Before I entered Bolivia I had some idea of what I was getting in to, enough cyclists through Argentina and Chile had expressed to me complete defeat by it.
Its reputation is as a country where pueblos marked on map are rarely there, and where you can plan for a 2 weeks stretch without contact only to find villages every 30km. Couple that with cautions about drinking water, corrugated roads and more gravel (ripio) tracks than anything else.
After only two weeks here I can report that they don’t believe in switchbacks, and instead attempt to straight out conquer mountains – surely this is the country where chainage engineers go to die.
My experience so far has been mixed, but I finally feel like I’m in Latin America. Argentina and Chile were great, particularly in the South the landscapes offered were beyond beautiful, but the reality is that they absolutely felt Western. Chile in places could have been mistaken for Southern Spain and Argentina has a reputation for fiery Argentinian fashionistas (at least as far as Buenos Aires, though even in the larger regional provinces you could find all Western conveniences).
Crossing the border was like stepping out of a shower onto a dusty concrete floor. The faces were completely different, darker and telling individual stories of a harder life. The women all wearing traditional Cholita garb (stockings, bowler hats, huge multi layered skirts and long braids in their hair) and even the ones who appeared over 70 (it’s difficult to tell because they’ve spent all their life in the sun) were moving around town purposefully with children or market goods strapped to their backs in colourful shawls.
I quickly changed some cash and headed out of the border town towards the nearby Tupiza on a good paved road and made camp behind a local church en route.
The following day I made short work of the 50km left to Tupiza, which followed a winding road through shear red cliffs and crevasses and cacti like out of a Western film (the most dramatic of which was Puerte del Diablo below). Not surprisingly this is the place where Butch Cassidy was finally shot, though no one knows exactly which grave in the cemetery is his.
I rested in Tupiza for a few days, partly because my body needed it (after the time off in Salta and the climb to the Bolivian Altiplano) and partly the get my head around relative costs before I ventured further into the country. Findings were good, with beds available for about $5.50 a night and huge meals of rice, salad and chicken/beef for less than $2.50 – I’ve been travelling on a pretty meager budget already, but I quickly realized that Bolivia was likely to send my balance sheet through the floor.
Leaving Tupiza was where the Bolivian landscape reared its ugly head. Two kilometre’s out of town the road forked off and immediately turned to ripio, albeit good ripio and I was still making a good pace. The road made it’s way through small villages and eventually I found somewhere to buy a bottle of water. I was quickly invited inside out of the heat to sit with the shrunken Bolivian woman and her husband. They asked lots of questions about my direction and I showed them where I wanted to go on a map. They looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned I would cycle in the Yungas, it was also obvious that they had never seen a map of their country before and everyone gathered around to study it in earnest, I don’t think they knew where we were on the map.
Before leaving the patriarch of the casa handed me a big cup of some sort of distilled white spirit with things floating in it. I threw it back and wandered out to the bike to continue on.
Further up the road I was called over by a line of older gents who were sitting on a log and making their way quickly through many tins of beer. The same routine occurred, this time I drank a beer on offer and shot the breeze with the gents. I joined them for a game of soccer with half the village and took heed their advice to camp soon for the night, as the road was about to ascend very quickly.
I wobbled out of town and slept at the base at what was sure to be a test the following morning.
I woke to the sounds of construction workers discovering me and laughing at my bicycle and my intention to ride up the hill, not a good omen. I quickly packed up and headed towards to road, which proved to be the most difficult riding I’ve done. The track ascended rapidly from 3200m elevation to 4200m in only 8km and took more or less all of the morning. For periods I could only ride 100m sections at a time between stopping to rest and find strength in the legs, other times I was relegated to pushing. When I was riding it was in “don’t be a hero gear.” The weather was beautiful.
Near the top of the climb road workers stopped me to give me ginger infused water and another chap parted with his lunch for me – one big container of rice, lamb and potatoes; and the other having a lamb and potato soup. We exchanged knowing highfives and I kept riding to eat lunch with a view.
That day I rode only 25km, and luckily, with no wind, set up camp in an open valley at 4200m. I slept with the tent door open and woke intermittently throughout the night to notice the vast array of stars had moved a few degrees towards the horizon.
The following day (as expected) was another hard day. The road started changing to sand and although I was now out of the mountains, the track flanked a stunning volcano as the road steadily went up and down towards Atocha. Another full day, this time making a little more than 50km.
Filthy, covered in dust and sweating brown stuff I checked into a hotel for the night and departing with $9. There was a children’s parade in the small town that continued into the small hours backed by a brass band playing the same song over and over, and over again.
My intention was to stay an additional day in Atocha, on account of it being a beautiful town with simple mud huts built into the cliffsides. My plan was broken when I realised I didn’t have enough cash on me for another night, and that the town bank had no automatic teller. I did have a few coins to invest in some avocado, tomatoes and bread and knew this would have to last me to Uyuni.
A few people had told me the road beyond Atocha was paved; they, of course, were wrong. Although the climbing had officially stopped, a sand demon took its place. The most savage wind I’ve felt since Patagonia joined in to mean I was stuck in an exposed sandstorm, and making less than 5km/hr. On the way out of town I passed a roadside flag indicating a tailwind, and not 30 metres further another indicating a headwind, I quickly turned around to try and isolate the eye of this storm, hoping that it would send me into a spin and onwards to the next segment of my journey – orbit.
Some road workers took pity on me after 15km of this and pulled over to offer me a list into Cerdas, 13km away. I gratefully accepted and hopped into the back seat with three others to town. That night I camped in a rail yard, and was awoken a few times in the night to frigid cold and the earth vibrating as a passenger or freight train rumbled past. In the morning all my water was frozen.
The following day there was no wind, until 11am. It meant that I could ride about 25km relatively easily, though occasionally pushing the bike through deep sandy patches from the previous days snowstorm. Once the wind started however the corrugations in the road (which offered the only respite from the sand) became steadily worse. Jesús and Santiago pulled over their truck to throw the bike in the back with some packing crates and let me join them for the last 50km to Uyuni. After seeing the pace that the truck was making on the road (barely 25km/hr), as well as the largely featureless landscape, I realised how lucky I had been. It took us more than 2 hours to reach Uyuni, where I jumped out, found a cheap steak to have for lunch and set off to explore the town.
This is perhaps the most touristic city I’ve seen on this trip, I guess the bigger the city the smaller the tourist district becomes, relatively speaking. In Uyuni it feels a little harder to escape, but there’s still a beautiful local presence if you venture a few streets away from the main plaza – it’s incredibly quiet however. As with other Bolivian towns I’ve been to, you can get huge plates of food at the markets for next to nothing, but the main plaza seems to ramp up the prices for everything.
The tourist section of town is a funny carousel and it feels like the Bolivian’s have opened up a ‘what do westerners like’ book in order to cater to them. Every restaurant on the plaza is a pizza place – I wonder if the locals ever eat it, something tells me no. At one end of the plaza tourists filter into the hostel’s after jumping off buses and at the other end 4WD’s whisk them away for tours of the salt flats and Sur Lipez lasting anywhere from a day to a week. Although all what I expected I will rest here for a few days and watch the ever repeating cycle, probably while inhaling Salteña’s for 60 cents a piece rather than paying for the pizza.
I expect some cycling friends from Argentina will be here any day now, and I was hoping to cycle across the salt flats with them. They’ve however taken a very difficult and remote road to get here, and I expect that they may want to rest for a week or more to regain strength. Next week I hope to break speed records on the Salt Flats, but after my first glimpse at riding in Bolivia it seems hardly likely.