Lagunas A few kilometres beyond the Chilean customs post, the road crests a 4660 metre pass before a fantastic drop to Bolivian customs. I clocked 80kmh on this descent. Tail wind, brand new sealed road, thin air and no traffic. Yeeehaaa. Bolivian customs were polite and efficient. I cautiously changed some cash with an Indian lady out on the street. I was cautious at first, as the Chilean and Argentine experience had been ATMs, thoroughly modern banks and Am Ex approved Casas de Cambio. I changed just enough to get me to La Paz - three and a half days away (315ish kms from Chilean border), figuring I'd get a better rate in the big city. Shouldn't have worried - the exchange rate was better at the border! The border post was an ugly amalgam of breeze block hovels, not the best introduction to the country.

Fortunately the first village I came to, Lagunas (pictured), was a stunner. The new sealed road links to the sealed La Paz - Oruro highway so it's possible to get to La Paz on sealed road the whole way. Unfortunately it takes the most direct route and so skirts villages that the old road presumably passed through.

The only reason I stopped at Lagunas was to investigate the church steeple that I saw poking over the roadside embankment. The town was all whitewashed adobe dwellings with thatched roofs. It was oddly deserted. Two boys ran along a parallel street, shyly watching my progress. I parked my bike in the huge empty Plaza and crossed it to photograph the church. A little girl appeared next to the church yard and called me over. Her mother had a key to the church and showed me around it.

On rejoining the main road, I came upon one of the most memorable sights of the whole trip. A vista taking in the glaciated cone of Sajama (Bolivia's highest peak) across an immense Llama specked swamp (pictured). The villagers of Lagunas are Llama herders and their herds and shepherds stretched away as far as the mountain.

There was two and a half days riding on the lovely new road before the La Paz - Oruro highway was joined. In that time the route took in some fantastic scenery. Giant eroded escarpment valleys with Llamas and mixed herds (Llamas, sheep and cattle) everywhere. I saw adobe burial towers (pictured) by the roadside, though at the time I thought they were grain stores. Sajama remained in view for days. Farmers on one speed Chinese bikes were always game for a "race". Man, can they move! And you want to see them power along on dirt tracks. California loses any claim to "birthplace of the mountain bike" in my view. All credit must go to Bolivian Lama farmers. Watch out if you're near a village when school's out. I had a lot of fun sprinting in packs with the school boys. Can't say the altitude was a killer for consistent effort like cycling, but it realy hurt when sudden effort like banging in tent pegs was required.

The La Paz - Oruro road is easily Bolivias busiest and least pleasant. The last 20 or so km into Alto La Paz are pretty rude. Overcrowded mini buses with their special swerve-o-matic steering are kings of this stretch. Fortunately once through Alto La Paz an "Autopista" drops you straight into the middle of La Paz proper. A "No Bicycles" sign at the toll booth is totally ignored and the traffic cop I asked for alternate directions just pointed me straight down the Autopista. Of course it was just crawling with local cyclists.

On arrival in La Paz a huge protest march was blocking the road - sinister looking balaclavad men skipped excitedly through the crowd. I escaped onto a pedestrian mall where riot police were milling around and was bailed up by Scottish cycle tourist wanting a leisurely chat. I suggested to him that now was not a good time for a chat and just maybe we shouldn't be standing between the protesters and the riot police. He just laughed. Turns out there's always a protest of some sort going on and the "riot police" are always in this location because there are parliamentary building in the adjoining square. The sinister men in balaclavas are shoe shine boys, who for whatever reason all wear balaclavas as a kind of uniform and they were mixing it with the crowd because where there's a crowd there's bound to be shoes!

La Paz was easily the most interesting city of my trip. The population is predominantly Indian and the place has a real buzz. There's always something happening. Indian ladies in their traditional multi layered skirts and top hats throng the markets and sell stuff on every street corner. Indian men in their traditional fake Nike caps throng everywhere else.
La Paz

Tiahuanaco ruin
Lakeside farmland in Peru
From La Paz I headed west via Tiahuanaco and around Lake Titicaca into Peru. Tiahuanaco was at the centre of a pre-inca civilisation. I toyed with pushing on to Cuzco (had heard from other cyclists that the road is 'mostly' paved) but ended up going no further than Puno at the North end of the lake. I was surprised at the population density around the lake. It had been a population centre and intensively cultivated for a long, long time. The riding was OK, but the traffic on the narrow road too busy for my liking. Ever seen a bus 4 wheel drifting around corners? I have. An hour or so later I was passed by a string of ambulances. Related? Maybe.

I backtracked to a different border crossing, this one near Copacabana (picture taken on a hilltop above Copacabana - that's Lake Titicaca in the background) before heading off to Sorata for a rest at lower altitude.

Copacabana. Lookout above Lake Titicaca

The ride down to Sorata was a stunner. I took more pictures on this one day than any other - unfortunately on a dodgy roll of film, so lost half of them. The last 30km into Sorata involves dropping 1500 metres in altitude from a 4300m pass to Sorata at 2760m. Just beyond the pass you feel suspended mid way between the glaciated Sierra Real (pictured) and the way distant valley floor. The soft looking mossy grass by the roadside is evil. DO NOT SIT HERE. You'll be picking microscopic spines from your butt for days if you do. 'Fortunately' I put a hand down first. The consequences of a bumpy downhill (the road is dirt) with a billion spiked butt is just too awful to think about.

I stayed at the ramshackle Hotel Sorata. Very backpacker, very gringo, but a great place to rest. It was once a German Rubber Baron's mansion. The family walked out on it sometime in the seventies I think and it has this fantastic air of once-great splendour about it - as though they just abandoned it, furnishing, personal belongings, family pictures, wall mounted Anaconda skins and all. Unfortunately all my pics of Hotel Sorata fell victim to the dodgy film - but here's a pic of a Sorata back street anyway.

Bruce Cuff on "the worlds most dangerous road"
"The worlds most dangerous road"
Caught a bus back up to the sealed road to La Paz, rode into La Paz again, caught a vile flu and was persuaded by the famous Bruce Cuff (pictured) of New Zealand to ride "the world's most dangerous road" (also pictured) to Coroico. Bruce is arguably "the worlds most dangerous cyclist" and his reputation preceded my meeting him by about a month. I agreed with the stipulation that I'd do it only if the freezing weather and rain had stopped. Next morning, bright and early, Bruce shows up and berates me for not being ready. But it's freezing and raining I point out. Foolishly I am persuaded to go. At the La Cumbre Pass above La Paz (4720m and the highest point of my trip) we are in a white-out blizzard. Streuth, it's cold. Then the road goes down. Fast. The first stretch is sealed, so we fly. The snow turns to rain so we are soaked. So much for Gore-tex. I do remember thinking "this is dumb, realy dumb". I've never been so cold in my life. Fortunately we are in the tropics and the air warms by the minute as we drop. We stop at a police checkpoint and sit in a coffee shack wringing our drenched socks out. I've got all my gear with me and change into some dryer clothes. Bruce has left his stuff back in La Paz and will catch a bus back up tomorrow.

Soon after the Police checkpoint the rain stops, cloud forest appears, the dirt road starts and so does the fun. Bruce takes off on his mountain bike. He'll reach the bottom a good hour or two before me (including a bloodied knee from a good prang to avoid a bus). I take my time on my unsuspended, loaded tourer. The downhill lasts for almost 70km and follows a serpentine one lane track scratched into the side of a very steep mountain. Heat finds its way back into my limbs. Amazing vistas appear and disappear through breaks in the cloud. Lush rainforest edges the road. A waterfall cascades from a rock overhang forming a liquid walled tunnel. A bus hangs in trees down a ravine.

From the Pass to the bottom 3500m is lost. The first 1000m or so of the vertical drop was paved. The last 7km are a very steep climb to Coroico. Not what you need after a long day - even if most of it was downhill. At the time of my ride (1998) a new road was being built on the opposite side of the valley and I suspect it will be paved. I don't know if the old road will be maintained for much longer.

I spent a week trying unsuccessfully to shake my flu in Coroico before catching a bus back up to La Paz. From La Paz I bused again, this time to Oruro - couldn't see the point in cycling the highway again. After a few more days rest in Oruro, made enjoyable by a gaggle of other touring cyclists and a bizarre night that ended in a Chinese Karioke restaurant, I started off towards Sucre on the high road. This was by far the hardest riding of the trip. Every day seemed to include at least one mountain pass. The road went across the grain of the Andes and was never level. The gradients were steep, though fortunately the surface was usually firm and rarely sandy. The road yo-yoed between about 3500 and 4500 metres, so the steep climbs were all at altitude. It took 6 days of exhausting riding to cover the 350km to Sucre, camping wild for 5 nights straight. There was some indoor accommodation in villages en-route, but never when I needed it. I had finally shaken my flu. Some days only 3 vehicles passed me all day. Food and bottled water could be picked up in the small towns and I supplemented the water by using a filter to take water from running streams.The scenery was interesting and variable, though not as striking as I had become used too. Eucalyptus plantations took some of the exotic edge off the scenery for me.

Sucre is a pristine colonial town and the nominal capital of Bolvia (the seat of the High Court). the town is whitewashed, affluent and a nice place to rest for a day or two. Though somehow, I managed to take no pictures.
Orouro to Sucre

Potosi Sucre to Potosi (Potosi pictured) (156km) - OK scenery and a lot of uphill. The road is sealed, though the gradients are often steep. From Sucre the first 18km are downhill. The rest of the day and all the next are up. On the second days riding I covered 85km yet didn't arrive 'til after nightfall. Potosi, at over 4000m claims to be the highest city in the world. It sure felt it that day. The decaying splendour of the town was more inviting than Sucre's polish. At one time this was one of the wealthiest cities in the world - made rich by its silver mines.

Beyond Potosi, en route to Uyuni, the landscape once again becomes fascinating, the dirt road and many climbs make the going slow but there is almost no traffic to worry about. Villages are tiny and provisions limited, but as everywhere in Bolivia I'm treated kindly and with much good humour. Camping wild is never a problem. The semi arid valleys and plains deserted by sunset, which is when I chose to put up my tent.

I was hoping to once again be on undulating altiplano roads (it looked flatish on my landsat map of Bolivia. The grinding climbs though, limited me to about 50km this day - about the average for the 4 days riding to Uyuni. Day two included a great 15km descent into a striking red walled, cactus studded badlands canyon (pictured)...and a lot of climbing out of said canyon.

Near Tica Tica Day three starts with 15km more of grinding climbs before a drop into Tica Tica (pictured) - a very friendly little town. I had to explain my whole journey 4 times as I cruised the length of its single street. Everyone had an "Hola" and smile for me. Behind Tica Tica rose a fantastic red and purple mountain ridge. Beyond Tica Tica I found some cruisy Altiplano road at last.... and a killer head wind that nearly succeeded in wiping the smile off my face.

Salt scarred river flats (pictured) indicated my nearing the Salar de Uyuni. In the late afternoon a quartet of Germans driving Unimog troop carriers passed me. They stopped for a chat and were immediately experts in cycletouring - I'm clearly on the wrong sort of bike I'm told, and how can I ride on this atrocious road? (I was just thinking it was pretty damned good!). before I can answer I'm handed a cool drink from the icebox and a salami ("very good, imported from Germany you know") and the troop carriers are off - blissfully isolated from everything around them.
Salt scarred river bed

1st glimpse of the salar
Day four and I'm back in the hills - only 35km to Uyuni, but the wind screams at me and makes the downhills as slow as the steep climbs. The first 15kms are the worst road surface of the stretch from Potosi. I pass a run down mining town. The river downhill from it runs weird colours and I'm not even game to filter it. I find a single little shop. No water, so sticky Inca-Cola wins the day. The final two ridges at last expose views of the huge expanse of the Salar (pictured).

Uyuni itself is no great shakes, though I quite liked the broad dusty streets, heroic soviet style statues (pictured) and end-of-the-earth inertia. The salar was something else again. On this trip I had only one regret about a thing I didn't do. I didn't set off to cross the salar. I had already met Ramon, a Basque cyclist who crossed it in two days. I spent only one day tooling around on the salar. And it was the most absurd fun. Twice Landcruisers full of daytrippers veered from their distant courses to make sure I was OK. "Fine", I assured them, there just didn't seem much point in following a straight line.

Dusty Street   Salt mining

A broad dusty street in Uyuni.

Salt, piles of salt at a (what else) salt mining operation at the edge of the salar.

The Salar de Uyuni  
My bicycle

Salt, and plenty of it. The surface was concrete hard, the ridges between the tiles, just soft enough to take the jarring edge off the thwack thwack thwack as I rode.

More salt, this time with my bicycle for scale.

I headed South East from Uyuni towards the Argentine border. The first 60 km are easy going Altiplano (with a fair helping of tailwind), though sandy stretches in the road keep the going slow. Frequently on my ride other cyclists talked of the bike tracks between villages, beside railway lines and beside roads. Every time I tried them, I found them even slower going and less comfortable than the roads. The next few days underlined the point. Despite the sandy patches, I only encountered about three vehicles a day, so could pick and choose my line. When I did decide to follow the cycle tracks I found them to be every bit as sandy, but being much narrower they allowed even less chance to avoid the sand. First days scenery was open plains, Lama herds, and tiny villages stretching along the rail line that roughly paralleled the road.

Day two saw me attack a stretch of road near Atocha that I had been assured was impassable (pictured). Ramon and his biking buddies has shown me photographic evidence - a picture from the railway line that they'd followed for days (mostly walking by the sounds of it) looking down at the river bed that formed the "road". So true, and it took about 3 hours in granny gear to cycle the 15 sandy kilometres from when the road entered the riverbed 'til Atocha was reached - and it was all enjoyable. The valley twisting and turning, narrowing then opening out, the railway line sometimes accessible, should an 'out' be required. I have since read an account of this stretch that refers to a new road, so maybe it's a lot more accessible today.

In Atocha I had the only flat tyre of my trip - a broken valve stem, not a puncture. Quite a crowd gathered to comment on my tube changing technique, and in true Bolivian style it was all pretty hilarious. Most of them then decided to follow me around as I went to do the shopping. One cycled with me out of town for about 10km to put me on the right road. The day ends after a mere 47km, but it was a good one. I camp (picture) near a mesa on an open plain - very wild west - and also on the fringe of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid territory. They ended their lives about a days ride from here - murder suicide according to the police reports of the time - not quite the hollywood ending.

Llama Train
Day three and the going is still tough. The road surface firm and smoothish but constantly up and down around the 4000m mark. The road is always winding and revealing surprises. One of them a Llama train of about 40 Llamas and 3 shepherds. Each Llama carried two surprisingly small woven saddlebags. The shepherds spoke little Spanish and were anxious to keep moving. I spoke no Quechua or Aymara, so I never found out what they were carrying.

Late in the day a dramatic red cliffed mountain marked the start of a 12km descent into the Tupiza valley. Giant Cacti lined the roadside and I camped on a dry riverbed.

Early in the morning I reached Salo, near the site of Butch and Sundances final heist. The valley south of Salo towards Tupiza is quite striking. A sometimes broad and flat valley floor with dramatically sculpted cliff faces defining the valley (pictured). Colours are intense reds and yellows. The sun shines and it's warm. Life is good. In Tupiza I kick up my heels for a day and a half, enjoy the market day and marvel at the Mormons and their amazing ability to not blend in, anywhere. Argentina is only 90kms away.

The first 20 kms South of Tupiza are down a very beautiful valley, then the road climbs to a grassy plain. The road carries a lot more traffic the closer I get to the border. Corrugations appear and dust is whipped up by an increasingly persistent headwind. I stop for the day in a winding dry creek bed, sheltered from the wind and the road by its walls - doesn't look like rain tonight. It's about 30km to the border now and in the morning I'll be in modern Argentina.

All text and images copyright Syd Winer 2004