High n Dry in Bolivia

Trip Start Sep 16, 2002
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Trip End May 31, 2004


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Tuesday, August 12, 2003

I am now almost 4000 metres high in La Paz (The Peace), Bolivia.........after 3 weeks and 1200km of cycling and marvelling at the multi coloured canyons of Argentina and then freezing and gasping through the yellow high plains (altiplano) of Bolivia. And I can honestly say this has been the best decision, too cycle instead of take public transport....

And it all started back in Salta, Argentina. Fabien and I left one dull overcast morning and it was a great relief to finally be cycling after 2 weeks of apprehension and preparation. It was like being set free, a new mode of transport and a different experience - just following a road and seeing where it took you.

Passing by the seven colour mountains of Purmamarca we made it to the little gem which is Tilcara. As we slowly start ascending to the high plain or Altiplano as it is called, the air starts to get drier and breathing becomes a bit of a strain. It is a cartoon world up here in North West Argentina, small villages set in rocky rainbow coloured valleys. Yellow, red, green, purple hills give way to the yellow grassy altiplano.
Finally after 5 days we were on the border and into Bolivia.

Winding our way through the small farms, kids running out "Hola Amigo!" and through dusty red valleys to Tupiza. Echos of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, who made it this far into South America. A few hours away they were gunned down after robbing a train.
Not surprisingly they came here. Bolivia used to be one of the richest countries worldwide as far as minerals go.......unfortunately they still happen to be one of the poorest nations in South America. Corruption and foreign interference have crippled this country. And when you think that Bolivia has lost land to nearly all its neighbours ...... its quite sad really. But the people have great spirit over here and are amongst the friendliest i have met so far.

The main reason for cycling into Bolivia was the Salar de Uyuni. We wanted to spend a few days on this ancient sea of salt. This is the biggest salt flat in the world and it is quite spectacular. It used to be a huge sea with islands and maybe strange fish. As you cycle around this mass of white crusty condiment, you have little coral islands you can stop at and climb while being shredded by 20 feet tall cacti. One of the highlights was a strange animal we spotted on one island. It was like a miniature kangaroo, hopping from rock to rock. After the sighting we decided not to eat anymore coca leaves for a while. A few nights were spent on this salty flat. At one point I thought we were never going to get off it (12000 sq km) but we finally made it out and started on our way north to La Paz.

However we were sidetracked briefly. We were invited to a small village one day as it was approaching dusk. "Es muy circa" (its very close) said the old man. Now you would think that I would have learnt by now. Whenever you want to know where something is or how far, ALWAYS be sceptical. One and a half hours later, pushing our bikes uphill over rocks and through sand we arrived. We spent the night drinking coca tea and answering questions normally related to money. The next day we went down to see the village school currently being built. Suddenly i realised that one of the men who was a few metres from me was planting a stick of dynamite in the ground! He was excavating. This is something that completely separates the people over here in latin america. There seems to be very little or no concept of safety. Which can be fun but sometimes there are limits. So I quickly retreated to behind a building and attended a school meeting instead.

After the village it was a tough 100km rocky ride towards Challapatta and then a 60km cycle over flat dull terrain into a very strong headwind. So we hopped into a camion (truck) for the remaining 30km to Oruro. After doing nothing but eat good food (after eating sand and pasta for 5 days) in Oruro we set off for the remaining 227km which we completed in 2 days. Suffice to say when we arrived in La Paz we were exhausted. Especially when we were actually a further 10km away from what we thought was the centre. We slowly made our way through the suburb, but where was the centre? And then suddenly it came out of hiding, below us yellow lights flickering in what seemed like a crater. It was probably 400 metres below. The city in a hole. It took us 45 minutes to descend into it. Finally we had arrived.

La Paz fed us well and made us lazy. So we headed to Corocio. To get there you had to take the aptly titled Road of Death. A dirt track which is so narrow that sometimes buses slide off and plummet 800 metres while trying to overtake. The normal way to get to Coroico is to bike it down. Which is supposed to be safer than taking a bus. A week before a bus had actually gone over the edge killing 30 local people. But now they have almost completed the new road which will hopefully open very soon. We took this road and started at an altitude of 4500metres and descended for 6 hours to Coroico which is at around 2000metres. Coroico is a little paradise set amongst huge green mountains. It is where you find the Afro Bolivian communities. Brought over during the slave trade.
After spending lazy days in Coroico we headed back to La Paz. On the road of death by bus. An experience I would not want to repeat.

And now Fabien is heading to Lima to catch a flight and I am heading into Peru up to .... Machu Picchu ......
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