The 21,200-foot Illimani Volcano standing tall above La Paz, Bolivia.
Q: We're looking for a South or Central American destination with challenging mountain biking. Not everyone in our group bikes, though, so it's important that there be other activities too. Any suggestions?
Amy Fredrick, New York, New York
A: Everyone knows that Costa Rica is Central America's adventure hotspot, with menu of recreation fitting just about any pallet. Turrialba, a small town about 45 miles east of San José, has innumerable opportunities to mountain bike on anything from steep game trails to meandering country dirt roads used primarily by horses. There's plenty of good hiking and whitewater rafting for the non-bikers too. Make sure they sign up for a trip down the Pacuare River, which churns through the mountains and forests about a half- hour out of town. Serendipity Adventures in Costa Rica arranges all manner of tours and can help you get more information. (877-507-1358; www.serendipityadventures.com)
But here's a little secret for the rough-and-ready traveler: If you are serious about wanting some challenging, ultra-unique mountain biking, best to head to Bolivia. The landlocked country, one of the hemisphere's poorest economically, is also one of the richest in outdoor fun. Base yourself out of La Paz, being sure to give yourself at least four days to acclimatize to the thin air. (Downtown La Paz sits at 12,000 feet, with nowhere to go but up from there.)
The easiest option is to catch a shuttle ride up to a 15,400-foot pass called La Cumbre just outside town in the Cordillera Real. From there you can spend a day bombing down the back side of the Andes toward the Amazon, dropping about 11,000 feet in four to five hours along a narrow, precipitous path billed as the world's most dangerous road. You'll end up in a town called Coroico, where you can catch a shuttle back to La Paz.
If you're just itching to see if you can break a frame, head up to Chacaltaya, a ski area (if you like ice) over 17,000 feet high strewn with technical, rocky paths that lead a whopping 14,100 feet back down the Zongo Valley. Alistair, an affable Kiwi who runs Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking in La Paz, organizes shuttles, rents bikes, and is the general Bolivian biking guru (www.gravitybolivia.com; [email protected])
Your non-biking friends can keep plenty busy hiking out into the stunning Condoriri group of 18,000-foot peaks north of La Paz, kayaking around Lake Titicaca, or tackling any number of 20,000-foot mountains suitable for fit beginner mountaineers with a local guide. They could also head down to the Amazon to fish for six-foot long catfish. Alistair at the bike shop can get them on their way, too.
Be forewarned: Airfare into La Paz isn't geared for the impecunious. If you have the time but not the $1,000 it can cost to fly direct to La Paz, hop a plane to Lima, Peru, for about $400 or less, then pick up a dirt cheap ticket to La Paz from a local travel agency-they're all over the city-and be on your way for about $100, round-trip.