Saturday, 22 February 2014

Southern Bolivia


I finally escaped the clutches of the Casa and was back into the cycling with a bang with the 12 kilometre climb from downtown La Paz up out of the bowl to El Alto and back onto the Altiplano. I was cycling at a snails pace up out of the city attempting to get used to this cycling jazz again. Even though there were plenty of towns and civilisation for the first few hundred kilometres I had loaded up on food and supplies in anticipation of the isolated stretches that awaited further south in Bolivia. I wasn't even able to pack all the food I had initially planned on taking, all of my bags were bulging with food and different unessential items I had picked up over the previous few weeks and months. I think it was the heaviest the bike has ever been which was quite the achievement.

Some fascinating rock formations to be seen

A camp spot inside an old abandoned house that I was told to use.

Flamingos in a lake I passed

The city of Oruro was the biggest dump I've been in to date.
This is not a dump simply rubbish dumped by the side
of the road.
Thankfully after the initial climb out of La Paz the terrain was relatively flat for the next few days with varrying road conditions and traffic volumes. They are in the process of building a two lane highway in each direction between La Paz and the city of Oruro which lies a bit over two hundred kilometres south which had me criss crossing between the old road, heavy traffic road works with no shoulder, new two lane road with a lovely shoulder and even the occasional opportunity the cycle on the freshly paved road that had yet to be opened to traffic which was great. It felt like cycling on a run way with the three lanes to myself. I knew this was not going to last. The paved roads stopped two days after Ururo and it was onto the mostly sandy dust with plenty of "ripio" as they call it around here which is bumpy wash bord. It helps to make for a nice sore ass if you haven't been doing much cycling, which I hadn't after my time off in La Paz!

Ripio aka washboard
Not the first river that I've had to cross but the first time I've had to make a quick
retreat due to quick sand in one spot

I was surrounded on three sides by a gigantic mud flat, it was an incredible view.

Anything to avoid the ripio 

Before leaving La Paz and for the few days cycling south I had being weighing up whether or not I would cycle across Salar de Uyuni which is the biggest salt flat in the world. It is one of the "must sees" on most cycle tourists itineraries and during the dry season most cyclists cross it. But it's the wet season and during this time most cyclists don't cross it as it's mostly flooded not to mention that salt water is a sure fire way to destroy your bike prematurely! I arrived in the late afternoon at Colchani which is the closest village to one of the main entry points to the salt flats. I cycled straight through the village and down the 5 km road which is almost like a spit for the last part stretching out into the salt flats.
I was in my bare feet not too far from the road taking a few photos when another passing cyclist stopped to ask me in Spanish where I was from. It did not take long to notice neither of us were native Spanish speakers and it turned out that Chris was a fellow Irish man from Galway. Chris was a few months into his South American cycle and was eventually heading for Colombia. A short while later we bumped into Ted, a French cyclist from Lyon heading north. After the photo session it was back to Colchani in the dark where we stayed in the same hostel. I had decided that I wasn't going to cross the Salar. It was physically possible but it would have added time on between the detour and then needing probably the best part of another day to take the time to thoroughly clean the bike. I didn't have any time to play with as two good friends were flying into Santigo de Chile in early March giving me only a few weeks to make it the few thousand kilometres further south.

A map of the famous Salar de Uyuni

It felt a bit like a zoo with the hordes of tourists driven out to
the edge of the Salar for sunset then loaded back into the vans shortly
after. It was strange to compare this to the vast open expanses with equally
beautiful sunsets with nobody in sight for miles around that I experienced over the
following days.
Pretty impressive sunset all the same

Chris and Ted
The Dakar rally had passed through the Salar
a week or  so previous
As always we exchanged stories and tips, me singing the virtues of the Casa de Ciclista that they could look forward to in La Paz with both Chris and Ted separately warning of the crazy winds that I could look forward to in Patagonia. Not the first time I'd been told about that. Ted also told me that he had bumped into Simon and Olivia only a day or so riding ahead of me. We had all come from different directions and the following morning we all set out in our different directions. I was heading south, Ted north and where else would a Galway man be headed but out west... into the flooded salt flats with a cracked rim.

Chris preparing his bike for the Salar crossing
As Chris said himself, it's an Irish thing. Proudly attaching his Tayto crisps pen to the bike!

Showing off the Galway colours
A roundabout sculpture in Uyuni
Once I passed the town of Uyuni, which is the main tourist spot for organised jeep trips out into the Salar things started to get a lot more isolated and I needed to make sure I had plenty of water with about 100 km between towns and these towns of Rio Grande and San Juan did not have too much in them. After that then it was around a hundred kilometres to the Chilean border. Which wouldn't be that long on a normal road. The days I spent in between Uyuni and the Chilean border were one of the highlights of the trip. I shall remember this particular stretch for a number of factors, first and foremost the incredible natural beauty that I found myself in, the isolation and also that some of it was extremely difficult. I would have been confident when I finally left  Peru that a few of the hours when I found myself "cycling", crawling and pushing the last few hundred metres up the rocky paths to mountain passes in the Cordillera Blanca that this would not be topped in terms of how slow I was travelling or how challenging it was.
My last full day in Bolivia however topped this, a record that I hadn't particularly been looking to break!

Three wild donkies
Muck getting clogged between my tyre and mud guard

Not much traction with the salt sticking to the wheels like snow
The roads or tracks are a bit more vague in this stunning part of the world. I might be standing smack bang in the middle of the road according to the improved map app on my phone or I might be 500 metres to the side or a kilometre or so off it. It didn't really mater, there was zero traffic and most of the time they were simply different tyre tracks from jeeps that had passed and sometimes there wasn't tyre tracks at all. Between my phone and a target point I would have on the horizon I had a rough idea of where I was going. Rough in every sense of the word.

The tracks had deteriorated after the last town I passed of San Juan. I had headed off down one track for nearly an hour at one stage only to notice on my phone that it was headed in the completely wrong direction. The tracks were pretty random and obviously there were no signs. There was however a train track so I started to use this for bearings and I decided to follow a small path that was running alongside the train tracks. I knew that the train was headed for the border town in Chile that I wanted to get to. The path got less worn and harder to make out but I still had the train tracks. Then the terrain closet to the tracks became too difficult and the path seemed to split off in different directions away from the train tracks. This essentially meant that the drivers of the various jeep tracks I had been following had no longer been able to drive along by the train tracks and had gone off in different directions.

Getting deeper into the sand, mud and salt mix. 
More hot, bubbly mushy bananas..
yum yum. Taste great when you are running
low on food ... kind of
As the afternoon progressed things got gradually tougher and I found myself in the middle of a massive semi dry cross between salt and mud flat. It seemed to extend for miles around me. I wasn't worried as I had picked a point on the horizon near to where the train tracks seemed to head and where there the hills seemed to drop. The issue was the speed with which I was travelling. By this stage I was off the bike pushing it as my wheels were sinking between two and four inches into the sand-muck-salt making it impossible to cycle in. As the afternoon progressed the wind picked up so I was eventually out in the middle of this massive expanse of sand and salt pushing my loaded bike. On some of the tougher days I'd usually get out the music but there was absolutely no point in that because I wouldn't hear a thing with the howling wind. I was literally stopping every ten metres to catch my breath. Some of the time I was furious, shouting expletives at the top of my voice, other times I could only chuckle to myself thinking "If only the lads could see me now, they'd have some laugh" but most of the time I was just focused on trying to make the next few metres. Even though the spot I was aiming for on the horizon was probably only a few kilometres away I finally figured out that there was no way that I was going to make it before dark and that it would possibly still take me half the following day. I didn't fancy pitching the tent in the middle of this sand flat because however difficult it was at the moment it would have become far more difficult to get out of if it rained that night. It wasn't in the direction that I wanted to eventually end up but over to my right were some hills where I might be able to camp and most importantly it seemed to be the "quickest" exit off the flats. I was pretty relieved to eventually make it out and put my tent up in the dark that night but I had spotted a series of tyre tracks for the following day. As I packed up in the morning I could see for miles around me yet I couldn't hear a sound. No more wind. It was almost a complete silence bar an occasional bird fluttering by. It was another one of those stand back in awe moments.

Add expletives as required. 
By midday of the following day I had made it to the Bolivia Chile border crossing. Thank God as I was pretty low on food and didn't have any water left. The border guard exiting Bolivia tried to con me into paying for exiting the country but I knew I didn't need to. I didn't pay.

This surface was actually better for cycling on than the bumpy wash board road near by
Dragging my ass south one metre at a time..

(I am doing this cycle to raise money for rural poor communities supported by Trocaire in Central America.
Please sponsor me now at
or by clicking on the "Donate" button at the top of this site. Thanks.)

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