< Central Peru | Northern Argentina >



It wouldn’t be the third world if getting into the Bolivia wasn’t a bureaucratic disaster. We knew that Bolivia had just expelled the US ambassador for some imagined slight, and we knew that since Homeland Security was created various countries have started imposing “reciprocity fees” on US travellers to the tune of $130. We were prepared for all of this.

Of course when we went to immigrations, the reciprocity fee had jumped up to $135. No problem, we had some extra cash. But oh wait, they only had one visa left! Well dang, it looks like we’d have to wait until somebody’s cousin arrived from Copacabana with more visa stickers. And in the mean time, we’d have to fill out some forms, copy our passports and our yellow fever vaccination cards.

Well, I had my vaccination card. Travis didn’t though. So rather than refuse entry to somebody for being a potential disease vector, we just had to pay a seven dollar bribe. Good ol’ Latin America!

Eventually the guy arrived with additional stickers, we got several pieces of paper stamped several times, and we were on our way!

Leaving Copacabana was an exercise in breathlessness. I don’t really know why, but for some reason, both Travis and I had a lot of trouble with the eight mile climb that started the day. Maybe it was the altitude, but probably it was just some old-fashioned early morning ass-dragging. When we finally made it to the summit, however, all the huffing and puffing paid off several-fold with a magnificent and continually improving view of the 21,000ft peaks to the north of La Paz.

However, all of that climbing had to be undone because before we could get to La Paz, we had to descend back down to Lake Titicaca to cross the Taquina Straight on a dilapidated wooden car ferry. While crossing, we witnessed several of these motorized rafts ferrying buses and I secretly hoped to witness one rock right over the edge and into the water. No such luck.

Anyway, on the other side of straight, the road continued gently up and down for a while along the lake. We finally broke away from the shore with a roaring tailwind, and all time estimates about reaching La Paz (95 miles from Copacabana) were enthusiastically moved forward. But the dark clouds in the distant background became dark clouds in the near background. And all of a sudden our wonderful tailwind completely reversed direction and it started to hail on us hard. Our hands froze, our feet froze, and our lips were split by pummeling hail. But worst of all, with this headwind we’d be arriving in La Paz just after the sun set.

What else could we do but go on? We pushed and pushed and finally outrode the wind and hail. But the onset of evening brought the cold, and our wet feet lost feeling and our wet hands stung ferociously. But still there was no stopping. We had just entered El Alto, a suburb of La Paz with all the character of a typical third-world slum. So we pushed on, dodging buses and taxis and slowly climbing upward into colder and colder weather.

Finally just at the edge of darkness we crested the lip of the canyon where La Paz sits, and began our descent into the main city. My night vision isn’t very good at all, so this was more of an adventure than it should have been. I spent the entire descent alternating between praying not to hit a pothole and cursing the stinging pain in my freezing hands. At one point my boot flew off my bike and had to be retrieved, but miraculously nothing else happened and we found ourselves in front of the micro-brewery that we intended to call our home in La Paz.

We got couple beds in the dorm, took out my gasoline stove and boiled some water for tea. After a while I started to regain feeling in my feet, with none of the burning pain that I expected, and too tired to do anything else, we watched a romantic comedy with an Irish girl and a Belgian guy and then went to bed. Reflecting upon the movie later, I told Travis that I think I would have preferred being hit in the face with hail some more to watching the movie again.

Now we had a problem, and it was a problem which I had never encountered before on this trip: time. Travis had to leave in eight days, and we still had to somehow ride from La Paz to Uyuni, then onward to Potosi and Sucre. From Sucre it just might be possible for Travis to catch a plane to Santa Cruz, where he would then catch another flight back to the world of all-you-can-drink soda and all-you-can-eat buffets… It almost doesn’t sound real when I write that…

So what to do? We finally realized that the unthinkable would have to be done, and we started looking into buses to Uyuni. We found one, bought the tickets and paid the surcharge for our bikes. But about five minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave, intestinal trouble on Travis’ part made a 12 hour overnight bus ride sound like a very bad idea. Well, dang…

I talked to the ladies behind the counter — well, more like pleaded with — about changing our tickets for the next day, and by the grace of god or my superior flirting abilities we were able to make the change without charge. So, seven days left.

The next evening neither of us had any worrying issues, so we boarded the bus and set in for a sleepless and nausea-inducing 12 hour bus ride. And it was both: sleepless and nausea-inducing. Thank god that the nausea only overwhelmed us after we got off the bus, and secretly thank god that it only overwhelmed Travis. But clearly he couldn’t ride that day, and I too felt less than perfect after a night of internal organ reorganizing roads sitting in a bus seat too small for someone two-thirds my height. So, one more day down.

But all was not lost. We met a German cyclist named Jochen, who beside from his tautonic social grace also delighted up with his knowledge of a really excellent pizza restaurant. We went there, found the pizza to be as good as anything in the United States, and were restored. Now I don’t normally endorse anything on this site, but if you are in Bolivia, or even near Bolivia, you owe it to yourself to go to Uyuni and eat at Minuteman Pizza. The owner, Chris, is a Bostonian expat and a hell of a chef.

So back to the riding. Jochen, Travis and I set out the next morning along the very bumpy road to Colchani. Travis had to turn back and find his glasses; he had left them in some shop in town. But Jochen and I pressed on to Colchani along sand-filled washboard roads and trails — at 7 mph. This was no good, so we headed directly for the Salar, reasoning that the salt flats would be much quicker to ride on.

This was wrong. It turns out that the area where we entered the salt was soft and my 35mm tires sunk right in. But rather than admit defeat and head back to the trails right away, I walked my bike along the salt hoping for it to firm up. And in this way my speed went from 7 mph to 3. And Travis arrived in Colchani before us, worried about where we were.

We eventually found the proper entrance onto the salt, rattled down onto it, and our speed went from 7 to 10mph. Not what we’d expected at all. We were led to believe that the salt was smooth and the ride would basically be a rocket-powered blast across the vast whiteness. Well, after a while the salt smoothed out a bit, and when we weren’t dodging holes in the salt, our speed bumped up to 12 or 13 mph. Now that’s fast!

Travis and I rode for a while guessing which of the purple-ish masses we saw in the distance would be the island we were headed for (Jochen was somewhere fading in the distance behind us). We eventually saw one with lightly colored patterns we took to be buildings, and assumed that would be our island.

Of course, as we neared it, the patterns rose higher and we realized that what we were looking at must be a giant snow-covered mountain. And then we realized that some of the other islands we saw were probably equally large and distant. So we turned our attention to what I believed was a flying saucer, and Travis was convinced was the Loch Ness monster and headed for that. We were gettting pretty tired and hungry, and since that looked only a mile or so distant from us, we decided that we’d stop when we reached it.

20 miles later we did reach it, and it turned out to be the island we were headed for the whole day. Oh, when I say “island”, I mean hill sticking out of the salt flat. There wasn’t any water surrounding it at all. So at the island, we investigated some rumors we’d heard about a refuge for cyclists, and were lead to this luxury cabin with a giant west-facing window and wonderful warmth. And when I say “luxury” I refer to the mattresses, blankets and table inside it. But considering we were expecting a drafty shack or nothing at all, this was great. And it stayed warm the whole night!

So the next morning we rode back to the shore of the salt flats, across the bumpy road to Uyuni and back to Minuteman Pizza. While riding to shore, nothing ever seemed to get closer, even though we now had a tailwind and were cruising at 20mph. But suddenly after three hours of making no visible progress, we were at the salt hotel, and then back on the shore. Absolutely weird how it’s impossible to judge size or distance on the Salar and how one can only assume they’ve made progress through the progression of time and not by any physical feature of the landscape.

The next morning, despite several people telling us how bad the road to Potosi was, and the evidence of a few cyclists who gave up riding on it and took the bus, we started out on the road to Potosi. And it truely was horrible. The sandy patches sucked out all our momentum, often causing us to get off the bikes and walk, and the washboard felt like being kicked in the butthole twice a second the entire day.

But after fifty miles, and sore everything we arrived in the small town of Tica Tica, and called it quits for the day. I entertained Travis with tales of a beetle that lives in thatched roofs (like ours) and whose bite causes Chagas disease and then I fell into a deep and peaceful sleep. The next day was just as bad, and same with the following day to Potosi. The entire distance from Uyuni to Potosi saw an average speed of 6 mph. Six. That’s a trip record. Even in Guatemala and Costa Rica I never went that slow.

But anyway, just outside Potosi the pavement started again. And except for a short section where we had to walk the bikes across a plank-bridge over metallic grey-blue water and then haul them up a steep staircase, the road felt like cheating. It was too smooth.

I guess I had done something karmickly wrong after all, because while riding up a ridiculously steep road, my chain snapped, my derailleur flew into my spokes (again: the first time was in Alaska), and the hanger arm on my bike bent hopelessly inward. Oh nads! We only had one more day to get to Sucre, and given the complete lack of any bikeshop anywhere we went in town, we were in some trouble. Backing the narrative train up a bit, however, the derailleur was still intact, none of the spokes were damaged, and fixing the chain wouldn’t be difficult at all, so it’s not like this was a particularly devastating event.

We bit the bullet a second time, got on a bus to Sucre, and spent the next three hours wishing we were riding. The scenery was absolutely amazing, and the music blasting in our ears was absolutely awful. The only thing that made it at all survivable was the fact that our ears were clogged with sand and dust and wax build up from the last three days of riding.

But we did make it, and found Sucre to be a very lovely colonial city. Neither of us found Potosi to be all that appealing, which was shocking considering that it was at one time one of the richest cities in the world and indeed is still overlooked by a mountain deliciously chock-full of saleable precious metals and minerals.

The following morning Travis left for his flight, and I set out to find a bikeshop to fix my hanger arm. I did, they did and it cost me only 3 bolivianos (40 cents)!

After a few days of riding with my repaired hanger arm, I was no longer sure that the repair was the top-notch job I thought it was. The rear derailleur sticks out at about 10 degrees from true. I didn’t think this was a problem when I first put it back on and threaded the chain back on the bike. But here’s what happens: I’ll be riding along, or more likely bouncing up and down so violently on washboard that I can’t focus on the road, and one of the links will start to come loose. So I brandish my chain tool, repair the link and keep riding. 10 miles down the road, I have to do it all over again. And after the last time my chain snapped and sent my derailleur into my spokes, I’ve become deathly afraid of that happening again. I’m very diligent about the maintenance.

But all of this is just a minor note in the torture of Bolivian roads. The road from Potosi to Tupiza is partially paved, but the majority is dirt and has been even worse than the road from Uyuni to Potosi. I didn’t really think that was functionally possible. But add large rocks, road spanning deep washboard, and grades that would make a Guatemalan road engineer weep with joy at seeing a job very well done and you get a good picture of what my colon has been up against. Now add to that an infuriatingly strong headwind that whips dust off the road and blows it in my eyes and you get the complete picture.

Also, leaving Potosi I forgot to withdraw more money from the ATM, and so that left me with seven dollars to last the three days to Tupiza. Now, a hotel room in Bolivia generally costs around three dollars, and 2L water around 75 cents (since the rivers are all dry, there’s no water to pump). So my choice was sleep indoors on the one hand while I starve and thirst, or eat and drink survival rations while squating in my illicit camping spot. It was clearly time for more wilderness camping.

The first night I competed with goats for space in a rock-strewn cactus patch, and clearing the rocks with my boots on still allowed for a few direct hits from hidden thorns. The second night I slept in a dried river bed behind a giant thorn tree, and that was wonderful. The advantage of both sites was that with abundant rocks, finding a hammer to pound in tent stakes was no trouble at all, and the ground was surprisingly easy to drive stakes into.

The area leaving Tupiza was absolutely gorgeous, but the road continued in the tradition of all Bolivian roads and was absolutely terrible — and also under construction. In fact, because of the construction there was a detour that crossed a river three different times. Each time I had to take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants, and wade through calf-deep water. The final time through the river, I got sick of doing this and just walked through with my shoes and socks on.

While sitting on the side of the road wringing out my socks, a local on a bicycle told me that most locals just ride along the train tracks on the other side of the river from where I currently was. He also pointed out a wood plank which I could use to cross the river. He seemed to be talking a lot of sense, so I took his advice and headed on over to the tracks.

And the first 10 miles were really great. While the main road scaled and plummeted down several hills, the gentle grade of the railroad tracks and the lack of washboard made riding easy. But then I came to agricultural land, and every 100 yards or so, I’d have to dismount, haul my bike over a drainage ditch, get back on and ride to the next ditch. And this continued on a long way. Finally irrigated land gave way to scrub and thorn bushes, and then the tracks became completely unrideable.

So I took a 4x4 track back to the main road, and started back on that. Somewhere in thorn country, however, one of the bastards managed to pierce my front tire and give me a flat. So I changed that. A while later the the road started to pitch steeply upward, seemly determined to gain 1500 ft in as little distance as possible. And while grinding up one particularly sadistic grade, my chain snapped again — and I had just checked it! Luckily the derailleur didn’t fly into the spokes, but unluckily, I now had to shorten my chain to such a length that some gear combinations would no longer be reachable. Among them were some of my favorites for hill climbing.

I now had to walk my bike up all the steep hills, so when the road crossed the train tracks again, I decided to try my luck with those one more time. Well, the steep grades went away, but the thorns came back and my rear tire went flat. I changed that tire and rode off, wondering why exactly god didn’t want me to reach the border town that day.

That change didn’t seem to take, however, and an hour later my rear tire started to slowly go flat again. And being fed up with changing or repairing my bicycle all day long, I just inflated it with my pump and rode off. Of course, ten minutes later I had to do the same thing again. And again ten minutes after that. At some point I realized that it would probably be a time-saver in the long run to just change the tire again, but I was still pretty fed up with the whole business and continued on pumping up the tire when it got too low.

And in this way I spent twelve hours riding my bicycle from Tupiza to the border town of Villazon, arriving just as the sun went down. Too tired to do anything else, I got a room in a hotel under construction, bought 2L of some citrus drink (Tampico citrus punch, mmm…) and drank it all, then fell asleep.

In the morning I changed my tire, went over the whole thing with tweezers to pull out any thorns that still remained, found none that would have caused my second flat, and headed to the border. I saw a long line for immigrations, and went to wait in it. While waiting some military guy started to chat me up, and then he took my passport directly to the immigrations folks and had them stamp it, bypassing a half-hour wait. I remarked to someone that I had no idea why he helped me, and was told it was because I was white. Sometimes, as Travis remarked while we weren’t being heckled with do-it-yourself PC training pamphlets on the bus, there is an upside to racism.

Bolivia was a very difficult country. There was a complete lack of everything, and both the roads and climate were extreme. I’ll probably look back on it and be glad that I did it, but as I write this, I am so glad to finally be in Argentina with its paved roads, clean water and so on.

< Central Peru | Northern Argentina >