Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Friday 30 July 2010

Conquering the Andes

We were in Bolivia for a little over a month in the end. It felt like a lifetime. The last few weeks have been, in every sense, a ride. Think of all the other old travel writing cliches about rollercoasters and 'countries of contrasts', and then add a few yourself.  From the scarcity of blogs that we've managed to write, you have probably interpreted that high technology - and, indeed, most other 'normal' creature comforts - have been in low supply.  We will not be forgetting Bolivia in a hurry.

We are now down at the Pacific coast, revelling in Chilean civilisation.  On a trip like this, you try very hard to take all situations alike, and like a sports interview 'take the positives' out of all predicaments, however tough.  But hell it's nice to be back for a brief stint in a land of shops and real coffee and ATM machines and night temperatures in double figures on the comfortable side of the zero mark.
Our arrival was a couple of days ago, and we have now started to acclimatise to life back at a level at which you can breathe.  There was a sense in our 'camp' that we had earned a bit of downhill, followed by a bit of down time.  We completed over 1100km across the Bolivian Altiplano since we arrived from Argentina, only briefly dropping below 3500m, and riding for many of the days without venturing below 4000m.  This put us into the upper half of the 'troposphere', quite literally nearer the stratosphere than the sea.  If only the England or Argentine footy teams had spent a month up there, they might have found a way past the pesky Germans.

More than half of the distance, we were a long way off any kind of tarmac.  Salt and/or the roughest of gravel was more the Bolivian style.  During what has apparently been an unusually brutal winter up there, night time temperatures up on the Altiplano were often below -15c and we stayed in precisely four places whilst we were up there with any form of heating.  If we left the water bottles on our long-suffering bikes outside overnight, we would find them the next morning frozen completely solid.  Often, in the cases where we actually had a window where we stayed overnight, there would be a substantial layer of ice on the inside by dawn.

You don't get a lot of choice in where you stay if you are travelling by bicycle through Bolivia and even the most basic forms of accommodation can be 100km or more apart.  Bearing in mind that the mercury only rises above freezing when the high altitude sun starts doing its thing at 9am or so, and that it is dark by 6pm, the days are relatively short to make progress. There has therefore been some unavoidable improvising on accommodation. Little did we realise how lucky we were back in Argentina when showers were reliable (and existed) and we could choose food from actual menus...

From when we left Oruro nearly two weeks ago, we pedalled around 500km along – Lord be Praised – tarmac! And good tarmac at that, on both sides of the border.  Ripio, we think, can now be largely consigned to the darkest hours of our nightmares. The main roads North from Oruro, and then West from Patacamaya, were excellent: usually with a comfortable metre of hard shoulder for us to make our own. This meant that we were on largely good terms with the laughably huge trucks which dominated the traffic flow on these main drags; plenty of waving and smiling and only the odd one failing to move out properly for us.  Mostly they are driven by either middle aged men flanked by at least half a dozen of their family shoehorned into the back, or by boys who clearly should still be at school.  But the driving has not been as bad as advertised.

The trucks themselves hold a certain fascination - to boys, at least.  Aside from the (clearly government-sponsored) big fancy American ones hauling 'Peligro – Combustible', they are mostly European offcasts, often emblazoned with 'Jürgen Truckenmeister' or the like.  And occasionally 'Bertie Sidebottom & Sons, Lancs.'  Generally, you can see why their previous northern hemisphere owners thought a new truck might be a good idea. As this is the main route to Chile, the cargos are either containers fresh from the port here in Arica, or up to a dozen new cars or vans on transporters heading into Bolivia – their legality and precise provenance somewhat uncertain...

All along the route since Oruro, the landscapes were truly extraordinary. Even as we battled into – yes, you guessed it – more hideous headwinds heading North and then West, you couldn't help but gasp. [Those headwinds were about as useful as a polyester eiderdown at 4000m. At one depressing moment the other day, as we passed through the 5 hour mark for the day, our average speed dropped below 11kph. That is slow progress in anyone's book, especially when it's such leg-burningly, lung-bustingly hard work up there!].

But those landscapes... at one point just the other side of the Bolivian border, as we pedalled alongside Bolivia's highest peak, the perfectly snowcapped Sajama Volcano (6530m), Liz suggested that this could be her favourite bit of road.  Anywhere.  It's that kind of area.  We have followed the cartoon-like snow covered 6000m peaks of the Cordillera Real, passed ever larger herds of grazing llamas and alpacas, seen adobe Incan 'chullpa' tombs too numerous to count, and are now surprised when we see a topaz blue lake not covered in 100 flamingoes.  Some of the rock formations have been on a par with anything we have seen.  Even before we reached the Parque Nacional Sajama, we passed randomly located fields of what looked like a crop of giant 10m chicken bones sticking out of the earth.  It is brutally beautiful scenery.  And all illuminated by the Altiplano sun that appears to add extra vibrancy to everything.  And that's even before the descent to the coast, which I'll come back to later.

So, where were we staying in all this wilderness?  Well, as previously mentioned, beggars can't be choosers.  So, the first night out of Oruro, we stopped in the tiny roadside settlement of Quemalla.  The sun was dropping directly behind the road ahead, the sheep and llamas were being herded in for the night, and we didn't rate our odds highly with blinded Bolivian drivers.  I asked the first man we saw in Quemalla about accommodation.  Don Agustin, in his stetson hat, pondered a while, deferred to Doña Isabel, and came back to say they had a room they could let us stay in for the night.  Said room was to be found through a corrugated iron gate held up by fraying rope, on the other side of a dusty little courtyard filled with chickens pecking, old tyres, and bits of ancient bicycles.  We slept where their teenage daughter would normally be, a tiny room with two improvised beds and walls plastered in magazine cuttings of Chilean coastal spots and Enrique Iglesias. She is one of 8 children in the family, and is clearly representative of a generation that won't stick around in Quemalla for long.

Facilities are basic in places like these.  There is no running water.  Ever.  If it exists at all, it must be collected from a dubious well source in the crumbling plaza next to the bandstand that will only ever see a band on rare days indeed.  The loo, we finally figured out, was a hole in the ground mostly covered with wooden 'crouch' boards (!) and ringed by a hollowed out truck tyre. The 30cm of tyre wall was the nearest we could identify to privacy: it is in plain view of half of the village, including the herds of alpacas and small flock of sheep that were herded past whilst I was occupying myself busily.

As with so many of the tiny roadside hamlets, the scenes are much as they would have been in biblical times. Quite literally. As the sun sets, the dusty livestock are herded in from the fields by whip-wielding chola ladies toddling along in their long skirts, bowler hats and brightly patterned shawls.  It is almost entirely subsistence farming.  Likewise, business acumen is totally absent – every doorway houses a tiny shop selling precisely the following: pink loo paper, vegetable oil, sardines, indecently brightly coloured bottles of 'fruit' drinks, and 10p a packet biscuits. In the really upmarket ones, you might also find: beer, mandarines, brown or green bananas, jars of chewy sweets and chocolate (note: Bolivian Breick dark chocolate – incredibly delicious). But how they make any money at all is anyone's guess.

Heat is a concept entirely foreign to the inhabitants. We still cannot figure out how our local friends can fail to notice the evening temperatures plummeting below zero whilst merrily keeping doors open and failing to improvise even the most rudimentary kind of fire for themselves. Everyone sits around in thick coats and woolly hats. In one place where we tried to close the door, we were asked to open it again to make sure people knew there was dinner inside.

Ah, dinner... all over by 8pm, so you'd better be quick. The inevitable thick quinoa soup will always hide a lump of unidentifiable grey meat, and be followed by a plate of solid carbohydrate: often rice, pasta and chips all on the same plate. You couldn't ask for more for our legs! Usually it all comes at once, including the microscopic bowl of tinned fruit. And the price? About £1 a head. You can't really complain.  But if we're honest, we preferred today's fresh sea bass and ice cream for lunch.

So, where else did we enjoy the unique luxuries offered by Bolivia?  The next night after Quemalla, we found a small hostel alongside a police checkpoint.  The doorways came up to my ribcage.  But there was a shower.  Joy of joys.  Admittedly, it cost an extra 50p, but it actually offered hot(ish) water.  Of course, there are always downsides to such comforts.  In this case, as with so many, you had to use a (dry – important!) towel to move the tap to avoid the fun of electric shock running through your arm whenever you adjusted the tap position; each time you moved it, of course, the towel would be progressively damper, and the electric shocks became progessively more severe until you started to understand how a final afternoon in a Texas penitentiary might feel.

Curiously, we didn't even fancy 'proper' towns when we came to them along the route.  Patacamaya marked the point at which we turned West to begin heading for our final hop over the Andes and down to the Pacific.  But we didn't like it.  A long strip of deeply average hospedajes and bustling market style shops, with a string of trucks grinding through just didn't seem especially welcoming.  Nor were we overly attracted to the same all-pervasive Bolivian urban stench of rancid frying oil and human urine (or worse).  So we pushed on to - well, we knew not where at that point.  In the end, we found a tiny roadside hamlet and were pointed to a 'casa de familia' by the yellow uniformed government road workers who seemed to be digging a hole and then filling it in again.  Our room for the night was not unlike a garden shed - albeit one that had been decently plastered by foreign aid workers, whose empty 'US Aid' sacks had been stuffed with straw to make our mattresses.  We had to duct tape our groundsheet to the ceiling to complete their job on our bedroom.  Once again, no water of any kind, a hole in the ground for all oblutions, and a selection of livestock snuffling around outside our room.

But you cannot fault the smiles and trust and decency of the Bolivians.  Aside from their irritatingly predictable third question ('Where are you going?  Where are you from?  How much did your bikes/camera/shoes {delete as appropriate} cost?'), they have been lovely to us.  Occasionally, the lack of dental care has made communication tricky, but by and large their hospitality has been flawless.  Just with a different benchmark of what constitutes comfort.

What did constitute comfort was our brief touristic sojourn in La Paz and Lake Titicaca.  For a few days, we became tourists rather than cyclists.  It was rather a disconcerting sensation, as we boarded the bus from Oruro to La Paz with one small sausage bag between us.  But any misgivings about not bringing our beloved bikes soon evaporated when we reached the outskirts of El Alto.  El Alto is now a city of 500,000 right perched on the lip of the famous La Paz basin.  It is truly ugly.  If you haven´t been, imagine the ugliest industrial suburb you´ve ever seen and double it.  It is an endless string of unfinished (Evo´s tax wheeze...), soulless red brick shells sprouting those reinforcing wires for a hoped-for second floor, strung out along a dusty, depressing road.  Fortunately one of the days we saw it was also the day of La Paz´s independence, and so the red brick was consigned to the shadows behind pristine carnaval uniforms, all brass buttons, fancy drums, polished trumpets and swishing sequined chola skirts.  But boy it´s ugly.

La Paz was magical.  We stayed in a true haven of colonial pleasures: the Consulado Cafe has four rooms which were converted recently by a Danish couple to recreate the old Panamanian consultate that used to be there.  It was like stepping back into 1925, except for the spectacularly good (modern European orientated!) food produced by legendary Argentine waiter Miguel, who singlehandedly created the warmest of atmospheres. 

On venturing out, we walked streets that varied from steep to 'almost hands and knees', puffing and panting through typically garish markets which sold useful items varying from silly tourist hats to dried llama foetuses to put under the foundations of your new house for luck.  The centre of La Paz was in impressively good shape compared to much of what we had seen in Bolivia; the colonial streets such as Jaen were beautifully maintained, and there were elegant neighbourhoods such as Sopocachi, with its neat squares and attractive little restaurants.  It was important to have experienced its more cosmopolitan urban buzz to avoid judging the whole of the country from the rural parts we had seen.  We caught up a couple of times with my old Newcastle friend Fiona (now Trigo) Clark, who has lived there with her Bolivian husband Gus and hilarious daughter Elsa for five years, and were impressed by their cosy house and whole way of life.  La Paz is clearly a place that you ´could live´, albeit not without making some sacrifices.

From La Paz, we took another bus up to Lake Titicaca.  Our 24 hours in Copacabana were a restcure for the bustle of recent weeks.  The one concession to exercise was a wander up a rocky path to the viewpoint over the town and the lake.  It was here that we were able to appreciate the ´mystical magic´ of Titicaca - a magnificent body of perfect blue water stretching across the Peru/Bolivia border that twinkles and glistens as the sun sets over it and the Peruvian mountains behind.

We have stayed in some special places on the route too, since leaving Oruro again.  The Tomarapi Ecolodge was one such.  We had already enjoyed a special day on the bikes, swooping through landscapes of volcanoes and dinosaurs (OK, fewer of the latter, but they certainly belonged there) for 60km.  The morning had been spent in a fun mini peloton with Charles and Marc, two loony French cyclists - Charles was wearing one shoe only as the ice he had tested that morning had given way and he had sunk up to his thigh; their party tricks were taking overhead photographs from kites and inscribing their friends´ names into the ´Beware Llamas´ roadsigns; Marc remained steadfastly plugged into his iPod throughout.  I had then spent part of the afternoon cutting a beautiful but deeply distressed alpaca free from barbed wire with our tool kit (mission successful - the alpaca trotted off once the worst of it was away, but touchingly watched us all the way as we pedalled away).

We knew our luck was in that day by the time we ran into Javier the Ecolodge Guide at the very moment when he was picking up Gianni, our fellow guest arriving by bus, in the hotel minibus.  This saved us an 18km dusk pedal along tricky ripio, and meant we were soon in a heated - yes, HEATED - lodge room at the very foot of the Volcan Sajama.  Amazing.  In our 36 hours staying there, we were taken to spectacular sulphurous volcanic geysers, bubbling and steaming menacingly within feet of patches of icy permafrost.  We wallowed in 45c natural hot springs as the sun set behind Sajama itself.  We drove through the World's Highest Forest, of scratchy, gnarled little quenua trees.  We hung out with Gianni, learning about his NGO career in the Rio favelas and Bolivian experiences.  We ate classy llama and quinoa with Sophie and Laure, and exchanged our stomach antibiotics for bars of their native Swiss chocolate.  And we breakfasted with global Parisians Thomas and Jeanne, who put our paltry efforts to shame by telling us in the most charming and modest yet sparkly way about how they had recently completed 2000km through the Andes from Lima - on foot.  These are the kind of fascinating and inspiring people that this kind of trip seems to attract.

From there, we knew it was 'only' 45km to the border with Chile.  Would that we had known the reality.  Or maybe it was better that we didn't.  The first 35km or so was glorious - golden, undulating, broad, llama-dotted plains and more mighty volcanic peaks in on all sides.  But then we began to climb.  From 4000m or so just before the bustling Bolivian border, we had to make it to 4700m just after.  In about 8km.  Hard slog doesn't cover it.  It took nearly two hours and was a bit like two hours pushing an overladen trolley the wrong way up one of those hypermarket conveyor belts.  When I reached the top I couldn't stand up - each time I tried I had to squat down again just to get the oxygen to circulate properly.  We were just about at the maximum height a helicopter can get to before it falls out of the sky, just a whisker below the height of Mont Blanc.  And the highest we would get all trip.  Passing truck and bus drivers gestured frantic congratulatory waves to us, and at least two bottom lips wobbled vigorously.

But that did mean there was only way to go.  At long last.  The sun was setting, and we knew the clock was ticking before the thermometer mercury began to go with gravity.  Fortunately, neither the dozens of trucks that had passed us during the day - now queuing for the border in a curiously beautiful string of colours - nor the exemplary Chilean border officials checking for passports and contraband bananas or corned beef, wanted to detain us for long.  And so we found our way a few kilometres on to a spectacular refuge right on the banks of the magnificent Lake Chungara, in which Jorge the Ranger offered us both a full range of luxuries such as light, heat, gas and showers, and a uniquely privileged view of one of Chile's most exceptional lakes.  Andean gulls and giant coots gulled and cooted away as darkness fell.  Actually, it wasn't really dark at all - the full moon that night over 'our' lake had to be seen to be believed.

We awoke convinced that it would indeed be ´pura bajada´ from there.  Wrong.  With 200km to go to Arica, we first had to spend the morning weaving our way through Chile´s Lauca National Park - brimming with vicuñas grazing tranquilly next to part-frozen mini lagoons, clouds of black aguiline vultures swooping overhead and yet more of the cordillera peaks to enjoy.  Meeting Pierre and Laure, yet more French adventurers this time 4 months into a 3 year global epic on recumbent bikes, was a highlight, but it was a tough 40km stretch before we reached the start of the downhill.  And even then, to our frustration, we spent more of the rest of the day climbing than enjoying the descent that we had been promised.  The road, frankly a miracle of road building, cleaved impossible routes through landscapes that looked like a dentist´s nightmare of gigantic pitted molars and rotten incisors.  We kept rounding corners and having to catch our breath in more than one way as we admired and feared next few kilometres of route ahead.

It became clear early on that reaching Arica in one day was out of the question.  And so, as darkness fell, we came upon the Casa Mallku - a place I had long remembered from my last brief visit 14 years ago.  Alexis, the owner who moved there with Andrea 20 years ago, describes it more as ´happy´ than ´hippy´.  Either way, there is no question about its alternative qualities.  The two of them rose to the twin challenges offered by their well-connected Chilean families that: A. they should plump for more orthodox careers, and B. nobody lives in the middle of the desert.  They have conclusively proved that the first was not necessary, and that the second would not be true.  This truly arid place is a wonderful mishmash of redecorated railway carriages, MASH-style army surplus tents (where we bunked down for the night), half-finished wind and solar power systems, and rudimentary wooden buildings.  Whilst Alexis´ views are extreme, much of what he espouses is rooted in truth and common sense, and it was incredible to be back there.

The following day, with our money supplies down to coins, and our food supplies down to powdered mashed potatoes, we hit the proper downhill.  I didn´t pedal for the first 30km.  Literally not once.  We weaved our way down the elegantly meandering road cut through impossibly dry and craggy cactus-dotted canyons, unable to keep the smiles off our faces.  In dozens of kilometres, the nearest we came to civilisation was a massive borax mine cutting a chalk white strip across the otherwise uniformly arid ochre coloured landscapes.  I have done some big descents over the years, but this was nuts.  Each time we stopped to soak it up, we just laughed.  It was emotional stuff.  We had day dreamed about this for months, even before we started to climb, back in May.  With each drop in altitude, the air became warmer, and the frozen chill of the Altiplano abated.  Around every corner you could see the next few kilometres of perfect downhill.  This was ´pura bajada´ at its very purest.  It was the most extraordinary day´s cycling I have ever done, no question.

At one point, we could see several hundred vertical metres down, tracing the road through the dunes that we would take around hairpins and hair raising gradients.  Way down at the bottom, laid out between impossibly overbearing sheer sand dunes, was a verdant valley, in which farmers were working on neatly laid out lines of vegetables, goats were grazing happily, and giant bamboo was growing by the roadside.  Suddenly, the smells were changing.  Fresh vegetation and deliciously rich manure replaced the fruitless gasps of hollow air we´d been taking for weeks.  It really was as though the air was thick.  The occasional little uphill stretch felt as hard as coasting downhill had been 4km higher up.

From about 50km out, we could smell that we were nearing the sea.  That unmistakeable salty atmosphere was bowling up the valley in the form of a thin sea mist.  As we completed the final few kilometres gently down to the coast, we were almost accelerating and craning our necks to see who could spot the Pacific first.  It teased us for some time, hidden behind cloud, but we reached the roundabout to Arica and saw the deep blue sea.

Now, we have both become increasingly convinced in the last few months that we are by no means unique, nor are doing anything that changes anyone´s lives except our own.  Anyone doing something like this who claims otherwise sounds downright pretentious and slightly deranged from too much time on the road.  But that didn´t stop us feeling proud of ourselves that we had cycled up and over the Andes, the world´s longest continental mountain range, at one of its highest points, in mid-winter.  It has been an ordeal, physically and psychologically, and we have both changed shape, probably in both those senses!  But a few days down here in Arica, where the sea breezes are fresh and invigorating, where you can eat at good restaurants overlooking the Pacific, where the local soldiers wander the streets in uniform holding the hands of their 3-year old daughters, and where cars stop at pedestrian crossings, has made it worthwhile.

On our first venture into the pedestrianised shopping street of 21 de Mayo the evening we arrived, we must genuinely have looked like green men recently landed in the Starship Enterprise, as we wheeled round in circles squawking, ´Look, banks, coffee shops... oh my God - a DEPARTMENT STORE!!!´  It was quite embarrassing, really, but just showed how a few weeks almost completely removed from such things can affect you.

Soon, we will be off Northwards, following the Peruvian coast as closely as we can, and hopefully catching some of the tailwinds we have been promised in this part of the trip since before we even started.  Even without those winds (fingers crossed!), we can´t help feeling that the toughest leg of our trip may be done.  The Peruvian coastal desert may well hold unforeseen surprises, but at least we will be able to breathe properly and the temperatures shouldn´t be life threatening.  Right now, we´re just enjoying our ´holiday´ here in Arica.

Where are those buckets and spades?  We´re off to the beach.

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