South America | Bolivia – Rough Roads on the Andes Altiplano
Unlike La Paz, but very much like many other Bolivian towns, Challapata is a dusty dreary brown on brown of adobe brick buildings with closed doors or gates lining sidewalks along mostly vacant streets. Here and there a woman sits under a tarpaulin umbrella of sorts selling juice, confectionaries or another sort of food. Its difficult to figure out which are the neighbourhood stores or restaurants and almost impossible to find anything else without asking around. If you´re a local, you know which door to knock on for electrical, mechanical or bicycle repairs so there´s no need for signs. Many of the buildings seem abandoned with a wall and windows, but no roof. There´s an area of Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid made their last stand (that I won´t get to) – but think of that and you´ll have some idea of the sense of the land – windswept, silent, and thirsty.
After enjoying a night of tango and traditional Bolivian food with my friend Ally from England, I had taken a bus south to Oruro for an overnight stop before boarding another bus to Challapata, avoiding a long boring stretch of easy highway riding with much the same scenery for days on end on a bike. From Challapata, the road was smooth for about 12 kms before turning into a sandy desert dirt road that winds through the Altiplano of the Andes. (BTW – This is a longish story, so for those in a hurry today or busy getting ready for the holiday season in the northern hemisphere, there´s another entry that is a very fast read right after this one – I promise!(and cycling reports here are at the bottom))
I have soup in Huari, a town that curiously has an L.E.D. sign hanging over the town plaza alternately blinking the time and temperature. It´s striking moderness is in sharp contrast to the dusty brown plainess of the rest of the town and I wonder what politician decided it was more important than potable water.
Riding on through the afternoon consuming most of my water, llamas grazed in the desert brush by the roadside and some beautiful hawks are disturbed from their meal by my passing. It amuses me how many times I stop on the road and think that there’s nobody for miles around, then notice an entire heard of llamas and a shepherd sitting motionless in the waist high desert scrub just a hundred meters from me. Sometimes there´s a smooth sidetrack on the edge of the road, but frequently its filled with muddy water and I return to the sandy washboard of the main throughfare where an hour can go by and I am the only transportation.
Late in the afernoon the village of Quillacas is in view on the top of a hill. With the road sandy and steep, I walk with my bike the last 500 meters into town. There’s an Alojimiento here and the owners will serve dinner and breakfast. I´m torn between buying some water and moving on to camp nearby in the countryside, but go for the warm room saving some savoury food for the Salar and further south.
An alojiamento is very basic accomodation with the bathroom frequently to be found outside. By outside I mean ´’over there’ – outside the grounds of the accomodation and down the hill or ‘wherever’ outside the village grounds. Its 18 Bolivianos or just over $2 US for dinner, breakfast, and the night in a pretty warm room while the wind holwed and the outside temperature dipped by 20 degrees or more – at least that’s how it felt when I had to go for a middle of the night ‘call of nature’.
In the morning, the family of seven that was also staying in the alojiamento seemed to follow me down to the pension for a breakfast of fried eggs in bread rolls, some peach nectar and a cup of coffee. Getting back on the road, the lady at the neighbourhood Tienda assurred me there were plenty of other stores and villages along the way, so I picked up a few liters of water and off I went. The day grew hotter and I stopped to say hello and check my distance to go with various local people. For about 15 kms or so, I talked and rode with a farmer who did show me a few sideroads that were much smoother than the main road, but eventually he turned off for his village. After about 43 kms and not a single village that had either bottled water or it seemed any water source, I decided to wait for a bus or truck to take me the rest of the way to Salinas de Garci Mendoza – the next and last big town before the Salar. With 50 kms to go, water getting low, and my front racked cracked at the weld from the battering roads, it wasn’t a touch decision to make. Repairs were necessary and more water would have to be caried onto the Salar. A bus came sooner than I expected as I sat in a tiny village with a hungry dog on one side and curious village schoolchildren on the other. I don’t think they spoke Spanish as the predominant language in the area is Quechua.
On arival in Salinas de Garci Mendoza within view of the dormant Volcano Tumupa, I found very helpful folks who went and found a multi-lingual Italian man from Veteranarios son Fronteras. He helped me find the right door to knock on for a man who could help me wire my rack into some sort of semblance of useability. By evening I was repacked, loaded with water and listening to a departing bus that repeatedly blew its horn like a train for about an hour(no exaggeration) while I ate a delicious dinner in the Hostal Salinas.
Salinas has a nice town square in a dusty Bolivian way and its central park area was full of children playing some sort of game where they kept yelling ‘Muerto!’ to each other to claim that their opponents were dead. Some came over and said they were on vacation, others claimed that they had school the next day. One kid wanted some of my cola and after he insisted I save him some, I said I would and then didn’t. I think he forgot anyway.
The rooster started crowing just before 5 a.m. I’d woken in the night at 12:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep for an hour, but still had to pee like a racehorse at dawn. The landlady greeted me on my way up the stairs back to my room with the regular morning hello of “Buenos Dias!”. “Buenos dias”, I replied and made my way along the creaky plank balcony. A man honked loudly as he blew his nose and opened his door when I passed. “Hola” and then another honk. Back in my room, I take another swig of electrolyte treated water and grab a pen to reflect on the previous day’s journey. It will be at least an hour until breakfast is ready, so the girl lets me out and I stroll down the deserted streets towards the Salar.
The sun has just edged over the horizon and is bathing everything in its path with a warm orange glow. A few people can be seen down distant side streets and a pig on the edge of town roots by the walls made of adobe bricks alternating with concrete structures. In the main plaza, full sunlight is hitting my bullet ridden hostal, the town hall and a quaint blue and pink church that the gate indicates was built in 1929. Bullet marks on buildings seem to be common around Bolivian town plazas, at least it seems I’ve seen them in La Paz and one other place.
Back in the hostal, two senoras of the house ask my plans and tell me there are some pre-Columbian ruins a four hour return journey away. There’s a poster with some intriging photos and I decide to go after breakfast. The plan is now to depart for a nearby town called Jirira on the edge of the Salar?s north side after lunch.
Nine kilometers over a 4000 m pass, I´m on my way through a very small village named after the ruins called Al Caya. The sound of a pan flute floats over the village walls and then two women emerge around a corner. I hear them say “Touristico. Vamos!(Let’s go)”. A little further on, three men sit chewing coca leaves on the side of a ridge and gesture to me. I can’t tell if they are gesturing me to come over, just hello or to wait. They come towards me. It seems that the ruins are operated by the community and they take turns being guides – no ticket – just pay them 10 – 20 Bolivianos andf they escorty you artound the ruins. Clinbing up and through the cemetario with its exposed bones and mummies, we reach the run down ruins of the main settlement. There are a few windows, but mostly the rocks are stacked to form the shapes of homes from so many many years ago. My guide tells me that an epidimic killed the entire population. There are a lot of cereamics and I´m surprised to learn that only one or two tourists a week(if that) visit this site. Its a place that makes you feel you are on a private tour hot on the heels of anthropologists, who have just put out all of their find.
On the way back to Salinas I enjoy the desert scenery and the views of Volcan Tumupa with the vast Salar de Uyuni beyond. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with over ten billion tons of salt – just mind blowing!
Back in town, a small boy yells “gringo!” as I cycle to my hostal and soon a small gathering of children are being chased out of the restaurant by the senora de la casa. As I put my bike away, I notice my brand new Hutchison Bull Dog tire is splitting open. The edge of the Salar will have to wait and besides the 37 degree temperatures, it looks like rain. The salar will wait another day. At 5:30, a few drops turn into a torrent of pounding rain making the empty streets even more devoid of humanity. It seemed to pass quickly enough, but the damage was done. The sand and dirt turned to muck and it would take time to dry. The irony for me is that my biggest concern is the ability to obtain enough water to sustain me here in the high desert of the southwestern Bolivian Altiplano.
My dinner of chicken vegetable rice soup and pasta with pork is delicious. Bolivian portions are quite large and frequently I struggle to finish the meal, but today it´s no problem. There are no streetlights here (and probably also not a hot shower in the whole town) so when darkness falls – it´s dark – really dark all over. Last night the clear sky was a twinkling expanse with shooting stars streaking across the universe. Tonight it´s different. The wind howls and clouds make it even darker. It feels a little like a lonely town, or at least one to stay inside in a nice warm bed. That´s what I do.
In the morning I´m standing on a corner of the plaza and a man yells “gringo”, then comes over to shake my hand. He makes a few gestures like my throat is going to get cut. “No specifico” I say and go in to eat.
The sand tracks out of town lead across the outer edges of the Salar for about 16 kms, then climb a slippery sandy road over a few hills before descending to Jirira. The day has becoms 37 degrees again, so I find a small charming compound decorated by ceramics hanging on dead and dried giant cactii with a small green parrot squaking as it hops around and up on the decor. What´s the temperature again?
“Uno cerbesa por fabor senora!”
My first since La Paz.
Volcan Tumupa, at which Jirira sits at the bottom, was a two and a half hour climb that afternoon to the 4600 m level and from there the vivid colours of the 5236 m summit could be clearly seen. Its an understatement to say the views of the salar were anything but spectacular – and in the morning – the Salar de Uyuni.
Date: Nov. 28/05
From: Challapata to Quillacas
Total: 53.5 km
Avg: 12.3 Max: 29.3
Ridetime: 4 h 18 m
Climbing: 258 m
Low: 26 High: 34
Sleeping at: 3835 m at Alojimiento in Quillacas
Comments: dusty dirt road from Huari – sometimes sandy. Headwinds at the end of the day and a short hill.
Date: Nov. 29/05
From: Quillacas to? then Salinas de Garci Mendoza by bus
Total: (ride) 44km
Avg: 12.6 Max: 36.3
Ridetime: 3 h 27m
Climbing: 265 m
Low: 20 High: 34
Sleeping at: 3795 m at Hostal Salinas
Comments: Front Rack broke and no water availability. grabbed a bus the last 50 k or so.
Date: Nov. 30/05
From: return from Salinas to Al Caya
Total: 18 km
Avg: 10.4 Max: 40.3
Ridetime: 1 h 42 m
Climbing: 407 m
Low: 16 High: 35
Sleeping at: Salinas
Comments: steep hill out of town – less climbing on the way back. Bike repairs include patching around tire edge and cracks, cleaning, rear rack adjustments including rebending supports with the help of local guy, and fixing brakes.
Date: Dec. 01/05
From: Salinas to Jirira
Avg: 10.9 Max: 30.4
Ridetime: 2 h 50 m
Climbing: 161 m
Low: 20 High: 37
Sleeping at: Hospedaje Compound at 3724 m
Comments: Flat sandy road fro first 16 k then some hills – great views – short ride but also did a climb up volcano Tumupa
Date: Dec. 02/05
From: Jirira to Isla InkaHuasi via Isla Pescadero
Total: 70 km
Avg: 12.4 Max: 45.6
Ridetime: 5 h 36 m
Climbing: 223 m
Low: 9 High: 37 partly cloudy
Sleeping at: Isla Inkawasi refugio
Comments: a day full of bliss crossing the salar. New tire is rupturing. fliiped it to front wheel where there is a better chance I can get off the salar before it breaks open completely.
Date: Dec. 03/05
From: Isla InkaHuasi to Uyuni
Total: 105 km
Avg: 17.5 Max: 25.6
Ridetime: 5 h 59 m
Climbing: 235 m
Low:18 High: 37 partly cloudy
Sleeping at: Hostal Sajama in Uyuni 3720 m
Comments: Great flat smooth riding with a bit of a tailwind part of the day. Rode on the jeep track for smoothness and a quicker ride. Rough bum-bruising road from Colchani to Uyuni. Highly reccomend taking the side sand track where possible.