adding a big portion of this Andean delicacy to the already generous amount of meat. ‘Tierra [earth],’ she says as she hands it all to me. I offer some Bolivian pesos and some more coca leaves in exchange. She agrees with a smile and walks back to her duties. I secure the meat to my bike, pack the potatoes, and ride on.
This was not the first time I had heard older folks in remote areas of Bolivia refer to their food as earth, and it would not be the last. This time, though, the idea lodges in my mind and I can’t stop thinking about it as I ride on down the trail.
Our bikepacking endeavour continues for several days after this encounter. The beauty and wildness of this remote land captivates us all, and the sense of isolation we had felt at first slowly vanishes. The Andes have, for the time being, adopted us. The land has become our home.
Generous shepherds offer chuño and llama jerky to us a few more times along the way. Every time I chew on them the word tierra resounds in my mind, and I can again see the figure of that woman. She had seemed to be sculpted out of the very rock she had emerged from, and it was clear that she was no visitor to these lands; she was part of its essence, and so was her food. In contrast to most of the highly processed stuff we eat nowadays, this food is so intertwined with the source, with the soil, that it shares much of the flavour and magic of the land where it is cultivated. Truly we are what we eat.
Biking across the mountains gets no easier as we make our way north towards the Illampu massif and our final destination, the small village of Sorata. We had come to the Cordillera Real seeking big mountains and remote trails and we got plenty of both. By the time we reach Sorata, we have ridden for almost 14 days and covered hundreds of kilometres. But, looking back, the real reward of our bikepacking journey wasn’t in the soaring landscapes or clear air – it was hiding behind stone walls in every brief encounter, with the people who eat earth.
This story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 22
Words and Photography by Michael Dammer // @el_taraumara