ALTIPLANO: Villazon to Uyuni, Bolivia

12 03 2009

March 1, 2009:

The border between La Quiaca, Argentina and Villazon, Bolivia is a mess of people shuffling about like drunken ducks carrying drunken duck packages. I didn’t see many people stamping in or out. It looked like a free for all. So, after checking into a hostel for $4.20 per night I decided to try my luck and coast invisibly through the mess. It was easy! Wow! I really could cross freely between Argentina and Bolivia, and if anybody said anything about it, my Bolivian visa is good for FIVE years.

I surprised my Scottish friends on the Argentinian side, told them I’d found a place to stay across the bridge. Tomorrow we’d reunite on the Bolivian side, we agreed. They had questions about Bolivia: Were there markets? Villazon IS one giant market. Was it less expensive? Ha, almost free! The Bolivian Peso goes a long way! Plus, I could live on the cheap, delicious street food forever; I had just stuffed myself for two dollars: chocolate covered grapes, caramel apples, chicken sandwiches with onions and carrots, popcorn, delicious potato and corn soups everywhere. Was it noticeably different across the bridge? Absolutely. Bolivian women sit contently on the curbs in their fat traditional dresses and Charlie Chaplin hats selling pink toilet paper and batteries and alpaca gloves. The accent is changing, and Quechua accompanies Spanish. “Hola como estásps?” means, “Hola como estás pues?” (Well, hi there, how are you?) 

After a short visit with Alex, Lauren, and the kids, I crossed back to Bolivia with ease. Again, no stamps.

Sleep.

——

March 2nd, 2009

The hotel I was in kicked everybody out the next morning because they decided to go on vacation all of a sudden, they said. So I searched the city for lodging. I found a few lodging options, although I keep getting lied to about prices and availability. Strange, seemingly pointless, possibly nervous lies “Yes, there’s room for one. The cheapest? That would be 70 pesos. 35 pesos per bed. Just 35 pesos for you. But for two people it’s 70 total. For a room with two beds, one person. 70 pesos for you, because there are two beds. Some people sleep on the couch for 10 pesos. Yes, there is availability on the couch but not until 7pm. We can get you a mattress on the floor right now for 15 pesos. Per person. 30 pesos for 2 people–” WHAT?! I found myself wondering if a Bolivian sales tactic was to confuse the gringo. I’m surprised my tongue wasn’t bleeding. “GIVE ME THE CHEAPEST OPTION. I JUST NEED A FLOOR.” I ended up sleeping on one of 20 lumpy couches in the lobby for 15 pesos. It smelled like urine.

I could not find anybody who knew where a fabric store was, so I went to a copy shop instead. I needed to get copies of thank you letters made for the families that let me stay with them, and for the myriad of other favors Latinos are always doing for me. The woman at the copy shop has a son who is my age, she said, and she doesn’t understand why he left. The whole family lives in Villazon but this one son of five broke away and moved to Buenos Aires to see the big city. She asked me why, as though I were her son. So, I told her some of my travel stories, about visiting the struggling Toba community in the Chaco, about cycling through the Atlantic Forest and arriving at the powerful Iguazu falls, about the Incan ruins in Tilcara built with rocks, mud, and cactus spines for roof beams. I told her about Paraguay, about the jungle and the smell of monkeys and mandarinas, and that Guarani is an earthy, hilarious language. Travelling is a priceless experience. It is a better education than anything I can imagine, I told her. Villazon is a small city. Imagine how much he is learning in the Big City in another country! By the end of the conversation she was crying and holding me, and she thanked me for helping her forgive her son for leaving. Wow! That was unexpected. And she told me to call my mom to tell her I love her. Love you ma! Miss you too, but don’t worry I’ll see you before you know it! 🙂 

After running errands and itching to get back on the bike, I crossed the border again to look for the Alex and Lauren. I found Alex, Lauren, the kids, AND Kate and Matilda, the Kiwi touring cyclists I had met near Salta weeks ago!

The seven of us crossed the border into Bolivia together, and Kate and Matilda gave us Bolivian beta. They recommend the jagged Andes town of Sorata, and Gravity Assisted Mountain Bike Tours in La Paz.

I should also mention a border official said another solo cyclist with a trailor had crossed from Argentina to Bolivia in the morning. Was this the David I keep hearing about? From what I gather we have been within one day of each other for at least 2 weeks.

I was feeling like I might never get out of Villazon. Maybe I should just leave tomorrow with cotton pants and gear wrapped in plastic bags. Yes, attempting to recover from the loss of all my gear has been a huge challenge but it could be even worse in Bolivia. I have to be careful. Wet gear in the Chaco is annoying, but in Bolivia’s rainy season it is dangerous. Especially if the only pants I can find are cotton.

Did I mention it was Carnaval time and Villazon is the destination for partiers throughout southern Bolivia and Northern Argentina? So, imagine this story with spray foam, children dressed as devils, drunk people in the streets, and loud music around every corner.

After hours of searching over the course of 2 days I found a diseñador who told me where to find vinyl, and he offered to make my bag and pants for 30 pesos! He even surprised me with a bonus fleece neck gator and an extra pair of fleece pants too! The pants are made from a Spider Man blanket, the thickest fleece I could find. Don’t laugh at my Spider Man pants. And the BOB bag: I designed and cut the vinyl, Johnny double stiched it like a champ. I know he had other work, but he made my jobs priority and this allowed me to leave the next day. I hope he and people like him know how much I appreciate the help. Thanks Johnny!

Alex and Lauren were still waiting for their package. But I had to get out of Villazon. It really was a stressful city.

The night before I left we had a bicycle meeting in the Scots’ hotel room. Alex helped me install my knobby tires and reduce my cargo weight by saying things like “Give me one of your tires. You don’t need 4 extra tires.” I also got to pack the new vinyl bag for the first time. Everything fit except the sleeping pad which I keep wrapped in a plastic bag on top of the BOB bag.

Knobby tires on, weight minimized, and Spiderman pants packed into a waterproof vinyl bag, I finally felt ready for Bolivia!

—————————-

3rd March 2009:

Villazon – Tupiza, Bolivia: 100k

I woke up early and hit the road as soon as possible, after drinking some morning mate with coca leaves, of course. I said goodbye and waved to the Scots as they snapped photos from their hotel tower room.

On the way out of town I stopped for some food, and soon the paved city roads turned to dirt. The ripio (washboard) roads are no good at all, but this section isn’t bad compared to other parts of Bolivia. The general pattern on Bolivian roads consists of ripio in the middle and loose dirt/sand on the edge. So you are in a constant effort to find balance between the two. One inch to the left andBUMPBUMPBUMP!!! and one inch to the rightWASHOUT! There on the left side of the road is a smooth section… but is it worth crossing the washboard to get to it?

And so I had begun my first ever 100k mountain bike ride with 50 lbs. of gear at 11,000 ft. elevation. And alone for the first time since I had met the Glasgows back in Argentina.

I stopped at a school to eat lunch in the only shade I could find.

I left what I knew as the altiplano and started cycling through steep mountains and alongside red rock cliffs. Rivers cut gorges through this area. Then I passed through a tunnel, like a mouse hole through a thin door of red rock (video). I knew I must be getting close. Then, from a distance I could see what looked like Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods. And as I got closer, small buildings at the base of the red rock. And green grass and trees surrounding the town. It was easy to see why Lonely Planet says “Bizarre geologic formations, deep gorges and cactus forests… Unsurprisingly, it’s finally been discovered by travelers.” Tupiza was one of my favorite little tourist towns so far!

Internet wasn’t bad in Tupiza, but it wasn’t fast either. I got a few emails from you telling me donations were “no longer being accepted” on the firstgiving.com site. This worried me. So I sent a few rushed emails to Kathy, David, firstgiving.com, justgiving.com, and World Land Trust. Thanks for your help guys! 

Donations to support forest conservation or this tour can be made on www.RideForTheTrees.com

I walked home in the rain and went to sleep on the floor of the hostel kitchen because the patio I was camping on for 10 pesos had flooded.

NOTE FOR TOURING CYCLISTS: Nearly the entire 100k of road between Villazon and Tupiza was under construction. But not just under construction… they were creating a new road at many points. I often had the opportunity to cross to the new road and ride alongside the machinery that was making the road so smooth.

And the absence of traffic means the absence of ripio. Still, I was on ripio on the old road most of the time.

—————

Wed. March 4th 2009: Took a day off to use internet and wait for the Scots who were due to arrive at 5pm.

—————

Thursday March 5th 2009, Tupiza to “a beautiful mountain”: 34.5 kilometers

The Scots are back! And wow was it good to have company today, probably the most difficult day of riding of my life so far! We rode hard all day, taking many needed breaks of course,

and only managed to ride 34.5 kilometers! Oxygen was thin and every downhill was answered with a bigger climb. We saw perhaps 20 vehicles today. At one point we passed through a small village and loaded up on 20 liters of water between the three of us, and the two kids. I had 8 liters on me, my record. Enough for more than two days (we did not need to be carrying so much, but better safe than sorry. I read other touring cyclists’ blogs and they are littered with stories about running out of water or food. Seems like an easy decision to me. Expect to carry a ton of weight the whole tour and you will never be disappointed when you have 2 extra liters of water at the end of the day; On the other hand, if you plan to travel minimally you’ll be frustrated with yourself if you’re carrying an extra bottle of water next time you come across a faucet).

No rain. Seems like we’re coming out of the rainy season! The locals said the roads would dry up come mid-march. Looks true to me.

Not much more to say. Alex got a flat on a trailor wheel. I can’t believe I haven’t had a flat yet, even with these tire changes. Gorgeous photo opportunities. Dirt roads. High elevation. Huge climbs. Tired legs.

We camped at the edge of a mountain off the road from a 20 kilometer (guessing) climb of switchbacks that we couldn’t muster the strength to finish before sunset. This was the most beautiful campsite so far!

Fairly windy.

————-

Friday March 6th, 2009: A beautiful mountain to a desolate mountain outside of a small mining town: 32 kilometers.

Found two scorpions in camp while sitting in the dirt eating breakfast the next morning. We stood up and put our shoes on. And kept a close eye on the 3-year old Ash, who had begun searching under rocks for scorpions against his parents’ wishes, explaining in his little Scottish lad accent, “But Mommy I’m just looking for scorpions because so that if I see one then I, I can go somewhere else away far away from it…”

More difficult riding– I LOVE IT! Today was even harder than yesterday. We started climbing the switchbacks we camped in the middle of last night. Drivers continue to tell us we are almost at the top, but we climb for hours and the alti”plano” just seems to rise forever to the west. Motorists are clueless about cycling in so many ways.

I am acclimatizing. I cannot breathe as normal yet, but my body feels stronger and I don’t have that slight pressure in my head that the altitude had given me a few days back.

The geology here is incredible. Pink and grey cliffs, little orange canyons everywhere. Snowcapped peaks in the distance. Bolivia blows my mind!

Our road passed above a small village of about 10 houses about 300 meters below us at the bottom of a cliff. The homes were made of mud bricks and had straw roofs.

Two children from the town were walking to another small village (about 5 houses) a few kilometers away. In Bolivia, kids like to run next to us and touch our bikes and trailors. Although with these climbs the kids were almost walking faster than us. They gave us some pushes 

 and we gave them some cookies.

At one point we found water squirting out of a rock wall: un ojo de agua (a spring)! So we dumped our dirt flavored water from yesterday’s village and filled up with mountain spring water! Still treated it, to be safe. Who knows, maybe there was a mud hut with a letrine at the top of the cliff. (From what I have seen and heard, no matter how high you think you are in Bolivia, there is always somebody living higher. Washing clothes in the streams, possibly pooing without a letrine, and certainly there are not many people following Leave No Trace practices around here (bury excrement 200 feet away from water, 6-8 inches deep.) 

We had heard there was a store in the next village, the village with 5 houses. When we arrived, there were Bulls’ penises drying on the clothes line and a 16-year old kid who wouldn’t talk to us at the gate. He just kept laughing and trying to hide it (in his defense, we WERE in spandex). Finally he said yes there is a store in this house but his uncle, the owner, is gone until later this afternoon and the door to the food room is locked. So I offered to buy food from him directly, saying, “Just sell us pasta and flour and we will pay more than enough so that you can buy food from your uncle.” He laughed and looked away. I could see giant bags of pasta and rice and corn in his house. Perhaps this is the store, but his uncle isn’t here to carry out the transaction. How frustrating! I raised my voice a bit, not wanting to, but feeling like I had to, “You have a room full of food right there! Why are you being so rude and selfish?! We are travelling very far just on bicycles and this could be our only opportunity to buy food for a while!” Eventually he sold us some pasta and flour for a couple of pesos. We tipped him, thanked him, and dodged bulls’ penises on our way out of the gate.

 After 32 kilometers, again we were wiped out from the altitude so we called it quits on a windy, barren mountainside. Neither my tent nor the Scots’ tent is freestanding; they require stakes for set up. This mountainside was almost solid rock under the sand.

We got some stakes in, but it was an effort. I bent a stake or two in the process, even just tap,tap,taparoo-ing them in as gently as possible.

We had DELICIOUS pasta and flour for dinner, and then slept to the sound of rainflies flapping in an aggressive wind. (For the record, we would not have starved if we couldn’t find food. But pasta truly is the king of touring foods as any true cyclist, including Joe Kurmaskie, The Metal Cowboy, will attest. It cooks fast, is lightweight, healthy and versatile. Get yours today.)

———————————-

Saturday March 7th, 2009: A desolate mountain to Atocha: 50 kilometers

What a day! After rolling a small DOWNHILL we spotted a sign that listed the elevation at 4,115 meters (13,500 feet).

The landscape is changing from barren brown altiplano to a swirling mix of minerals in small canyons and hills. It often looks like a class of giant school children spilled their giant ice cream scoops from their cones. Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla, Orange, gray. Mmm.. gray ice cream…

Unfortunately the biggest event of the day was the breakage of Alex’s Burley trailor. An aluminum bar on the side snapped, and the entire trailor seemed to be held together only by the nylon fabric. We divided up some the weight, put tiny 1 1/2 year old Poppy in the broken trailer, laughed as she squirted ketchup (dip dip) all over herself, and continued on our way through roads that are getting sandier every hour. I had to walk my bike through at least 3 sand traps today, luckily only about 20 meters each.

It became a form of altiplano entertainment to try not to wash out, to balance as well as possible and float through the grainy fords.

The Scots were hoping to hitch a ride to spare their trailor. As we continued riding past a snow-capped giant, a truck passed when we thought we were only 8 kilometers from Atocha, a real town! We had about 2 hours until sunset. So we waved down the truck and Scots loaded up the bikes. The plan was for them to hitchhike to Atocha, and then somehow get to Uyuni another 100k to get the trailor fixed. I said I’d meet them in Atocha. I pedalled ahead as they continued loading. Then a few hundred meters up the road, just as the truck was about to pass me I saw a sign that said “Atocha: 17k”… Would I ever see my Scottish riding buddies again? I had some quick thinking to do…

I put my arm out. The truck stopped. I said hi to the Scots, loaded my bike onto the truck and swore to myself I’d apologize to all of you for cheating. (And as long as I’m being honest, I should mention I also hitchhiked a 100k stretch in Argentina after the bee attack.) The drive to Atocha was frightening, hugging the edges of cliffs that could dump you into oblivian if the driver twitched. In Atocha, we unloaded as the driver gave us news that he is going to Uyuni tomorrow morning if we want a ride.

In Villazon a few days ago, tourists were telling us not to go toward Atocha because a bridge had broken. Obviously, we went anyway. We were going to ride through the river but the construction crew said they would be finished in 30 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 hour. We waited, then I argued with them for a while, then we pushed our way through with some amount of permission.

The bridge wasn’t broken. They were clearing a landslide.

We got a hostel at sunset, 4 beds for 3 adults and 2 toddlers for 100 pesos, or 14 dollars.

——————

Sunday March 8th 2009: Atocha to Uyuni: Only 60 kilometers of 105 due to broken derailleur hanger.

Bolivian roads break things. Alex’s trailer first, and now my derailleur hanger. Remember how I was saying the difficulty of riding Bolivian roads is the balance between ripio and sandy washouts?  Well, I washed out on the left side of the road, so that’s the right side of my bike, and I snapped the derailleur hanger off.

 Coincidentally, as I was taking photos a few seconds later, a car approached and a nice man offered to take me the remaining 45k to Uyuni.

I accepted.

Here’s how the day went before the washout: I left Alex and Lauren at the plaza early, eager to try another 100k Bolivian dirt day. They were waiting for their ride in the truck. The climb out of Atocha is steep, but short. Then rolling hills, small mountains, little abandoned mining villages here and there. The scenery, of course, was spectacular! See photos. The truck carrying the Scots passed me and we took photos of each other.

Then I climbed through some canyons, up some switchbacks on the edges of rocky cliffs, and just as I had imagined months ago a very distinct plain appeared. This must be the real deal, the true Altiplano in this high area that is referred casually as the altiplano region.

It was so flat I could almost feel the salt flat emerging from under me. I was so close to this place I had read about and dreamed about for all these months: El Salar de Uyuni. Around lunchtime the sun was high and the shade was nonexistent so I had lunch in a cool drainage tube under the road. see photo.

Then, sometime later I washed the bike out in the sand trying to avoid the worst ripio I had ever ridden, and SNAP! But you know that already.

Somehow I found Alex and Lauren among the zoo of tourists in Uyuni. We checked into a hostel for 30 pesos per person and devised plans for fixing our rigs tomorrow so that we could get out onto the unbelievable salt flat as soon as possible.

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