Bolivia- what can be said about this country? In a few generalizations; it’s poor, mountainous, and landlocked. Our southwestern route was only a small portion. We did not see the north to south eastern part of Bolivia’s Amazona. We even did not go to Potosi or Santa Cruz. We cycled from the lake Titicaca through the chilly Altiplano lands where substance farmers work, and later, an intimate time in the most isolated zones of Bolivia’s desert. For me, it was difficult to like Bolivia at first. The people were not socially open. Resources like food, water, and services, were severely limited. The road infrastructure was our worst nightmares true.
The leg of our south west Bolivian tour was one of our toughest cycling experiences. Ten days in a inhospitable high elevation desert. No paved roads and no signs. In fact most of the time there was no road, but only tracks left by the old Lexus SUV models hauling camera-armed tourist through the desert. They were our assurance that we would not be long without aid if we needed it out there. Even so, we had to be prepared for two weeks on the isolated route. We stocked up on two weeks of food and water purifying tablets.
Cycling the southwest part of Bolivia was one of the most extraordinary moments in this tour. Perhaps in all my 26 years the voyage was something so spectacular and so intense. The blue sky span over the expanse of raw nature of red mineral, prominent volcanoes dusted with snow, juxtaposed with dreams of Dalí’; wind cut stone formations on a interminable stretch of sand. Touring the lonely lakes and lagoons; Hedionda, Verde, Colorado, and Chalviri, were mystical and breathtaking. There were color lakes of ice green, coral red, and blue as the sky above. And wildlife, open and free offered a daily spectacle of the vicunas, flamingos, and I may have seen a Altiplano cat!
I last left off (in the previous blog) that we arrived to La Paz. A few nights there for rest and logistics. The ride out of the city, that sits in the Andes mountains, was nearly burst our lungs, due to the the mix of high- altitude and pollution. The ride From La Paz to Oruro was a few days giving us a taste of what to expect from Bolivia. It began as a trail of diminishing food resources. No produce, no conventional cook-able grains, sometimes no bottled water. Our choices were limited to cheap candy bars for lunches. There were no restaurants to buy a cheap lunch like in Peru. Water was our most precious and challenging resource to acquire on this trip. A few times the village tap water was unavailable (because water was only available in the morning.)
In Oruru we rested in a hotel. After Oruru, there was 150 kilometers left of paved road in Bolivia, until the ride on the unpaved road. The combination of seasons; rain and road construction left us to hours of bike pushing in ankle deep mud. Our daily distance dropped from 90 kilometers a day, to an exhausting 30. Storms sometimes cut the day short, and roaring thunder was frighteningly dangerous as we were in the open and very high in the mountains. We did the second counting test to estimate what was the closest lightening strike, and one was 300 meters close to our tent.
The town booming with tour operations, Uyuni, was out last stop of moderate civilization. We arrived as the town was preparing to host the Dakar races. In days the town blew up as if it were the Olympics. 20 kilometers before Uyuni, Paul and I arrived to the worlds largest wonder, the Salar de Uyuni. Although the day was cold and overcast, and with out bikes loaded, it was not tempting to cycle on the Salar. The following day the sun was out, and I felt that the day before did not do justice for the Salar experience. So I cycled from the city without the gear, and cycled to and from the famous Isla Incahuasi.
After Uyuni began the much anticipated journey that most of us crazy cyclist touring the Americas do; the road though southwest Bolivia. It is the challenge of 10 days cycling roads said to be in the worst conditions of the world. Either sand, gravel, large rocks or washboard, and usually a mix of all. After what we went through in the north to Uyuni, it was nearly convincing that this was going to be hell. Actually, the conditions were better than what we saw between Oruro and Uyuni. We did not have rain storms that turned the road to mudpools. But we did experience powerful winds that nearly broke the tent and blew us off the road. The day, we had to stay covered from the suns powerful rays. In the nights we had to layer with all our clothes- the temperatures dropped sometimes below -5 C and lower with the wind chill factor. We didn’t run out of food before San Pedro, although the restriction of small snacks replacing a normal lunch, was not enough for us to reach optimal calories. Peddling and pushing for 9 hours in these conditions taxes are body to the maximum. You can assume there were many episodes arguments, psychological and physical breakdowns more intense than an MTV reality program. This was as real as it could get. And through all the tears and exhaustion, it was all totally worth it. Here is a 10 day count of our wild journey.
DAY 11 (We cross the border of Bolivia! First day in Chile!)
It was a love/hate-relation ship with Bolivia. More love than hate, of course. Despite the lack of roads and human accommodations, it benefits the conservation of this unique ecosystem. It was a unforgettable journey, that I already miss. Thanks to my partner, Paul, who wiped off my tears and gave me a hand-up to keep going. Thanks to the few who stopped to offer their help and gave us protection from the cold nights. And big thanks to the contributors of the Cycling SW Bolivia PDF, which was very helpful for this challenging tour.