The road takes me through wonderful mountains and salars, salt plains.. The colors are great but whenever I have to climb any small hills, it’s terribly exhausting. I’m mostly cycling at an altitude of about 3’900 meters. This is the so-called Altiplano, and each time I see a hill, it’s time for me to suffer. This is a very volcanic region, because the Andes are relatively “young” (only 15 million years old, much younger than the Himalayas or the very old Alps) and the mountains are still growing up. I reach the Bolivian border in the late afternoon. Its looks more like a military camp than a real border. There are some mining cars and food trucks from Chile, but I’m probably one of the very few tourists crossing the border in here. The Chilean border crossing is very smooth but my first contact with the Bolivian authorities shows me how things will be here. I know I’ve to pay a fee for the visa, but he talks about another tax, a new one. After waiting 10 minutes before he shows me a bill for that, or any official document, he gives me my visa (of course very angry to not have made any extra money) and then tell me to go away quickly! That’s the good part in having been in Africa so long. I learned a lot, and I know how to react to corrupt officials. In reality, it’s easy to “win” because I’m much more patient than them: I have all the time of the world... But nonetheless I quickly see a big difference with Chile. Here the corruption looks like it’s a part of life, a routine.
I camp in a weird place, stones sculpted by the wind everywhere along the road. It’s looks like a big labyrinth. The people are afraid of this place; they believe the spirits talk during the night. In fact, it’s the wind making this weird noise as it makes its way through the rocks. Better for me that they believe in dangerous spirits - I know that nobody will disturb me tonight…
Everywhere I look, I see llamas. Now I really have in front of me the typical cliché that you have while thinking about the Andes. The people are colorfully dressed - there are only Indians, now, I’m the only white one; it’s the first time since Africa that I get this feeling again.
I reach Uyuni and have a break. I meet somebody in La Paz and enjoy the opportunity to be able to fix my bike before cycling in the very busy Bolivian dirt roads. Without a doubt, Bolivia has got the “dirtiest” dirt roads I cycled on. When I’m back in Uyuni, I get off the bus, ask for my bicycle and realize that those roads destroyed my (new) front wheel! I just fixed everything in La Paz!
I try to calm down as much as I can, fixing my wheel while trying to imitate a buddha, with compassion, patience and evacuating my anger. I seal my rack and the bit which maintains my gear system. The nights are very cold, and where I’m sleeping the windows are all broken. I still don’t know it, but it will be like that everywhere in the Altiplano (and I haven’t talk about the cold shower, impossible to shower in the morning because the water is still… frozen). I leave the city of Uyuni, a very touristic place, and many 4x4 overtake me on the dirt road. Sometimes they drive dangerously close to me; they don’t care about my safety, nor apparently the safety of their clients. Later on, on the Salar de Uyuni, I will see the burnt salt where two 4x4 crashed in the middle of nowhere, killing 5 Japanese, 5 Israelis and 1 Bolivian, driver of one of the two 4x4 (the other driver escaped by being ejected through the window, a miracle). I wonder how they didn’t manage to avoid a car coming on the opposite direction when it’s perfectly flat and the visibility is more more than 50 km in each directions… In all the Andes, I face probably the worse drivers of my life.
I meet people working hard collecting salt. They protect every centimeter of their skin. The light is so powerful - this is the same feeling of the reflection of the sun in the snow when you do high mountaineering. It looks like snow, sounds like snow but it’s salt. The salt, as everybody knows, is very corrosive. The people working here for years have to face many problems with their health, and I’ll have to be careful too, and take extra care with my bicycle.
The sensation of cycling through Uyuni is bizarre, amazing, intense, beautiful and much more. It’s hard to find the right words to describe cycling through Uyuni. I really feel like being on the moon. All around me, I can see as far as 50 km, far away at about 80 to 100 kilometers I can see some hills; everything is perfectly flat. Suddenly I see 2 dots coming on the other directions: Joana and Nuno, 2 Portuguese cyclists! I hardly meet cyclists with whom I can share the same life and travel philosophy. We decide to camp right on the same spot and share a fantastic meal exchanging great stories and good vibrations. It’s a great feeling to be with people I don’t know but feel like I’ve know them for a long time. A beautiful night and I’m sure one day I’ll meet them again. I feel sad the next day that I have to continue on the opposite direction but unfortunately that’s the way it works while traveling. I can’t get used to it but I have learn to live with it, saying good-bye all the time. Check their website on http://movimentos-constantes-english.blogspot.com/ andwww.ontheroad.eu.com
In the middle of the salar, they are several coral islands. In the past, the salar was a big sea; the Andes rose up, the water disappeared and the coral, of course, dried up. It’s completely unreal and terrifically beautiful. The first island I reach is very touristic. If I want stay here, I’ll have to pay and the arrogance of the tour operator quickly convinces me I can do without stopping more than a single minute. I cycle beside a few others, and decide to sleep on the edge of a big one. This is without doubt one of the most extraordinary night I will spend during my trip. I feel completely alone, as usual, but this time I feel the place as unique, pure. It has a kind of magical vibes. This is a very powerful place, from another world. I sleep on the edge of the island, because on the last 2 nights I had almost frozen to death sleeping directly on the salt. There’s about 30-40 centimeters water, and underneath water and other minerals. The evaporation is extreme and, although during the night the temperatures drop under -20 degrees, on the salt it’s way colder - I even tried to sleep on my luggage but it didn’t help, the cold comes from the ground and nothing can stop it! On the rocks, it’s way better. Not for my water, though: during the 2 week crossing, the water often freezes during the night and I have to wait till 10-11am to be able to drink the first drop… Honestly though I don’t mind, I feel like I’m in a dream, this place is fantastic.
During the day, the temperatures are comfortable but it’s weird because at this altitude the part of your body facing the sun enjoys 20-25 degrees of warmth, but the part in the shade is freezing. I arrive at a small village when I get out of the salar, before heading into the next one, the Salar de Coipaisa. No tour operator works on this one, they say it’s too dangerous due to drug dealers (once again) but I guess that it’s also more dangerous with a 4x4, because there is still a bit of water in the middle. It makes it unsafe for them because the salt is not as solid as on Uyuni. There is a small road going along the salar but quickly it’s just sand and while trying to find another better small dirt road, I get lost. No more road or even a small trail to show me the direction. There’s just nothing. I know that I should find 2 mountains on the other side of thesalar where I there’s a village. But I still don’t see anything other than salt. That night in my tent, I think about my choices: going back and asking for help, continuing to cycle along the salar where I should find a village, or trying to cross the salar and find those mountains. It’s a crazy feeling to feel to be completely lost at about 4’000 meters between the Andes and a dry salty lake. It’s not the first time I’ve got lost, but I know that I have to be careful in this wild environment, I can’t afford to make a mistake because it could quickly endanger my life. I begin to think that in reality, I’m not really lost - I’m not going anywhere! I’m a nomad, carrying my food, water, tent and in a way, my home. I cannot be lost if I have no destination! I sleep like a baby and the next day, I decide to cross the salar and find myself in about 5 to 10 centimeters water. The reflection in the water of the sun and the hills is amazing. The sky mixes with the ground; sometimes I can’t see any difference and lose my balance. I feel like I’m in space, floating over the moon. Definitively one of the weirdest sensations I’ve had in my life. I’ve seen a lot, but effectively this place is unique in the world, the whole Altiplano!
In the middle of the afternoon, I suddenly see 2 big mountains on the horizon, bigger than the other ones. I cycle straight to them and soon I see a kind of road. I know that I’ll find a village, food and water. My bicycle suffers - I easily carry 5 kilos of salt which sticks to the bike, making the full loaded bicycle weigh more than 80 kilos (that’s when I leave a village, after having bought a lot of food and up to 18 liters of water). Along thesalar, the ride is getting difficult, it’s very wet and sometimes I get stuck and dive into the salt, a sensation between mud and sand. I reach the village but there is nobody there. Apparently there is a party, a kind of festival, in the direction I’m heading to. Everybody is there and I should be able to find a shop or food. The next day, I reach the place and everybody I meet is completely drunk. Impossible to buy food in the shop, there is just beer and candies available. One guy invites me and offers me some food, but I’ve less than 2 hours to eat it. He warned me, after 2 hours it will be rotten! In the village I hear people talking about me, I’m Argentinean, no Cuban, no he’s Brazilian! And just before I escape this crazy place, one completely drunk guy comes up to me and explains that drugs are bad and I shouldn’t take them. Quiet hilarious for me, riding my bike so much and then hearing that from this guy who probably hasn’t stopped drinking since the beginning of the party, 2 days ago…. He still has the rest of his last meal on the mouth, and he smells like he forgot to take off his trousers the last time he went in the toilet…
I think that from now on, until La Paz it will get easier… but exactly when I think that, a terrible wind starts to face me. For the next 3 days and 3 nights, this wind will be extremely strong, carrying a lot of sand and making it almost impossible for me to look in the front of me. Nothing worse than this sand getting in your eyes… (Even with my special closed sunglasses, who can stop sand?) The nights in the tent are very agitated and I have to secure my tent with anything I have or can find: sticks, stones, cables, etc. The days are even more exhausting, fighting on very bad roads, sometimes dirt roads, against this terrible wind. But I finally reach Ururu, and then La Paz. The last stretch is actually on a very good road (and without wind).
I leave South America to fly back to Namibia in Africa for the next 6 months. I will work as a safari tour guide to save money to be able to continue my trip. Then I visit my family on the way back, having a month break in Switzerland, in the snow.
In Bolivia I enjoy the country without a bicycle too. I go to the Amazon, play with sweet water dolphins in the water, and tarantulas. I avoid alligators and anacondas. I climb the Huyana Potosi at 6’088 meters and visit the islands of the Sun and the Moon of the lake Titicaca. A lot of good memories with people I really like.
After 6 months, in January 2009, I start cycling again. There is a national referendum from the Indian president Evo Morales. It’s about the nationalization of the soil, their national resources. He want to stop rich people from owning too much land. I feel a lot of prejudice, but it usually gets better when I say that I’m Swiss and not from Santa Cruz (the biggest city in the Lowlands, a place dominated by white people). On the road, I stop in a small place close to La Paz where the people are voting. The atmosphere iss nice and I get some food. The food is probably one the hardest thing in the Altiplano, that and effect of the altitude. There is almost no food in the small villages and it’s very fatty. I don’t even want to mention the fact that it doesn’t taste of anythin, or when it does…. Well I don’t even want to think about it anyway….
After visiting the site of Tiwanaku, I again reach lake Titicaca and I find myself on a new border, this time with Peru. The Bolivian people were nice to me, apart from the recent political tensions. Sometimes the lack of education doesn’t make the contact easy and some of them have strong prejudices against foreigners, but I never feel in danger. Bolivia is one of these very few special countries, a magical place. I hardly see so much beauty and pureness in any other landscapes. Hard to cycle all the time at about 4’000 meters, but it’s worth it, I was cycling like I was dreaming. I enjoyed the jungle at the top of the world at 6’088 meters, I enjoyed the beauty of the highest sailing lake in the world, Titicaca and my journey wouldn’t be complete, without having passed Bolivia,. I leave the country with beautiful memories in my head. This is the place to be if you like nature and big wild places.