Bolivian Bicycling

All the rumors we had heard about Bolivia being super cheap didn’t quite manifest in our first experiences there. After the nasty $135 “reciprocity fee” that United States citizens have to pay at the border, we made our way to the tourist town of Copacabana, where we struggled to find a meal with comparable prices to the Peru we had just left.

Disappointed pockets aside, Copacabana is a really beautiful town. With a west facing bay on Lake Titicaca, we arrived to an amazingly colorful sunset reflecting off the water. We met a quartet of Swiss bike tourers, two parents and their young children who ride in a trailer. There were all kinds of bikers in Copacabana, and in Bolivia in general. The unique environments and mostly flat, cool climate Altiplano are a big draw apparently.

Bolivia came in colors

A night camping by the lake with a chilly morning swim got us going the next morning, and we made our way up a long winding climb through the peninsula that pokes out into the lake. It was a nice mellow grade and had some gorgeous views of Titicaca. We were especially pleased by the cordillera of snow capped peaks that snuck up on us as we reached the pass.

At the bottom of the hill we rode right on to the ferry which does shuttles across the lake to the other shore. The ride took about twenty minutes and gave a nice perspective of the lake and its deep blue waters. Up and over the next round of hills put us on a southern bound course that eventually gave a good tailwind by the time we switched directions. We landed in Batallas for the night and scored a nice campsite with the church/police station.

this is how we biked across the lake

The next day was a quick 40 km of flat to La Paz. When we arrived it was a dismal grey overcast with a dusty wind blowing. Market vendors filled the roadsides, which were built to be interestingly wide, a good 50 feet or so of space between the road and the rows of buildings. Trash floated by in gusts, and people bustled all around, taxis cutting us off and people yelling things we couldn’t understand. The trash and barren brick buildings weren’t impressing us as a capital city. Well, I guess this is La Paz…

Luckily we had a destination to look for, a Casa de Ciclistas. By asking around for the plaza that the Casa is near, we found out that we weren’t actually in La Paz, but El Alto. We were directed to a highway that instantly gave us an incredible view overlooking a deep bowl with a metropolis sitting in it. So that’s La Paz! A fast and bumpy descent down into the heart of the city put us on track to find the Casa, and after a few wrong turns and backtracks we found the place.

the real La Paz reveals itself

But the Casa de Ciclistas was full of ciclistas, eleven bikers all living in one apartment. So we got deported to the back-up Casa, the manager Christian sent us to his step-mother Mabel’s house. We were welcomed in by our new best friends, Sarah and James, two British cyclists who have been riding for over two years from Alaska. Working on healing some persistent illnesses, they were back for their second stay at Mabel’s house after trying to leave once but then returning to the comfortable house in the city. They were pretty awesome house mates to share the place with, we spent a lot of time chilling in the kitchen just laughing at each other and telling stories about familiar places.

Sir James of the United Kingdom

Madam Sarah of Great Britain

We spent ten days in La Paz, but who knows where all that time went. Mostly to the awesome bakeries in town (Arco Iris is #1), doing bike maintenance, cruising around the network of public parks in the city, exploring the crazy environment of sand towers that run through the suburbs, wandering the local markets and learning how to speak British. We took advantage of the relatively cheap tours in Bolivia and went paragliding one morning. There’s nothing quite like jumping off of a mountain and flying around like a bird. Kanaan worked with a group called Agua Sustentable and got to do a field trip to Sajama National park to help install a drinking water system and film a native plants seeds fair. We also checked out a museum in the city with an “Agua y Vida” exposition. Water is quite a big deal in the high and dry plains of Bolivia. But perhaps the highlight of our stay in La Paz was making Pel’meni Russian dumplings to share with our housemates and hosts. Now that was delicious.

sitting on the slippery edge of the city

a weird wild world

Iron Chef here we come...

And then Lukas came. Señor Stutzer was actually the main reason why we hung around La Paz for so long, as we found out the day before we arrived that he would be coming to meet us there in a week. Well he came and just like that we were a group of four again. Luckily he brought salmon jerky and caribou sausage to make up for missing the first 16 months of the trip. He and Andrew celebrated their reunion as roommates again by biking the Death Road together.

Stutzy in da house!

After ten mellow days of relaxing in a wonderful home in La Paz, we made the move and got back on the road. We bid our British buddies and Bolivian family ado, thanking all for the good times, and climbed out of the bowl of the city back to El Alto. Unfortunately Kanaan’s busted old knee started bothering him, so we didn’t make it far. But we ended up landing in village/police check point that was celebrating their anniversary holiday. We were tempted to go dance to their blaring music like the festive gringos we are, but decided to eat deep fried chicken and French fries instead.

mmm... chicken...

The following couple days of altiplano biking were largely uneventful. When in Peru it seemed like we had hit the newly paved roads with perfect timing, right towards the end of some major projects. However, in Bolivia we were just a bit early. The highway between La Paz and Oruro was getting a big quadruple lane makeover, but there was still much to be done. At times we were able to ride on freshly paved roads closed to traffic, which was pretty sweet. Other times it was flat firmly packed dirt, and there were a few sections of bumpy rough road with big trucks and buses ripping past kicking up dust. But it was all flat and breezy with not much excitement to see. We spent a night in the construction project of an uncompleted stadium one night, and the next morning made it to Oruro.

kickin back relaxin no traffickin

the future of bicycling in Bolivia is bright

The riding wasn’t particularly interesting, so we opted to hop on the train from Oruro to Uyuni to go visit the salt flats. The train was pretty enjoyable, other than having to deal with the baggage handlers and our bikes. As we chugged past Lake Poopo (real name) we saw great flocks of pink flamingos flying with the train. The movies on the train progressively got better, from Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Texas sheriff to Richard Greer as a New York billionaire. We arrived in Uyuni under a full moon and snuck off to a vacant lot to set up camp.

running a train on the Altiplano

The next morning we stocked up on provisions at the market in Uyuni and then rode out to the salar to go check out the desert left behind by an evaporated sea. After some last minute egg sandwiches in Colchani, we entered the world of salty white. The edges were surprisingly muddy, but once we had pushed through the short squishy section we were on firm ground. About an hour of riding toward the setting sun put us in the middle of a vast expanse of emptiness. As the last mirages faded into the horizon, we seasoned our dinners with the spice of the ground and watched the colors leave the world, leaving us in a black and white space somewhere between the monotonous surface we sat on and the sky above. The stars were incredibly clear as the full 180 degrees of peripheral were filled with universe. We laid out on the salt in all our layers, shivering, mesmerized, jamming out to Gorillaz.

becoming specks

Waking up was a bright affair. No clouds above and albedo intensive ground shot sunshine at us from all directions. Lukas got inspired to sail the salar, and spent the morning building his mast and main from his tent fly and poles. The rest of us hid from the sun, while a decent breeze picked up and kept the heat from piling up too much. After packing up camp we rode further west for about an hour, decided our patience for flat and white was being exhausted, turned around and let the wind blow us back to shore. Max, Andrew and Lukas had run out of food so turned in to Uyuni. Kanaan felt the urge to explore the coast more, and chose to spend another night with the salar. The transition zone from land to leftover sea turned out to have some pretty amazing levels and dimensions of salt features and mud mixtures that kept things entertaining. The few signs of life were also quite intriguing, an abandoned egg from a large bird, vicuna tracks, a dried up beetle, the failed attempts of grass seedlings. And among other things, a small shelter built out of salt bricks cut from the ground showed the stratification of the salt layers underfoot. The salar is quite a unique environment, definitely worth checking out if you get the chance.

shiver me timbers we've got ourselves a sailor

the sweatiest cuke on the salar

crystal clear salt water below the surface

not your average egg

a lonely place for a mammal

We still weren’t too excited about biking the desolate flats of Bolivia so we hopped a second train to Tupiza, a town 90 km north of the border. We arrived in the dark and promptly found a campsite. With the light the following morning we were able to see that we had been transported to a new environment. No longer were we in the arid flatlands of the salar; we saw mountains, valley, canyons, and even some vibrant greenery among the many shades of red rock. The ride out of Tupiza was a visual treat from the previous weeks. With a decently steep and lengthy climb halfway through the ride and little in the way of towns we had to push it to the border town of Villazon and ended up riding a bit in the dark.

mountains! valleys! a brave new world in the south west

The next morning was a late start as we tried to prepare to enter Argentina; this was mostly trying to collect American dollars to trade on the Argentina black currency market. We reached the border in early afternoon and easily exited Bolivia. But as we proceeded down the line of windows to the Argentine immigrations we were promptly turned backed to Bolivia. Turns out our blissful (or just straight-up) ignorance had us overlook the online visa process – so back to an internet cafe in Bolivia. The border control didn’t seem to controlling as we simply biked back in without a glance from anyone. Reciprocity fee number two of the trip (this time $160 USD), a piece of paper, and a stamp and we had made it to Argentina.

Bolivia was short but sweet. From the massive lake of Titicaca, to the crumbling sand towers around La Paz, the impressive volcanoes of the Altiplano, the vast expanses of salt deserts, and the red stacked mountains of Tupiza, Bolivia was perhaps the most geologically unique country we’ve visited. We met a handful of amazing people that we hope to continue friendships with, and scored a fourth trip mate to share South America with. Our time in Bolivia was shorter than ideal, but we made it through with style and got a satisfyingly diverse experience of the place. And our first meal in Argentina was enough to convince us that we were in the right place. No white rice and five courses with that famous Argentinian beef as the main feature. We’ve made it to the promised land.

And since our website says from Alaska to Argentina we figured we were done so we turned around and are now headed north!

kodak moment

…stay tuned to see if we’re joking or not.

September Photo of the Month

The September photo of the month is for Above and Beyond Alaska, an integral partner in helping us get off the beach in Juneau to start this trip. Chris is here bouldering in Huaraz, Peru, doing the pose that is on the ABAK logo while wearing the ABAK shirt. Thanks again for your support Sean and Becky!

Sunset climbing near The Hof in Huaraz, Peru