From 8 upto 14 july 2014: 215km
Potosi – Uyuni
Instead of going to Sucre as we originally planned, we leave Potosi in the opposite direction and head southwest to Uyuni, where we want to visit the world´s biggest salt lake.
We start with a long downhill out of town and pass the dirty side of it, what means big areas with all the outwashed stone material which comes from the mines. Grey and loose it starts to build a new mountain and maybe one day, there will be a new Cerro Rico standing.
Our hope for a somehow easy ride vanishes a few km further as we face the first of a long series of climbs. Back in Bolivias´ reality 😉
Luckily, we decided not to buy a topographic map, since we have to cycle every altimeter anyway we think it´s easier without mental preoccupation and just do it.
So we don´t know that the first 50km bring us somewhere up to around 4600hm and just wonder a bit about the cold although the sun shines the whole day.
In late afternoon we cross a pass and reach a small village on the other side, where we are offered a sleeping place in the community hall and thankfully accept it.
Next day we start early and enter a different world soon. Big stone formations, the ground sandy and in between small rivers, but all frozen now. The green and grey of the previous day changes to red and yellow and blue and with the bright sunlight everything looks brillant and sharp.
We pass a big canyon, washed out thousands of years ago
and then enter a wide plateau where Vicunas, Lamas and Alpacas are the only inhabitants. Each of them even has its own road sign, or at least we guess that´s the reason for three different signs 🙂
Although the plateau looks like a desert from far away, it´s more a swamp with watercanals and grass and provides enough food and water for these perfectly height-adapted animals.
The other side of the plateau again offers a different picture around us. Now it´s red rocks with funny shapes and cacti and again and again wonderful panoramic views.
This part (from Potosi to Uyuni) of our tour through Bolivia is the most diverse one upto now.
Although nature is always impressive, there were never (and will never be again we guess) so many different sights so near together. It´s by far the most varieted route we cycle and we enjoy it!
The third day then is Brams´ birthday and starts with an unexpected encounter. As we cycle a long and freezy downhill we bump into another cyclist who sweats his way uphill. It´s a guy from Taiwan and for nine years on the road now.
As we exchange our experiences we realize how lucky we are. As Europeans we get in nearly all South American countries 90 days visa at arrival and for free, while he has to get his (much shorter ones) in the embassies and has to pay for them. So he has to plan carefully which way to go and what to visit while we have the luxury to decide shorthanded, switch plans and do everything relaxed and as slow as we like.
Or are forced to, as by the wind on this day, which blows with full strength into our faces and doesn´t let us move forward although we cycle along a wide, flat riverbed. So around three we decide to finish the day and pitch our tent in a more or less windshielded ditch. We made 33km and thought about doing 3 more, one for every lifeyear of Bram, but the place was too nice to pass by and therefore we stopped 🙂
We can´t really celebrate the birthday, there was not much population along the way, or better to say not much possibilities to stock up supplies. To our surprise there are single houses in the remotest corners, very often nearly hidden in the landscape because they are built from the same materials which surround them:
But of course one can´t buy a birthday cake there 🙂
The last settlement we passed didn´t even have drinkable water and so we celebrate with Orange juice and bread for dinner and some cookies for dessert.
Without wind the next day the km just fly by and after a last long climb we have the first view of the wide, flat and white area of the Salar de Uyuni in front of us.
The town itself lies a few km further and is not more than a small and dusty desert village surrounded by a belt of plastic garbage which sticks to every plant. Sadly a common view around villages and along the road although nature is still beautiful!
Some highly overpriced accommodations and restaurants, a bus terminal, a train station and uncountable agencies which offer Salar and Lagunatours are the core of the village.
Because of the Salar, Uyuni is one of the main touristic places in Bolivia, but for most people it´s just the place they start or finish their Salar and Laguna – tour by jeep.
We ourselves are not quite sure if we go to the Salar and the Lagunas by bicycle because our bicycle travelguide describes this tour as one of the hardest (and most beautiful) in Bolivia: 500km offroad at an altitude between 4000 and 5000m with nearly no possibility to stock up water and food supplies…
But as we inquire about the Jeep-tour and talk to people who just did one, it doesn´t sound attractive. Three days with five or six people in the car, short stops for pictures or food and no individual experience of the area.
Not our style of travel, so finally the decision is made: We will do it by bicycle!
From 20 june upto 07 july 2014: 342km
Tarija- Camargo – Potosi
With our new map and some additional information we gathered by talking to people, we start off to Potosi, some 380km away and some 2100m higher than Tarija.
The first day is smooth, we visit San Lorenzo, a small nearby village with a nice plaza, and then start climbing the hills which surround the valley of Tarija.
In the evening we have made just around 35km, but find a beautiful campspot above the road and after sunset have the glittering lights of Tarija at our feet.
Day two is the opposite of smooth. Weather hits us hard, strong headwind from the start on and only more climbing.
We didn´t know that there are two mountain ranges to cross and when we finally manage the second, the disappointment is big. Instead of an easy and relaxing downhill we have to fight on for every meter against an even stronger headwind. In front of us lies a wide and flat plateau, nothing on it to stop or divert the wind and so it hits us with full power. Two pedestrians walking along the road are faster by foot then we are, and this isn´t an exaggeration!
It´s really frustrating, the feeling of the wind in the face, the sound of it in the ears and no possibility to escape – it makes us a little bit mad and we even loose interest in our surrounding. All that counts is to move forward.
When reaching a little settlement at about 4PM, we crash into a party and luckily for us, when we ask for a campplace, a man shows us an empty cabin next to the football-field where we can stay for the night.
Our tent just about fits into the house, so we have double isolation for the cold night ahead and we are more than happy to be out of the wind.
Totally exhausted (mentally and physically) we finish the day with an early small dinner and go to sleep with a prayer for a windstill next day.
Prayer or whatever, the morning is really windstill but freezing cold and we continue our way under a clear blue sky. After breakfast, as usual besides the road, we can even have a small stopover for tea in a Cabana along the way, an unexpected but welcome pleasure!
As a reward for the previous efforts, today we get our relaxing downhill. Not very steep but long and we enjoy it!
Landscape is fascinating again, stony hills with a vegetation of cacti and small trees, always growing in pairs, and sometimes even in the bolivian colours 🙂
Then a long ride along a dry riverbed with coloured mountains to the right and left, a wonderful scenery, colours changing from green and brown to purple, red and silvery and back again, not to mention the bizarre formations of the rocks on top.
Easy cycling but since we still have tired legs we take it easy and have a long siesta in the first village we reach. El Puente, a small and dusty village in the middle of nowhere only exists because of a big cement factory but has a nice plaza and lies directly at the river, which from here on is actually a river again and not only a dry riverbed.
River and water means a change of landscape again. Furtile earth, agriculture is possible and we pass corn and vegetable fields, long rows of fruit trees and small settlements, where the usual Sundays´ work is obviously the same as in Europe 😉
But the big and nice surprise of the day awaits us a little bit later when we pitch our tent in a small ditch with red sand. Sitting on the sand is comfortably and warm, it saves the warmth of the sun and later on inside our tent it´s like sleeping with floor heating. Wonderful!!!
Especially since the temperature this night drops for the first time under zero, our water bottles are frozen the next morning but we had a good nights´ rest 🙂
Our next stopover will be Camargo, halfway between Tarija and Potosi and initially we´ve hoped for an easy ride because we don´t have to gain much height in this part. But instead we have to learn our second bolivian lesson: Never believe the saying “Todo plano – all flat” – for bolivian drivers obviously everything which doesn´t force them into the first gear is flat. In the cyclists´ world it´s an endless up and down which takes our last bit of power, although we go slow and don´t hurry.
Then we reach Camargo and check into the Hostal Chujllana in expectation of at least two resting days.It´s a small and lovely town with a very nice mercado in the centre, surrounded by red mountains and the main attraction is the wine which comes from the “worlds´ highest vineyards” around the village.
The days are warm and we take it easy in hope to recuperate from the past efforts and get rid of the cold we´ve caught. The second day the people in the mercado already know us, as we start every day with delicious fruit salad and milk shake, followed by Almuerzo with Chicken, salad and rice and then end the day with some barbecue from the street.
Especially the fruit salads and milk shakes are tasty. As we already know, Bolivians like it sweet and so they add sweet jelly to the salads and lot of sugar to the shakes. But we don´t mind, it´s still a lot of vitamins and some additional calories won´t hurt…
Nonetheless, on the third day we get really sick instead of better and so we have to elongate our time in Camargo for three more days. For these days we swap (after a recommendation from locals) from our Hostal to the Hotel Colorado and don´t regret it. The owner Max is a very friendly man and as soon as he notices that we´re sick he starts to bring us tea and crackers in the morning. Very, very kind and we would recommend his place to everyone who stops by in this nice little town 🙂
As we start off again we notice very fast that from Camargo onwards the weather condition changes. Middays are still warm, but as soon as the sun disappears, usually around five, temperature drops significantly and almost always under zero during night, so the mornings are also chilly. A little bit of cold wind on top and camping becomes really, really uncomfortable so we have to look carefully for a good spot which is at least wind shielded.
We are lucky for the first two nights and find nice places in small canyons or dry riverbeds along the way.
For the third and fourth night we get to know the kindness of bolivian people again. As we enter small villages and ask for a campsite the reaction is nearly the same: Too cold for camping, it´s better to sleep inside and we get rooms offered to do so.
One time itˋs a storage room on a farm, the other time it´s a backroom from the local despensa. Really pretty but a little bit adventerous to get in and above all to get out in the night to use the toilet 😉
With this bit of help for a good nights rest we can enjoy the days and don´t have much difficulties to manage 150km and numerous altimeters
to our surprise sometimes in both directions.
This part of Bolivia is a mix of mountains and canyons and sometimes the road in front of us seems to disappear into nothing when it enters one of the canyons. Following it we enter small microclimates, shielded from the wind and therefore much warmer, these deeper parts are populated and used for agriculture and ecological projects like cultivating cacti.
Of course, after passing these canyons at the end there is always a climb waiting for us and sometimes there are spectators watching us sweat, maybe even with a smile 🙂
Then it´s Friday the 4th. It´s my birthday, we have “only” 35km to go and think we´ll reach Potosi in early afternoon. Time enough to find a hostal and have a cozy dinner to celebrate our arrival in the highest city (of this size) in the world by bicycle!!!
But reality has different plans and we relive the second day of the Tarija-Potosi-Trip.Remember? Endless climbing and strong headwind? We try not to fight against nature this time but to go slow, take enough rests and not exhaust us completely.
In this manner we climb the first 15km, then reach a wide plateau with moderate ups and downs and have lunch hidden behind some stones which take away at least 50% of the wind.
Special roadsigns show us, that we´ve reached a distinct altitude with special animals and vegetation confirms this: Small islands of hard and spikey gras are the only remaining plants which grow here.
The next 10km pass by, our energy level sinks, then the next heavy climbing starts and finally we have to fight anyway. Km for km, wind brings sand which bites our faces and we know we are near Potosi because the loose sand comes from the numerous mines around Potosi.
And then we spot the Cerro Rico, the big mountain next to Potosi where they have been mining silver for five centuries. We recognize it immediately, the years of mining have left their marks and the mountain looks really hurt, even if this may sound weird…
A last steep uphill, a corner and a big surprise: Potosi lies to our feet. We didn´t know it, but we just crossed a pass of 4400m and have to go downhill to reach Potosi at 4100m.
It´s late afternoon now, dark clouds in the sky, more wind and more sand as we finally enter Potosi.
Arrived in town we just search a hostal, visit the tourist information for a city map, grab some food on the street and go to bed early.
On this evening there is no feeling of pride, no time for celebration, just tiredness and the wish to sleep in a warm bed out of the wind…
But of course, the world looks different the next morning! With new spirit we start exploring the city, wander the small and narrow streets with their colonial architecture, admire the old and beautiful churches and of course, visit the mercado 🙂
Then we decide to visit the silver mines in the Cerro Rico and this is a rather two-sided experience.
The mines are not more than long, dark and dusty tunnels inside the mountain. They are all built by manual labour, it´s narrow and the headlamps of our four-person-group are the only light around us.
We crawl and walk and slide for three hours in the dark, it´s exhausting because of the height (4200-4400m) and the dust. From time to time we pass devil-statues and they all get offers of alcohol and cigarettes. It´s a ritual of the mine-workers to get the permission to work in this place since the devil or “El Tio” rules the underworld.
Each time we offer something we ourselves have also a sip of the alcohol and while it´s only a small sip for us, our guide takes big ones and becomes more and more drunk with every statue we pass.
Of course, all in all it´s a little adventure for us, but at the same time it becomes depressing as soon as we start to think about the mine-workers who actually have to work hard for hours straight in this place and although it´s the year 2014, not many things have changed for them since the beginning of mining 500 years ago. Helmets and boots are nearly all in questions of security and more than 90% of the work is still manual labour, including the work with dynamite and transport of the loose material to the outside with the use of iron chariots on rails..
We are very happy when we are outside and can see the sun again and finish this day reflecting back on what we´ve seen.
From 08 june to 19 june 2014: 296km
Paraguayan Border – Ibibobo – Villa Montes – Entre Rios – Tarija
BOLIVIA: Mountains, Dust, Delicious Food, more Mountains and above all:
UNA NATURALEZZA INCREIBLE!!!!
But of course, nothing changes immediately. The first 60km after the border are still straigth ahead, no turn in sight and as flat as a pool table.
The only thing worth seeing is the military post, Puesto Sucre, which is built like a castle (complete with watchtowers at every corner) but taking a picture is not allowed 😦
Then we reach the village of Ibibobo, where the migration office is located. After five days of being in nomans´ land we get the entrance stamp for Bolivia and, after a little chat even a 90-day visum, which is exceptional, cause normally it´s only 30 and one has to prolongate each 30 days again in a migration office in a big city.
Landscape changes behind Ibibobo: it becomes hilly, always up an under, no more dull long straigths. Some 15km further, the pavement is finished as well, and we cycle on an unpaved road, but it is rather ok. We are glad to have the straight Chaco-road behind us.
In the evening we have to look for a real “wildcamping”-place for the first time since Argentina. There are no houses, churches, gas stations or anything else along the street but we find a nice place under a bottle-tree (the most common tree in the Chaco, but we never slept under one there) and have a peaceful first night 🙂
The next day we enter Villa Montes, a middle-sized city at the foot of the first mountain range we have to pass later on, and decide to stay for a few days.
Life takes place on the streets and it´s a pleasure to walk around and watch and just stay outside. There are parks, plazas, tree-shaded banks and in general everything is well-kept and maintained and made for being out in the public and having a good time.
We wander about, visit the big mercado several times and try nearly everything eatable which is sold on the streets 🙂
Obviously it´s common to eat out. Saltenas (small fresh fried empanadas) in the morning, Almuerzo (special and cheap dish of the day) for lunch, some kind of barbecue (Pacumutu or Chicken) for dinner and thousand other things during the whole day like fruits, candies, popcorn, refrescos, and, and, and…
Besides the food everything else is also sold on the street or the mercado (there is no real supermercado or warehouse or something similar) and shopping takes some time because one has to visit a special part of the mercado for each item one needs and one has to look really carefully for it. The stalls are overloaded with stuff, and everything which doesn´t fit in stands on the street and is packed into the stall only for the night.
Unfortunately, one item we need is not available in the whole town anf that´s a road-map for Bolivia.
After a 4-hour search through every libreria and gas-station there is, we give up and walk instead to the local bus terminal to ask bus drivers for details about the road to Tarija.
We find a friendly driver who tells us that the first half of the road is unpaved but not bad to drive and that there are at least four villages along the 240km, what should be enough for water and food supply.
So two days later we start cycling highly motivated, even though it drizzles and is rather uncomfortable, a rare thing in Villa Montes, usually the hottest and driest town in Bolivia.
We cycle in a canyon along the Rio Pilcomayo and it´s unbelievable beautiful but at the same time unbelievable exhausting from the first km on. Welcome in Bolivia, which always combines both sides of the medal, as we will find out later on 🙂
For the part of the beautiful nature around us we will let the pictures talk:
The parts which make cycling exhausting have three names:
Mosquos: very small mosquitos, whose bites hurt like hell and who leave big horrible marks. They live near the Rio and until we are not moving with more than 10km/h (which is not very often here) they come and bite.
Unpaved road: or Highway to Hell like Bram calls it. For sure it´s not bad to drive for cars. It´s hard and flat, no big holes or stones but the problem for us is the thick layer of dust and sand on top. It´s almost impossible to see which part of the road gives grip and which part let us slide in sand. And that means being careful every minute.
Riding uphill is not a big problem as we are slow anyway, but the few downhill parts are treacherous and every turn as well, since the sand is even deeper there.
Dust: Due to the sandy surface of the road, every passing car or truck leaves us in a big cloud of dust and after a few hours we, our bicycles and the luggage look the same like all the plants and trees along the way: covered with dust and brownish.
The next day, after having camped under these conditions the tent and everything we had to take out for the night is in the same state as well.
About noonish we reach Palos Blancos, the first village along the way and although it´s rather small and dusty it has several despensas, three Hospedajes and some Cabanas, so once again we can have tasty and hearty Almuerzo. Potatoes are seen as vegetable, so the usual dish consists of rice, accompanied by fried or cooked potatoes, some kind of meat with a delicious sauce and topped with a salad of onions and tomatoes.
It´s the best home-made food and unbelievable cheap, 10 to 15 Bolivianos (or Bols like they are called here), what is around 1 to 1,50Euro.
Heaven for us, it´s impossible to cook for the same price (not to mention the taste 😉 ) and we get used to eat out as often as possible.
Hell for us when cycling again. The road conditions worsen, it gets steeper and steeper and around 12km climbing later my (Katharina) condition worsens as well and there is no end of the climb in sight, dust clouds of passing trucks indicate still a long way to go…
Without any energy left, fighting for every meter and now pushing instead of cycling, it seems like I look really pityfull. A passing Pick-up stops, the driver starts talking to us and even if he didn´t offer it himself, it´s clear that he would like to give us a ride. So we ask and shortly later we are on our way to Entre Rios by car.
Entre Rios, halfway between Villa Montes and Tarija, is a good size village (or a small town) with a nice lit church and we get a room near it, in the centrally located Alojamiento Tarija, where we will stay for two nights.
We visit the Sunday market and explore the surroundings a bit, but the main plan is resting and again, to try everything eatable around. Saltenas now with pickled onions, roasted pork, pancakes of maicena with cheese, grilled liver and heart and finally pastries, Bolivian people like it sweet!
The second half of the way to Tarija is much easier. The road is paved now, my (Katharina) condition restored and furthermore I plan to go slower now and adjust my power to the surrounding. Nature is again overwhelming and the day passes fast.
We spend the night next to an abandoned house at the foot of a very steep uphill which awaits us for the next morning and which we then master in different ways: Bram cycling and Katharina pushing 🙂
When finally reach the summit, we stumble upon some roadworkers who saw us the previous day as well. We have a nice chat and they tell us, that the main part to Tarija now is downhill, what explains the big cold the evening before. We already had to be somewhere between 2500 and 3000m since Tarija sits on 2000m.
To our surprise we reach the city already the same day, the first downhill part is a present of around 10km, than the ups and downs are moderate and good to cycle, but most important: the total distance we had to cycle was not 240km but only 200km, and 40km under these conditions can be easily one day more or less of cycling.
So we have learnt a new lesson: Never believe any km-numbers a Bolivian tells you 🙂
Tarija itself is a nice and pleasent town and famous for its wine. We passed a lot of grape-stocks when entering it, but since it´s winter now, the harvest is long over and raisins are the only reminder.
We also visit the different mercados and the mirador (which shows that Tarija is surrounded by mountains) and even find a map of Bolivia, but we are not sure if it´s really more informative than bus-drivers.
But this we will find out on our next part of the journey 🙂