Published: May 9th 2007May 9th 2007
Guarding the bike
Jessica, an admirer of Dave, guards his bike
Drunken Bolivian Party
Riding the Salar
"You should be carrying a gun..." was the friendly advice of the owner of a restaurant in Oruro where we were treating ourselves to a slap-up meal after spending 8 days cycling through a remote part of Bolivia. A journey involving a salt desert, bad roads, an adopted dog, witchcraft, a drunken party and surviving a violent sandstorm. It all started out in Uyuni, the last large town before we rode into the remote Altiplano. We rushed around the town buying last minute supplies, ending up with:
* 10 litres of water each (our personal record!)
* 1kg wholemeal rice
* 1kg brown lentils
* 500g oats
* 500ml mayonnaise
* 6 hard boiled eggs
* 2 tins of tuna
* 6 carrots, 3 potatoes, 3 onions
* 3 tins of concentrated tomato paste
* 6 bread rolls
* 1 packet of wholemeal crackers
* powdered milk
* garlic, herbs & spices
* 9 Snickers bars.
With this exceptional load we wobbled out of town 22km down a dirt road to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the salt desert we previously crossed on a 4WD tour.
Salar de Uyuni
Staying overnight in a hostal on the edge of the salar we met a German couple who were 2 years into their round-the-world cycle tour. The remarkable thing about them was that they were retired, in their 60s and had already completed 32,000km! We spent the night swapping stories and checking out each others gear.
The next morning we tentatively coasted onto the salt surface and headed for the distant salt hotel, our first landmark, which we could just about see near the horizon with the aid of binoculars. 7km later we arrived at this famous landmark and had a short chat with a tour guide there about the direction of Isla Inkahuasi, our next landmark and (hopefully) overnight camp. Because the island is only about 100m high it is not visible beyond the Earth's curvature and so we had to navigate solely on a compass bearing (280 degrees from magnetic north) that we took at the salt hotel.
It is a disconcerting experience to ride into a vast nothingness. The salt is hard and flat (although not quite smooth) and there are no roads or landmarks to guide your way. There is nothing between you and the
horizon, and as you progress the horizon remains a distant line that never gets closer. We were quietly relieved after 45km to see a small black blob appear on the horizon directly in front of us. This was the summit of the island (the base being still below the horizon). Over the next 30km the blob slowly took shape. To break the monotony Dave played his MP3 player through his portable speakers, which he mounted on top of his barbag. When the batteries finally gave up he tried singing, but soon gave that up as it was too hard to sing and ride in the thin air (much to Claire's relief). At one stage a 4WD carrying two Japanese tourists made a huge detour to intercept and photograph us. We had become tourist attractions once again! So far, this is the best "road" we have travelled on! Click on the video clip icon at the top of this entry labelled "Riding the Salar" for a Dave's-eye-view of Claire riding across the salt.
By the time we arrived at the Isla Inkahuasi, all the 4WD tour groups had departed and we enjoyed the place with a handful of Bolivianos who
Playing with perspective, Salar de Uyuni
live there to care for the place and run a small restaurant. We were warmly greeted by the inhabitants and asked to sign a special visitors book reserved for cyclists who brave it out there. There are surprisingly many. The locals' attitude to us now was much different to when we were there on our 4WD tour, when we were just part of another crowd of loud tourists. We dined out that night on llama steaks and quÃnua soup in the restaurant and camped on the salt under a full moon. It was a surreal and magical setting. Never mind the sensation of extreme solitude, of being adrift without an anchor to the world; never mind the shattering cold. Camping on the salt flat, bathed in moonlight, gaping at a universe of stars, is something neither of us will ever forget.
The next day we awoke to the sound of the first 4WD tourists arriving at the island for the sunrise, exclaiming, "Hey look, there's a tent... and they are on bikes!" Navigation on the 2nd day was much easier as we just had to head north using the crater of the distant Volcán Tunapa (5,400m) as a landmark.
Playing with perspective, Salar de Uyuni
To break the monotony this day we invented a mind game whereby we each had to ride for a full minute with our eyes closed and try to keep a straight line. Claire won hands down with only a 90 degree variation off course. Dave, however, ended up going backwards with a 180 degree variation! There's absolutely nothing to crash into, but it's hard convincing yourself of this when you're riding blind. Another favourite game was to occasionally ride in a full circle whilst staring at the horizon, thus getting a great 360 degree view without having to keep an eye on the "road". But the beauty, the surreality, the sheer wonder of this landscape eclipses any discomforts from the searing sun and blinding reflection. To be exposed to such formidable space and light is a unique experience. We stopped to rest often, stretching out on the vast salt and marvelling at the solitude. This was another world.
After 45km we finally reached the shore of the salt at a village called Coquesa and hit good ol' bumpy, sandy terra firma again. Here we were greeted enthusiastically by a Small Brown Dog (SBD) with a gammy leg. As a
Isla Inkahuasi at sunset
Our camping site on the Salar de Uyuni
rule we don't encourage stray dogs by feeding or petting them and this dog was no exception. However, despite Dave's stern shouting, the dog continued to gleefully follow us for the next 2 days — a total distance of 43km, including one day of 35km. And this on legs 11cm long!
The bit of road from Coquesa proved to be the worst road we have been on in Bolivia. Soft sand, rocks and deep ruts meant we had to push and coax our bikes for 2 hours to cover the 8km to our evening's destination, a small settlement on the edge of the salar called Jirira. This proved to be a comfortable pace for the SBD who delighted in running just behind us, and occasionally taking off into a field to chase birds.
That night we saved our rations and ate with the family in their one-room home, a simple and grimy mud-brick dwelling with traditional thatched roof where they sleep, cook and eat — and watch cable TV. We enjoyed a very simple meal with them of plain rice, 2 fried eggs and a sliced tomato, a normal meal for poor campesinos. The SBD lay quietly at
Early morning sun and shadows on the Salar de Uyuni.
our feet under the table, much to the amusement of our hosts who were impressed that he had come all the way from Coqueso with us. We awoke early the next day to cook our porridge and wash the salt off the bikes. As we left the compound, the SBD was outside waiting for us. We were hoping he had found some dog friends and had got bored with us. But no, not only did he fend off people and other dogs that he reckoned came to close to us, he also ran alongside us for the next 35km to Salinas de Garci-Mendoza, again occasionally chasing birds and llamas. At one stage a curious vicuña bounded along with us for a few kilometres, gracefully leaping stone walls and dry creek beds, charging the SBD from time to time.
Rather than sticking to the bumpy road we had an opportunity to take a short cut across an edge of the salar, raising our average speed considerably. Although the SBD fell behind here, it didn't put him off, and when we eventually hit soft sand again he came panting up, frothing at the mouth from the exertion. We had been sharing
our water with him, but he had turned up his nose at the scraps of food we had offered: cheese, crackers, capsicum and avocado. Even though he drank some water now, he seemed to be running on nothing other than the pleasure it seemed to give him in running alongside us and sharing our company. That little dog won us over with its pluck. He was very well behaved, never barked and was content to sit near us when we stopped for snacks or lunch and not actively beg for food (all very unbolivian).
The next morning the SBD was playing with other dogs outside our hostal as we emerged. It immediately came bounding over to us as if to say, "Where are we going today?" This had to stop: we were about to head out into a fairly remote area and did not have suitable food for a small dog, or a home to give it at the end of the ride. We were also planning to travel a little faster and it would be harder for the dog to keep up. So we tried locking the dog in the local churchyard so we could get away without
it following us. Unfortunately, as we jumped on the bikes, someone entered the churchyard and the SBD ran out and fell into step behind us. We rode on as far as a small shop on the edge of town and explained in our broken Spanish the situation to the shop owner. She agreed to take the dog and held it in her arms as we rode off. The dog would be much better off here than following us into another desert. We felt SBD's eyes watching us as we cycled out of town, and we missed his presence during the day.
The road was badly corrugated for the next 50km and it was very hot. Luckily for us it was flat and there was almost no traffic. Around lunchtime we stopped at a farmhouse that was just off the road, intending to enjoy lunch in the shade of a barn wall. Claire noticed a couple of llama foetuses drying on a line nearby. And there were many more flies than usual. Since there was also a lot of rubbish on the ground around us (there is no rubbish collection in remote areas, of course!), we moved down the road,
which meant having lunch in the blazing sun — again! — as the only vegetation was spiky shrubs about 20cm high. We later discovered that llama foetuses are used as offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother of Aymará belief. Most commonly, they are buried in the foundations of new buildings to bring the occupants good luck. Weavers also use them in elaborate rituals over the threads they are about to start a new weaving with, and there are other uses too, usually related to bringing good fortune of one kind or another.
We ran out of water towards the end of the day as we approached a small settlement of mud-brick houses called Tambo Tambillo. The friendly residents directed us to the only source of water, the village well in the central plaza. Claire hauled up a leaky bucket and we proved our alien status to the villagers by sterilising 9 litres of water with our UV sterilising pen. A short but steep climb out of the village brought us to an ideal camping spot high above the desert, just as the sun was setting. It was another lovely sight, watching the sun sink below a bank of storm
clouds throwing out bolts of lightning. This is the beauty of bike travel: seeing the world from your saddle allows you to experience places that most tourists never see — and it includes its share of places that most would complain loudly about if their tour guides ever took them there!
The next day was pretty much the same, full of badly corrugated roads and heat, although slightly more hilly now. Around lunchtime we ascended a big, breathtaking hill up to the small town of Santuario de Quillacas. Being at the top of a hill, the well was dry and there seemed to be no water available in the place. We despaired that we had buy 7 600ml bottles of water from a kiosk, all the water the seller had. We really hate the waste and pollution these plastic bottles cause! While lunching in the main plaza, we were approached by a friendly young man who asked us to take his photo, and then invited us to his house so we could get his address in order to post him copies of the photos. As we wheeled our bikes into the back courtyard we were delighted to discover that
Salar de Uyuni
the extended family of about 30 people were there dancing, singing and playing musical instruments as part of a 3 day, alcohol-fuelled party celebrating the Fiesta de Vera Santa Cruz. All the men were completely plastered, but very warm and friendly to us gringos. We were hugged and handshaked by lots of toothless, old, weather-gnarled people. They were so welcoming that several drunk men at a time would slur questions at us and, when we couldn't answer them (because we couldn't understand a thing they were saying), would proceed to give us a lesson in Spanish! As the men talked to us, women appeared from nowhere with plates of food (pollo picante, almost a national dish, and salad, all delicious) and drink (chicha, a rot-your-guts maize alcohol that is disgusting). Click on the video clip icon at the top of this entry labelled "Drunken Bolivian Party" for a short film clip of the dancing and music we experienced here. At 4pm we made our escape, riding down the eastern side of the hill and back onto the plains.
An hour later, as we were chatting about making another 5km before camping, a huge sandstorm blew up behind us from
nowhere, taking us by surprise. Within 15 minutes the landscape all around us was obliterated by dust and sand whipped up by a cold and violent wind. There was absolutely no shelter on this plain, so we struggled against the wind to get our tent up. Eventually we managed to erect it but we had to anchor it to the bikes as the wind was so strong it was ripping the tent pegs out of the soil. We dived into the tent to escape the abrasive wind, and sat it out for about an hour until it passed. That night, we cooked up the last of our rations on our little petrol stove: wholemeal rice, tuna and tomato paste, which was all we had left!
The next day we rode the last of the 35km of dirt roads on this segment of our trip, reaching paved highway at Santiago de Huari. Blissful road: new surface, paved shoulder, flat terrain, hardly any traffic! At the town of Challapata we booked into the most expensive hotel in town (AUD $8.50 a night, no cable TV, shared shower) and took the next day off to rest and restock. From here it was
Nearly back on soil again!
On the salar, with Volcán Tunapa in the background
a fairly easy ride for 2 days along a quiet, superbly paved highway to the provincial city of Oruro, via the hot mineral springs at Pazña, where we convinced ourselves we really needed a soak. The road took us alongside Bolivia's second largest lake, Lago Poopó, a shallow expanse that is never more than 3m in depth. As well as supplying us with endless childish jokes, the lake is an important stop for many migratory birds, including the flamingo.
At last we reached Oruro where we planned to take some time off the bikes and visit the cities of Sucre and Potosi by bus.
There are more photos below