Bolivia, the heart of Latin America

My cycling in Bolivia had two acts. First, when I entered from the south in Villazon and pedaled to Potosi and second when I reclaimed my bike in La Paz and cycled all the way down to Chile through the south-west of the country. As soon as I entered Bolivia the rules of the cycling game changed. Up and down and up and down. The roads were mercilessly tiring my legs. I remember the first time in Argentina when I cycled up a 3000m pass I was so excited thinking: ‘Wow, I cycled higher than the highest mountain in Poland’. In Bolivia going through Altiplano 4000m was a norm and passes around 4600m were not too rare either. I wasn’t that much affected by the altitude during cycling, but sleeping was a different thing altogether. For some time I was waking up every 10 minutes desperately trying to catch a breath. After a while though everything stabilized and I could enjoy the experience during days and have a good rest during nights. From the cycling experience there are two stretches worth mentioning. First is the road to Sucre from Oruro which is mostly unpaved and quite hilly. Pretty tough, but really interesting. Passing through little villages and climbing to hills with spectacular views. The second is Ruta de las Joyas known also as Ruta de las Lagunas, which is so awesome that I decided to write a cyclodramatic piece on it which would be one of chapters in my traveling book, if I ever wrote one :). I even came up with a catchy title: The idiot, his rack and Ruta de las Joya. Read on, if other people’s misfortunes entertain you.

The Idiot, His Rack and Ruta de las Joyas

The road from Sucre to Uyuni turned out to be really hard. The month break from cycling didn’t help to go through it easily. We didn’t check the elevation profiles, sometimes it’s just better not to know, but this stretch, as it turned out, has a total climb of 7000m over 350km. With or without a month break this is just something that in any circumstances has a potential of breaking your cycling spirit. But we made it in one piece and in 6 days we arrived in Uyuni. On the way I had the feeling that my legs were being moved by my will, because my muscles just didn’t have any power in them. The highlights of this part were: resting in a ditch, sleeping in a hospital and being battered by refreshing hail storms which visited us on the way couple of times. Uyuni is a really small and very touristy town with dozens of agencies offering jeep tours to Salar de Uyuni – the biggest salt flat in the world. This was why we were there. Not for the jeep tours, of course, but to cruise over the flats with our bikes. Then, in the middle of the lake, on the Incahuasi island our ways were parting. Dave’s plan was to go north to Peru and I wanted to attempt to go through Ruta de las Joyas (the Jewels Route) – a remote and quite bicycle unfriendly 340km stretch leading through south-west of the country starting in San Juan in Bolivia and ending in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. I was really excited about this part. I felt this had the potential to be the most amazing cycling experience I had so far during the trip. Something very different from what I did so far. We decided to spend 2 or 3 days in Uyuni to get organized for the adventure. I studied maps, descriptions, gps coordinates, preparing list of food to buy for 8-10 days, all in childish expectation of something super special. The kind of feeling you have when you’re 6 years old and Christmas is coming. The night before the departure we went to buy food. I could barely carry all the stuff back to our hostel, there was so much: 2kg of pasta, 15 eggs, onions, dozen of various tomato sauces, powdered milk, coffee, porridge, peanuts, tuna, sardines, salami, bread, oil AND, of course, a kilogram of my favourite dulce de leche. On the way home I was figuring out in my head how to fit it all on the bike including 8 liters of water which I intended to take (I was going to a desert after all!). The next morning was hectic. My new improvised front panniers could only fit half of the food, so I had to push the other half to wherever I could. After loading 8kg of water my bicycle turned into a tank. Really. It was impossible to lift up the rear of the bike. Dave, who usually elaborates on all sorts of matters using his sophisticated vocabulary in his mother tongue, when he saw my packed bicycle had only this to say: ‘Artur, you’re an idiot’. Fair enough. I welcomed this constructive critique thinking, I may be an idiot, but I am not going to be a hungry one. But there was something about it, the bicycle felt very heavy and I was worried that the rack will not withhold the weight. When we arrived in Colchani, some 25km from Uyuni and few kilometers from the edge of the Salar I heard an unpleasant noise of something breaking and my bike stopped. Sweet lord! Axle broken, ball bearings ground to dust, I thought. But no, the screw fixing the rack to the frame snapped on one side. Puta madre! I had been through that before, it had happened in Argentina. But then I had been lucky enough to find a welding genius who welded a bit of metal to the snapped screw inside the frame and then turned the whole thing to get it out. This time I wasn’t so lucky, or maybe I was just too eager to go to the Salar to look for a welding shop. I was so close and now I was with a broken rack…. not good. I tried for half an hour to get the broken screw out somehow but it didn’t work. Dave in his wisdom said: ‘Just rearrange your rack and fix it on the other set of holes.’ Right! At that time I thought it was a good advice. In an hour the rack was back on, but unfortunately when I was screwing in one side, the screw didn’t go in correctly and I destroyed the thread inside the frame, but what’s worse, I was only able to screw in that side half way through. Bollocks! It really didn’t look good. I could either go back to Uyuni to fix it, but damn! I was so close to the flats and my tires didn’t even touch the salt. I didn’t want to go back, I decided I would go for it even if it meant I had to drag the bike across the lake. And off we went. As soon as I moved I could feel the wobbling of the rack, that was not a good sign, but I thought if I could get to the island in the middle of the lake, I would hit the lagunas route. And the rack survived …. barely. It was wobbling, it bent, the old welding was disintegrating. At the Incahuasi Island, where we stopped for a night I had yet another fruitless attempt at removing the screw from the frame. The next morning Dave looked at my malformed rack and said: ‘I give it 10 minutes before it snaps’. This guy never failed to cheer me up. Then, just before going his way he added: ‘Update me on your lagunas disaster… I mean adventure’. Cheeky bastard! But my choices were limited. I could either go back over 60km to where we came from or risk 40km ahead of me to the edge of the flat. One of the people living on the island told me there was a welding shop in the first village just close to the edge of the flat. Ah screw it, I thought, crazy people have luck on their side, lets go for it… Just five km before the edge of the flats I looked at the rack and the old welding was completely gone exposing the old crack in the rack’s arm. The whole thing wobbling even more. ‘Oh shit, don’t break on me now, don’t break on me now’ I was chanting in my head. I was so close. I decided to get off the bike and walk with it, while I still could. After 3km I heard the same unpleasant sound as before and the rack landed on my rear tire. Freaking great! There I was, stranded on the biggest salt flat in the world with a broken bike and tons of food. I had to act fast, the sun was just unbearable. I unscrewed the rack completely and put it on the saddle I put the other bag on top of it and on the steering bar. This way I could at least push it and get off the flats. And so I pushed the last 2k and another 5k to the first village. When I arrived there there was an old guy outside.
‘Hello, is there a welding shop here, Señor?’
‘Mmhhhm, no’.
Oh fuck this. I should know already that you can’t rely on information given by the locals, but somehow I wanted to believe it, I suppose.
‘So where is the next place with welding shop?’.
‘In Colcha K’.
‘How many km?’
Oh lord, not too good, but not too bad either. I could do it in 5 hours maybe. I started pushing my bike, adjusting my luggage as it was sliding down and shouting some insults into the sky. It didn’t make the pushing easier but it made me feel better. I didn’t make it the same day. I decided to camp by the road as I was exhausted and it was already late. When I was pitching my tent I realized I lost my pegs. I had to leave them when we camped on our first night on the Salar. Fortunately it didn’t look as if it was going to rain so I pitched the tent without pegs. The next morning I woke up with pain in my eyes. I looked in the side mirror of my bike and the whites of my eyes were not white any more, they were pinkish, bloodshot. The sun on the Salar had got me. My sun glasses apparently weren’t really made to protect eyes but to make good impression or something. Oh sweet Jaysus what else? Paul, my Peruvian flatmate from Sucre whom I met by accident in Uyuni gave me one of his crafts as a gift. ‘Por buena suerte, loco!’. I held the amulet hanging on my neck and thought: ‘Shit, Paul, this thing doesn’t quite work, it’s a talisman for disasters’. But it would be just too easy to blame the skillful ‘artesano’ for my misfortunes, surely I contributed to it largely. The next day after few minutes of walking I met a lady who was attending her field.
‘How far to Colcha K, Señora?’
’3 hours walking. What happened to your bike?’
I am an idiot and my rack fell off, I thought, but I only said the second part of the sentence.
‘Do you know if there’s a welding shop in Colcha K?’
‘Yes there’s one, but you have to hurry, there’s a fiesta because of the province anniversary and they will all be drunk soon.’
What??? It was like 9 o’clock in the morning, if I arrive there at 12 surely they won’t be drunk yet… I arrived at the town around 13.
‘Hello! I am looking for a welding shop…’
‘They’re all drinking in the square’
Oh for god’s sake! The poles have a reputation of being hardcore drinkers. When I lived in Ireland I realized that we’re nowhere close to the Irish professional drinking league. But Bolivians, I could see, took it to the entirely new level. I had no choice, I had to stay as I couldn’t push the bike any more. I went to a shop to get something to drink. I chatted a while with a cute seller.
‘So, I can see there’s a big party in town.’
‘Yes, it’s the province anniversary’
‘Oh, I see, and is it only today or will it last until tomorrow?’
‘Oh no, it will be going on until Saturday’.
Saturday?? It was Wednesday! I could already see me being stuck for few days until the welders get sober. The owner of the place where I stayed said that with a bit of luck I had a chance of actually meeting somebody at the shops the next morning. I got some info about where the shops were (because supposedly there were two) and the whole next morning I was walking from one of them to another only to find hanging locks at the door. I swear, I had to go through the village with the bike like 10 times. I asked where the welders lived but nobody really knew. But on one of my visits a motorbike with two guys pulled over by the shop.
‘Hello. Is it a welding shop here?’
‘Yes, how can I help you?’
Yesssssss! In an hour the broken screw was removed from the frame and the rack was welded. Now I only needed to pack the stuff and pray to Pachamama and all the saints for that fix to survive the trip. As I was leaving the town late afternoon, just a km or so away I saw two people in the distance…. I thought they were on motorbikes, but coming closer I recognized familiar looking panniers. Two cyclists spotted me on the hill and waited for me. They both wanted to do the Lagunas route. So maybe it was all for a reason. Eddie and Santi became my new cycling buddies. From where we met we cycled together to San Juan, where the Routa de las Joyas begins.
Eddie backed off on the second day suffering from altitude sickness. From there on it was me and my new Catalan triathlonist/ultramarathonist friend. Good company!

Even though the route is quite deserted there are places on the way where you can sleep and have some food. Sometimes it’s quite entertaining to experience the way the guests are treated in this places. In one of them we asked for a dinner. On the menu there was a soup and pasta with fried eggs. Very simple, but after a day of cycling torture aka pushing your heavy bike for most of the day warm food is all you dream about… any food. But when the pasta was served it was cold. Santi, always very well mannered when addressing people said:
‘Excuse me Señora, could you please warm up the pasta for us, if it’s possible?’
‘No!’ the answer was like a slap in our faces.
We looked at ourselves, I almost burst out laughing.
‘But Señora, the pasta is really cold, maybe you could use the pan that you used to fry the eggs?’
‘No, there’s oil in it!’ she was almost shouting at us, but Santi wasn’t giving up.
‘Señora, that’s OK, you can heat it up with the oil or get rid of the oil maybe?’
‘I have no time, I need to cook rice for the tour that’s coming tomorrow. Here, take this pan and heat it for yourselves if you want’.
I couldn’t quite believe what was going on, but hey, at least we could have our pasta hot. But not everywhere is like this. On one of the nights we ended up in the only place that could protect us from the strong wind – hotel del desierto. A hotel, as the name indicates, in the middle of a desert with nothing else around. We asked how much was a night. 170USD. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but there was no way we were paying this price. The hotel was in renovation, a new part was being built and the guys running the hotel told us we could use the construction site as a camping spot. And so we did. Santi went inside to warm up. He got a coffee and some snack. When he left some money for it, they chased him and handed it back. This is the thing that makes Bolivia so interesting,, you never know what to expect.
The favourite saying of Santi was ‘todo tiene su precio’ – everything has its price. And it does indeed. La ruta de las joyas was a bitter sweet experience. Lots of pushing, washboard which shook all my internal organs to a level of pain, rocky surface or just soft sand that you can’t ride on. Add strong head winds (so strong that sometimes I had to not only get off the bike, but also bend down to be able to even push the bike), passes on almost 5k and you get the picture. The fact that the rack and my front panniers survived all this shaking was really surprising, somehow I was waiting for one or the other to break. But the landscapes there were just incredible. Really something special and something to remember I felt really grateful to cycle with Santi. It’s better to suffer with somebody else than on your own. Definitely the toughest cycling experience ever. 8 days I will never forget and something to tell to your grand children.

The photo selection from Bolvia:

Believe it or not, in this pot there was a REAL fondue. Thanks Manu and Elise!

What an artistic pic! :p

Only in Bolivia redhoods and wolves can walk holding hands

The road from Oruro to Sucre had some surprises on the way

Salar the Uyuni!

Lost in the salt

Eddie and Santi, my newly acquired cycling buddies

Laguna Hedionda

Many times finding cyclable path was just impossible

These gaysers on almost 5000m looked inviting. Apparently they spit out sulphur and arsenic. I gave up the idea of warming up close to them.

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Verde

A landscape… and my first attempt at HDR photo…

5 Responses to Bolivia, the heart of Latin America

  1. Lulis says:

    Cool, very cool, my friend! No, excuse-me: very hot!
    Stay on the road, stay on the bike!
    (I’m saying this to you and to your racks, of course)
    Hope that still that good, even when idiot! =)
    Hugs, hermano!!!

    • Wojtek says:

      Hola! The rack now needs to handle Carretera Austral! Supposedly it’s better and smoother than the bit in Bolivia, we’ll see :). Greets!

  2. Neighbour says:

    Can’t wait to read your chilean report!! :)

    • Wojtek says:

      Well, Neighbour.
      I am equally excited about the report as you. You know I am slow thinking so it will take a while.

  3. Lucas says:

    Great story ! All the best

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