High plains, green valleys, salt lakes, snowy mountains and so many llamas.
The Bolivian frontier with Paraguay in Gran Chaco department is far less popular with touring cyclists than the typical crossings with Argentina, Chile and Peru to the West.
Actually, this route does not seem to be popular with anyone. I travelled the sixty kilometres from the frontier to immigration and only passed two cars, a deer and an ominous rattle from the bushes. (Bolivia has rattle snakes, who knew?)
Migration control was a fittingly low key affair; an immigration officer reading a newspaper in the patio of a run-down building. He ushered me inside and said I could have a thirty day stamp. I asked if I could have 90 days and he shrugged and stamped the passport three times.
After immigration, I was processed by Bolivian customs (a single police officer on the side of road) who asked me if I had anything ‘bad’ in my bags. I said no and he waved me along.
In reality, even if my panniers had been full of weed and parrots stuffed in condoms, I would still have been small change here. The Bolivia – Paraguay border is a super highway of drug trafficking in South America, with cocaine flowing South-East and marijuana heading North-West. Trucks and small planes freely cross this sparsely populated frontier while the two countries continue to sign border security pacts. I was repeatedly warned not to travel at night or to hitchhike near the border because of the risk of narco-traffickers.
After more than a week of complete flatness in Paraguay, it was a rude shock to find myself climbing up hills soon after departing customs. It went badly for me when the asphalt turned to soft dirt and I was had to walk my bike up steep hills in the baking sun.
In the afternoon I spotted a traditional Mennonite father and son, riding in a covered horse-drawn carriage. I turned back to see if I could snap a photo, but they had also turned around (presumably to admire my immorally short football shorts).
The first city across the border was Villamontes, which features a central market the size of a city block and a sad little Chaco war museum. After the solitude and remoteness of the Ruta Transchaco, the bustling market and street vendors were a welcome change. I ate fried chicken in the street while a warped television screen gave a psychedelic flavour to a telenovela.
On the way out of town, there were several mounds of earth dumped in the road with cars and trucks parked along the edges. Some sort of blockade was taking place but the target was unclear and many vehicles were allowed to pass right through and shower me with dust. Men were stationed in little huts along the winding road, signalling the trucks when to pass safely around blind corners.
The climbing continued in baking heat with lush greenery all around. Pigs and snakes scurried ahead of me on red dirt roads and I wondered if this was the same Bolivia of the high barren mountains, llamas and salt flats in so many guide books.
En route to Entre Rios I was stopped by road works and told that the road was closed until 6pm. The gate guard made a gesture for explosions with his hands and puffed one of his cheeks out (the other already being puffed out with coca leaves). I stood with him for five minutes before he had a change of heart and decided to let me chance the explosions.
Further down the road, another gate guard pulled the same trick and made me wait ten minutes before letting me pass. I’m convinced that should you need to break into a secure area in Bolivia, just hang out with the guard for a little while.
As the climb continued to towards Tarija, the temperature dropped dramatically and I was soon wrapped in all my warm gear as a light snow fell. I couldn’t feel my hands, so I stopped at a house by the road to see if I could beg a mug coffee or tea.
When I asked the senora for a cup of something hot and she said that I could buy some singani. I took the glass of clear liquid in my gloved hand and had a big gulp before realising that singani is Bolivian grape moonshine. I thanked the Senora and told her that although it was lovely, I didn’t like to make a habit of drinking before midday.
A couple of hours later, a truck driver yelled out at me from a road above and asked if I wanted anything. I said I was fine, but he lobbed a bag of lime flavoured milk at me anyway.
On the outskirts of the city of Tarija there was long line of vehicles parked on the road.
I weaved my way through the trucks and came to a blockade of large rocks. Some people looked shocked that I rode straight through their blockade, but the mood was generally friendly. On the far side, a group of men hailed me over for a chat. They were sipping from cups of sweet, hot tea mixed with singani and since it was now the afternoon, I joined them for a few body-warming rounds.
I didn’t catch exactly what the campesinos were protesting about, but I was told that blocking the roads in this manner is a pretty common occurrence in Bolivia. The stalls selling drinks and hot food almost gave the bloqueao a street party atmosphere.
From Tarija, it was a non-stop climb from 1900 to the pass at 3600m. This access road was also blocked, which meant traffic-free cycling for me (and no way for the backpackers at the hostel to leave the city).
The tunnel at the top of the mountain was choked up with the vehicles that could not pass during the day and the mood at this blockade was not as friendly as the last. Some people jokingly told me that I couldn’t pass, but there were more serious men on the sides of the road with rocks in their hands. Luckily there was plenty of cheering and clapping from the other motorists to balance the harsher vibes.
The road dipped and climbed in waves, scenery changing rapidly between barren mountain tops, red ranges, lush green valleys and fields of cacti. The valley after El Puente was strung with regular bodegas which claim to produce wine at the highest altitude in the world.
Peppering this landscape are small stone or mud brick adobes. Usually time-ravaged and abandoned in appearance, occasionally a small plume of smoke or hanging clothes indicate that someone still calls the ruins home.
Approaching 4000m, I felt the first hints of altitude begin to affect me. Shortness of breath on climbs and mild headaches were quickly relieved by a mouthful of coca leaves and a pinch of bicarbonate soda.
I passed a German cycling family with two children, the youngest of who was still too young to walk and hence travelled in a trailer. Cycle touring is challenging at times and it’s incredible that families are in these remote locations with tiny humans.
On the last night before Potosi, I rode up a hill and camped next to a water reservoir with an amazing view over a valley.
At just over 4000m.a.s.l, Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. Established in the 16th century as a mining town, the city is famed for its mountain of silver (Cerro Rico) and was the location of the first mint in the Americas.
Cerro Rico has been mined for silver and tin for roughly five hundred years, during which it has claimed an incomprehensible number of lives. “La Montaña que come Hombres” has been estimated to have killed 8 million people, but the estimates vary strongly. After visiting them myself, it is not difficult to believe that many miners still die today, but it is harder to imagine the horrendous conditions that the indigenous and African slaves suffered in centuries gone by.
It is unclear what part of the mine is real and what is for the tourists; there are definitely people working in the tunnels, but some of the miners seem like they might just be hanging around for show. The tour required crossing some deep voids on thin timber and I’m sure some unlucky tourists have taken a plunge before.
From Potosi, I spent three days cycling South-West towards the enormous salt flat of Uyuni. The road was regularly above 4000m and the landscape was barren but spectacular.
Adjacent to an unusual rock formation, a group of schoolchildren trickled past on lean road bikes. In the dry river bed of a valley, I watch a dog shepherd a herd of goats without a person in sight.
I camped in a disused alpaca pen, then in the earthen courtyard of a small farm. The young kids squatted by my open tent and asked me questions until they were called away. In the morning, their mother pulled buckets of water for me from their well.
After Uyuni town, a guard at a toll booth slapped his thigh and yelled ‘FUERTE!’ with a big grin, before forming a circle with his thumb and fingers and miming (vigorous) masturbation. I made camp in an abandoned building in Colchani on the fringe of Salar de Uyuni while the sun put on a big show.
The next morning, levels of smugness and self-satisfaction were off the charts as I pedalled onto Salar de Uyuni. “Look at all these tourists in their 4WDs, not knowing the true freedom of travel by bicycle, exploring the world under one’s own power”.
In the early afternoon, a strong headwind developed and I looked at the speeding jeeps with rather a different sentiment.
The strong wind and complete lack of protection on the Salar greatly slowed my progress so that I reached Isla Incahuasi mere seconds before the sun dipped below the horizon.
Because I arrived after the park guards had left for the day, Alfredo and Aurelia ushered me into their house and shared a warming soup with me. They are the original inhabitants of the island and have three volumes of notebooks filled with messages from cycle tourists who have visited them.
Alfredo invited me to stay in their house and when I went outside to move my bicycle, I found their pet 3 month old llama chewing on my straw hat. I shooed him away, but he promptly returned and began licking the thick crust of salt off my skin. He later turned out to be a swell guy and kept guard over my bicycle during the night. (I don’t know if it was a llama or alpaca, but the owners called it the former).
The hot coffee and oats in the morning did little to combat the risky combination of sub-zero temperatures and footy shorts, but I was feeling smug once again as I slipped past the thermoses and 4WDs parked for the island sunrise.
There were almost no vehicles on this side of the salt flat and the endless white seemed to belong to me alone.
Towards the edge of the Salar, the earth becomes alternatively soft and corrugated, which forced me to walk the bike to the town of Llica. I arrived just after school finished and was mobbed by a crowd of small kids who beamed at me as they shouted “Good morning students!”
The road from Llica to Salar/Lago Coipasa was similarly terrible, with thick sand in many places. This awful track, combined with my baseless optimism encouraged me to try and enter Salar Coipasa earlier than my notes recommended.
After several hundred metres, the salt crust became extremely thin and I sunk into the mud as I thought to myself “I’ve made a huge mistake”. Because I have stubbornness in equal measures to optimism, I decided to keep pushing on, for “Surely it can’t stay soft for too long”.
Completely defeated, I walked the bicycle back to the shore and across more sandy tracks to the tiny town of Tres Cruces.
The town seemed deserted, but when I eventually found life they directed me to the community theatre and let me camp on the stage.
There was a town meeting in the hall later that night and the organiser marched around town banging an enormous drum to summon the village. I sat behind the drawn curtain and enjoyed a banquet of salt crackers, tinned tuna, cheese puffs and Bolivian cola.
When I followed the route instructions the next day, I found Salar Coipasa to be firm and easy riding. There were a few colourfully clothed European cyclists and some helpful street signs.
I stopped on Coipasa Island for lunch and a nearly blind shop owner pulled water from his well before giving me a free chocolate bar. From there it was a short pedal to the far shore of the Salar and I hugged the coast all the way to the town of Sabaya.
I spent two days riding from Sabaya to Oruru and enjoyed the sparse landscapes of the altiplano. Flamingos waded under the backdrop of mountains, a motorcycle cop took a corner too swiftly and flew into a ditch, I ate a Llama steak for breakfast and watched a Saturday morning Baptism in Rio Español.
Oruru to La Paz is a little more than 200km on the highway, but if you take a right hand turn at the town of Konani, you can plunge yourself into the steamy, green south Yungas instead.
However before plunging down into these lush valleys, it is necessary to make a pass at about 4700m. The views make the climbing well worthwhile.
After the pass, it was a white knuckle descent to 3000m in which I had to tighten my front brake two times due to wear.
I spent the next week descending and climbing the serpentine dirt road that winds through the South Yungas. From the high altiplano, it was a sudden change to the beating sun and humid climate of the valleys. The road hugs the side of mountains and there are often sheer drops of hundreds of metres for which the nearby ‘death road’ is famous. For the one night that I cycled after sunset, navigating this road with my little headlight was an anxious experience.
The coca harvest was on and in all the little towns, the leaves were spread over large tarpaulins to dry in the sun. Women worked in the steep fields picking the plant, and enormous bags travelled on trucks and vans to the city markets.
Throughout the Yungas are small communities of Afro-Bolivians, the descendants of former slaves who were liberated from the Potosi mine in the 19th Century. Some communities have retained strong connections to their heritage including the continuation of an Afro-Bolivian monarchy.
It was a time of festivity when I passed through the region and two of the towns I passed through were in celebration. I arrived in La Plazuela in the evening and ate cheese empanadas as musicians played in the street.
Later, I arrived in Chicaloma in the early afternoon to an uglier scene. The whole town was drunk, men urinated in the middle of the street while others slumped drunk on benches and against walls. I later found out that this was day four of their festival, so I can hardly blame them.
The climbs were tough at times and I was often walking the bike due to the soft dirt surface. Three different vehicles pulled up beside me to drop of gifts of mandarins and bread in these challenging sections.
Another time, a dog came sprinting down the road with a bag in his mouth. When he saw me, he skidded to a halt, dropped the bag and fled into the bushes. When I passed the bag, I discovered it was full of used diapers.
An unfortunate fact about this part of Bolivia is that it once was once home to the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. He lived here until 1983 when the Bolivian government extradited him to France. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction and the rumours are that other high ranking Nazis (maybe Adolf Eichmann) visited this region, but it is tough to know what to believe.
Barbie definitely held the rank of Lt Colonel with the Bolivian Armed Forces, apparently participated in a cocaine smuggling ring through Argentina to Germany and may have been involved in the capture of Che Guevara.
While I’m not 100% sure that I snapped a picture of the correct house, I believe this to be the hideout and headquarters of Klaus Barbie.
The South Yungas road was built in the 1930’s by Paraguayan prisoners of the Chaco war. Legend has it that the then President decided they might as well build a castle at the same time. So it came to pass that I camped at El Castillo on my last night in the Yungas.
The castle was converted into a hotel and restaurant in years gone by and is currently being renovated once again. The friendly owners and workers were happy for me to camp on a patch of grass in the construction site and two little kids entertained themselves by pointing to every one of my belongings and asking what it was (with no comprehension of my answers).
My final day of cycling before arriving in La Paz involved a climb from 1960m to 4670m. As I worked my way up the tranquil ravine, I was rudely shocked by an explosion on the road ahead of me. As I drew nearer, I was again held up by several stages of road works.
Once again, my trick of waiting a few minutes with the guard worked and I was allowed to pass the gates while vehicles remained parked.
I was slowed down again by a flat tyre and later in the day a fog swept up the mountain and reduced visibility to 20 or 30 metres.
After more than 2300m of climbing, I ran out of legs. I could cycle or walk for a few hundred metres before needing a rest and no amount of coca leaves would help. I thumbed a lift for the few kilometres to the pass, and then hopped out again to descend the thousand or so vertical metres to La Paz.
I spent two weeks in the Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz, with up to fourteen people sharing one bathroom and a tiny kitchen at a time. It is a very enjoyable place to live and meet other cyclists, and the walls and books are covered in stories of other travellers.
I’ll be staying in La Paz for two months while I volunteer at a prosthetics clinic and work on my Spanish, before continuing the journey North into Peru.
It has been an interesting time to start working at the centre, as it is with the backdrop of months of protests by the ‘discapacitados’ in the city. While I was cycling towards La Paz, many disabled Bolivians were also marching to the same destination to protest for better rights and welfare.
Disabled Bolivians currently receive an absolute pittance from the government, in a country that has essentially zero infrastructure to assist them. Far worse, the police and government response to the protests has been appalling. Not only have they refused to hear or discuss the requests of the discapacitados, they have been openly hostile and at times violent.
Some of the new patients that have arrived at the clinic in my short time here have come from these protests.
Bolivia has been perhaps the most culturally different country that I have visited so far in South America.
All commerce seems to run through street vendors, sprawling markets or tiny hole in the wall tiendas; I didn’t see a supermarket for the entire period between the Mennonite colonies of Paraguay and my arrival in La Paz.
Roads are choked with Japanese second hand imports with bizarre customisations including rear spoilers on minivans, rallysport decals and engine monitors on Corollas from the 80s and 90s.
The women still wear traditional clothing all across the country (and the tough cholitas wrestle in El Alto on a Sunday).
Big towns and cities have alternative healing and witches markets with herbal cures for any malady and dried llama foetuses for burial in the foundations of new buildings.
Sheep, llamas and alpacas roam the country side with colourful decorations on their ears while tiny, wrinkled women with felt hats herd their flocks across vast plains (with perhaps the occasional dog).
I’ve been told that the reason so many buildings look half completed is that there is a tax on finished buildings, so people often leave rebar sticking out or a half built floor.
Bolivia is really amazing, and there is a lot more to see than salt flats and llamas.