Shortly after leaving Bolivia I rode down hill to Arequipa, where I hauled myself and limited belonging’s to Spain to get-down get-down and celebrate the wedding of two good friend’s and generally starve myself for sleep on account of beers instead of the frigid mountain nights that have set in at this time of year.
What a contrast, despite sweating myself dry in the Southern Spanish sun, I quickly appreciated just how difficult the small things were in Bolivia. That said, I enjoyed it infinitely more than Argentina and Chile which, despite being absolutely beautiful in their own rights, felt downright western in economy and urban landscapes.
Enter Bolivia, a dusty and forgotten place full of friendly earth hardened people and the most dramatic high altitude landscapes I’ve been seen. The first short section in the country was spent on some of the only asphalt I found, and took me to Tupiza to rest a few nights before heading off towards the Salar’s and the altiplano proper.
Travelled: 1700 km
Frontera Boliva – Uyuni
A pretty rough introduction to a country I’d been constantly warned was capable of breaking a cyclist. The first 90km was nice, gently uphill and paved all the way to Tupiza. In short a bit of a dream run through dry high altitude landscapes generally similar to the barren red of the Argentine North.
The closer the Tupiza I got, the more dramatic the landscapes became, covered with ochre red rock outcrops and introducing a Western flavour. Not suprisingly this is the area where Butch Cassidy fled to after Patagonia and was ultimately killed in a shoot out. Tupiza echoed the same sentiment, a small tucked away Western style community where the main mode of transport seemed to be horses or quad-bikes, highlighting the fact that I had now entered Dakar territory.
This is where the fun ended, after a few days rest I pushed off towards Uyuni, a relatively meagre 200 km away, but after only 5km the road turned to a nasty mix of sand and a deceptive gradual incline to slow things up. On day one I made only 35km before all the locals warned of a perilous uphill ahead and I lay down between roadside thorns to sleep until morning. No kidding, the climb was a real breaker, heading steeply to 4200m before dropping back into a saddle and expecting the same again. Although some of the hardest riding at that point, it also offered the first really high altitude landscapes I’d seen, and I crawled slowly to Atocha to sleep for a few days. After discovering I was out of money and there was no ATM in the small village, I was forced to continue on with the remains of a large bad of bread and try to make a run for Uyuni.
The plan was quickly foiled by sandstorms and corrugated roads and I found a railyard to set my tent up in, I was buffeted to sleep by the vibration of the freight trains not more than 10m from my pillow, and the following day made a good effort pushing my bike through km’s of deep sand before I decided I’d rather just be in Uyuni. I put out my thumb and quickly found a truck to drive me the last 30km or so.
Salars Uyuni and Coipasa
The Bolivia I’d been waiting for. I hit good luck after the hard week riding out of Tupiza and found a ripping tailwind to sail me across the salt. Leaving Uyuni after lunch I chewed up a fast afternoon of riding before bedding down on the salt to let the sky do its thing. The following day I made it past Isla Incahuasi and almost off the salt before I decided that it was a more private option to sleep on the Salar another time, just short of making land.
Salar de Uyuni is truly surreal. I constantly found myself looking around and laughing at the vastness of the place. It really is impossible to judge distances, and the only company were passing jeep’s which were probably 5 or 10 km away. It’s a strange thing to watch one of these jeep’s pass, and then continue away from you at some unknown distance to become a speck on the horizon, before suddenly disappearing altogether off of the edge of the earth.
I can’t say exactly the same for the following Salar, Coipasa. After schlepping through sand for 35km to reach the next patch of salt, I mistakenly took the advice of a passing world walker, who advised me to get onto the salt as soon as possible and make a break for Isla Coipasa. The result was 2 days spent pushing the bike through sand, mud and broken, salty surfaces. I ran out of water and desperately searched for any nearby (all of it salt water of course), and in defeat slept under a pickup truck I found to wait out the hottest part of the day before continuing onto Coipasa village and then to Sabaya to induce a 3 night coma before I found the strength to continue further on towards Parque Nacional Sajama.
Parque Nacional Sajama
Finding pavement for the first time, and after my experience crossing Salar de Coipasa, I opted to take a pave route winding through the saddles in the mountains towards Parque Nacional Sajama, home to Bolivia’s highpoint at 6542m.
On approach to the giant, the weather seemed to become increasingly hellish, I battled large hailstones each afternoon and was forced a few times to call it quits mid afternoon and take refuge in my tent. I learned later that the scale of Sajama meant that for a portion of the year it commanded its own weather systems, and the afternoons were normally punctuated with electrical storms blowing in over the summit.
Close to the park entrance, I ran into a German touring cyclist who was contemplating riding straight on to La Paz to rest before heading back to Europe. I made short work of convincing him that it was silly to be so close to the park and not pop in for a few nights to go walking.
We quickly found a residencial and plopped our things down and explored the little village, asking questions about getting out into the valley to explore along the border with Chile. I secured a backpack and after a few nights rest we headed out towards a spot some locals told us had volcanic activity and hotspring’s. A local sold us some eggs as we left the village, telling us we would know what to do with them. It turns out the hotsprings were drained into the river, meaning you could vary the temperature by heading up or down stream, we noticed eggshells near one bubbling geyser and boiled our eggs for dinner.
The following day we ascended further up to the border post, making camp at around 5000m for the night and doing our best to avoid the wind. I forced myself active at 3am to take some photos of the sky and Sajama in the distance.
A few days later I rode out solo towards the start of a circuit through the Southern Yungas and onwards to La Paz.
Southern Yungas Circuit
Without a doubt some of the most difficult riding I’ve seen, it began with a climb to my bicycle highpoint (to this point), and Abra Tres Cruces, before descending deep into the valley at Quime. I knew there was climbing ahead but not much prepared me for the daily slog up and down the dirt tracks for the next 2 weeks.
What a contrast! After living on the Altiplano for a few months, my lips were cracked and I had adjusted to sucking down a little less oxygen, but once I descended into the valley I felt like a million dollars, and I refuelled each day with tropical fruit smoothies and huge servings of rice and meat. Without doubt this was a hard section of riding, but I made it through the valley to rest in Coroico for a few nights before starting the exit from the valley towards La Paz.
Throughout the whole ride I wrestled with dirt roads and constant elevation gain, clocking up about 12000m of vertical elevation in total over 400km – most definitely one of the most demanding segments I’ve ridden, but also one of the more rewarding.
I really don’t know what to say about La Paz, I took a month off the bike and stayed in a famed Casa de Ciclista’s near the centre of town. The place was fantastic, with thousands of messages left inscribed on the walls around the appartment. At times it was chaotic, housing up to 14 cyclists, and at one point a few French cycling family’s, little kids and all.
The city itself is complete chaos. I haven’t spent much time in big places like this for a while now, and it was both refreshing and also confronting. Cities always take a little bit of time to move about, but the sheer volume of human traffic in La Paz means that you need to allow an extra half hour everywhere you go, couple this with the surreal geography and you have a very unique experience. La Paz itself is set in a large bowl, with El Alto monitoring closely from above and a network of cable cars built into the public transport system to make short work of the elevation.
Bustling street markets snake up through the streets to higher elevation, and they’re so built up in places that even though you are technically outside, you can’t see up through the canopies and half built buildings to see the sky. I spent the month studying Spanish for 3 hours each day, exploring and eating my way through the markets each afternoon, and tossing in some red wine with new cycling friends in the evening. My early riding companion, Tom, wound his way through the Yungas to catch me in La Paz for a few short weeks before I headed off towards Lago Titicaca, once again solo.
I found a few interesting things to do in and around La Paz, taking the bus up to the nearby pass to ride down Death Road, as well as exploring the chaotic markets and Cholita wrestling up in El Alto. The final days were spent with French company drinking beers and watching the early parts of Euro.
Riding towards and then around Lago Titicaca was a pretty great end to Bolivia. The lake itself made itself visible not long after riding out of El Alto, and if I didn’t know I was at around 4000m, I would have sworn I was looking at the ocean.
The road to the lake was paved the whole way, with a few small climbs and some lake crossings on barge. It took a little longer than expected to reach the lake since I was wrestling a chest infection and generally felt awful, one night near a pass I was forced to retire early to my tent, with barely enough energy to set up camp. I forced cereal into me before passing out for 12 hours and continuing to the high point early the next morning.
I found a cheap bed for the night and organise to take a boat to Isla del Sol, a tropical looking island in the lake. I spent the day walking the length of the island and making camp on the Northern most point, drinking some beers as the sun went down, and breaking the record for packing up a campsite the next morning before leaving Copacabana towards Peru. On the way out of town, I was lucky enough to run into a Brazilian cyclist I met briefly last November, and spent the first few days in Peru riding as a double.
Bolivia was a funny one for hospitality, it definitely didn’t offer the same sort of kindness as the Southernmost points of Patagonia, but I’d been told this was likely the case. Most people I met seemed to think that the harshness of the Bolivian Altiplano made for stoic Bolivian’s who were conditioned to look after themselves first.
There were a few exceptions however, in residenciales in Uyuni and Sajama I was taken in by local women who fed me and made sure I had enough blankets on my bed to cut off circulation, and I met an expat Englishman towards the end of the Yungas route who gave me his contact details in La Paz and took me on a tour of La Paz’s best steak houses.
On the way into the Yungas, and completely spent after a climb up to 4729m at the pass, Felipe invited me in to share some small bread and sweetened coca tea to push me to the pass proper.
Bolivia was a real treat to camp, hovering between the dry altiplano, fringed by towering volcano’s and with specialty locations between such as the salty Salar’s and the hard to place Yungas region.
My favourite spot’s were in the high altitude pampas and of course the unique camping and sunsets crossing the salar’s.
A large part of Bolivia’s culture revolves around Coca production. Everywhere you go you encounter locals with large lumps of coca leaves under their lip, either to counter the high altitude, or simply because it’s what they’ve always known. You will find coca tea more or less everywhere.
Unfortunately their affection for the locally grown Coca is a real source of issue with the American Government, who for a long time have been working to try and shut down the coca industry in Bolivia. While it’s traditional in Bolivia, it also fuels the cocaine industry in the US. Currently there’s somewhat of a standoff between the Bolivian and American Governments, with the Bolivian President refusing to act to shut down the industry, and stating that the American issue with Cocaine won’t influence the traditional way of life for Bolivian’s.
You can spot the traditional Cholila dress (worn by traditional Bolivian women) from a mile away. They wear layered skirts and shroud themselves in bright coloured shawls, when they sit down they cast the shape of a long triangle and wrap themselves tightly to stay warm.
Often they toss a kid in their shawls and tie this around their neck to carry on their back, and if not a child it’s whatever other wares they need to ferry about.
Bolivia’s strange fascination with Papaya
Given that a large part of the country is tropical or subtropical as it rakes down into the Amazon, it’s no surprise that tropical fruits spread widely through the country. Papaya seemed to be the most common, and had even invaded the soft drink industry, with bright yellow Papaya flavoured Fanta adorning all shelves as well as Bolivia’s own ‘Salvietti’.
Salvietti is a carbonated Papaya concoction introduced by two Italian brothers almost 100 years ago. The story goes that they hopped a ship to South America in search of new opportunities, and upon finding the abundance of Papaya, spent a number of years perfecting a system to pulp and carbonate it before bottling it for the masses. You still find it everywhere in Bolivia today.
Dotted throughout La Paz you can have your shoes buffed by an infinite number of shoe shiners. The first thing you notice when you see them is that they wear earwarmers over their nose, or full faced balaclavas – of course I researched what this was about.
There’s a real culture of pride of work in Bolivia, and it turns out the facial coverings are shame driven and that many lustradors don’t want to be identifiable. Look a little closer however and occasionally you spot one proudly smiling without covering his face – apparently a bit of bight back to the system which is slowly gathering momentum.