Altiplano loosely translates to High Plain. This place IS high, ranging from about 3,400 meters (11,100 ft.) to 4,200 meters (13,400 ft.) above sea level. It is mostly flat, as that range is only an 800 meter elevation range, but everything is made more extreme not simply due to the fact that the roads are ripio dirt, but mostly by the elevation.
My pulse races when I climb a small hill up here in the clouds. As proud as I am to have raced bicycles as a Flagstaff resident, making fun of competitors from lower, lesser altitudes, I must admit I have not lived in Flagstaff for years now; I have been living in low-altitude Paraguay. And besides, altiplano residents would scoff at Flagstaff residents for our pride– 7,000 ft is nothing here (Sorry Flagstaff, I still love you.) I am typing this entry in a town whose elevation is higher than the summit of Humphrey’s peak, the highest point in Arizona, 5,000 feet above more-than-mile-high Flagstaff. Campesinos on single-speed cruiser bicycles ride past me with no effort. I need more red blood cells.
The sun is more intense at this altitude; I apply sunblock at least twice a day, and almost every hour to my lips which burn and peel regardless.
When clouds cover the sun, it gets cold, and fast! I keep my alpaca wool arm warmers, jacket, gloves, hat, and rain gear within arms reach… and I change in and out of them repeatedly.
When it rains, the rain is freezing, sometimes literally in the form of hail (at least 3 times so far). It appears to rain every night during this rainy season, which I am told will last until mid-March or April. And just about every morning I awaken to a light sprinkle, which lets up as I finish packing the wet tent. Then it will probably rain a few more times as the day progresses.
Aaaaand… here’s the day-to-day:
Tuesday, 24 Feb, 2009: I met Lauren and her two children, Ash and Poppy, on the Argentina-style cobblestone streets of Humahuaca. It was raining, of course. Dad, Alex was at the hotel working on their bikes. This was the beginning of my first time having riding partners… and it has been fantastic! Having the company of this Scottish family is great, even when the babies cry in their Burley carts behind the bikes, because usually they are adorable. After two weeks, I love these kids. I feel like their uncle or something.
Alex is the most experienced touring cyclist I have ever met, and Lauren is quite the veteran, too. Between the two of them they have bicycled through Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and now South America.
Turns out we were staying in the same hotel (well, i was camping in the yard), so we hung out in their room and Alex told me about the time in Ethiopia when local African kids threw spears at him, and other stories including his eco-home, homemade peanut butter, lions, giant lizards, elephants, and bike-tour dehydration-induced hallucinations.
I had received my FedEx packages and was ready to ride tomorrow. So were the Scots!
Wed. 25 February, 2009: Humahuaca to Azul Pampa, Argentina. 47 kilometers.
This was the hardest day of climbing so far. We reached the altiplano, and it was cold and windy and rainy. We rode on, nearly miserable, but not completely upset because we all knew there would be days like this. Expectations are important, not only in bicycle touring, but in everything I can think of in life. Imagine if we were all prepared to smile through the unexpected difficulties in life, if we were all aware we would someday look back and be thankful for how much stronger the experiences made us.
We encountered a drunk man at a store mumbling something in another language. Was it Quichua, I asked. “NO! ñaljdsfñ ldjfñlasjfsjf jd ñlfja df!!!!” Oh, okay. Is it Aymara? “NO! lsjfña sdjladjf !!! jsalñfjs!!!!lskj!!!” Okay then.
A big storm rolled in so we decided to call it quits a couple hours early. There was a school nearby. Turns out, angry drunk jibberish speaking-man was the encargado, and the solo holder of the key to the school. Everybody else around was speaking Spanish and laughing at him as he continued mumbling in his secret language. He let us stay in the school. There was hardly enough room for the family, so I pitched camp in the rain. My first chosen area under a large tree got flooded, so I had to move camp a few meters away. We had to ask nicely many times for the locals to leave us alone. They hovered around our bikes, our bags, staring at us from inches away as we set up our stove and tent. Mumbling man mumbled. “lafsakjñlsjafls.” That’s jibberish for “ljdlfjalñajfsdlkj.”
Surprisingly, this was my first day of the trip without a shower. The Scots and I talked about the differences in our experieinces. Because they have a toddler and a babe, they like to avoid cities and camp in the wilderness as often as possible. Because I am travelling alone, I like to meet families and use their showers. Because they speak limited Spanish (although it is fun to see their Spanish improving so fast) they engage in basic transactions and continue on their way. Because I lived in Paraguay for two years, I have a lot to talk about with these people in Paraguay’s neighboring countries: Paraguayan jokes, food, traditions, beliefs. So the Scots and I have found a great balance in our travelling together. I shmooze the locals, they cook the meals and tease me with their stove (my multi-fuel stove was stolen), I do the dishes, they change the diapers. More than anything, I respect the Scots for not abandoning their sense of adventure after having kids, but rather including them in this invaluable experience.
Thurs. 26 February, 2009: Azul Pampa to Pto. del Marquez. 72 kilometers.
We woke up to wet everything and another cold, rainy day. Although it was nothing like yesterday’s storm. The Scots loaded up the kids in their waterproof carts, we loaded ourselves up in waterproof clothes, and hit the road.
The landscape in this area is amazing. We spotted what I will always remember as the “chocolate swirl mountains” (you should have no problem finding them in the photo album), complete with what appears as giants’ teeth or whales’ backbones emerging from above the chocolate swirls. I have never seen anything like this!
When you are bicycle touring, other people often worry about your handlebar coming loose, or getting a flat tire. But the truth is, bicycle tourists are (usually) the most prepared people on the road. I have given water to a family in a broken down car in the Andes, fixed a motorcycle’s flat tire in the Chaco, and today we came across a road crew who needed to borrow needlenosed pliers to fix a jackhammer! Who would have thought I would help clear rockslides on this tour!
So, the Scots are also vegetarians. They usually cook their own meals, but here in the campo of the Andes, a meal is often just a meal. “What’s the lunch today?” I often ask. “Almuerzo,” they respond. Haha, what is in it? Some meat and veggies, pues. Getting a vegetarian meal is difficult. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Do you have vegetarian food?
What do you have?
Nothing vegetarian, you have to eat meat.
Do you have eggs?
Do you have potatoes?
Do you have veggies?
Okay, bring us those please.
But, it’s not on the menu.
—–END SCENE 1——-
After an uncomfortable conversation and a long wait, the Scots get their food. I respect them. Locals just think they’re weirdos. This is one of many good reasons they cook their own meals and spend time outside of towns. (I must add that it is astonishing to me how many people spend everynight in thier own homes with full kitchens, large electric four-burner stoves, a variety of cooking utensils, stores loaded with natural foods just down the street… and still, so many people buy fast food at the drive-thru, eat it in front of the TV, and go to bed. It is truly inspiring to see the this family maintaining a vegetarian, “home-cooked” meal with only a pocketknife, 4 sporks, 4 bowls, and a tiny campstove that runs on gasoline, sitting down in the dirt and enjoying a meal together.)
We reached a sign that marked our elevation at 3780 meters. Over 12,000 feet! This is the highest I have ever bicycled, surpassing the “highest continuously paved road in North America” in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which I rode with my Bike and Build buddies in 2004 ( www.bikeandbuild.org ).
We raced a big storm in Abra Pampa, won, and pitched camp next to a police station in Puerto del Marquez. Because my tent flooded last night in Azul Pampa, I spent at least 20 minutes looking for the perfect campsite. Alex chose a piece of bald dirt surrounded on all sides by brick walls. Certainly that would flood, I told him! I, on the other hand, found a concrete patio behind the police station surrounded on three sides by brick walls, with gutter drains aimed toward the open side.. I pitched camp above the gutter drains. Perfect, for me. Too bad the Scots were going to get flooded in the night. Oh well, you live and you learn, I thought.
Amazingly, I made friends with a cop who gave me the key to the police station when he left. He let us use the toilet, hot shower, and even showed me where he keeps his tapes of “Musica Americana” for our listening pleasure.
Friday 27 February, 2009: Pto. del Marquez to La Quiaca, 52 kilometers
It rained last night, of course. I woke up in the morning to a flooded tent. WHAT?! How could it be?? Alex, the good shit-giving friend that he is, said “Hahahaha!!! You spent half an hour looking for the perfect campsite and you pitched camp in the only flooded spot on the entire block!”
I was starting to feel the altitude. I have been careful to drink more water than normal, but still, I had a headache. Lauren was feeling a bit sick in the stomachal area, and we all got short of breath from simple tasks like taking down the tent, or eating oatmeal with our mouths closed. So much for being polite.
We agreed to ride slowly today. Elevation is nothing to mess around with, especially with kids. Although, they seemed to be the only gringos unaffected by the altitude. It was difficult to ride easily today because we had a strong headwind, heavy rain, and it was so cold we longed to ride hard to warm ourselves up. We were also hailed on (pea-size no mas) once or twice.
I was wearing alpaca wool socks, spandex shorts, synthetic shorts, rain pants, my short-sleeved Ride for the Trees jersey, alpaca arm warmers, an alpaca sweater, a rain jacket, an alpaca scarf, an ear warmer headband thing, an alpaca hat, my helmet, alpaca gloves, and neoprene shoe covers. “Do I look like a tourist? Or just a llama?”
We battled the cold storm all day long, reaching dirt roads for our first time. The weather cleared as we reached La Quiaca, Argentina’s border town across the bridge from BOLIVIA!!! We checked in to a hostel, took hot showers, and ate cookies.
I spent February 28 – March 2 crossing freely the bridge between La Quiaca, Arg. and Villazon, Bol.
The Scots were wating for a package in the mail (fat tires for Bolivian dirt roads, and extra tent poles for Bolivia’s altiplano winds. I needed a few things as well. I had tires, didn’t need tent poles, but I wanted some fleece pants and a new waterproof BOBish trailer bag (mine was stolen, of course), and I wanted to use internet to give you this update. But internet in La Quiaca was super slow, and everything else I asked about people told me to cross the bridge to Bolivia. It’s cheaper there, which is why everybody buys there. This depleats the market in Argentina, and so there are few options in La Quiaca. I had reservations about crossing into Bolivia. I was a United Statesan, and the world doesn’t view us kindly now. Well, more now that Obama is president, but that doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. ambassador was kicked out of Bolivia and then the U.S. pulled all Peace Corps Volunteers out, sending them to neighboring Peru, Paraguay, and various countries in Africa. Suddenly there was a demanding 10-step, $135 visa requirement to get into Bolivia, which was free just a few months prior. A former Peace Corps Bolivia volunteer, Helen, I believe, had told me, “Cross at the Villazon border. It’s an easy one. All you need is $135 and a smile. Don’t worry about the 10-step process.” Okay, but if this didn’t work, I would have to return approximately 100 miles back and cross one of the most difficult sections of the Andes, the Paso de Jamas, into Chile instead.
I went to the border with Alex. He was just going to ask if proof of yellow fever immunization is important; he had to wait in La Quiaca for the tires and tent poles. I had to cross the bridge to get pants and a trailer bag made, and maybe the internet would be fast enough to edit my blog, although I had my doubts about Bolivia’s internet.
Bicycle touring requires a certain amount of rebelliousness. Sometimes you have to ride roads that say “prohibido circular bicicletas.” Sometimes, to prevent theft AND prevent death due to malnutrition, you have to take your bike into the grocery store when the guard is trying to stop you. When I had my passport stolen in Argentina on the border of Paraguay, I crossed the border illegally, without identification and without the necessary visa, because it would be much easier for me to get a new passport in Paraguay. This time, on the border or Argentina and Bolivia, I had a new adventure.
I didn’t want to stamp out of Argentina without knowing whether I could get into Bolivia as easily as “$135 and a smile.” So I asked an Argentinian official if I could please cross to the Bolivian side without stamping out of Argentina simply to ask if I could get into Bolivia. He said no, I would have to go to the Bolivian consulate here on the Argentinian side, which is closed until tomorrow. I didn’t believe him. So I talked to Alex until the official got distracted by a pretty girl or something, and then I pedalled quickly across the bridge to the Bolivian side. Alex said the official saw me and started running after me, but soon waved a hand and gave a gesture of “ah, screw it…” At the Bolvian window, I smiled at the man with the stamp, and greeted him “Imanaya Kasanki” hoping he spoke Quichua. I had been practicing my pronunciation for this moment. “Ee mah nAh ee ah Ka SHAn kee.” His eyes lit up. His teeth sparkled as he smiled. “Walejiah!” he responded. “Where are you from?” “The United States” I said. Then I added for safe measure, “I didn’t vote for Bush, and I am very happy Obama is president.” He handed me a form. I filled it out, gave him the equivalent to $135 for the Visa, and by the end of the interaction the entire crew of Bolivian officials was teaching me new Quichua words and we were posing for photos with our arms around each other.
Then I went back to the Argentinian side to stamp out. I gave the Argentinian official a thumbs up. I had made it to Bolivia!