Crossing the Bolivian Altiplano Part 1
30.09.2012 - 05.10.2012
30th September – La Paz to Lahuachaca 136 km / 938 climbing
Sunday morning departure from downtown La Paz.
Today began with a 400m climb, as we had to dig ourselves back out of La Paz, which at 3600m is lower than the altiplano. It wasn’t a special day on the bike, with the scenery just being flat altiplano with distant rolling hills. The traffic, particularly busses were very inconsiderate and some seemed to be trying to run me off the road. With no traffic on the other side, there’s no reason they can’t give you a wide berth. It turns out everyone else had issues with busses. Are they on a silly schedule?
Snowballs from heaven? The memorable part of today was a snowball shower after lunch. I’ve seen plenty of snow falling, but this was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t snowflakes, hail, or sleet, but actually marble-sized fluffy snowballs. They smashed when they hit the road, or my bike, but when they hit me, they stuck and I looked like I’d been paintballed with snowballs. It was a most unusual ‘shower’. A few kilometres later it was over and a few more kilometres on, the road was completely dry and it didn’t take long for me to be too.
Tonight we’re staying in an unusual place. It’s called a ‘hostal’ and we’re staying in thatched rooms with dome rooves. Some people are camping as there aren’t enough beds.
What a dry place to live. Very harsh existence.
Late in the afternoon, with perfect light, 8 of us visited some ancient tombs near Lahuachaca. They date to pre-Inca, meaning they’re more than 500 years old. The amazing thing is the way we could just walk around them and explore. This is not a tourist area and there were no fences or other things to inhibit us. Built of mud and straw, with bones still inside some of them, it’s testament to the lack of rain here that they’re still standing. I hadn’t taken any photos today, but made up for it around these tombs. Enjoy.
The hostal cooked for us. ‘Dessert’ was chopped apple and banana in a plastic cup filled with water. Different! I hope the water is safe? Lee’s birthday cake followed and made for a real dessert.
1st October Lahuachaca to Oruruo – 99km
Today I cracked 4000 km! That’s more than a third of the 11000 km of this journey. I’ve been amazed at how my fitness has improved and the riding that I’ve accomplished so far. Much more to go, and we’ve seen some beautiful things and had some special moments so far, and I’m excited about what we’ll see over the next 7000 km. Time flies – that’s 2 months of 4 and a half months on the bike.
Smokey truck! Old motor and incomplete combustion combine at this altitude.
The altiplano continues. No landscape photos, as it’s the same as yesterday although the traffic today was much better. I rode with Wilbert the 60km until lunch. We rode side by side at slightly faster pace than I’d normally maintain, but not so fast I had to tell him to slow down. We chatted about stuff and got to know each other better. As the owner of Bike Dreams, I took the chance to tell him what I thought about his business. It’s all good! He’s passionate and has assembled a great team of equally passionate staff/crew who all put the customer first. It’s a pleasure to be involved with a professional and passionate organisation. Here's Wilbert.
Lunch today was memorable. As we passed through the village just before it, there was a procession heading out of town. Didier had set up the lunch truck directly opposite the destination of the tree-planting ceremony. All we had to do was wait for them to arrive and that they did. There were all sorts of placards, flags and banners as well as many people carrying a tree to plant. I’d got ahead of myself mouthing off about the irony of the bloke who lit a fire before they got there. It’s the middle of the day, it’s not even cold and why burn wood at a tree-planting ceremony. Turns out they used it as part of the ceremony by throwing things onto it, including a dried llama foetus. (So they don’t only use them in new houses.) VIPs then took turns walking around it splashing alcohol on the ground as an offering to Pachamama/Mother Earth. Music and dancing ensued and we were made to feel welcome with things being offered to others, such as coca leaves and food, being offered to us gringos standing around too. It was wonderful to see their culture in action in a real way, not as a tourist show somewhere.
Enjoying our saltenas. They're the Bolivian version of a pastie or empanada.
Check out the ring around the sun.
They highway is being doubled in size to 2 lanes each way, so there is a parallel new road under construction, but the Bike Dreams guys say it has looked this way, unfinished but getting there, for 4 years! 200km of roadworks from La Paz to Oruru, with barely a piece of machinery or workers to be seen. No wonder it’s taking so long. Quite a comparison to Peru, where they were throwing masses of resources at the 100km project we passed. You know that will get finished and soon.
It was only 40km until Oruro and it was nice and flat. The directions said, ‘roundabout with metal helmet’. I’m not sure what I expected.
This man was one of many, all different, located on the road island as you came into town.
I finished the 99km today in 3 hours 45 minutes. I went for an afternoon walk with a couple of others and found these crazy signs near the markets.
All this hard work required a cold beer and I tried a new one, a stout from Pacena. Very good. I always like to try all the different beers. How else do I know the good ones?
Dinner was group of 8 guys, as all the girls had gone out together for a ‘girls night out’. I had Filet Mignon. It’s become a bit of game to see how much they can vary. This one was okay, but was rib-eye, not fillet.
2nd October Oruro to bushcamp – 148km / 416m climbing
Today was always going to be a long slog, but the way it turned out couldn’t have been better. Perfect weather accompanied more desolate, flat and dry altiplano as scenery. We started as a group as always, but by the edge of town, 9 of us found ourselves together. It was a really good team and not only did we adjust our speed so that everyone could keep up, we took 3km turns being the one in front. We cracked along at an average speed of 27 kph, so the 80 km to lunch took us 3 hours. Only 68 km to go. We’d left lunch at different times, but 4 of us ended up together after 20km or so and we stuck together the rest of the day, slowing down if necessary so that the slowest one could keep up. I didn’t mind – I go to take it easy and he got the benefit of the group. We picked up a couple more with 20 km to go and the 6 of us rode together as 3 x 2, playing ‘I spy’ to pass the kilometres. ‘S’ for subsistence farmers? I did the 148 km in exactly 6 hours. Although there was ‘timing’ day, none of our people today are racers or care about time, so it was really nice to see people riding as a team and looking out for others. I think if there was no timing for the whole trip there might be a different atmosphere. Non-timing days are the best, as the speeders slow down and stop for photos and drink stops instead of racing.
These last few days you could look out over the altiplano at any given moment and see willy-willies/dust devils twisting and swirling across the dusty landscape.
Tonight we’re camping amongst some half-built houses. Apparently they were in the same state two years ago. We used one as a kitchen and another as a dining room. Luxury!
Jaap, one of our two cooks. We do get well fed.
3rd October Bus Crash – Meteorite Crater 83 km / 483m climbing
Today was tougher than I’d expected. I saw the distance and after yesterday’s ride, went ‘Woo! Hoo!’ That would be fair if both days were bitumen. After the first 20km, today was not. The name of our campsite – bus crash – is literal and as we left, we passed a big cross for those that died, and the rusting shell of a bus.
The scenery is getting more varied and therefore, more interesting. The gravel road varied from atrocious to the best ever. Best ever? It might have been gravel, but it was actually prepared ready to be black-topped. Let me share with you my thoughts on Bolivian road building.
BOLIVIAN ROAD BUILDING.
Method One – The Political Road - as seen on our way out of La Paz.
Promise to build a 200km highway from La Paz to Oruro, if you get elected.
Get elected and carve out all 200km at once and line it with promotional billboards with pictures of you on it.
Make sure you use only enough manpower and machinery so that so that just enough gets done so that when you are up for re-election 4 years later you can now promise to COMPLETE the highway.
Black top it in random sections for no apparent reason. Make sure that every patch is a different mix of aggregate so that when they join together. Say that this is not incompetence but a safety measure so that one day, when you eventually open the highway, drivers don’t fall asleep because you keep changing the road surface. Do not open any stage of the 200km until the WHOLE road is complete. Make people keep using the old road and detours.
Knowing that voters have short memories and will not hold it against you for taking 8 years to do a 2 year job, finally open the highway as a big media moment and they will vote for you.
BOLIVIAN ROAD BUILDING.
Method two- the incompetent road – as seen elsewhere.
Step one - Spend a lot of money carving out a new road.
Step two - Grade it and compact it to perfection, ready for the black top.
Take so long to get around to putting the black top on that locals get sick of the dodgy, dusty detour and start using the new road.
Once cars have added corrugations and pot holes and a few storms have done their bit, finally get around to putting tar and aggregate on top.
Wonder why your new roads are full of corrugations and pot holes.
One year later. Carve out large sections and replace. No one wants a highway that doesn’t look like it’s been maintained.
Five years later, the road is dysfunctional. Wonder why it hasn’t reached its projected lifespan.
Start at step 2 and repeat and you have full employment of a road-building workforce.
Wonder why you are one of the poorest countries in the world and why when you spend the same money as your neighbours on your roads, yours are a disgrace and theirs are fantastic.
Remote and tiny villages.
I changed my tyres this afternoon and found a big thorn in the tyre I was about to put on. This explains the mysterious puncture I had when I last changed my tyres. The green slime in my tubes had prevented a puncture. Woo! Hoo! That is what I wanted. We’ve got dodgy unsealed road riding for awhile now, so time to change tyres. Today was a challenge. I fell off the bike because I couldn’t unclip my foot from the pedal in time. The reason was 15 cm deep dust like talcum powder but it made my landing like snow, just very dusty. I enjoyed my flannel bath tonight more than usual.
Tonight’s bush camp is next to a meteorite crater, near the village of Jayu Quta. How random is that? A meteorite crater. About 1 km across, it’s deep enough to expose the water table; however, being a ‘closed lake’ it’s incredibly salty. Around the rim, are many rocks that are black and scorched. The animals you can see are llamas.
I didn't know that Earth was a binary star system.
Sunset over the crater.
An enterprising local has set up a rickety viewpoint tower and has a ‘snacks touristico’ shop. After answering the usual 20 questions about who we were and what we are up to, I asked, ‘Do you sell beer?’ He didn’t, but I said if he did, he’d make good sales and if possible, cold is better. He said ‘Sure.’ and an hour later there were cold beers for sale. Not our average bush camp. With 30 thirsty people in the group, we cleaned him out, but he restocked from the local village 5 minutes away. Heck! We weren’t going to walk there! I love the basic economics going on with supply rising to meet demand. No liquor licence and other red tape. He made some money, we got to support the local economy (That’s the only reason I bought my beer!), and we had a cold beer surprise! Bush camp? Sure, I’m in a tent tonight, and the water bottle on my bike will freeze solid, but having dinner in a room under a roof feels like extravagant bush camping. I was on dishes duty tonight and it was indoors. SO much better than some nights that have been so cold and we’ve been outside. It was -6 degrees tonight.
Here's my tent.
Even dinner had a crater them with the gravy in a crater of mash!
Richard is apologising for losing the llama and is introducing a replacement.
The family who let us use their buildings, and sold us beer!
4th October Meteorite Crater to Tahua on the edge of Salar De Uyuni - 73km / 509m climbing
I got up before dawn to photograph the sunrise striking the walls of the meteorite crater. Magic!
People from the village came to see us off and also wanted a group photo.
This little girl must have a long walk to school.
Bushcamp to bushcamp and a rough track all day. This is the Andes Trail and you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The ‘road’ was full of nut-numbing corrugations, and the ball busting bumps made it hard work, but it was so much fun. It took 4.5 hours to cover the distance.
Each day since leaving La Paz the scenery has got better and today was beautiful. We’re still on the altiplano, but there were many mountains and hills around us today, rather than the wide expanse of flat that we’ve had. We even had an active volcano – the 5400m Tunapa – as our ever-present companion. We headed south towards it’s north face, then skirted it’s western slopes and tonight we’re camped on it’s south side. Each side had a different coloured top. It features in many of my photos today.
Lunch was in the plaza of the village Salinas with an old church facing it.
We rode together in the afternoon, stopping each time there was a junction in the track we were following to let everyone catch up and regroup before setting off again. It’s a barely-used track that connects a few isolated little villages and rocks, sand and powder-like dust were all part of the fun. This is what I signed up for – mountain biking in the Andes. I did take a few photos, as is my style, so I'll share them here.
The volcano in the background.
Tired but happy cyclist.
Even the tiniest of towns had a church. Here are a couple.
We’ve ended up on the north shore of Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia’s giant salt lake. The lake is in front of us and the simmering volcano is behind us. At over 10 000 square kilometres, it is the largest salt flat in the world. It has a crust of rock salt sitting on top of a brine solution.
Girl power. These are our female continent of riders.
Our volcanic companion. You can see it smoking.
Salar De Uyuni salt flat.
5th October Tahua across the Salar De Uyuni salt lake to the Salt Hotel – 104 km / dead flat!! 0 metres climbing
What a cold night! The night before was -6 and I was warm in my tent and bed. Last night was much colder as I woke up cold during the night. Any liquid left outside was solid.
It wasn’t any warmer out on the salt lake either as despite the clear blue sky and blazing sun, it was really cold. The salt beneath you was cold and gave off no warmth.
I started with a jacket on as it was cold, even in the full sun.
Today was incredible and like nothing on the trip so far, but I think we all thought that today was going to be much easier than it was. We were expecting 100 km of a white highway with no traffic or hills. The 40 km to lunch was particularly hard. It wasn’t as flat as it looked from a distance but was actually hexagonal rock salt ‘cobblestones’ about a metre across with a 5cm deep gap between the slabs. The rock salt slab made a crunching sound as the crystals got crushed beneath our wheels. The texture varied from flat and okay, to bone-jarring flagstones. I’d left my tyres soft since yesterday and within a short time, everyone who’d just pumped their tyres hard for the white highway had stopped to let some air out. I'm wearing a red t-shirt today which really stands out against the white salt.
We set off south to an island. It’s such a big lake that it was over the horizon and we couldn’t see it to begin with. Lunch at the island was cold, like the whole day. What an interesting island. It’s small, less than 1 sq km, but it’s covered in giant cacti. Absolutely huge! Twice my height and too thick to put your arms around and hug. (You’d have to be thick to hug a cactus wouldn’t you?) Here are some photos. Look for the llamas.
This door is made of cactus wood. That's right, they're so big they grow a wooden stem to support themselves.
This afternoon was easier as there was a ‘road’ to follow. It’s a well-worn path made by vehicles, so although not always flat, it was smoother than crunching a new path like this morning. It was just a long 65 km slog across a white featureless landscape. You couldn’t see your destination as it was over the curve of the Earth.
Just when I was enjoying having the road and the 10000 sq. km of the world’s largest salt flat to myself, it all changed with cars flying at me at close to 200kph. Even with my red t-shirt against the salt I didn’t want to be a bonnet mascot, so as I saw each rally car approach, I’d move a few metres off the ‘road’ as they passed. In total there were about 20 Bolivian rally cars doing a time trial across the salt flats. Fortunately I made it to the Salt Hotel just before the cars made their return journey.
It took me 5 hours to ride the 104 km today which was much slower than I’d expected. Salt Hotel? 7km from the ‘shore’ is a building made of salt blocks cut from Salar De Uyuni. It also contains some salt carvings and the furniture is also made of salt blocks. There is plumbing, but no water; light switches but no power. It will be an interesting night.
We spent the late afternoon basking in the sunlight and drinking beer. It’s a tough life.
Susanna and Michelle.
Good-bye and good night volcano.
A candle-lit dinner was on a salt block table with salt chairs. The floor is covered with salt, so I guess they don’t mop it. Some cheeky person asked for some salt for their food and got given a plate of what looked suspiciously like floor sweepings!
We did our daily llama moment after dinner and I got it again. This time it was for playing chicken with rally cars on the salt flat.
My bed tonight is also made of salt blocks. See the salt block walls?
Today marks my half-way point time wise (but not quite for distance). It’s 2.5 months gone and the same still to go. We’ve seen so much already and I’ve had many memorable experiences. Doing this trip is the fulfilment of an 8 year dream and I’m loving it. The only bad thing is that I’m missing Erin, my family and friends, but it’s not possible to do this trip whilst staying at home. It’s frustrating when you have a sick father and you can’t visit him in hospital. I really miss you Erin, but I’ll be home before Christmas, and we all know how quickly that arrives. I’m really looking forward to our island holidays next year and finalising plans for our wedding in November 2013. Honeymoon? It’s a big world, so we don’t lack for choices. Have I told you lately that I love you?