Published: August 18th 2010August 15th 2010
The last ride
In the Atacama desert, moments before the pedal shaft breaks
Remember me? I used to write semi-regular blogs about cycling round the world. But then I decided not to back up my hard drive and lost a couple of entries/countries. And I figured it wasn’t in my interest - or yours - to re-write them all.
In brief, I had reached Sydney - 32 countries, 19,800 kilometres, 344 days, 3 million turns of the pedals, 280 different beds, 13 punctures and 1 tropical disease after leaving England. I was at my furthest point from London, so from here on in, I was heading home, albeit slowly.
So you find me in South America, 4 months and several diversions since we last spoke. Initially, the plan was to ride across USA, but I then chose to ride from Santiago to Buenos Aires instead, mostly because it’s a lot shorter. But then I got here and worked out I had a bit more time to do a bit more interesting route.
That route took me back to Bolivia - a country that last time I visited was defined by riots, roadblocks, and political protests. 3 years on, and nothing has changed a jot.
After the token stopover in Chile, I
was to ride up to the salt flats of Uyuni, from where I would cycle across the salt plain and continue eastwards until I hit the Atlantic Ocean. But my bicycle had better ideas and it decided to play hardball. Except for replacing tyres, chains, tubes, brakes and other simple perishables, I had not had any major setbacks with the bike so far. So when the crankshaft broke in the Atacama desert, my dreams of riding across the salt plains were dashed. Not only that, but no-one short of La Paz had the parts to fix it. Begrudgingly I accepted my fate and joined a 3 day Jeep tour through to Uyuni. Which turned out to be a disguised blessing. Bouncing across 350 kilometres of sand at 5,000 metres altitude and in minus freezing winds, maybe I was best couped up in a 4x4 - with five 23-year old chicas for company. Now my Spanish is basic but I’m sure I heard people calling me El Pimpo on more than one occasion.
Of course, the Uyuni salt plains are the place where everyone takes those mis-perspective smug-shots, and so I’ve attached some of my smuggest. You’ll notice that I
did treat myself to a hire bike for the day too.
As it turned out, roadblocks in Potosi (the world’s highest city) meant no traffic was going that way anyway, so I continued with las chicas up to La Paz, which was now going to be my new “start” point to cross the continent.
I’ve been to La Paz before and let me get a few things straight first off. La Paz means “The Peace” in Spanish - which is like calling Winchester “The Crazy Hub of Excitement” or something. If needs be, I have personal testament to prove neither fit these billings.
Next, La Paz claims to be the highest capital city in the world, at 4,100 metres. Now I hate to be pedantic (I really don’t), but that’s spurious. La Paz is situated in a bowl, surrounded by mountains on either side. OK, so a few houses are built high up at the ledge, but the rest is at a lung-filling 3,500m. I know this because whilst our guide was telling us how high we were, I had my GPS on the altimeter mode, and felt it important to correct him. God, he hated me. And
that’s all assuming La Paz is the capital at all. It’s only the De facto capital, I said. God, he really hated me. Quito is the highest official capital, I added. Even God hated me by now.
But whatever, La Paz is still pretty high, and it has the highest international football stadium. Away teams, especially Brazil and Argentina, hate playing here and made a complaint to FIFA as such, claiming it’s unfairly high. At first FIFA pandered to the South American powerhouses and told Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, etc to play their games at a more Brazilian altitude. Which is like telling Mexico they can’t play in the sun, or Ireland they can’t play in the rain, or the French that they can’t use their hands, and so FIFA quickly retracted the clause after mass outcry. This protest was mainly lead by Evo Morales, the Bolivian president/Fidel Castro wannabe, who made his protest by juggling a football at 6,000 metres. I’m guessing he didn’t hike all the way up and didn’t play a full 90 minute game, but either way, this is a nation that knows how to protest, that’s for sure.
Anyway, shortly after FIFA removed the
ban last year, Bolivia spanked Argentina 6-1 in La Paz, as if to cement their point. That result still emblazons adverts throughout Bolivia, from posters for deodorant to Simpson’s commercials.
There’s enough in La Paz to keep you occupied for a while, but the main reason I had made this ridiculous detour was so that I could squeeze the infamous Camino del Muerte from La Paz to Coroico into my route - or the “Death Road” to give it its commercial title. Of course, as I’ve said before, anything that sells itself with Death in the title is far from deadly in reality - with the exception of Death Row. But then most people don’t do it on their own bicycles - with fragile frame, thin wheels, slick tyres, worn v-brakes, zero suspension, and carrying all their own bags. But still, it’s really not that dangerous, unless you’re an idiot. And on this occasion at least, I wasn’t.
Up out of the La Paz bowl and a short, sharp climb to the peak of La Cumbre, at 4,600 metres. From here it’s more or less all downhill all the way, 3,500 metres vertical descent over 86 km. Much
more than less downhill then.
I’d say the real death-like road starts when the tourist ride stops. And the traffic re-merges with the bicycle path. I still had the same dramatic scenery and traced the ridge of the same canyon, but this time I had to contend with trucks pushing me out of the way. The rocky, dusty, sweltering road was hell, and by the time I reached Rurrenabaque 3 days later I felt like I had eaten most of the road through dust. Or that the dust had eaten me. I arrived feeling battered, bruised, bitten, broken, burnt, blistered and bushy-bearded. At the end of this mental and physical hell was a little slice of heaven in the shape of Rurrenabaque, a small tourist town surrounded by the pampas one side and the jungle the other. The pampas is swampy grassland, great for spotting wildlife, and well, you know what jungle is.
Rurrenabaque is a tourist hub, and gave me a chance to catch up with my fellow travellers. Except I had arrived in town the same day as 60 Argentinian quad-bikers, each on 10,000 dollar monster machines and with cash to splash. Despite my self-proclaimed heroics
at not dying on the roadside to anyone who’d listen, I was trumped by these five dozen petrolheads, each with double the amount of wheels to boast; with big, powerful, noisy engines, and a lot more gurumph than I could muster - all of who wanted to show off just how much thrust they had between their thighs. Not that I was jealous or now’t, or had an inferiority complex, I just wanted to discuss the finer tuning of a rear-derailleur with someone who’d pretend to care. No-one did. And to be honest, when they handed me the keys and told me to take one for a spin, even I found their souped up go-karts hard to resist. As George Orwell pretty much said himself: “4 wheels good, 2 wheels bad”.
I spent a couple of days checking out the local wildlife in and around the pampas - from caiman to capybaras, anacondas to armadillos, birds aplenty, and plenty more mosquitos.
Upon leaving Rurrenabaque the roadblocks started again. This time it was a protest by the taxi drivers against the awful condition of the roads. That’s not new news to anybody that’s travelled here. There are more strikes
in Bolivia than at a French bowling alley. I heard stories of dynamite being thrown at vehicles trying to skirt by the blockades. But I have the privilege of being able to play the gringo card - and the gringo on a bike, to boot. Most people think I’m "poco loco" for cycling around Bolivia, and do anything in their capability to help me out. If that means opening up the immovable roadblocks, then so be it. For 50 km between subsequent roadblocks, I had the entire stretch of dust to myself.
I rolled into Trinidad (one of many Trinidads in the latino world) and then on towards Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city. Whilst we had all rushed to La Paz in time for Bolivia’s independence day on 6th August, expecting a mass party, all the festivities were happening in Santa Cruz, 1000 km away.
On the way I stopped off at a school one lunchtime. The kids all rushed over and started playing around with whatever they could find in my bags. To detract their prying hands, I gathered them around and showed them my photos, especially those of the salt flats, which absolutely fascinated them. Then
they wanted to recreate all the photos on the school playing fields. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to explain that the mis-perspective wouldn’t work on the grass so just went along with it. As it turned out, the photos came out just as good, if not better, disputing the supposed uniquity of the salt plains.
In case at any point I forgot I was in the Amazon basin, rheas, giant lizards and sloths all crossed my path. The sloth was particularly absorbing, and I watched its 2 minute struggle to crawl across the road, and I felt it my lollipop lady duty to protect it from any oncoming traffic. Watching it flounder, I realised that sloths are an absurdity and I think single-handedly disprove Darwinianism. Survival of the fittest dictates that animals are perfectly adapted to survive in their natural environments. The sloth is slow and clumsy. It is easy food for eagles, jaguars, and snakes. It has bad eye-sight, and reproduces infrequently. It is evolution gone wrong, at best. Or not yet started, at worst.
A few days later I arrived in Santa Cruz, an intriguing frontier city. Dislocated from the other major cities in Bolivia, there
is no immediate reason why it should be so expansive, affluent, with a booming economy and rapid growth. Now officially it will point you to its sugar and rice exports to nearby Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, but the extensive farming of coca leaves (the basis for cocaine) in the hills surrounding the city cannot be coincidental in sustaining the economy of the city. And the pimped-up, blacked-out Hummers cruising around Santa Cruz are probably not owned by rice dealers!
It is somewhere in these surrounding hills, in a village called La Higuera, that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was captured and shot in 1967. There are several people following the Che-trail, but I couldn’t be, er, bothered.
Instead it was onwards and eastwards, as ever, towards Paraguay.
Keep movin’ on,
There are more photos below