Cycling the Salar de Uyuni – a dream comes true
Not sure for how long we are already talking about how it would be to cycle through the biggest salt desert on earth, but it has been long before really planning this trip. Now time has come: We are standing in front of the endless white in Jiria the last village before the Salar and are so much looking forward to enter this gigantic white tomorrow. Jiria has not much but a very friendly family who is running the Hospedaje „Dona Lupa“. They let us sleep in a dining room for free and we pay 20 Bolivianos for a (loooong!) hot gas shower.
The next morning and one kilometer further we are in the Salar. It is sill a bit brownish, but the real clear white is waiting in front of us. We want to follow the track to the famous isla Inca Huasi, that Dona Lupa showed us from the roof top in the morning. But we immediately leave the track when Hardy (with his bad eyes!) spots some flamingos in the water at the edge of the desert. Then we head for the real white salt. Off the track we just navigate to the black spot at the horizon (some 40 km) that the Señora showed us in the morning. The whole day we do not meet a single person, we hear some jeeps very far away. It is terrific! And then suddenly two tiny black points appear on the salt and grow into two cyclists! In the middle of the Salar we meet two Czech cyclists, how funny! Finally, we are lucky that we meet them: they tell us we are heading to the wrong island. Obviously, we misunderstood the Señora, but well… So, we do not reach it and camp on the salt which is a great idea anyway! We find a circle of salt with a different structure where we are able to put our poles in the ground. This night is definitely one of the nicest camping experiences we ever had! The sunset, the sunrise and the milky way that clearly goes down to the white horizon are overwhelming us. If it would not have been so cold we would have sat outside on the salt for hours to gather the scenery.
We heard before it is a tradition for cyclists to go naked on the bike in the Salar to confuse jeep tourists. Like our friend Steve described before a possible scene in a jeep:
„George, George, there is a naked cyclist! Look, George!“ „Elsa, you are seeing things! Here are no cyclists, and defintely not naked! Driver, we should go back, my wife is not feeling well…“
So, Hardy is doing this job and we have great fun!
We reach Isla Inca Huasi the next day for lunch. A beautiful place! An island completely covered with huge cactus in the middle of the shiny white. Don Alfredo and his wife live here and generally host cyclists in their house for free. Unfortunately, he is not there but we are asked to write in his book like all the other cyclists who came here before. Wow, so many entries of riders we met or heard of before! We do 90 km to Colchani this day, the first village on the „main land“ this day as we stay on the tracks which are easier to ride. After two days on the salt we think it is enough. We are looking forward to a little rest and some organization days in Uyuni, 22 km from Colchani.
Good Morning Bolivia!
One of our coldest camping nights, we guess between - 10 and -15 °C… Here in between Curahuara and Turco on about 4,000 m of altitude on the Altiplano. We are already so much looking forward to some warm days in Argentina!
On back roads through Western Bolivia Part II
From Curahuara via Turco and Huachachalla to Salinas
Snow! Everything is white! Really, it feels like Christmas! I start singing „Schneeflöckchen, Weißröckchen…“ and everybody else in the village is talking about „La nevada!“. Honestly, while you in Germany are still enjoying the summer we get stuck in snow for two days… and I start building snowmen with Bolivian kids.
After the lama spectacle we just make it five kilometers further to the village Curahuara, when it first starts raining before turning into snow for the whole day and night. We find a really nice room with running water and hot shower (!) and stay again. The friendly villagers are worrying us by telling when the „nevada“ comes like this it would definitely stay for a week or so. Luckily, it does not. The night is incredibly cold, but the next morning the sun makes it a beautiful winter day. We build a funny „Señor de nieve“and then go for a snow walk on the little mountain next to the village. We really wish we will have weather like this when we will be „Coming home for Christmas…“
It is possible to cycle on the next morning. The frozen sand ways to Turco even are an advantage for us as this is easier to ride than loose sand, of course. The 55 km are not easy but incredibly beautiful: snow on the mountains behind us and in between the stone woods and pampa bushes here and there. There is just nobody on this track, we meet one person the whole day and slowly get used to the feeling of being absolutely alone. At about 4 pm we have to stop as Hardy is too tired and carving a lot. We put our tent next to a tiny river in a huge dry river bed, light up a nice fire and especially enjoy the next morning when the sun little by little warms up our frozen limbs. This is the most beautiful moment of the day! …followed by the moment when we ride into Turco at lunch time and a funny mixed group of a military man, two old women, some school kids and a street worker on the plaza start applauding loudly when we stop in front of them to ask for food. „Bienvenidos a Turco!“ This is what I call motivating! Thank you, Turco people! Not many cyclists make it to here, maybe two in a year they say.
In every village we are buying nearly everything we can get, you never know when you will have the next possibility. Most important is oat meal, tomato sauce, thuna fish and bread. Rice and pasta mostly is no problem to find. But each time we find fresh fruits o veggies we are extremely happy. And honestly, it gets worse and worse the more we come South. The villages get smaller, and often there is just nothing to buy instead of crackers and the so-called „gaseosas“, drinks like coke and lemonade full of sugar and dyes. It is sad to see the people really believe the advertisements saying this stuff is good for them and makes them stronger. In Huachachalla Hardy (wo always asks for everything although it is obvious they won’t have it!) asks in a small shop that are pharmacies at the same time for Echinacea. They don’t know it and he explains „to strengthen your immune system“. The Señora in all seriousness offers him Red Bull! Incredible!
Reaching Huachachalla defintely is the most challenging on the whole way. We need three days for 80 km, have to push a lot through sand ways and real dunes, loose our track and can just go South via the compass in the GPS. Before we did not think it would be that hard to find the way, but without anybody to ask, and tracks that split up into to six or seven traces we are just lost at one point. There is a way on the GPS but about 5 km away that we can only reach cross-country through the pampa. Hardy cuts fences, we get half naked and carry all our stuff through muddy rivers and finally frighten a Señora on her land who never saw cyclists before. Shortly before Huachachalla we funnily pass the little settlement of Centro Berlin, our capital!!!! We meet only three people there and find out it is an Estancia, a place to come for fiestas or community activities. We wonder why to come here at all, here is just nothing but sand and pampa! We can camp in an open community house and they have a well where I wash my hair at -2 °C in the morning. Quite refreshing!
On the way we see many lama skeletons and what is even more interesting: lots of Aymara funeral towers. It seems they just put the dead bodies inside, we check a few and often find the skulls and bones of their ancestors. We feel like Indiana Jones, this is not a museum, it is real, a bit spuky but every time we pass one again we are tempted to have a look.
Arriving in Salinas we are so much looking forward to a hotel room and a warm shower after eight days „in the wild“. But the whole village is out of water!!! No way, the first bigger village and they do not even have a public well most of the tiny settlements we passed on the way before. Well, we find a good hotel (Kamana) with a tank, so we could at least take a short warm shower in the evening without washing the hair… Here we can stock up veggies and fruits again and leave via Jiria to cycle the great salt desert for the next two days.
Traditional lama slaughtering in Bolivia
While having breakfast in front of our room the next morning the family is preparing a lama slaughtering in the back yard. Mmhh, nice to see such a spectacle for breakfast, I think, but it turns out to be really interesting, absolutely natural, and not as disgusting as I thought before.
The butcher comes to cut the lamas throat with a knife. Everything else is done by the two Señoras of the house and the sisters family. For them it is the most normal thing in the world, they do it every second day. They laugh about our curiosity but patiently answer all our questions and have fun at work. The lama meet of these healthy and happy lamas is supposed to be very nutritious and good for us humans. People in this region eat it every day and a lot of them get 120 years old – they say. At first it is quite hard to get the skin off and to cut and break the feet. Then it comes to a division of work for men and women, the man cuts the rips and the big bones. The women take out the intestines. Little daughter Anita has to help as well - while European kids today play with iPads and now all about the wipe gestures, this Bolivian girl plays with the inner things of lama. She enjoys letting it all slip through her fingers and complains when she has to stop her game to hold the lama leg up… Suddenly the younger lady comes out with some plastic glasses, they pour the liquid from the uterus in a bowl and offer me a drink. „Agua de vitaminas“ they explain and laugh. I cannot be overcome to try a nip but they happily clink glasses.
What a start in the day!
On back roads through Western Bolivia
Days away from everything on the Bolivian Altiplano… This is where the real adventure starts! Sand storms, hail, extremely sandy and washboard roads, stuck in the snow, little water access on the one side – burning sun, amazing clear camping nights under millions of stars, tiny villages with poor and always incredibly guest-friendly Bolivians on the other side… We like Bolivia!
Part I: La Paz to Curahuara
I recover after lying in a hotel room in Viacha for five days (nearly too small to get all our stuff in!). The first night camping after Viacha we funnily are discovered in our hidden camp spot behind a hill: two other cyclists suddenly appear as if they knew where we are. Luki from Stuttgart and Daniel from Innsbruck. Obviously, we all have the same preferences finding a place for the night! A hilarious cyclists meeting in the middle of nowhere accompanied by Lukis guitar sounds in the night and in the morning…
But two days after taking off Hardy has the very same symptons like me before. This damn sickness really slows us down, we have to change plans and go to Patacamaya to stock up food, medecine and cash as we are not in the planned shedule any more and to give Hardy a rest day. But we are unlucky and the ATM does not work for us – we even have to go back to El Alto by bus for a day!
Being slow can get on your nerves but we have to get used to it as it would not change the next two weeks due to the worst roads we have ever been on. And it also has a good side, spending time in the villages again brings us close to the people. We have the feeling the Bolivians are a bit more restrained than the Peruvians, but as soon as you approach them, they are curious and incredibly friendly. Everybody is happily waving hands as soon as we greet them. And we hear no more Gringo shoutings – thank you for that, Bolivia!
We cycle through hundreds of lama herds. They are funny creatures: When they recognize us the complete herd stops grazing and all of them stretch their necks in our direction to stare at us curiously. Hardy is curious as well and chases them to find out if they have RFID tags in their ears. They are always faster than him…
On the way to Curahuara we pass numerous Aymara (indigenious people on the Bolivian Altiplano) funeral towers, some are still complete, some only half. That is how the Aymara bury the deads and we are quite surprised to really find some mortal remains in there!
But it is not only sickness and bad roads, it is also the weather. For the first time we experience a real sand storm, which is followed by hail and then snow. Luckily, we are only about 8 km away from a few houses when the sand storm surprises us on the flats of the Altiplano. We see it coming from far and think „Ohhh f***! We have to reach the next hills before it hits us!“ But we do not, it fully catches us. From one second to the other we are covered with sand, cannot stand the wind on the bike, and are not able to see further than one meter. We push through as fast as we can. After a few minutes the hail comes and hurts the face. But we make it to the houses, looking for shelter. Surprisingly, it is not only a lama farm but they offer very basic accomodation and food as well. The only water they use is rain water, so they are happy about the weather and catch water with plenty of buckets and basins to in the back yard. We stay and enjoy a yummy lama steak with rice and salad!
Little video of the way to La Paz
We did not come far – only 40 km from La Paz we are stuck in the little town Viacha for already four days now. Lena is fighting an airway inflammation and we cannot continue our chosen route unless we are both absolutely fit. At least enough time for Hardy to cut a little video of our way to La Paz…
Going to La Paz
It seems like a quiet Friday afternoon, the villages on our way look a little deserted. But that´s obviously because everybody is in the next village or on the way – celebrating! Music, beer, dances, nearly the same scenery everywhere. Men are standing, women sitting in groups, children playing in between. They are having many different types of cooked potatoes and it is the first time we see traditionally dressed women smoking – only in celebration of the day?! But what special day is this? We are curious and stop in Copacara to find out and get in touch with the people. Hardy is directly invited by a group of men and has a nice long chat with them. They are even up for a photo session which does not happen very often in the indigenous communities. They cannot understand why the pictures do not come out of the camera so they could hold them in their hands. The old men want us to stay or come back for the fiestas next year. We learn this is a pre-celebration for the national independence day at 6th August and it won´t stop the upcoming days…
It is only about 160 km from Copacabana to La Paz. We split it into three days as it is not a good idea to arrive in El Alto and finally La Paz in the late afternoon or evening.
In Tiquina we have to cross Lago Titicaca for about 800 m with a boat, or better to say with an oversized raft. On these they even bring trucks and buses to the other side. It looks quite funny how they sway over the lake. We sleep in Taquina San Pablo in the only Hospedaje (one of the cheapest we ever had: 20 Bolivianos / about 2 EUR per person), but without running water and electricity. When we want to go for dinner (one of the worst we ever had!) we really have to fight for a room key because the Senor thinks it is not necessary in this village. We should not worry that much and then he leaves. Well, we would like to believe him, but… After one and a half hours we finally find him again and push through our will.
Once more we meet Hardy and Alena on the road the next day and look for a place to stay the night together. We are cycling into the last village 25 km before El Alto to ask in the school or health center if we could stay there. Like in the villages before, the whole community is partying here and everybody refuses to let us camp somewhere. What is wrong? We are perplex. And there is no Hospedaje far and wide. Thanks to Hardys (the other one!) powers of persuasion the doctor of the health center finally allows us to camp in the garden but only under the promise to play Volleyball with them (what we do not do in the end, we are so hungry we directly have to cook).
We are all so much looking forward to arrive in La Paz and stay there for a week or so. But we are not looking forward to cycle through the huge traffic to come into the city. After we make it through El Alto it gets much better. The 2 million people de facto capital of Bolivia lies 400 m further down in a valley basin in front of us! For everybody going by bike: It is best to take the Autopista vieja to go into and out of the city. Little traffic and great views! Ask for it, it is easy to find.
Hardy and Hardy go for an 1.5 hours hostal check while Alena and me are taking care of the little travel bike exhibition we open with our four bikes on Plaza San Francisco. Other tourists and locals come to ask everything… If you send two Hardys out together they will definitely come back with the best deal in town. We get a great room in Lion Palace Hostal, nearly a ballroom – what a luxury!
The first day in La Paz is our one year anniversary and the only one that we fill with just celebrating and having a nice dinner. All the following days are nearly completely filled with organisation. The to-do list is long: intensive route planning (including checking maps in the Military Geographical Institute), blog and sponsor work, receiving a DHL parcel with a new pump (kindly sponsored from Primus) for our gasoline stove (which takes incredibly much time for a express parcel) and therefore meeting up with Sebastian (a friend of Evas), shopping (down jackets for what is waiting in front of us, tons of food), skyping with friends and family, bike check and little rust repairs and, and, and…
Copacabana and Isla del Sol
No, we are not in Rio, we are in the little holiday town Copacabana at Lago Titicaca. Actually, it is even the name giver of the famous beach in Rio because of the black Madonna (Virgin de la Candelaria) in the great cathedral that once must have impressed some Brasilians. She is the patron saint of Bolivia and therefore the reason why hundreds of Peruvians and Bolivians come here every day: When they bought a new car, bus, truck or whatever, the vehicle has to be blessed for safe and good driving. This created jobs for numerous shamans and priests. The cars line up in front of the cathedral, get decorated with all kinds of colourful paper garlands and then the shaman splashes it with beer, sparkling wine or coke while murmuring his sayings. After that everybody takes a big sip himself, pictures are taken and the blessed car is celebrated. We think „Good that it is protected against accidents now“, when we see the sometimes heavy drunken drivers getting back in their car to take off… Another tradition, not typical for Copacabana, but for the whole region of Lago Titicaca is to sacrifice at least four dried out llama fetuses when starting to build a house. They have to be thrown under the fundament. We are surprised when we see how many they sell on the streets…
We like Copacabana, it feels like holidays at the sea but on 4,000 m altitude. The town is not only famous for car blessings but as well for its trucha (trout) dishes and trips to the Isla del Sol, which is supposed to be the cradle of the Inca culture, sacred to the Aymara and Quechua. We do both, we eat a lot of trout and do a one day trip to Isla del Sol together with Alena and Hardy. Walking the 11 km over the island is quite exhausting for our differently trained legs but we again enjoy the amazing views over the lake on the Cordillera Real. Though some call it the „rip-off island“ as you have to pay three times to pass different parts of the walking trail (30 Bolivianos), the trip is really worth it. What we learn on the way: Little piglets love it to be stroked! They immediately fall aside and start grunting. We get the giggles of these cute little pigs!
At the first glance, we do not see many differences to Peru. Like always in a new country we have to become familiar with the money. We go through the market and tiendas to ask for everything and check products and prices in order not be fooled afterwards. People are a bit more uninterested and reserved but generally really nice. But of course, Copacabana is a tourist place – we are looking forward to get to know the real Bolivia soon. A striking difference to Peru is the internet though. We hardly find any hotel with WiFi, only the really expensive ones. After two hours out searching we check out one that we can barely afford, we have to discuss that they won’t shut the rooter down over night and the connection is really bad. We know this won’t get better on our way through the country, probably La Paz will be the last town with usable internet for a few weeks.
Peru was definitely testing us – physically, mentally, our patience and power of endurance… At the same time it was amazingly beautiful, gigantic and definitely leaving a lasting impression on us.
Honestly, we did not have the best start into this country. First Hardys bronchitis would just not go away and then the robbery in the bus hit us really painfully – money- as well as atmosphere-wise. After that we were overcautious and sometimes maybe a bit too sceptical towards the people. This made us sad as it definitely was one of the special manners on this trip: being open and friendly to anybody we meet never knowing what would happen. Scepticism can bar your way! Unfortunately, we heard of some other attacks and robberies of other cyclists as well. The coast and touristic areas are defintely the most dangerous places.
But as soon as we were on the road again starting our way up in the mountains the amazing landscapes made us forget about the bad experiences in the beginning. This was absolutely new to us and still is the most special thing about Peru: the views, the dimensions, the colours, the lights, the long climbs and decsents in the mountains, the dry red earth in the hot desert, the small and huge rivers we followed for days and the dark blue of the huge Lago Titicaca. Our nature experiences in Peru absolutely blew us away!
But while cycling through these incredible landscapes we often wished there would just be a buttom to switch off all the Gringo shoutings and horn honkings. For many Peruvians it seems to be a necessity to shout „Gringooo“ as soon as a white person is passing by. Sometimes children said it nicely like „Look, mum, there is a Gringo“, but sometimes it was just „Gringoooo!“, getting on our nerves and not transporting any good feeling at all. Some regions were better and some worse. We started explaining, we are no Gringos, but „Alemanes“, „turistas“ or „extranjeros“ and sometimes even shouted back „Latino“! They did not seem to like that either. The horn honking had different reasons: making us aware there is a car coming (as is we would not hear or see it!), greeting us, starting kind of a communication (?) with honking a hundred times from already one kilometer away and sometimes they even come extra close and honk very long to annoy or worry us. In this case they are mostly drunk and in a group of men… Then it gets dangerous.
Of course, we met many really friendly Peruvians as well. In some villages we experienced an incredibly warm welcome, curious and smart kids and people willing to help. We could always joke around with everybody, Peruvians can be really funny. The most asked question besides: „Where do you come from? Where do you go?“ was „No se cansan?“ (Don’t you get tired?) and „Cuanto cuesta tu bici? Vendame!“ (How much is your bike? Sell it to me).
Expectations towards others and how people deal with each other were different in Peru. „Propina“ (tip) and „Regalame“ (give me a present) are standard demands that we heard all over the country. But what stands out even more is how gruff Peruvians (not all of course!) behave and communicate. Often we were shocked how respectless they are with us but with other locals as well. And they are very bad vendors, just ignoring, giving a shit about you or even telling you crap. Some typical situations:
In a little Tienda (shop or kiosk):
„Do you have peanuts and raisins?“
„No, I don’t have!“
„And what is this down here?“
„Peanuts and raisins.“
„Can you please sell me some or are you not interested in earning money?“
In a small Hospedaje (hostel):
„We are two cyclists looking for a room. Would you have some space where we can leave the bikes for the time we are here?“
„No, we don’t have space.“
„What if we lock them here in the little courtyard?“
„Ok, no problem.“
And situations like this also happened all the time:
I am standing in a shop and discuss the price for all my fruits and vegetables with the Senora when another woman comes in and says „Sell me some bread!“ She just lets me wait until she is done with other one. And this is not because I am a white tourist, she does the same with the locals. It is just about being the loudest and strongest and you’ll win.
What we liked was the often a little funny but quite pleasent way of addressing us or men and women in general with „Ja, Papa“, „Ja, Mami“! Everybody is a Papa or a Mami!
On the road we were very often faced with road constructions. Which of course is a good thing, generally… Roads were far worse than in any other country we cycled before. But considering the massive mountain routes we can imagine how long it takes to build a paved road into them – ages. The hundreds of workers we met on our way were always really nice, weaving and greeting. Often we had to discuss to pass with the bicycles when a construction blocked a street for hours. It also sometimes happened that a landslide made getting through simply impossible. Once we even witnessed rocks falling down on the street about 40 m behind us where we just stopped to take pictures a few seconds before…
Physically, the high mountains and long climbs up to far over 4,000 m tested us like nothing else we’ve been through on our way so far. We never approached our own limits like this before – a special experience with exhaution, high altitude, cold and pain - and a little bit of proud afterwards :-) !
All in all, we can state that we got hardened after our time in Peru. On the one hand we resist more but at the same time we are annoyed by little things that happen every day. We learned how to handle the attitude of many Peruvians and I hope we did not get too gruff by this ourselves. We mostly push through our will, we explain and complain a lot while still trying to keep friendliness and openness upfront.
Goodbye Peru – on the way to the Bolivian border
Fertility, phalluses and fiesta! We don’t get far from Puno this day. We wound up in Chucuito wanting to visit the church and the Inca ruins of the temple of fertility: Inca Uyo. The temple is actually a parc of stone phalluses that look like mushrooms at the first sight. Back in the days Inca women who could not become pregnant pilgered here from far away. They would sit on the highest phallus, put some coca leaves beneath it and wait for their conception… mmh, maybe it works if you really believe in it??? Half of the phalluses are rammed into earth towards Pacha Mama (Goddess Mother Earth) some are upright to the sky to sun god Inti.
After this visit we cruise around in the village to find something to cook for dinner later. But instead we cycle right into a huge wedding party on the plaza. Suddenly we are surrounded by uncountable colourful skirts turning around and around to the same melodies in a constant loop. The men are dressed in smart suits and wear hats and sun glasses. A cutural spectacle we have not witnessed in our long time in Peru so far. Besides clothes and dance, beer is the most impressive aspect of the wedding: The whole scene is framed by stacked red beer crates, the old traditional women pass on the big bottles, children are searching all the crates for new bottles to bring to their parents, everybody is drinking… Later we find out that this a typical present for the wedding: one beer crate so that there is enough for everybody. Like always the people react very differently on us. Some invite us to drink and dance with them, others ask for money.
Finally, it gets too late to cycle on and look for a camp spot outside the village so we ask around if somebody knows a place to camp. People tell us to ask at Posada Santa Barbara, a well hidden little oasis in kind of Italian style with a view over Lago Titicaca, led by Señor Santiago. We find the way in between all the drunk behind the church and are lucky: Santiagos son is there and lets us camp in the garden – perfect! At night we a have a nice and interesting chat with Santiago about Peruvian culture…
Next morning we meet a 90 year old man on the road who (we don’t know why!) is so happy to see us. He is telling us we should be happy to go to Bolivia, he would like to go as well. Life should be better there for the „viejitos“, the little old ones. Evo Morales is a better president than Ollanta Humala, he thinks. We are excited to enter the next country on our list.
Hardy and Alena catch up with us again during our breakfast break. After some 65 quite fast kilometers along the beautiful banks of Lago Titicaca we have a lunch break together in Juní and then cycle on slower. Over and over again we have great views on the white mountain range of the Cordillera Real on the other, the Bolivian side of the lake. The afternoon sun dips everything in an amazing golden light, so we stop for pictures every 500 m. With exactly one of these views we find a scenic camp spot on a hill besides the road.
Now it is not far to the Bolivian border. In the last Peruvian town Yunguyo we change our remained Soles in Bolivianos and then enter Bolivia without any problems. We do not even have to discuss the 90 days length of stay. From here it is only another 18 km of ups and downs to Copacabana, our first stop in Bolivia for the next three days.