Bolivia biking and the snow

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Tupiza
June 22nd 2013
Published: June 23rd 2013
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Ola de Bolivia,

Having survived the border crossing from Argentina to Bolivia unscathed and watched with amusement as some Bolivians used the unoffical border crossing (running over the dry riverbed that seperates Argentina and Bolivia), I marveled at the women in the traditional bowler hats and pleated satin skirts, met some newly trained English medics (I am like a bloody groupie) and set off to get some money. The ATMs in Bolivia take Mastercard in theory but not so often in practice. I schlepped up and down the dusty road trying to change the leftover Chilean money to Bolivianos....pleading with a man in Spanglish to stay open for another five minutes so I could get a bus to Tupiza to start some fun stuff. One of the medics lent me the 1 pound for the bus in the end. Bless. The difference in the two countries was astounding, from the decent roads and the way the people were dressed, to the random items being sold at the market stalls lining the road. You knew you were in a poor country straight away. Handy for the bank balance, you could live like a king here for 50 dollars a day. It can misleading if you want a drink or are always saying 'oh, thats only a few bucks'.

Snacks and water in hand I got on the bus with the three medics, Caitlin, Zoe and Cerys. They were all really sweet and I ended up spending the next week with them on tours and having a blast. Bolivia really is the adventerous part of South America and so different from the relatively westernised Chile and Argentina. I did get the luxury of sharing a room with only one person for a couple of nights and we stocked up on clothing made out of llama with a hint of rabbit to keep ourselves warm on the salt flats. The next day we did the 'Tupiza triathlon' of touring the mud roads in a jeep, horseriding 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid' land topped off with 17km of downhill mountain biking in the mountains.

My horse frustrated me. He completely ignored the majority of my commands and either steadfastly followed the bottom of the horse in front or galloped off without any warning after one of the other wayward horses. The guides were nervous about having inexperienced riders so did not let us do nearly as much galloping as we would have liked but when we did is was great. With my stetson hat bouncing around behind me and me clinging on for dear life we thundered through the gully. I got no more warning when he wanted to stop, abruptly braking when the first horse stopped and nearly throwing me off. I am not experienced at galloping so just clung on to the saddle with one hand, the reins with other and went with it.

At the end of a long day we did the bit I was looking forward to most, the downhill biking. Despite assurances it never rained at this time of year the wind was howling when we got to the top and we could hear the thunder over the mountains as we admired the view. As the bikes were unloaded from the top of the van the heavens opened and we set off down the steep windy road. Only three people of the 12 that started made it to the bottom as it was so cold they could not move their fingers because it started hailing. My snowboarding gloves were a life saver and I sped down the moutain road as fast as my courage would let me. Despite my bike giving the impression it had 15 gears only one low gear worked and I ended up looking like some circus clown trying to peddle through the town at the end.

The next four days was the salt flat tour from Tupiza to Uyuni. This is a typical tourist tour but it is usually done in the opposite direction so we were not swamped by other 4WD's wherever we stopped. We visited different colour lagoons, ruins of old villages built by indiginous slaves under the watch of the Spanish looking for precious metals and drove through villages made out of salt blocks and mud blocks.

It snowed the day before we left and while we were in the mountains so we had a few hairy moments in white out snow, driving in convoy and digging out the jeeps that got stuck. One of the women in my jeep kept covering her eyes and we all held our breath when the jeep in front lost control and started sliding down the road. A few of us got out and pushed with all our might to keep it on the road. With the wind chill it was about minus seven and even with 12 items of clothing on my toes turned blue and the skin on my face cracked. We weren't even at the proper mountain passes where the roads dropped away to steep cliffs yet and the drivers were dubious if we were going to make it over el paso or if we were going to have to turn back to one of the other villages. Our driver and guide did a good job of reassuring us it was safe and hiding their fear until, a few hours later, when we crawled over the last of the pass and they both let out a cheer.

The little villages we were staying had no heating in the minus temperatures and we all ate in all our clothes, including our hats and gloves. My other favourite piece of kit, my sleeping bag that keeps you warm in temperatures of down to minus 13, meant I was the only person that did not sleep in thermals, hats and gloves and I donated my rented sleeping bag to one of the others so they could get some sleep. Although the guide thought we might be disappointed at not seeing all the highlights we all really enjoyed the drive through the mountains in the snow and saw some spectacular views and wildlife. As I keep saying its hard to show in the pictures how beautiful the place is, but easier to see how far removed it is from anything English or Australian I am used too. You stay in the villages and watch the kids playing football and the women in the traditional dress going about their day and wonder what they would think of our lifestyle and how they have no idea about things like a choice of jobs, everyone owning a car and an expensive phone (well, I will work on the car thing), fast internet and good medical treatment. Our guide is saving to travel, she has never left Bolivia, even though Chile or Argentina are just a bus ride away. The cost of living in Europe is over seven times that of Bolivia ans she is hoping to have enough to go once in her life, in ten years or so. And we all jump on and off flights like its nothing, whether for work or play.

I tok altitude sickness tablets, ascended slowly from sea level and was very careful on the booze but some of the people on the tour got smashed by the soroche. People had pounding headaches, nausea, vomiting and bad guts, having to stop every 10 minutes in the convoy with only friends to cover their modesty. You feel like you have known each other for a while when you go through that. Me and the medics chatted away in the jeep, talking about future plans and our families and I could not hide my excitement about seeing Nats, Jake and my cousin Laus in Argentina in a few weeks. YAAAAYYY.

After staying in a hostel made entire of salt we headed for the last day, the largets salt flat in the world. It used to be an inland sea and is a vast plain of white that messes up perspective. Like many gringos before us we had an hilarious morning taking loads of photos from a messed up perspective. I haven't received the picture yet but one person cme up with the brilliant idea of building a Super Mario platform, complete with mushroom and coin and we all got videos of us being Mario jumping over some spikes, as well as pretending to sky dive in formation and come out of a toothpaste tube.

I spent the night on a horrendous and overpriced bus to La Paz, the unoffical capital of Bolivia, strapped into my sleeping bag with two seatbelts to avoid being thrown on the floor every time we hit a frequent bump. I decided after a day of doing pretty much nothing I needed an adrenaline rush and opted to rappel, face first out of a seventeen storey building, walking down the outside of it in the style of the old school 'Batman and Robin' programme. Having heard La Paz was a place to party I headed out with a couple of English guys from the salt flat tours to check out some bars. Apart from a really cool one that was made out of recycled train parts with trumpets hanging from the ceiling I have to say if it is a party town, its not on a Wednesday. Still, not the best idea before tackling 'the worlds most dangerous road (WMDR).

When the road was in full use there were up to 400 fatalities a year and it was easy to see why. While we could not see the 400m sheer drops from the narrow dirt road at the top due to the weather you still had the feeling it dropped into nothing. The new road, built in 2006 has roadworks on it so there was more traffic then usual and you found youself holding your breath as you passed the rickety buses full of locals. Our bikes cost more than most the buses we passed (and I know REALLY want a $2500 mountain bike for the off road trails around Perth).

The WMDR is approximately 70km of steep downhill and switchbacks, passing through waterfalls and rivers and trying not to require a change of clothes when you hit a bump and your backwheel skidded out behind you. It was absolutely amazing, through some of the most mindblowing scenery I have every seen, even through rain and cloud (and I have seen some cool sh*t). We arrived at the bottom a few hours later, soaking wet, exhausted, aching and hungry. I would do it again tomorrow. The videos don't do it justice but if the internet holds out I will put the videos online on the blog page. You can't really tell which ones me unless you see a flash of my white sunglasses as we were all decked out in motorcycle type gear. This was a real place to test your courage and trust your bike because if you braked on the corners or over the roughest parts of the roads you were in serious danger of going over the edge and never being seen again. Its ok Mum and Dad, I paid for one of the best tour groups in terms of safety and as you can see, made it safely.

After lunch at a monkey sancturary, where one of them clamberd up my leg, tried to steal the stuff out of my pockets and pretended to be a scarf until one of the volunteers extracted it we headed back up the WMDR on the bus with the bikes on the roof. As everyone said, this was more terrifying than coming down it on the bike and there were some choice words from the people on the side of the bus with the drop when the bus leaned round the corners and seemed too wide for the road. When other vehicles squeezed past on the narrow bits the bus went silent until there was a collective exhalation when it passed.

So thats my adrenalin hit until the next downhill in Peru. Am just going to chill at Lake Titicaca before crossing into Peru.

Nic/ Nics x

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