Cycling in Bolivia – January 2016
To illustrate how crazy we are, here’s the story of two vagabonds who got tired of Costa Rica’s paradise beaches and comfort and decided to book a flight one week ahead to Bolivia…
After one month cycling and paddling in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we have the luxury of sharing a house in Uvita with JP´s family for the holidays. Cold beer at all hour of the day, cool infinite swimming pool, high speed Wireless internet, fresh fish to be cooked in all possible ways, an easy 20km cycle to the beach and… Surfing. Yes, ladies and gentleman, JP is now a surfer, which was made to be anyways with his Jesus-like hair, but had always avoided the sport for some dark reasons. He finally gave in and tried the damn thing – and succeeded like a pro, standing on his first try in baby waves. In those three weeks of pure luxury, we manage to convince ourselves how silly it is to have four more months to travel, a decent budget, all our cycling gear and to be in a place without WOWs. You see, we had a blast in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and really, it was MY idea to try something new this year. Instead of cycling non-stop from a point A to a point B for six months like we had done the year before in Africa, I had this crazy idea of “taking it easy”. JP accepted my challenge and suggested that we take the Packraft with us. We paddled from lake Nicaragua to the Caribbeans for a week, and paddled twice the river Savegre in Costa Rica in level III+ and IV rapids. Really, we had a blast… BUT. I guess we simply missed cycling for real – and maybe was I having too many anxiety attacks before going down rapids. So we brainstormed on the most rational possibilities – and the craziest – and we booked a flight one week in advance to La Paz, the highest capital in the whole wild world.
Once the plane ticket in hands, we surf through some cycling blogs in search of nice itineraries (see the list below). From La Paz heading South, two routes catch our attention: cycling the Chilean side of the Andes from Visviri to Ollague through Lago Chungara and Lauca, Vicunas and Isluga National Parks, OR cycling the Bolivian side again to Ollague but through Sajama and Macaya National Park, Coipasa and Uyuni salt deserts and San Pablo de Lipez.The first option offers very few and limited services. We are talking here of multiple stretches of more than 100km on crazy dirt roads with little circulation and supply points. On the other hand, getting water and supply looks “easier” on the Bolivian side, but February is the season of electric storms and touring is not recommended. JP is wondering if we can still cycle the salt deserts in more than a foot of salty water, while I’m wondering if we can get hit by lightening while cycling on rubber tires, or while sleeping in a tent made of a metallic structure. I guess we’ll see. We choose to stick to the Bolivian side.
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Arriving in La Paz is an awesome feeling. We build our bikes in the airport and leave under the first lights of the day after more than 50 hours of transport – the real price of cheap flights. Snowy mountains in the back, cold fresh air, Bolivian mamitas wearing tons of colorful skirts and bowler hats, and Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence playing on outside speakers make our first glimpse of the capital epic. It is my first time in South America, and JP’s second time in Bolivia, 8 years after. […] La Paz is so great. From the first moments, I love it. We take some money out of the ATM, the machine eats JP’s card, we buy coca leaves to chew on, and we enjoy the big way down to town. Big and small somehow pure race street dogs wearing colorful t-shirts and ties witness our joy of cycling in such cool climate (that’s right, dressed up dogs). How did a healthy Puli dog ended up guarding Bolivian street dogs instead of sheep in Hungary is still a mystery. In the little time we are there, we face an opportunity to test the good Bolivian stuff. Half driven by curiosity, half serious, we randomly meet someone who swims in the business and we get ourselves to the point of being offered a very big quantity of blow. Ah, you’re curious too ? 1000 U$. For a kilo. Of pure quality. Available. Right away. Welcome in La Paz […] We would only stay few days in the capital : just enough time to acclimate ourselves to the altitude, to buy some supplies and warm clothes for the next days, and to print off maps and info about our upcoming route – but enough time to feel that distinctive energy hostile mountainous places like here, Tajikistan and Lesotho share. We have now been in Bolivia for less than 24 hours and we can feel the WOWs. Plus, a crazy route is awaiting for us. We couldn’t be happier with our decision of being here, even if that meant exploding our budget of a grand each in plane tickets.
Cycling in La Paz
This is inflammable !
Peek on snowy mountains
La Paz from our hostel
Shopping for our route
Sunset on La Paz
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We went straight to the point. No fuss, no lost of energy nor time. We took a bus from La Paz that dropped us and our pile of stuff in front of the entry of Sajama National Park, with its snowy volcano welcoming us at 9AM sharp, ready for our first out of 18 cycling days on Bolivian intense dirt roads. We couldn’t find better route to get used to the Bolivian altitude: the climbs are gentle, our route stays on an average altitude of 4000m above sea level, the scenery is amazing, and there are villages with water and snacks every 50km or so. But… The road itself is mostly poopoo. All is either corrugated and/or sandy and/or rocky. On our way to Sabaya, we are privileged with two whole days on pure washboard. Meaning, gravel waves of an inch or two deep every half foot – for kilometers. On the same Sajama-Sabaya segment, at some point, the road becomes sand dunes for half a kilometer. Big loose sand. No other choice but to pull our 55kg-bikes and fill our shoes with a pound of sand. That beach-like hitch comes just before our biggest river crossing. Fortunately for us, it is half the width other cyclists say it was, and there are no floating pieces of ice in sight. Still, we couldn’t find a better way to wake-up that morning then having four degree water to the hips while carrying our bikes one at a time on our shoulders.We got so much rest in Costa Rica, we are so happy to be here and we are expecting so much worst then this that we could probably encounter any kind of obstacle and still cycle through.
Llama farming, Bolivia
Village of Caripe
JP and Sajama volcano
Entering Sajama National Park
Village of Sajama
Looking at my first flamencos
Arriving in Osjani
Village of Tomarapi
The people here seem to have frozen in time, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Most of the people from the rural areas live from llama farming and their small garden. Not much can survive in those harsh conditions. The nights are flirting with the freezing the point, the sun is extremely powerful during the day, the wind is rarely on our side and is blowing dust in every little corner of our stuff and selves, the state of dryness is disturbing – especially in the villages where the people is desperately waiting for rain, and lightening on the horizon at night reminds us that we might not be in the best season for cruising around. To sum up, we’re damn vulnerable and that makes us feel alive.
Baby llama and drying meat
JP watching flamingos
Village of Macaya
Sunset on Macaya
Laguna Macaya in the morning
Llama friends on the road
Sandy single tracks to Cruzani
Sand dunes before Rio Lauca
Crossing Rio Lauca
Sandy road to Cruzani
All covered but still burning
Mummy and one-day old llamas
Sabaya-Coipasa road, Bolivia
A storm is coming
On day 6 on Bolivian dirt roads, we are about to cross our first salt desert, Coipasa. The people here tells us the desert is dry and that finding our way shouldn’t be a problem if we stick to the tracks. But the night before our crossing, it rains. So we have the pleasure of cycling Coipasa on an inch of water. There is just enough water on the desert to get that crazy reflection of the sky on the surface, and to get completely coated with salt. To protect ourselves from the sun, all parts of our body are covered. We are both wearing a large hat, sunglasses, 60 SPF paint-like sun cream on our face, and a scarf over our ears, neck and face. Somehow, I’m still burning – that is how strong the sun is in here. The sun not only burns our skin but cracks our lips too. Within minutes, the scarf that covers my face is completely soaked with salty water, which burns my cold sores so bad that I’m putting a 2-inch piece of cardboard between my lips and my scarf to keep my face “dry”. The feeling of cycling for three straight hours through a whiteness infinity – infinity to the horizon, sky reflected on the water, is quite hard to define. It’s simply f**king awesome. The break we take in that desert will probably stay in our minds for a long time. Imagine the scene : everything is white (including our bikes, panniers and selves). We put our two bikes side by side to keep them standing, we build our chairs and we devour each Chef Boyardee’s raviolis straight from the five-dollar can. Far away, we can see a car, the first (and only )of the day. It seems so close, but is 1cm tall! We could spent the whole day playing with perspectives and taking funny pictures but… A wet salt desert isn’t quite a good camping spot. Since the beginning of the day, we had been following a track. But the track is gone. So we take the GPS and we go straight South – where we think we should go according to a cycling blog. On the horizon, we only see the shadow of islands, which are reached after many hours of cycling. After few hours, the ground changes. The hard wet salt dries up, and than goes from cracked crust to spongy, to pure mud. Cycling isn’t an option anymore. Actually, we can’t even push the bikes! All we can do is pull the bikes, take off the mud stock around our unattached brakes every meter or so and hope that this isn’t going to last. Completely sun-blasted, the more I get discouraged, the more I lose balance in the sticky mud and the more JP laughs – which, you can imagine, really helps the situation. We manage to cover 500 meters of mud in two hours before reaching better grounds. We are short in water, there is nothing around us, and we are still off tracks. Thanks to our GPS, we know that somewhere in front of us there’s a track that could lead us back to the “main” road.
Desert of Coipasa with water, Bolivia
Tracks to the village of Coipasa
Getting to Coipasa
JP in Coipasa
Enjoying an Inca black beer
Village of Coipasa
Desert of Coipasa
Exiting Coipasa desert in the mud
Eating Boyardee’s from the can, Coipasa, Bolivia
Froasted with salt
Frosted bikes, Coipasa, Bolivia
Sandy tracks to Challacollo
Better road to Llica
Dakar 2016 was here !
After a rest day spent cleaning our frosted bikes in Llica, we hit our second salt desert: Uyuni. Like many others before us, our plan is to cross Uyuni in two days, spending a night on the island of Incahuasi. Back in Costa Rica, we were reading some crazy guys’ blog riding Uyuni with water up to his panniers, completely coated with hard salt – the worst friend of a steel bike. Wow that looks hardcore… It’s our turn now : the entrance of Uyuni’s desert is flooded under more than a feet of water. Should we turn around? Hell no. After loosing the main track in Coipasa, I’m worried of loosing our way in here too even though we have our GPS. Everything looks the same, and there is no one to ask information to. It’s us, this sea of salt, and the crazy sun. There are dozens and dozens of touristic vehicles in Uyuni everyday, but not in that part – they all go to the same spots, closer to the city of Uyuni. The desert is less and less flooded as we get further. After about three hours of riding close to 20km/h, we open the GPS to check how good our instinct is in finding our way. We are 4km off-tracks, and still 15km away from Incahuasi. Damn!
First, we see the shape of the island of Incahuasi, and then, many sparkling metallic dots. Are they houses? This is no place to live… No. They are cars. There are about 30 tourist Jeeps parked in front of the island. Since La Paz, we haven’t seen any tourists. We have been cycling quietly, alone with the llamas and few Bolivians. And today is the second day cycling in a salt desert, with no one in sight. Completely coated with salt, we go get ourselves an expensive and well deserved cold beer. Some young tourists, tired from sitting in their Jeep, are enjoying their beer as well and wonder why my face is sunburned : “you should put sunblock on” one says, “thanks” I say “I haven’t thought of that at all. How do you like the salt desert?””It’s great, but I wish it was wet so I can have nicer pictures. By the way, is that white thing on your clothes and bikes salt?” “…”
Entrance of Uyuni in one foot of water
Our track to cross Uyuni
Back mountains in the whiteness
Taking an epic break
Rocking the desert
It’s just us in the infinity
Camping on Incahuasi
Isla de Incahuasi, Bolivia
Having fun with perspectives, Uyuni, Bolivia
Cycling hand in hand in Uyuni, Bolivia
Metting another Quebecer, Salt Hotel, Bolivia
Cooking breakfast, Incahuasi, Bolivia
Trangia alcohol stove works sooo well
Isla de Incahuasi, Bolivia
The next day, we reach Uyuni after spending two hours in the salt Hotel chatting with Jarek, a young Quebecer who cycled from Montréal and who has been on the road for 15 months now. He takes advantage of our tools to put a new tire on his one-inch-wide 700CC wheels. He hasn’t got any punctures for months, he says, although we can see through his tire. Impressive. “And where are you heading now [with those little tires] ?” “Classic lagoon route. I want to stay where the Jeeps are in case I get any problems. What about you guys?” “San Pablo de Lipez. I guess we’ll see you in Atacama! Good luck!” […] Why go San Pablo de Lipez? To avoid the Jeeps. There is nothing more infuriating than being passed by speedy vehicles and their tail of dust while in the middle of nowhere, cycling – and we are heading in the middle of nowhere alright.
. . .
Compared to this, our first stretch in Sajama looks like a Sunday excursion. All elements are against us. We are two vulnerable gnomes pushing piles of dusty shit on two wheels across a desert for almost ten days. On day one, we cycle in a flat land of sand to get back in the mountains. The only skin I have exposed to light, where my bike gloves end, halfway on my fingers, burns to second degree with pus-filled bubbles on them along with dried cracked swollen skin. That night, we pitch the tent on the side of a primary school. There is not much places in the world where it seems normal for all sort of bones to be left in a school yard – here is one of those places. On day two, we cross some endless brownish dried rolling hills. For kilometers we can see our route, a beige ribbon, following the shape of the hills until it is so small we can’t see it no more. I wonder if the Chinese Wall looks like that at some point. That night, we are shelter-less few kilometers from a pass called Abra San Vincente, sitting at 4669m above sea level. We have no choice but to test my tropical full-mesh three-people tent to some serious winds. At 8PM sharp, the wind rises. We are just about to finish eating. I look around : the tent is completely lying. WTF! We will spend the two next hours holding our breath and keeping the tent straight by pushing our feet on the walls from the Inside. As I fall asleep, all dressed up in my warmest clothes, completely exhausted, I imagine all our belongings rolling down the hill, pushed by the wind, gone forever, while the tent, partially wrecked, flies in the sky with us still holding on some straps, and floating like outdoor versions of Mary Poppins. Fortunately for us and our stuff, at 10PM sharp, the wind leaves us as quickly as it came.
Day 1. Sullchi, Bolivia
Day 1. Our camping spot in Sullchi, Bolivia
Day 2. That crazy sandy flat road from Sullchi to San Vincente, Bolivia
Day 2. You want flat? Here’s flat
Day 2. Leaving Uyuni for good, Bolivia
Day 2. Entering the mountains again, Bolivia
Day 2. Crazy road to Abra San Vincente, Bolivia
Day 2. JP, chilling, Bolivia
Day 2. Stopping for the night on the plateau, Bolivia
Day 2. Our very exposed camping site on Abra San Vincente, Bolivia
On day three, we wake up with half a centimeter of dust on our faces. I ask an old lady living alone in the mountains for water. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but understands my request and points across the road. I start walking in that direction, following footsteps. I find a well, protected by a board, and a hidden plastic bucket attached to a long rope. I move the board, and look down. There is not much left. Is it the only source of water in the area?! We will only take half a liter from her well. JP’s lips burst in three different spots – probably the worst herpes crisis he ever got. On day four, JP turns 29. We reach San Pablo de Lipez and manage to get cheap Argentinean beers (oh!) and a two service vegetarian feast here in a land of llama and chicken meat (ah!) to celebrate the start of his 30th year of birth (oh! ah!). On day five, we meet a young boy named Carlos. That night, dust and sand enter everywhere – again (not that hard with a tropical full-mesh tent). To stay come, I read Tracks by Robyn Davidson and I make peace with dust.
Day 3. San Vincente, Bolivia
Day 3. Getting to San Pablo de Lipez, Bolivia
Day 3. JP’s lips are done
Day 4. Happy Birthday JP !
Day 4. Alone in the desert, Bolivia
Day 4. Getting to San Pablo, Bolivia
Day 5. Getting to San Antonio, Bolivia
Day 5. Between the old and the new San Antonio, Bolivia
Day 5. We sleep in the yound Carlos’ family, Bolivia
On day six, my face feels weird and my eyelids stick together. JP says he has seen ostriches and I laugh at his face. We have three passes on a 29km stretch including our highest point in the Andes, Abra Laguna Morijon at 4901m. On day seven, we wake-up with frozen water bottles. At 4300m above sea level and 10 degrees Celsius, our Trangia alcohol stove is still working well. I have seen ostriches, apologize to JP for laughing at his face and now know that ostriches can live so high up in the mountains. On day eight, we reach Quetena Chico, a village where the young Carlos has once cycled from his house, 93km away. At ten years old, he had cycled it in a day – it took us two. JP sees a young puma. I choose this time not to doubt his vision, and will not go for a midnight pee that night. On day nine, we get back on the main road. About 25 Jeeps pass us in less than an hour, carelessly covering us with dust. Respect to the Pikes from Andes by Bike who only had to push less than 100 meters on that section. We have now pushed on 10km. We sleep on the floor of a lodge, I look in a mirror for the first time since Uyuni, I burst in laughs and take a selfie . JP says I look tired. On day ten, we cycle Paso del Condor to exit Bolivia and enter Chile, which we do with pleasure on a 45km way-down and 2000m drop to San Pedro de Atacama. I send my picture to my mom and she doesn’t recognize me.
Day 6. San Pablo-San Antonio road, Bolivia
Day 6. Looking at our route in direction of Quetena Chico, Bolivia
Day 6. The old San Antonio, Bolivia
Day 7. Taking a break and loving it, Bolivia
Day 7. Weird rainbow in the sky, Bolivia
Day 7. Getting to Quetena Chico, Bolivia
Day 7. Getting to Quetena Chico, Bolivia
Day 8. Getting to Quetena Chico, Bolivia
Day 8. Getting to Quetena Chico, Bolivia
Day 9. Getting to Quetena Chico, Bolivia
Day 9. Laguna with abandoned salt mine, Bolivia
Day 9. Laguna with abandoned salt mine, Bolivia
Day 9. Break in an abandoned salt mine, Bolivia
Day 9. Crazy stretch before the main laguna road, Bolivia
Day 10. Desert of Dali, Bolivia
. . .
To conclude this post with beauty, what else to talk about than the pleasure of traveling with your partner. I am a forever romantic. But for the past five years, being on the road, I had to put aside any form of that frivolousness. Trust me, there is nothing charming about living in your daily filth, in relieving your natural needs in front of your Partner (there are not much bushes nor trees in places like salt deserts), and in seeing each other in the most unseductive moments – like being completely exhausted, sunburned, stomach sick, home sick, altitude sick, soaked cold wet, sun stroked – day after, day after day. Some couples start their daily conversation with how their day at work was, us, we question the other on bowel movements. To start with, the color, odor, size and texture of our poopoo is the best indicator on our general health (and we want to keep healthy while traveling), on the quality of the food and water we ingest, and also, on how intense we cycle – YES, daily physical activity really pushes regularity! But at the end, really, it isn’t only the poopoo talk that destroys romanticism, but general hygiene too. You see,in our stuff, we carry two sets of clothes : the dirty ones, that we wear all day, and the less dirty ones, that we wear when we aren’t cycling. Everything, at the end, is dirty, but some stuff seems less dirty, so they become “clean” to us. In Central America, we took the habit of carrying an extra liter of water at the end of the day just to enjoy an evening shower. In here, the water is scare and it’s pretty cold. We don’t allow ourselves the luxury of a shower – for days. Thank you, baby wipes! Fortunately, through this rustic lifestyle, we have lived crazy moments as a pair. I admit we have now a pretty diverse repertoire of life experiences. JP and I will always be the only people to whom it is possible to say : “remember that day in that little Kyrgyz village in that three-day stretch where we asked something to eat and they gave us a greenish piece of mutton that gave us diarrhea for two weeks?” or “do you think we were lucky the lion didn’t attack us in Tanzania, even though he was that close? Remember, while crossing that park, infested with Tsetse flies, while you had stomach problems and no one to ask a ride from?” or “there is nothing like bad quality alcohol, eh JP? Remember that time in India when you were hallucinating a Maharajah in our bedroom after drinking too much cheap gin?”
Right : Justine after three weeks of pure luxury in Costa Rica ; Left : Justine after three weeks in the high plateau of Bolivia
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