Hola amigos, and welcome to my latest blog post, covering the month we just spent in Bolivia. It was another epic journey; one which proved to be both the hardest and most rewarding month of our trip so far, propelling it both figuratively and literally to new heights. And it was also notable for that most minor of events – my 30th birthday!
Entering Bolivia via its southwestern border with Chile, we first cycled through the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, following the spectacular ‘Lagunas’ route, before zigzagging our way towards the great salt plains of Uyuni and Coipasa. After a few days crossing the salt we turned northeast via better roads to the cities of Oruro and La Paz; in the latter leaving the bikes for a few days to climb a 6,000 meter mountain and trek down to the tropical lowlands. Back on the saddle, we continued northwards to the great Lake Titicaca, the largest body of water on the continent, and finally crossed into Peru just after the town of Copacabana, 1,250 km from the Chilean border and just over 5,000 km from the other Copacabana, where our journey had begun more than three and a half months earlier.
Part 1: The lagunas route
Our Bolivian odyssey began in the unlikely comfort of an early morning tour group minibus, for which we had paid the bargain price of £10 to whisk us back up the 2,000 metre (vertical terms) hill that we had so joyfully descended the week before in about 30 minutes, but which would have taken at least a day of hard pedaling to slog back up. After completing immigration formalities at what must be one of the most remote border posts in the world, we immediately started to follow the ‘Lagunas’ route, named after the kaleidoscope of volcanic lakes that dot the landscape between the Chilean border and the Uyuni salt plain to the north. There are actually a number of different ‘Lagunas’ routes, owing to the fact that there isn’t really a road at all, just a lot of jeep tracks which split off in various directions, depending on the destinations of the tourist-filled 4x4s that make up 99% of the traffic along the way. (For anyone who might be interested, we decided to follow the so-called ´classic´ route as far as Laguna Hedionda, before turning off to Alota and the paved road to Uyuni, following the well-known tour.tk route notes).
We almost immediately hit the first two lagunas – ´Blanca´ and ´Verde´, situated at the foot of the majestic Lincancabur volcano (5,868m) and, unsurprisingly, named after the hue of their waters. Both lakes take on their vibrant colours due to their mineral content, in particular borax (Blanca) and arsenic (Verde). So definitely no drinking then.
After fording a river between the two lagunas, we spent the rest of the day cycling on the surprisingly good surface towards Polques, the tiny settlement at the next laguna, ´Chalviri´. Polques is best known for its wonderful hot springs, and we couldn’t resist spending a couple of hours in the water, mindful that it might be our last opportunity to have a soak for a while!
Despite having our tent we were keen to avoid the sub-zero temperatures outside at night, so we asked in one of the two refugios (basic guesthouses catering to tour groups) for bed and board. And we were in luck – not only did we bag a private room for around £3 each, we both got a free three course meal in return for doing the washing up!
After a thoroughly enjoyable and remarkably easy first day of cycling in Bolivia, things went a bit downhill – or rather uphill – on day two, which turned out to be one of the toughest of our whole trip. We began with a long, steep climb to the highest point either of us had ever been on a bike – around 4,970m at the ´Sol de Manana´ pass. During the ascent we bumped into a couple of English cyclists – the only ones we would encounter until after Uyuni – who gave us the dreaded news that the surface was “pretty good for the next 10km, then terrible for the whole of the rest of the route”. And they were (pretty much) right. After the pass, the road we had been following split off into dozens of different sandy and bumpy jeep tracks, all heading in different directions, which made navigation quite tough. The next 20km took us about 4 hours, and let’s just say they were responsible for a lot of tears and saddle sores!
The road was long, hard and tear-inducing…
With evening setting in we were grateful for a steep descent to the next lake, Laguna Colorada, and with only 7km to go and about two hours until dark, things were looking good. That was, until the road turned into a giant sandpit. After taking about an hour to push our bikes the first 2km through the sediment, more tears ensued, and we were beginning to get quite worried. But just in the nick of time the sand receded a little and we managed to cycle on to the next settlement of Huayajara and the warmth of another refugio just as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains.
After some soul searching about our motivation to continue with this route, we decided to take an almost-rest day the next day and cycle just the 12 km around laguna Colorada to the next set of refugios on the other side. The route continued to be ridiculously bumpy and sandy, but after arriving shortly after midday we were able to take the afternoon off to enjoy this incredible lake, resplendent with its colonies (technically, ´stands´) of pink flamingos wading in the deep-red water.
For the next couple of days the route left the lakes behind and climbed up and over the Salvador Dali desert, correctly described by Wikipedia as an ‘extremely barren valley’, and so named due to the spectacular rock formations that look uncannily like Dali paintings. This was another very hard and utterly isolated stretch, and we were both glad and really quite exhausted when we successfully reached the final group of lagunas, Santa Cruz, Honda, Chiar Khota and Hedionda at lunchtime on day 5.
The next morning we left the ´classic´ route, climbing out of the valley towards the main road to Uyuni. The views from the top were stunning, and after descending through a spectacular rocky canyon, we reached the road by late morning. The surface was much better, and aided by a big tailwind we made the next 30km in about an hour to reach Alota, our long-awaited first Bolivian village and home for the night, with time to spare to wander around in the afternoon sun. And a good job too, as it turned out to be Bolivian independence day, and there was a big fiesta going on in the village Plaza!
Part 2: Uyuni and the Salars
The following morning we headed at full speed to Uyuni, the jumping off point for the world-famous salt plain, the Salar de Uyuni. We made the relatively dull journey via a series of small mining villages in about a day and a half, arriving in time to enjoy this beautiful colonial town, with its picturesque tree-lined plazas and its abundance of cafes, pizza restaurants and all the other amenities that come with large numbers of western tourists.
Looking forward to a proper rest day after a solid eight days of cycling, we had a beer and devised our night out on the town, hopping between happy hours and visiting establishments such as the “extreme fun pub”. Unfortunately, the partying gods were against us, as with most tours to the Salar beginning very early in the morning, the town was completely dead by around 8pm, and our big night out would have to wait until a later date.
A day of admin then loomed, including doing some long-overdue laundry, me cleaning our stove, which had started to make us look like coal miners every time we’d finished with it, and, most important of all, getting my hair cut and my three month-old beard shaved off! For the latter task I found a slightly crazy Bolivian barber who spent most of the time demonstrating his technique for dancing with more than one girl at a time in the local clubs, scissors /razor still in hands. He allegedly had five girlfriends and made it clear that he didn’t approve of my monogamy. An hour later, grateful to be alive, I returned to our hotel to have Charlie take the ‘after’ photo of my before-and-after photoshoot.
There was still enough time to enjoy Uyuni’s famous train cemetery – literally a resting place for abandoned trains that once operated on the British-constructed mining railway lines to the Chilean pacific ports. Amazingly, the skeletons of these trains are still standing after more than 70 years, and I couldn’t help myself but test whether I’d remembered anything from the course I’d done at the Mile End climbing wall last year (very little, it turned out)
The following morning was finally the day we would be crossing the Salar de Uyuni – or so I thought. But it turned out Charlie had other plans, and I woke up to the dulcit tones of ‘happy birthday’, and the sight of a hollowed-out apple with a candle stuck through the middle. ‘This can’t be right’, I thought, ‘my birthday isn’t for three days’. But it turns out Charlie had thought ahead and correctly identified that we would be in the middle of nowhere in three days, and with little space in our panniers, a physical gift wasn’t the best idea. So instead she copied me – with some improvements to be fair (read my Argentina blog, Salta section) – and a little bookmark enclosed in my birthday card revealed we would be spending the night just 20km up the road, in the ‘hotel de sal de la luna’ – a luxury hotel on the edge of the salar. And if that wasn’t enough, my lucky buddies Tony, Carol and Gabe would be enjoying our virtual company via a Skype call that afternoon!
All went very swimmingly (including, literally, our visit to the hotel’s jacuzzi) and after downing a bottle of wine and indulging at the buffet dinner, we managed a couple of games of ping pong before passing out in bed. Nice.
The next morning we did finally, hangovers and all, begin crossing the Salar, something we had both been looking forward to since we first decided to cycle in South America. On the first day we made it to Incahuasi island, one of the many ‘islands’ that are actually peaks of ancient volcanoes dating from the time when this was a lake rather than a salt flat. The ride was utterly magical, with a great surface and miles upon miles of white salt all to ourselves, as the hoardes of jeeps we had again come to anticipate, after reading some of those more cynical cycling blogs, again failed to materialise.
We were the island´s only foreign residents that night, having bagged a rather basic room with two mattresses at the back of the island’s restaurant. After cooking up our staple meal of tuna pasta on our newly-clean stove, we went outside for one of the most magical experiences of the trip (possibly my life): a stroll across the salt plain in the starry – and surprisingly mild – night, with moonlight shadows projecting from under our feet, and literally no one there but us.
Another day of spectacular salt plain cycling followed as we made our way towards Llica, the main village on the isthmus between the Salar de Uyuni and its lesser known (but still huge) cousin, the Salar de Coipasa. In about 4 hours of riding on the salt that morning we were passed by a whole two jeeps. In Llica we witnessed our second Bolivian fiesta (it turns out the Bolivians like any excuse to have a party) with yet another tuneless brass band marching around the streets. After eating a couple of sandwiches, an almuerzo (a set three-course lunch), an ice cream, a toffee apple, a bizarre concoction of coffee, sugar, syrup, whipped cream and chocolate sauce at one of the stalls that was called a ‘capuccino’ (my Italian friends would definitely not approve), some chocolate, a plate of barbecued chicken with rice and chips, and another plate of barbecued beef, I decided that I’d probably eaten enough and we went to bed.
The next day began with some horrible roads but also a godsend – we very unexpectedly bumped into a Swiss cyclist coming from the other direction who gave us some invaluable route advice – and it took us a long time, partly due to my dodgy navigation, to reach the Salar de Coipasa at a point where it was hard enough to actually cycle on. From there on the ride was perhaps even more magical than our crossing of the Salar de Uyuni, with the softer salt glistening in the afternoon sun, not a cloud in the sky, and not a tourist or jeep in sight.
After our last long stretch on the salt, we reached Coipasa, a small village on an island in the salt plain that we had been informed would have accommodation. Which it didn’t. But after chatting with some ladies sitting out on the plaza, one thing led to another and we were offered a room for the night in one of their homes. After asking the obvious question, ‘donde esta el baño?’ we discovered that this was the first village on our trip that had no sewerage system, and the reply was effectively that we should head towards the nearby hill and do our business there!
After an uneventful last few kilometres on the salar and a rather bumpy road on the other side,last 40km, we arrived at the small town of Sabaya fairly late, and treated ourselves to a dinner of fried chicken, rice, chips, pasta and bread (the Bolivians do love to carb load). Riding on the salars had been an incredible experience, and one that would live long in the memory. But ahead of us lay a new chapter: La Paz!
Part 3: To La Paz
With our backsides reeling from cycling off-road for two weeks we decided to hit the asphalt all the way to La Paz, via the mining city of Oruro.
It took us two days to reach Oruro, with an overnight stop in the tiny village of Copacabanita, notable only for the fact that we had to stay in the village primary school, having once again been misled about the existence of an alojamiento. Oh, and the fact that I had to scale the walls and break into the school building – getting me in quite some trouble with the caretaker and headmistress (who due to an oversight weren’t aware of our plans) – after we made the mistake of both leaving to go to the village shop, returning to find the entrance had been locked with all our stuff inside! Thankfully some sweet talking (by Charlie, of course) ensured we were allowed to stay the night, as long as we were out by 7am before the kids arrived.
Oruro was quite a culture shock, as we hadn’t been to a city this big since Salta, almost a month before. But it was unexpectedly both very pretty and a lot of fun, with a bustling market, street food a plenty and a budget version of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city, which we obviously had to climb up to.
That night, rueing our inability so far to have a good night out in Bolivia, we went to one of the few late-night bars in town, all of which seem to have a strong karaoke focus. After a couple of drinks I obviously had to oblige, giving my best rendition of Wham’s Last Christmas to an obviously bemused local crowd in the middle of August (in fairness, that is Winter in the southern hemisphere).
We made the rest of the journey to La Paz in two days. Two very long days. Pushing very hard on the first day to make the 130km to the crossroads town of Patacamaya I managed to make myself quite ill, and the next day to La Paz was generally pretty horrible. A perfect storm of a big headwind, a bigger stomach ache, lots of climbing, a couple of punctures and miles of city suburbs to navigate at the end meant we almost didn’t make it, but as usual we somehow managed just as it was getting dark.
La Paz is pretty much my idea of a perfect city. The whole place is essentially one huge street market, with all kinds of street food, including for the first time an abundance of fish (from nearby lake Titicaca), tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, great ice cream, oh and those awful salchipapas on every street corner. Eating way too much of all of the above when I was already feeling tender meant I spent most of the next two days in our guest house´s bathroom, but on my return to health we took our bikes to get fixed up at the well-known mountain bike outfit Gravity, before taking a few rides around the city’s newly-built cable car system, which, so I found out, make La Paz the largest city in the world to have aerial transport as its primary form of mass transit.
Oh yes, and we booked our climb to Huayna Potosi for the next day!
Part 4: La Paz excursions: Huayna Potosi and El Choro
4a. Huayna Potosi
Something that was on my bucket list for this trip was to climb a 6,000m peak, and after Googling something to the effect of ‘easiest 6,000m peak in South America’, it turned out one place immediately stood out: Huayna Potosi, a few kilometres north of La Paz. With quite a few agencies in La Paz were offering three-day guided climbs for around £100 each, the admin was easy and before we knew it we were in a minibus with five other backpackers making the spectacular drive to the 4,700 metre base camp.
The first of our three days was spent at the nearby glacier learning how to use crampons and an ice axe, culminating in climbing a vertical wall of ice. Having never used any of this stuff before, I was pretty useless and getting a bit worried for my chances at the ascent!
This shot manages to make it look like I knew what I was doing.
After a short climb on the second day to our ‘high camp’ at 5,300 metres, we went to bed at 6:30, and I managed to sleep for exactly zero minutes before getting up at half past midnight to begin the climb. Two of our group were suffering with the altitude and weren´t able to attempt the climb, but the rest of us did. What followed was a solid 5 hours of very steep climbing on the ice and snow. It was a surreal and unforgettable experience seeing the lights of La Paz in total darkness in the distance whilst simultaneously trying to avoid the many seemingly bottomless crevasses appearing beneath the light of my headtorch. To cut a long and very tiring story short, we all made it to the summit just as the sun was rising, in time to take some magical photos of the Cordillera mountain range extending below us as far as the eye could see.
And after a whole 10 minutes on the summit, our guides were clearly keen to descend and get this over with, and we began the very long trudge down to base camp, for our early afternoon lift back to La Paz!
4.b. El Choro trek
After climbing to over 6,000 metres, next up was a trek to below 2,000 metres, on the (relatively) famous ‘El Choro’ route. We’d planned to do it the day after the climb, but our leg muscles vehemently protested, so after another rest day we boarded a minibus with our camping stuff, a few clothes and an industrial quantity of bread, back up to around 4,700 metres, to the top of the spectacular valley through which we would be steeply descending for the next three days.
Despite being the best known (and most advertised) trek around La Paz, and possibly in the whole of Bolivia, we were the first people to sign the visitors’ book in three days, and we had the path almost entirely to ourselves, with just a few small hamlets along the way and one small group sharing our campsite on the second day reminding us that we weren’t the only people alive on the planet.
Part 5: La Paz to Lake Titicaca
Back in La Paz we did our remaining admin (including extending our visas which were about to expire), and went to pick up our bikes. I’m going to have a bit of a rant here: after leaving our bikes with Gravity for 9 days, we turned up to find neither of them yet had a chain, one had no cassette and they clearly hadn’t been serviced. And we were told that the mechanic wouldn’t be in for another few hours. After we protested, they agreed to do the remaining things we were paying them for (basically all of it) in the next hour, and they did. Or so we thought. Rushing to get out of La Paz, as it was already getting late, we loaded our bikes in a cab to take us the long way back up to El Alto and started cycling. And I soon abruptly stopped on a very main road after changing gear, as it turned out my bike had been fitted with a chain that was way too short and it had completely jammed. This would not be the only time this happened, and with the chain being damaged a couple of weeks later in Peru, I would have to fork out for another new one in Cusco.
Right, rant over. The rest of the day´s riding was pretty boring, and we stopped for the evening in Huarani, the turnoff to lake Titicaca, where we met two cycle tourists coming in the other direction. After exchanging route notes and enjoying another dinner of fried chicken, we awoke to begin what turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day´s cycling to Copacabana, our final Bolivian town, riding up and along the crest of the hills that run alongside the edge of the lake.
Copacabana was a very pretty, sleepy town where we could have spent a number of days enjoying its cheap menu del dias (menus of the day) and laid back beach. But mindful of our need to press on to beat the rains we made our stop short. On our one rest day we took a boat out with a load of other gringos to the beautiful Isla del Sol to do one final hike along an old Inca road. Once again we were treated to some wonderful views, as well as some fairly nondescript Inca ruins and, more importantly, a mighty fine glass of lemonade when we reached the other end of the island.
We began our final day in Bolivia in style, having our final api and buñuelo in the local market, before beginning the cycle to Puno on the Peruvian coast of the lake. And after 10km we reached the border and said a reluctant farewell to this wonderful country.
In just 33 days we had been withess to the most amazing natural beauty, some mighty fun cities, a fascinating and vibrant culture, and the most spectacular weather (aside from a brief lightning storm during the El Choro trek, we hadn´t had a single drop of rain). And there was still so much we hadn´t been able to see. With any luck it will be hasta la proxima, rather than adios, Bolivia!