[lang_all]Thorn to the Horn On Jan 23rd I arrived in Ushuaia, 101 cycling days and 7574 km since my departure from La Paz in Bolivia several months earlier. I spent 480 hours in the saddle achieving this distance and climbed over 80 vertical kilometres! My name’s Antony Bowesman. I was born in Newport, south Wales on May 24th 1962. In 1983 I discovered there was a world waiting to be explored and so spent the next 6 years exploring parts of it in-between inconvenient bouts of work and treatment for cancer. I bought a one way rail and boat ticket to Japan from Liverpool St station in London and in August 1983 set off across the Trans Siberian railway to Nakhodka on the east cost of the old USSR before taking a boat to Yokohama. 18 months later I got back to the UK having spent several months running the south east Asia trail with the yellow bible, Lonely Planet’s ‘South East Asia on a shoestring’ before ending up in Australia for the best part of a year. In 1988 I cycled alone from Beijing to Kathmandu, 8,500 km, to raise money for St. Luke’s Hospital in Guildford, Surrey in the UK where I had had six months chemotherapy for testicular cancer in 1985/6. Bill White, my oncologist at the time, (wonderful man, saved my life!) was trying to raise funds for radiotherapy treatment equipment. The trip raised £12,500.
The Route (from La Paz to Ushuaia)
Bolivia, Chile and Argentina!
Like all good route plans, it has a start and an end, in this case two ends. The first end point is Cape Horn where the promontory on Horn Island marks the southernmost point of South America. This gives the ToTheHorn part of the expedition name. The final end point is Buenos Aires from where I fly back home to Finland. The rest of the route plan, i.e. the middle bit which entails about 10,000 km on a new leather saddle, has a rather hazy definition but here are a few of the highlights I intend to see on the way.
A country of superlatives, many of these involve ‘highest’. The colourful people are a mixture of Quechua and Aymara Indian, mestizo (mixed European and American Indian) and European. First destination. La Paz, at 3,650m above sea level on the Bolivian Altiplano. La Paz’s international airport at El Alto is the highest international airport at 4,082m so coming from flat Finland this could be a bit of a shock! Lake Titicaca The highest navigable lake in the world to large vessels at 3,810m above sea level sits astride the border with Peru. It’s about 8,300 square kilometres and contains the Isla del Sol and the Isla de la Luna, two islands which are the legendary sites of the Inca’s creation myths. Rurrenabaque 300km north of La Paz in the Amazon rain forest. The original inhabitants of the area – the Tacana – were one of the few lowland tribes who resisted Christianity and Western-style civilisation. The nearby Madidi National Park contains macaws, tapirs, monkeys and caimans as well as over 1000 bird species, 44% of the new world’s mammals species. Cordillera Real The mountain ranges to the north of La Paz, offering great trekking and some mind blowing bike descents, such as a 3,500m descent from the mountains into the Amazon jungle. Salar de Uyuni 12,000 square km of salt flats, the world’s largest estimated to contain 10 billion tons of fine salt! The light can be so intense it is dangerous to enter it without very good sunglasses. Some years ago a cyclist burnt his eyes, got lost and was found wandering helpless by the Bolivian military. It took him two weeks to recover his sight. I’m not sure if I’ve the nerve to attempt it alone. It’s a tough decision to make to spend 2-3 days crossing the flats because there are no landmarks and compasses can be affected by the geology. There is a satellite picture of the salt plain here. Laguna Colorada A fiery red lake in the far south-west of Bolivia in a remote highland area surrounded by a surreal treeless landscape spotted with gentle hills. The rare James’ flamingos inhabit the lake.
A thin strip of land sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Andes to the East, never more than 200km wide. In the north the Atacama desert is the driest on earth and in the south the storm and snow prone Patagonia forms the last barrier between it and the Antarctic. Parque Nacional Lauca A 160km world biosphere reserve, near the Bolivian border, encompasses Lake Chungará, one of the highest lakes in the world, situated at the foot of the dormant twin Pallachata volcanoes. It supports vicuña, condor and vizcacha, and Aymara alpaca and llama herders. Atacama desert The Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world with parts recording an annual rainfall of 0mm. Some people living in parts of the Atacama have never seen rain. Small tree near San Pedro de Atacama There is reportedly a single small tree between San Pedro de Atacama and Calama in the desert with a sign by it saying ‘Dame agua’ (give me water). Chuquicamata Site of the largest open pit copper mine in the world. Parque Nacional Torres del Paine Near Chile’s southern tip, this park is Chile’s showpiece: a world biosphere reserve with all the diverse scenery of Alaska in only 180,000ha. The Torres del Paine are spectacular granite pillars which soar almost vertically for more than 2000m above the Patagonian steppe. Cascading waterfalls, sprawling glaciers, dense forests, and the chance to see Patagonian guanaco make it a truly awesome experience. Vineyards Nearly forgot! Chile produces some great wines and has the only pre-Phylloxera vine clones that exist in the world. Looks like I’ll have to see how much difference that makes.
Remember ‘Las Malvinas’. It’s now 20 years since the Argentinean invasion of Las Malvinas and the subsequent recapture of the Falkland Islands 72 days later. I know very little of the real history of the islands and hope to learn more about the war and the Argentinean view while I am there. Aconcagua The highest mountain in the southern hemisphere sits astride the Chilean/Argentina border. Ruta cuarenta Route 40, the infamous road in southern Argentina which drives cyclist to insanity. One description says ‘For 12 days we would be riding the hardest, most insane road in South America, where even drivers can’t believe how bad it is. All the cyclists have nightmare Ruta 40 stories about the condition of the so-called road and the dreaded side winds’ Patagonia This enormous region in the south of the country features a glacier-dotted mountainous interior, unique coastal wildlife and Andean national parks. Península Valdés is a special treat for lovers of wildlife, with large numbers of sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, rheas, Magellanic penguins, sea birds, flamingos and right whales. The Perito Moreno Glacier of Santa Cruz is a 60-meter-high river of rising, toppling and exploding ice, though it hasn’t been advancing for several years. Carmen de Patagones is a beautiful colonial city and there are unexpected vestiges of the area’s previous Welsh inhabitants – in particular the town of Gaiman.
How to answer the question why?
I remember sitting at work in early 1989 after returning from my six month cycle ride across China in 1988. It was one of those rare spring days with a crystal clear blue sky, my mind still hadn’t settled back into the straightjacket of normal existence and while gazing at the sky, my mind went back to Qinghai province in China bordering the north-east of Tibet. Qinghai is made up of high altitude plateau and snow capped mountains as well as the 200,000 sq. km Qaidam Basin. While cycling day after day across this plateau at 3,000m I fell in love with the stars I could pluck from the ebony night, with the skies that stretched so far and wide they engulfed my world, with the mountains that dwarfed all else and the deserts that made me humble and insignificant. A beep on my computer brought me back to reality. A compiler error C1032. Mmm, there had to be another place where those same ingredients could help bring clarity to our existence. Chile, that was it! A country living in the lee of one of the largest mountain ranges in the world, the Andes, where Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere, sits astride the border in Argentina. Home to the world’s driest desert, the Atacama and home to Cape Horn on Horn Island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the death of countless sailors. We all have dreams, for many people, that is all they are, distant unreachable ghosts, forever beckoning. Fear keeps those dreams from becoming reality. When I was going through my chemotherapy treatment a friend, Richard, who was also going through the same treatment for the same problem, died because he caught a cold which turned into pneumonia. Due to the reduced white blood cell count caused by the chemo he could not fight it and the cancer took over. My life nearly ended aged 23. Since then fear seems a weak argument to prevent those dreams from being turned into reality and I’m not sure my mind will ever return to that ‘straightjacket of normal existence’. Mind you, I’m only human and I’m not sure I want to cycle alone across the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
Bike Thorn EXP frame, 36 hole Sun Rhyno rims, Vredestein Spider 1.9″ tyres for Bolivia and Patagonia, Panracer Pasela Tourguard 1.75″ tyres. XT front/rear derailleurs, XTR 8 speed 12-32 cassette, Brookes Conquest saddle. Thorn MKIII 531 low loader front rack, Thorn 531 rear rack. Cateye cordless computer. 2 metal 750ml water bottles, 1 plastic 750ml water bottle. Zefal HPX pump. Cobination cable padlock.
Ortlieb bar bag
Ortlieb back roller plus panniers
Ortlieb front roller plus panniers
Ortlieb pannier/rucsac converter
Rear brake cable
Rear gear cable
Plastic cable ties
Spokes + emergency spoke
Spare bearings (axle and BB)
Spare headset bearings
3 extra tyres
Topeak Alien multi tool
Finish Line drive train lubricant
1 tyre levers
Puncture repair kit
Terra Nova Voyager tent
Thermarest full length ultralite sleeping mat and patch kit
RAB Elite 600 down sleeping bag
MSR cleaning and spares kit
MSR XGK stove
2 fuel bottles
MSR Waterworks II water filter
Ortlieb 4 litre water bag
Ortlieb 10 litre water bag
Repair kit for water bags
Food I carry
Herb and spice container containing: Aniseed, Basil powder, Bay leaves, Chilli flakes, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coconut flakes, Coconut milk powder, Corriander powder, Cumin powder, Curry powder, Dried lemon grass, Oregano, Black pepper, Rosemary, Salt, Sesame seeds, Tumeric.
For meals I carry rice, pasta, quinoa, tins of tuna, sardines, peanut butter (for satay), soy sauce, green curry paste (if I can get it), tomato puree, dried mushrooms, soup mixes, olive oil, milk powder, miso, jam. I get fresh vegetables wherever I can.
For breakfast, I carry granola, dried almonds, raisins, sultanas, dried figs, dried apricots, and I supplement that with any fresh fruit I can get, e.g. bananas, cherries.
For drinks I carry coffee, sugar and powdered drinks.
RAB Peak Smock down jacket
Gill Gortex cycling jacket
Buffalo teclite cycling shirt
RAB vapour rise jacket
Terra Nova Atacamic t-shirt
Lowe long sleeved thermal top
Patagonia capilene shirt
Rohan long trousers
Gill Exodus waterproof trousers
2 pairs of cycling shorts
Brasher Quadra boots
Trek Moby Gel cycling gloves
Fleece cycling gloves
4 pairs wollen socks
Canon A1 with 35-105 lens
Canon 2* Extender
Dimage X digital camera
* Batter charger
* Spare battery
* USB cable
* Power cord for battery charger
Neutral density filters grad (0.6, 0.9)
Fuji Velvia/Provia slide film
Lightweight mini tripod
Suunto X6 wristop computer
* Serial data transfer cable
Psion Series 5mx computer
USB Compact Flash card reader
Petzel Tikka headtorch
Arno straps * 2
Dog dazer for zapping crazy dogs
Photocopies of guide book sections
Tinidazole for giardia
Multi vitamin pills
DEET mosquito repellant
Lipsol * 2
Stuff I discarded as unnecessary
Ortlieb pannier/rucsac converter
1 extra tyre
1 fuel bottle
Ortlieb 4 litre water bag
2 pairs wollen socks
Trek Moby Gel cycling gloves
CHILE – Wednesday 24 July 2002
I left Sydney on Wednesday 24th at 10am and got to Santiago at 12 noon, also on 24th, having spent 16 hours in a plane. It’s still the 24th and by the end of it it will have been 38 hours long with no sleep. I was full of expectation for arrival at Santiago, the Andes dominate the skyline to the east, however, nothing prepared me for their sheer scale. It was a perfectly clear day with none of the winter smog Santiago is renowned for and the view from the plane was magnificent. The mountains tower up to 7000 metres above the city and they stretch north and south as far as the eye can see. El Niño is having its effect. It had rained for the previous two days which is why it was so clear today. Emerging from the terminal building I was suprised at the heat having been prepared by the pilot to expect 7 degrees. It warms up rapidly if the sun’s out. I was met by Jonny, another Brit, who, through some contacts in the UK, had kindly come to the airport to meet me and let me stay at his flat. The haze had settled in the afternoon, partially obscuring the mountains, but I went to the Metropolitan park and took the cable-car to the 869m Cerro San Cristobal where a 36m high white statue of the Virgin Mary looks lovingly down on downtown Santiago and where I could get wonderful views of the Andes towering above the city. Tomorrow I have to be up at 4:30 to catch a taxi for my flight finally to La Paz. I’ve got a window seat on the right hand side of the plane which means I can get views of the Andes all the way up through Chile before the ‘big hop’ to get up and over the Andes into Bolivia.
BOLIVIA – Saturday 27 July 2002
A mixture of pain, exhilaration, more pain mixed with some small dose of agony. Yesterday I finished reassembling my bike, putting on my ‘Bolivian’ tyres, saving the thinner ones for the better roads in Chile and felt well enough to think that today would be the day of the first ride. I didn’t want anything too strenuous so I chose a ride to the Valle de la Luna which was about 10-15 km outside La Paz. The trip there was downhill most of the way which lulled me into a false sense of security. The first 2-3 km to get through the city were in quite heavy traffic along the cobbled one way streets but soon I reached a switchback road which descended rapidly. I should have turned back then but it felt so good… The road was paved but along the edge of the road the drains were death traps. Each slit in the drain was twice the width of my tyre and some of the traffic drive quite close forcing me to get rather close to these murky pits. The Bolivians are so friendly, many of the people in passing vans waving to me as they passed. The scenery around me was magnificent. La Paz is in a bowl, surrounded by tall cliffs climbing hundreds of meters above me. Soon I was onto a quieter road which then started to switchback up the side of a hill. It was then I started to feel pain. The climb was only 110m and the thrill of being alone on a bike in Bolivia started to creep through me. The feeling is so special, despite the hammering chest, pounding heart and quivering legs. All my commuting to work in Helsinki at sea level in the spring had done nothing to help me train for this. I think my average ascent/descent was about 50m a day! Here I was doing 450m down and 110m up, and that was only one way! The Valle de la Luna was spectacular. I met Andres, an Aymara Indian who helped out there at weekends. During the week, he made musical wind instruments and he showed me some of the ones he had made. He showed me how to play the quena, a cross between a recorder and a flute, played vertically but with a blowing method like the flute. Other instruments were the tarca and pinquillo, both like the recorder and the pifano, like a flute. He had learnt the art from his father, it was important to get the distance between the holes and the size of the holes right otherwise the pitch would not be correct. The ride back started well with a downhill where I managed to overtake the other traffic at 53 kmh! Then started the 450m ascent back to the hotel. It was agony and the final 5km climbed 300m. I was blessed with a strong tailwind so it could have been worse. It feels good to have cracked the first ride, 23 km in all, and despite the toughness of the climbing I am optimistic about the trip. All I have to do is put on my 30kg of luggage, add 15 kg of water and a few kg of food and then I can set off. I wonder what speeds I can reach with that load…
BOLIVIA – Sunday 28 July 2002
This time I was more prudent in my choice of direction. By starting upwards I could always roll back down by the time I was knackered. It was cloudy so I packed an extra jacket and some warm trousers and headed up the main toll road (No bicicletas!) to El Alto which sits on the rim of the bowl in which La Paz nestles. El Alto is the fastest growing city in Bolivia. I suppose this is because there is not much space in La Paz, the only remaining spots are on the vertical side of the bowl. As the road wound higher I got occasional glimpses of La Paz. It’s 400m up to the rim and I could feel the pressure growing in my head with the increased altitude. Finnally at the top is the toll gate. Two choices, ask how much for bicycles or just cycles past the policeman, round the gate and carry on. The latter proved to be the best option and there were no shouts or sirens behind me. On the way up I tried my ‘Dog Dazer’, a cunning device that emits a high pitched noise to ward off angry dogs. It worked a treat with one of the dog’s legs buckling and he ran away. That bodes well. The views down into the bowl were incredible. A mass of buildings with some high rise blocks that identify the centre. The 6000m Ilmani was hidden by cloud. It was very cold at the top and it started raining. Having not packed any rain gear I sheltered for a while until the rain turned to snow. There seemed no sign of let up so I decided to make the 12km downhill dash back to the hotel. The same trick with the toll booth worked again but it was freezing! I couldn’t see anything as my glasses were covered with water and I was travelling at 50 kmh down the hard-shoulder of the toll road. People use the hard shoulder to wave down transport and several times I had to avoid vans that would pull in front of me. My fingers could hardly grip the handlebars despite warm gloves but the ride was an adrenaline rush. I forgot to look at the view and caught up with a Bolivian guy just out for an up/down trip. Together we hit 57kmh and the first 10km down took 15 minutes.
BOLIVIA – Tuesday 30 July 2002
Today public transport was on strike.
This meant there was almost no traffic on the roads because people had set up road blocks to prevent private vehicles from travelling too. Why were they on strike? Recently the government introduced 3rd party insurance for vehicles. This has improved things considerably for victims of accidents as now they can receive compensation in case of injury. So why the strike? People now believe the insurance companies are getting rich on the profits so the people want to get rid of the need for insurance. Things are a little more complicated however. Huge deposits of natural gas have been found in the lowlands near Santa Cruz. This means a lot of money to Bolivia if only they can find someone to sell it to. Brazil will buy a lot but even this will only account for 20% of Bolivia’s annual production. California wants some so Bolivia needs to transport the gas to a sea port from where it can be shipped to the US. Two options exist, it can either be routed through Peru or Chile. The cheaper option would be to route it to Arica in northern Chile and Peru’s Toledo government is not regarded as very stable. It would seem a simple choice then, via Chile. Not so! In the early 19th century Bolivia and Chile fought a war and as a result Bolivia lost land that gave it access to the sea. Now many Bolivians hate the Chileans and would rather the gas were not sold at all than for it to be routed through Chile. Only some of the political parties recognise the practicalities of going through Chile. On June 30th there was a presidential election and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, known as Goni won 21.7% of the vote, second was Manfred Reyes Villa who won 20.2%. As there is no outright winner the congress has to choose from the top two. Now the political parties are trying to form a coalition so when congress opens on August the 4th they will choose the president they want. See here for a story. So the strike is more about trying to influence the negotiations about the gas than anything to do with 3rd party insurance. As for me, I was oblivious to all this as I set out to climb the hill to El Alto to find some flat land to ride on. All I noticed was the large number of riot police with machine guns and plastic shields and the distinct lack of traffic. On the way up the toll road I saw a man who had fallen asleep on the crash barriers between the two carriageways! The wide streets out of El Alto were devoid of motor traffic. There were a few bikes and hundreds of people. Along the 7km of road leading out of town there were tens of football matches in progress in the street. Shouts of ‘hola gringo’ followed me as I weaved between the games along with much laughter. Soon I was out in the wilds of the Altiplano. Before me the road stretched away to the horizon. Distant hills had a covering of snow. Behind me the mountains of the Cordillera Real were magnificent. Huge peaks over 5,000m punctured the blue sky. There was a strong headwind and it was quite cold although the sun was incredibly bright. I noticed two condors flying 100m above the land scanning the ground and drifting with the wind. One of them drifted directly above me and it seemed so large I imagined I could have been its lunch. I wanted to do about 60km so after 30 I turned round and headed back to El Alto to find some food. There were a couple of Aymara women huddled on the side of the road against a wall for protection from the cold wind. They were selling bananas so I stopped to get some instant energy. The two women had incredibly weathered faces from the harsh climate but their smiles were happy and their laughter genuine. They taught me some Aymara words, the one for banana sounded like ‘puhutko’ which Finns will recognise. People here are very reluctant to have their photos taken and when I asked they said no but that if I came back again to buy more bananas then maybe I could. Let’s see. Incidentally for 3 bananas it cost about 7 Euro cents! The last 10km down the hill back into La Paz was fast. I clocked 59kph! My legs could hardly carry me up the few small hills back to the hotel.
BOLIVIA – Wednesday 31 July 2002
Scams and toffee sauce
There are lots of scams in Bolivia to separate tourists from their belongings. These scams exist all over the world but today I was almost a victim of one of them. Just out shopping for food and last minute needs for my departure tomorrow I was approached by a smart man in a suit looking very earnest. “Señor, señor”, he said with his arm raised to indicate that I should stop and talk to him. Generally it’s best to avoid approaches like this so I just shook my head at him and carried on walking to a shop I was going to a little further up the road. It was then that I realised, as I took off my bag, that I had some sticky brown stuff all over my jacket and trousers. The people in the shop were very kind and let me use their toilet to clean my jacket. The brown stuff was a very sticky sauce and smelt like toffee. It’s one of the popular scams here, you are expected to stop and the person will offer to help clean you up. Instead as soon as you take off your bag and jacket he cleans you out. Other scams include one where someone looking like a traveller engages you in conversation in the street, shortly after a smartly dressed person will come up, flash ID and ask for your passport and say it is a drug search. Your new friend immediately offers his and a taxi pulls up as if by magic and you are told to get in… It’s a very common occurrence and I had been expecting something to happen. I met 3 people in the British Embassy who had been done through various means and there are warnings in all the hotels. The simplest thing to do is to ignore approaches in the street or at least keep walking while someone tries to make you stop and to walk towards one of the hundreds of police on most street corners.
BOLIVIA – Thursday 1 August 2002
My first day without knowing where I would sleep that night
Cycling west from El Alto I had to compete with traffic as today there was no strike. In one district a sweet sickly small rent the air and I saw a sign on a factory wall, ‘Labofarmacia’. Instinctively I held my breath as the combination of odd smells and chemical factories in third world countries makes me nervous. All the way out of El Alto there are signs at the edge of the road that say ‘No arroja basura’.
That means don’t thrown rubbish into the drainage ditch which is full of rubbish. It was a gradual slope down and even though there was a headwind I made reasonable progress. On the right the hills looked like sleeping mammoths waiting for the next millennium. As it’s my first day with luggage, I am not sure what is packed where, so I play a guessing game about what’s packed where.
It’s somewhat futile because I don’t stop to see if I’m right. In the distance I spy a funny looking hat on a cyclist coming towards me. It is Jan, a Dutch/German who’s been on the road for 8 months from Central America. He has a dog called Luca, which he picked up in Ecuador, in a trailer behind him. A little while later his brother and sister catch up. She had her bike stolen in Cuzco and got a 25$ replacement which was holding up. Lunch in a place called Batalles. The almuerzo (set lunch) was quinoa soup and chicken curry. The soup was good but the chicken was buried in a mountain of rice and potatoes.
Mind you I didn’t care. The one thing about cycling is that you learn to eat all those things you don’t like, and enjoy them! Quinoa is a very nutritious grain and is the only food which has the same amino acids in the same proportions as milk. I read about a place called Huatajata, on Lake Titicaca. Here they used to make reed boats.
Lake Titicaca is famous for its reed but now it’s also used for animal feed. The guest house was right on the edge of the lake and my room looked out over it. I went to explore and met and old man just tying up his boat. He asked me if I’d like to go for a tour on the lake. For 10 B$ (1.4 €) he offered an hour’s (Bolivian time) time in the boat. It was so calm on the lake in the evening sun having been quite rough earlier. The old man was 65 and had spent all his life here and fished every day. This meant that his timekeeping was not so good and half an hour later we came back in. The room came with private bathroom and hot water without the ‘hot’. I asked if there was any chance of getting any. Well it turned out that only the room below could have hot as there was no pressure in my room so I went downstairs for a shower which was actually hot when it happened.
BOLIVIA – Friday 2 August 2002
I hope I don’t have too many days like this.
The temperature in the room was 5 degrees when I woke. Suddenly I felt the need to go to the toilet, perhaps it’s called Che Guevara’s revenge in Bolivia. That left me in somewhat of a dilemma. Should I stay in the room in case I got more attacks and freeze or should I get on the bike and hope for the best. The weather outside looked menacing but it seemed the better of the two options so at 8:30 I set off. Not knowing if I could safely eat, it was not until I reached Achacachi, about 30km later that I tried some bananas which seemed to stay in the right place! I was now faced with a choice of routes, but given the seductive pull of a hot shower and a bed I finally opted to head for Sorata a small village in the Cordillera Real at 2700m, only another 65km . Only… Outside Achacachi I talked to a Boliviano who said that the road climbed for about 15km and then it was downhill all the way. I turned onto the road for Sorata.
Road??? It was on the level, but full of rocks and was like cycling along a cheese grater! The headwind was ferocious and I managed to creep forward at 8kmh. Each time a truck went past I was covered in dust and couldn’t breathe. In the distance the road snaked up towards the clouds at the edge of the Altiplano. I reached Warizata feeling pretty miserable in the middle of a festival. August the 6th is Bolivia’s national day and so the celebrations go on for the four days leading up to it. Men and women stood around in sequined costumes looking like matadors waiting for their turn in the bullring. Just outside the village I stopped to cook some lunch and rested out of the wind for an hour. The wind hadn’t changed so I set off into it, now uphill.
I could manage 6kph but it was impossible to find a flat surface and I found it easier to push the bike. An hour and half later I was still a long way from the top and was completely exhausted. I was faced with putting up the tent at 4200m or getting a lift to the top where it was downhill all the way to Sorata. I flagged down the hourly bus and was taken the remaining 7km to the cumbre. On the bus a man told me of his sexual prowess with women, explaining that he ate a very nutritious grain called quinoa which meant he could ‘perform’ several times a night. The top was in the clouds at 4200m and there was a large white cross facing down the valley. The road was no better on this side, snaking its way back and forth down the mountain like a huge serpent. I glimpsed several eagles swooping across the hillside in search of prey. The bike fought to have its own way, racing ahead after each corner. I fought back to try and get control before the next bend to avoid taking the same route as the eagles. The bike was taking a hammering and my bags were struggling to find a way off the racks.
Suddenly my back tyre started to slew around and I realised I had a puncture. My first puncture for 14 years! Trying to get the tyre off the rim I snapped one of my two tyre levers. Having fixed the puncture I had enormous problems getting the tyre back on the rim and managed to put another puncture in the tube in the process. Off it came again. I fixed that one and then snapped my other tyre lever putting the tyre back on. Here I was, exhausted, at 4000m in the clouds with a tyre that did not seem to fit the rim. With a bit of improvisation I managed to lever the tyre back on with some other tools and set off again. Emerging from the clouds presented a breathtaking scene. Small clusters of houses were improbably perched on the sides of the mountains. Hundreds of metres below a river, like silver thread, cut its way between two ranges. The air got warmer and the vegetation greener as I descended. In places the road was a thin mud strip between rock wall and sheer drop to the river below. The sound of a horn split the air and I stopped to press myself against the wall to allow a bus to pass. 5km before Sorata I had another puncture. This time I did not know how I could get the tyre off so I walked, pushing the bike with me. The sun had set as I walked into Sorata. I was exhausted having spent 10 hours travelling, so I stopped at the first hotel and took a room. They only had a room for one night so after a shower I went to find a place for the following night. Most places were full but on edge of the village I found a place with space. I went back to my room and slept the sleep of the dead for 11 hours. [/lang_all][lang_all]
BOLIVIA – Saturday 3 August 2002
Sitting here outside at Cafe Illampu, with 6300m Illampu peak just poking through the clouds, the troubles of the world are far away. It is a garden cafe, just a wood and reed construction with camping in the garden. A vehicle struggles along the nearby track which passes for the main road to Consata, an old gold mining town, and three of the dogs leap up from their place in the sun and tear up to the road to attack it.
A brown lama stops eating to see what’s happening and then decides he’s better employed cutting the grass. The cafe is run by a Swiss guy from Basle who’s been here for 7 years. He is a baker who decided to settle in this beautiful area. He makes an incredible selection of cakes and breads and his own yoghurt. There are a number of foreigners who have, for their own reasons, decided to come and live in Sorata. Pete is an Englishman who used to teach English at a secondary school in east London. Not enamoured with the idea of spending a further 10 years teaching he took over an existing business on the corner of Sorata’s main plaza. In his cafe, Pete’s Place, you can idle away the hours browsing through his selection of books and listening to an extensive CD collection.
BOLIVIA – Tuesday 6 August 2002
The 1500m climb out of Sorata held no attraction.
I bought a bus ticket to the first town on the Altiplano for 11am. Surprisingly it leaves at 11 sharp although there were only 10 people on it. We crawl out of Sorata hoping for any stragglers and picked up a couple of extras. The bus is a family affair with the driver’s wife in charge of the financial affairs and providing cakes on demand for her husband. Behind sit their two young daughters playing hand games with each other amid lots of laughter. One sits on the seat and the other faces her on a broken Coca-Cola crate. Riding shotgun is a rather simple looking guy who tries to coax people onto the bus. In one nostril a large wad of pink toilet paper is wedged up to soak up the stream of blood trying to get out after an over enthusiastic bout of picking. Along the slow climb back up the pass people get off and on. One young lady, looking 50 but more like 25, gets on with bags and a large bundle tied to her back. Out of the top of the bundle pokes a small head wrapped in a woollen hat. The girls’ play gets more and more physical, both managing to maintain the laughter while pinching each other’s cheeks and trying to push each other off the seat. Meanwhile husband has finished several small cup cakes and wife throws the empty plastic bag out at a strategic point so it drops out of sight. [/lang_all][lang_all]
BOLIVIA – Wednesday 7 August 2002
It was 6° in the tent when I woke.
Last night’s puncture was still there, it had come just as I was looking for a place to put the tent. There were many people out returning from the day’s festivities, all seemingly in a very cheery mood but I had managed to find a suitable place to pitch the tent hopefully without being seen so expected no nighttime visitors. As soon as the sun goes down the temperature can drop 15° in 30 minutes so it had been important to get the tent pitched quickly, a job made difficult by the ferocious wind.
Supper warmed my toes, chicken soup with rice, carrots and quinoa with a dash of chilli flakes. The wind was howling around the tent but I ventured forth to look at the night sky remembering how the stars at this altitude were so close. The Milky Way stretched across the sky and the sky was alive with twinkling. I only managed to stay out for 30 seconds before being driven back by the wind to the refuge of the tent.
It was 5:30 when the alarm went off, I wanted to be up and off before the wind started. Avocado sandwiches and coffee for breakfast. I packed up most things before attempting the puncture but despite leaving it to last my fingers froze getting the tyre off. I was packed and away shortly before 8 straight into a 250m climb.
Somehow I missed Ancoraimes and ended up in Puerto Carabuco. I had seen signs for the ‘Iglesia Colonial’ (Colonial Church) and when I got to the plaza went to see if I could get in. It was locked but I was told to go and find Don Cirilo Huanaka who lived just outside the village as he was the custodian. He was not at home and his daughter told me he would be back at three so I decided to try on my way back in a few days.
It was then I met his dog, a dog that held a grudge. While I was talking to Don Cirilo’s daughter the dog had come too close for comfort so I let rip with a well aimed stone. This put him off. I had gone back to the church as there was a group who had come to look at the church so it might be open. No luck, so on my way out of the village Don Cirilo’s dog got his revenge. About 100m out of the village I was negotiating a particularly nasty patch of road when suddenly, about 5m behind me, I heard a blood-curdling growl.
I looked round and there it was coming towards me at full speed. I vaulted off the bike putting it between me and the dog. The dog turned and ran but he had won! While picking up a stone to hurl at him, I fell over grazing my leg and I could see the look of triumph in his eyes
After Puerto Carabuco, Escoma was a bit of a dive. I stopped at a shop to buy water. Four generations of family were in the shop. They all had intelligent faces and I got talking to the older two. They told me to be careful where I was going, there were ‘ladrones’ (thieves) who would kill me. I was heading north into an empty area which was very dangerous. Alfonso at the Rosario in La Paz had also warned me about this area.
With this cheery thought in mind we worked out that I could get to Italaque over the pass, about another 30km before nightfall. Well. I don’t know about thieves but the next 15km were plagued by beggars. People would come up to me and ‘talk’ for a couple of minutes then ask for the usual ‘plata’. Finally I team up with a group of kids who follow me for about 5km. It was really hard work cycling up the valley; it was cold with some spots of rain. I had to walk most of the way, every time I stop the group stops, when I start again they start. They were good company, finding the going hard themselves.
They kids left me when we reached their village. From there it was another 5km climb to the cumbre (top/pass) at Huallpacayo. It felt as though I had done more pushing of the bike than riding! In the distance I saw a few shepherds coming down from the top with their lamas. There is the seemingly obligatory statue of Christ at the top along with a choice of three directions. Hopefully I pick the right one and descend 650m in 8km to the village of Italaque.
BOLIVIA – Saturday 10 August 2002
Do the French really eat frogs?
I had planned to make a leisurely ride back to La Paz, perhaps taking a few detours from Puerto Carabuco and to camp out to watch the stars so when I set out having said goodbye to Doña Cicilla I was pleased to feel a tailwind and rapidly warming sun.
I had eaten an early breakfast with Don Fernando at Chuñuña restaurant, a couple of fresh crispy rolls with some Bolivian semi-hard salty cheese from his secret store and a cup of back stiffening coffee. I had been unable to get cheese the previous morning (No hay!).
Along the roadside there are many memorials to people who have died in accidents and it was while I was taking a picture of one of them that two cyclist rode up followed shortly by a couple more. They were French Christophe, Thibault, Michel and Vincent, 23 years olds who were doing varying lengths of trip. Apart from Vincent they had been together since Central America, Vincent was cycling from Lima to La Paz before going back to exams in France a week after his return, Christophe was cycling to Uyuni before taking the bus to Santiago and the plane home and Tibo and Michel were doing the full trip to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.
I tried to speak French with them initially but the mess of languages in my head made it impossible. I still regularly use arigato (Japanese thank you) and anteeksi (Finnish excuse me) and unless I have recalled the Spanish word the Finnish one comes out so recalling French left me speechless. Luckily their English was good enough (for Frenchmen!) and gradually I was able to understand much of their conversation, often Vincent would ask Christophe what a particular word was in English and I could tell him.
It is very different, riding with other people than riding solo. Whilst the solitude of being alone can be quite spiritual the camaraderie of a group can help diminish the frustration, anger and sheer helplessness at the cyclists’ worst enemy, the headwind which is a common occurrence here!
I once before rode with an American cyclist in Pakistan down part of the Karakorum highway and I found that difficult but it was very easy to fit in with their riding style. They seemed to cycle well together, they were always looking out for the others and would stop regularly to ensure no one got too far behind. They seemed to be able to agree easily and Christophe said they had no real problems apart from usual tensions that can come up in such an intimate environment where they spent every moment of the day together.
Thibault was often out front cycling ahead on his own, Vincent and Christophe cycled together a lot. Having been ‘best friends’ at school they seemed comfortable with each other, Vincent wrote the lyrics to their songs and Christophe played them with their band back in France. Christophe would sing as he rode and they would recall songs Vincent had written. Michel was often bringing up the rear but occasionally he would put on a burst of speed and overtake all and hit the front with Tibo. Between them they shared a film camera, a digital camera and a video camera. Michel and Tibo had the film and digital cameras and they would often stop to arrange a ride by shoot when there was suitable scenery.
Chris and I found a fairly natural pace together at least until we hit some hills when I slowed. I think it was because I was carrying more weight and still haven’t got the cycling legs (sounds like a good reason!)
We reached Huarina late afternoon having done just over 80km. The Frenchies planned to ask to stay at the church having done so in Puerto Carabuco. They often have some kind of dormitory attached to the church. I must have missed something but somehow we managed to get ourselves involved in a 5 a-side football match with an impromptu Bolivian team. Perhaps agreeing to a 40 minute game after 80km was a bit optimistic but we did and lost.
The game was lots of fun, the Bolivians played a very fair game. The Frenchies supplied their own ball, a tactical stroke of genius as they were familiar with the ball and its bounce but after we started well the Bolivians decided to thrown in a replacement ball, much heavier and with no bounce. That upset our team completely and the opposition scored two goals in rapid succession.
We managed to get our ball reinstated but as luck would have it, a long kick sent the ball onto the road to be flattened by the hourly bus going past. What a blow, we were then destined to lose.
After the game some fool suggested a rematch and so we played another 20 minutes. This time we brought out our secret weapon, Tibo, who had played in goal for the first 40 minutes. I took his place in goal and the fresher 23 year old legs were far more useful than my 40 year old ones! We won the second game with the Frenchies playing some wonderfully co-ordinated football up front and then retired for a coke in a nearby shop.
It was dark after the game so we went to find the sisters at the church to ask if we could stay. The gate was locked but there was a service going on inside the church so Michel and Christophe went in at the end of the service and we were then ushered into the dormitories attached to the church.
There were no restaurants in town so the priest showed us the ‘hot dog’ stand where we ravenously devoured several Bolivian style hot dogs and burgers with the company of many of Huarina’s youth. Back at the dormitory the pastor brought us some hot water in a kettle so we could make hot drinks. I had optimistically misunderstood the offer of hot water to mean we might be able to get a decent wash!
The rest of the evening was spent attending to anglo-french relations. Vincent had never eaten frogs and was adamant that no one in France eats frogs and that snail eating was quite rare! I have eaten them in China a couple of times and Riitta just reminded me I had them in Vietnam a couple of years ago when we were there together. They are quite good with plenty of garlic! Christophe has a guitar and so we had a selection of music from Neil Young to their own renditions such as Le Legume (the vegetable), about a person with the personality of one who wants to escape life and go and hibernate and live in a cave. If Christophe can provide a translation I can post it here. They sang a number of their own French songs before we finally hit the sack. There was in interesting aroma in the dorm, the others had been cycling for 10 days and me for 6 without a decent wash…
It was a pleasure to meet these four and I enjoyed their company. I wish them all the best with their rides and futures. They have a website, in French, at http://www.routedesreves.com though there seem to be some DNS problems from certain locations which we are trying to fix…
PERU – Tuesday 20 August 2002
The problems of altitude sickness
Today Riitta and I were booked on the 9am flight to Cuzco to spend a week in Peru exploring Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins. Riitta had arrived on Sunday afternoon on three flight from Helsinki. We had been concerned about altitude sickness for both of us coming from sea level to 3,650m and had taken gingko biloba which recent evidence suggests may help the body acclimatise to the altitude.
I had had an awful headache and nausea for a couple of days but on my third day I made my first ride. Most people who had come from sea level had experienced some problems, from minor headache for a day to vomiting for three days so when Riitta had a headache Sunday afternoon and on Monday felt ok to go for a walk we thought that was it.
At 2:30 this morning Riitta was awake with a terrible headache and feeling sick. I got some mate de coca for her from downstairs in the hotel which is supposed to help. She is sick and doesn’t sleep again before we are up at 6:30. Hopefully the lower altitude at Cuzco at 3,350m will help but she can’t eat much and the mate de coca does not seem to help much either.
On the plane Riitta feels a bit better and when we arrive in Cuzco we go to the Hostal Los Niños where we have reserved a room. It’s a hostal set up to help Peruvian street children and many work there. After a short walk round Cuzco Riitta starts to feel worse and worse and goes to bed to try to sleep while I go off to the railway station to find out about trains to Machu Picchu and change some money.
I have to wait nearly 2 hours at the station along with the other mass of tourists and travel agents so decide to buy tickets there and then. The ticket options are hard to understand, we had planned to make our own way to the Valle Sagrada so I finally decided on tickets from Urubamba to Machu Picchu and back to Ollantaytambo but when my turn came the lady convinced me that it was no possible to go from Urubamba, instead I had to go from Ollantaytambo although it clearly says there is a train from Urubamba.
Tickets in hand I headed back to see how Riitta was doing. She’s been sick again and is trying unsuccessfully to sleep in my -15 degree down sleeping bag. It makes sense to try and get to a lower altitude so I try to get a taxi to Urubamba which is at 2,800m. Taxis in Cuzco have a bad reputation, there are lots of crime scare stories about them so I asked the hostal to see if they could book one but they could not get in touch with their known taxis.
We decided to stay the night and go in the morning but finally at 5 Riitta is still feeling so bad I asked the hostal to try the taxis again. They got through and the taxi arrives promptly. We packed up and set off over the mountains in the setting sun, it was a beautiful trip but Riitta was not able to appreciate it!
We went to Mach’a Wasi, a hostal advertised in the local Cuzco paper and couldn’t have ended up in a better place. Eleanor, an Canadian married to a Peruvian doctor, ran the small hostal in her own home. The beds were comfortable, the room clean and she got straight on the phone to her husband at the hospital in Cuzco to ask what we could do to help Riitta. He suggested some drugs to help with her nausea. Riitta normally feels bad if she doesn’t eat regularly during the day and she had now gone without food for 24 hours. The chemist was still open so I went and got the drugs and Riitta took one and managed to get a reasonable nights sleep with no more vomiting.
PERU – Friday 23 August 2002
It was still dark when Riitta and I arrived at Urubamba station for the 6 am train to Aguas Calientes, the final stop before the short bus ride to Machu Picchu. The Peru Rail office had said we could not catch the train from Urubamba but Eleanor had kindly rung her friend, the Vice President of sales at Peru Rail, to ask why. There was no difference in the ticket price and she had told us to go and there wouldn’t be a problem getting on.
The section of line from Urubamba to Ollantaytambo (Ollanta for short) had been reopened in May 2002 and an Englishman who ran a local hotel had bought the line and was running the service. A single unlit carriage sat in the brand new station, we were a bit early! Presently a man came and crawled under the train and suddenly life burst from the exhaust pipes coming from the roof of the carriage and we went inside to take advantage of the heating. Sadly there was no heating and we sat huddled together trying to extract warmth from the meagre amounts of carbon dioxide being expelled by the six other people in the carriage.
As we started to pull out a group of 15 or so Italian tourists came running onto the platform and we stopped to let them on. All the tickets had numbered seats but the Italians milled around like lost llamas, their guide calling out names and numbers or was it numbers and names. It took them the first fifteen minutes before they were all seated
It takes a bus 20 minutes to cover the short distance to Ollanta but we made it last an hour. The train went very slowly as the line ran very close to the few mud buildings built along the edge of the line. This was the first scheduled train of the day to arrive at Aguas Calientes which meant we would have two hours on Machu Picchu before the first train bringing the daytrippers from Cuzco. Ours was a Vistadome train which meant it had a big windows and a partial glass roof giving us a fantastic view of the mountains towering over the single track line.
At Ollanta we were joined by two more people and breakfast was served. It was a farcical affair, two stewards pushed an airline food trolley along the wildly rocking carriage and handed each of us a tray on which sat a sandwich and a small bowl of fruit. Half of the coffee poured in the cup ended up on the tray which sat on our laps
Aguas Calientes was a depressing place, we quickly bought our bus tickets and took the last two seats on the bus waiting to leave for the 20 minute journey to Machu Picchu. Urubamba is at 2,800m and the train had come down to 1,900m and we had to climb back up to 2,400m. Both Riitta and I had very low expectations of Machu Picchu as we had visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia in January and couldn’t see how some Inca ruins could be so impressive. As we wound up the hill we got the occasional glimpse of the ruins and we started to realise why the place had such an appeal. The setting is spectacular. Situated in the ‘womb’ of the mountains Machu Picchu stands on the top of a 2400m peak, 500m above the river. To the north was the peak of Huayanapicchu, connected by a narrow ridge and overlooking Machu Picchu by 200m. All around were other peaks.
It costs 20$ to get in, signs at the gate politely inform you of the items you are not allowed to take into the ruins; rucsacs; food; drinks. Up close the ruins are less impressive than from a distance. We had no guide, neither of us wanting to have the constraints of a guide’s timetable, however, we occasionally lingered on the periphery of other groups listening to explanations of particular features. Sometimes it was amusing to sit near a feature and listen to different guides’ different explanations. Near the temple of the sun there is a rock feature which resembles the geographical features of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains and rivers. One guide informed his group that it was not known if the rock was a natural replica of the geography or whether it had been carved by Hiram Bingham when he rediscovered the site in 1911. The next guide assured his group that the rock was completely natural!
The exact purpose of Machu Picchu also seems to be shrouded in mystery. Experts still argue as to its purpose, was it a citadel, an agricultural site, an astronomical observatory, a ceremonial city or a sacred retreat for the Inca emperor. Any search on the web will give different opinion as to why it exists.
We found a place looking down on the ruins and sat trying to absorb the history. The difference between the Asian and Inca culture seemed huge. At Angkor in Cambodia, the temples date from 800AD and the Khmers left a legacy of exquisite carving, the temples of Angkor Wat and the Bayon telling stories of battles and victories over the Chams and the Chinese. Figures of deities abound. Here at Machu Picchu the stones are very simple in shape but the Incas were more subtle. Machu Picchu itself is supposed to resemble a condor in flight, Cuzco a puma and the ruins at Ollanta, a llama. Their worship of the sun and the moon was important, their carvings were designed to use the sunlight. Stones were strategically placed to catch the rising sun at the winter solstice. At Ollanta the rising sun at the winter solstice would light a rock that was the llama’s eye.
The narrow ridge leading up to the summit of Huayanapicchu beckoned. Entering through a gate you had to sign a book and give your time of departure and on your return you had to sign out. Presumably the small print read, “if you fall off don’t blame us”. The man at the gate said it would take about 50 minutes each way to get to the summit. I left Riitta behind as she was still suffering a bit from the altitude and set off. The climb was unbelievably steep, the river 700m below also beckoned in places but because this was 1,000m lower than the Altiplano my legs felt really strong and I almost ran up.
There was not much space at the top, about 30 people sat clustered around the rock at the peak. Just below the summit was a building on a ledge and some Inca terracing climbing down at an impossibly steep angle. The view down to Machu Picchu was beautiful but I could not make out the flying condor, even later reading a book which showed an artist’s impression I couldn’t see it!
Going down took as long as going up, I literally ran down, jumping from rock to rock. It was actually easier on the knees although I think it was semi-controlled flight rather than any form of climbing! I made it back to the gate to sign out 45 minutes after I left. It was exhilarating. Riitta said she hadn’t seen me waving.
It started raining so we decided to go and see what Aguas Calientes had to offer. It wasn’t much but we managed to kill an hour before going to the station for the train back again. This time there were two carriages. At Ollanta everyone else got out apart from us so we asked a steward which of the two carriages was continuing to Urubamba. It was of course the other one. Unfortunately the other one also thought it was the other one and it turned out that they were not going to run the service. It didn’t really matter as the bus ride back to Eleanor’s sanctuary was 40 minutes faster.
BOLIVIA – Wednesday 28 August 2002
Bless my car!
It looked like August 28th 2002 was an auspicious day to get married. Outside the church at Copacabana the road was lined with cars covered in ribbons and flowers. Someone was fiddling under the bonnet of one car as though placing a dead fish to provide scent to the happy couple’s drive away.
Inside the church all was quiet, not a soul about and certainly nothing that seemed remotely wedding like. As Riitta and I left the church (another large catholic construction with images of misery and suffering within) I saw a sign announcing parking between 10am and 2pm was reserved for those vehicles being blessed.
We sat opposite the church and watched the scene. Some church official was spraying the car in beer, going all round it ensuring each wheel was liberally covered. He then stood in a huddle with the proud owners and hugged and kissed them all. Further incantations were made to protect the car from accidents, more handshakes and hugs and drinking of the remaining beer that hadn’t hit the car. The process went on for about half an hour before finally the owner drove away hopefully not intoxicated!
Later that afternoon as Riitta and I sat on Copacabana beach (not the one in Rio) watching the sun sink towards the horizon there was another ceremony. This time the official realised he had an audience of 20 or so foreigners and he excelled himself. It may have been sparkling wine, not beer, that covered the car and he also created a small fountain to shower the group of 4 with.
Wine was thrown dramatically onto the sand in front of the engine, first by the official who, with hands above his head, paused to glance at the audience from the corner of his eyes, his customers forgotten, The tension mounted as we waited to see if he would thrown it through the engine grill or onto the windscreen. Finally. as we leant forwards in expectation, he cast the wine. It went straight down into the sand at his feet, whether by intention or not we shall never know.
Then followed the owner who was either more or less successful as his wine went partly onto the sand and partly into the engine grill. The show over the group packed up to leave. An empty plastic bottle in the boot was cast carelessly onto the sand before they carefully reversed between some rocks back onto the road. Secretly we hoped they would hit the rocks but the wine casting had obviously worked and they made it without incident.
BOLIVIA – Thursday 29 August 2002
Riitta and I woke early as the boat from Copacabana to the Isla del Sol left at 8:30. It was freezing outside but the sun poured into the restaurant at La Cupula where we were staying and rapidly warmed us. The food was superb, we had eaten there twice the previous day. Martin, a softly spoken German man who owned the hostal, wore a hat and scarf whatever the weather. He explained that they had been lucky with some of their chefs, one in particular had been excellent although he did not last very long because he was somewhat unreliable.
The small boat took and hour and a half across calm water, the wind was still very cold for those who sat on the roof but we were inside forced to listen to a very loud American and Canadian couple pontificating about everything. We learnt about all their family problems, the girl’s father was very disappointed with the fact that she had chosen to give up her career to go travelling, he was an important bigwig in PricewaterhouseCoopers bla bla bla. Try as we could we could not block out their noise.
According to Inca legend, the island is the birthplace of the sun itself. At the harbour at the southern end of Isla del Sol the Inca staircase climbs 50 metres from the lake to the Inca fountain where people have to come to fetch water as there is no other water on the island. One man we spoke to was pleased that Mallku, the indigenous candidate, had won a seat in congress because he really believed that they would now receive help. He was hoping for a water supply for the island.
The path up to the village of Yumani climbs 200 metres to the ridge where you can see across to Peru. We had arranged to stay at a place run by Ricardo, originally Argentinean, he had lived in Brazil and Ecuador and now in Bolivia. His Spanish was very difficult to understand, he spoke with a very odd accent, half Portuguese, half Spanish. His house had four rooms and in each the roof had a large painted dome copied from the Cupula in Copacabana. The living room was cosy, an oil heater sat in the centre of the room which looked inviting.
It was a perfect day and the view across to the Cordillera Real was incredible, there was so much blue. Separating the blue was the thin strip of white and brown where the land fought to prevent the two blues from merging. We had some fish in a small restaurant where the owner’s daughter came to sit on Riitta’s lap before setting off to walk to the temple of the sun, Inca ruins at the southern tip of the island.
We were walking at 4,000m and whenever the path went up Riitta found her heart pounding. I fared better having spent more time at this altitude. The temple was quite small but well preserved. We were the only ones there apart from a woman grazing her sheep and a man selling tickets. He appeared from nowhere and we had to fill out his book and pay our 5 soles. After we paid he went back to sleep in the sun in the shade of a bush to wait for the next tourist. There had been 12 others so far today and it was early afternoon.
We headed back over the ridge to get a view of the southern side and walked in solitude just absorbing the view. We were alone apart from a young boy, a woman and 5 sheep until we reached the ridge above Yumani again. Ahead was a path to a peak where there was a light which was lit every night, presumably for aircraft so made for it. It was at 4056 m and we could see in all directions. To the east, 150 km away, we could even see Illimani, the 6400m mountain that towers over La Paz.
The setting sun turned the Cordillera various shades of red and gold. In the west a huge cumulus cloud rose high above the mountains. Inside, lightening flashed in silence, the sound of thunder not reaching us. We were the only people in the restaurant for dinner but the food was very good, the vegetable soup delicious. After dinner we realised our mistake in not bringing the torch as it was pitch black and we had to walk 200 metres down a rocky path to Ricardo’s house. It took us 10 minutes to feel our way down until we reached the turning to the house and the beckoning warmth of the oil heater.[/lang_all][lang_all]
BOLIVIA – Thursday 5 September 2002
The Diablos Rojos come to say goodbye to Riitta.
Riitta’s last night here and what she needed was a good night’s sleep before her 28 hours of travelling back to Finland. At midnight the sound of trumpets, tubas and drums started to filter through to our dreams. Finally dreams turned to reality and the full force of what was going on hit home. There was a street party going on right outside the hotel.
When one thinks of typical Andean music, pan pipes and charangos spring to mind. Eerie mountain melodies and joyful songs played by people in colourful ponchos are in the forefront of ones mind. Enter the Bolivian (and for all I know, the South American) brass band which shatters that image. The band can play the same tune for hours and indeed this is just what they proceeded to do for the following two hours right outside the hotel front door. The six trumpet players were leaning against the doors and the six tuba players were lined up in front of them.
Our room was at the back of the hotel but it felt like they were playing at the foot of our bed. So that you, dear reader, can also experience the joys of this sort of music I ventured forth with my trusty Psion to record a sample. When I opened our door (which leads to the open air) the full scale of their performance hit me but I beat a pass through the sound waves down to the front of the hotel.
The sight that greeted me made me laugh even at 1am. In the street outside the hotel were about 40 people dressed up as red devils, complete with horned helmets. In their midst stood a man dressed in white with wings on his back edged in gold. They and a further 50 hangers on were walking round in a train dance to the music. A man carried a large red banner with Centro Social Diablos Rojos in large gold letters round the edge. It seemed it was some sort of anniversary party for them.
A man with a large drum was leading the band and everyone was singing (not the trumpet players of course). He was beating the drum as though he was putting in pilings for a bridge. One of the trumpet players noticed me standing inside the locked doors and we regarded each other with bemused expressions each wondering what on earth was going on the other side of the door.
I retreated back to the room and stuffed a toilet roll in each ear to no avail and finally at 2am the ensemble moved off down the street, no doubt to annoy some other city district and I drifted into a nightmare where I was tied to a chair and forced to listen to several Bolivian brass bands playing different tunes against each other.
The following morning I asked who these people were. It turned out the whole affair was a REHEARSAL for their festival at the end of September. Luckily I won’t be here then, even so I still may hear the sound while camping on the Chilean border…
BOLIVIA – Saturday 7 September 2002
With only 2.99 km on the clock I had to stop. My chest was heaving and all the exhaust I had swallowed over the last three weeks off the bike coagulated into a big mass in my throat which I had to deposit on the cobbles I was riding over.
Riitta had left yesterday to go back to Helsinki. She used the word ‘ordeal’ to describe our three weeks together though I think that had more to do with the fact that the first week was spent overcoming altitude sickness and the subsequent two weeks were spent with constant, excruciating sinus pain which no amount of pain killers, antihistamine, decongestant or antibiotic could do anything for and to cap it all a dose of food poisoning. Still, we managed to pack in a lot and all the travel arrangements went off without a hitch. Watching her go through immigration for the first leg of her 28 hours back to Helsinki knowing we would not see each other for a few more months left rather a large lump in my stomach.
I wanted a ride that would be tough enough to get my legs going again but also one I could enjoy. The 24 km up from La Paz to the pass at La Cumbre seemed an ideal choice. It meant a 1,000m, 3 ½ hour climb but offered a thrilling descent, so after a big breakfast in the Rosario I set off under another perfectly blue sky.
Sir Richard Beresford-Wylie had kindly sent Riitta a new Dazer to replace the one which flew down the side of a mountain in my first days so I was able to test it on the many dogs that lined the road on the first section out of La Paz. Interestingly the dogs closer to the city looked at me with dull eyes and very little reaction, they were used to the treatment meted out to them by humans, but as I got further out of the city the dogs became more aggressive and the Dazer was much more effective. It emits a ultrasonic noise, inaudible to humans but unpleasant to dogs.
On the police checkpoint at the edge of habitation I caught up with Fernando, an Argentinean psychologist who had lived in La Paz for many years. One day each weekend he would go out for a ride for pleasure and exercise. He had never made it to La Cumbre but had once cycled to the reservoir, which provides the water for La Paz, 250m and 7 km short of the top. At 4,100m he ‘reached his limit’ and prepared for the descent while I continued the journey up.
The tailwind turned to a headwind, the sky became dark and hail started to fall. The water in my bottles suddenly became very cold and so did I. I put on my extra clothes, another lined windproof jacket, my gortex jacket, my balaclava, my gloves and thermal trousers.
There was less snow at La Cumbre when I arrived compared to the time three weeks previously with Chris, Tibo and Michel. That time we had seen police divers in the lake but today there was no one around. Fernando told me that a couple of teenagers had fallen in the lake and drowned.
Five men sat huddled against the rock on the side of the road, presumably waiting for transport but I wonder why they got off in the first place to stop there. It was too cold to linger so I quickly went to the statue of Christ on a small hill overlooking the road down. From there it was very dark, clouds billowed in the valley and swept over where I was standing.
Ah, the downhill… That’s what makes going up so much fun, the anticipation of the descent. I remember Michael Buckley, the travel writer, writing about his descent from the Tibetan plateau to Nepal. It was over 10 years ago when I read it so cannot remember it well but he captures the essence of a long descent from high. The crisp cold air gets heavier, warmer, vegetation starts to cover the arid desert plateau, down, down, down. Leaves get thicker, the lungs breath easier, the sky becomes a paler blue, on, on, down, down, down!
After 5 km of gradual down the road steepens, a van loaded with numb faces overtakes me, the driver stays within the 60 kmh speed limit, I overtake it, my speedometer rising beyond my previous high. I don’t even need to pedal as the tailwind pushes me up to 70. Head down, I drop my backside over the back edge of the saddle. The dogs foraging on the side of the road watch me, I watch them, very carefully. Up, up, up creeps my speed, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77. I think of the energy coming from my wheels, some gravel on the road at a corner forces me to touch the brakes, a dog ahead in the middle of the road, a bus coming up the hill. Which way will the dog go, not my side please, it moves to the bus’ side, no need for the brakes. The sun comes out again, my eyes are watering, my vision blurs, I hit some bumps in the road at 70, the handlebars wag my head.
Small buildings appear, I slow to 40, suddenly a brown shape darts from the side of the road, barking. I leave a trail of rubber as I screech to a halt and ‘shoot’ it with the Dazer. It backs off, tail between its legs. I realise it’s warm enough to remove all the extra clothes and continue. The first 19 km took 28 minutes including the clothes stop and my top speed was 77.7 kmh!
BOLIVIA – Monday 9 September 2002
This morning I went to the Instituto Geografico y Militar. On Wednesday I am finally leaving La Paz which has been my base for explorations for the last few weeks. IGM produces maps and for my route south I will be riding virtually astride the Bolivian and Chilean border from where it meets Peru to where it meets Argentina. It is a very high, very remote route and I need good maps, especially in the area around the large salt flats of Coipasa and Uyuni.
I had been there earlier to see what maps I would need and spoken to Valdez who works in the section I needed to visit. Most of Bolivia was mapped in the 60s and 70s with funding from the US. Detailed topographical maps were made at 1:50,000 and 1:250,000. These are the maps that are available but the problem is that they no longer have stocks of the originals so all that is available are black and white photocopies of an original. The difference between the two is huge, roads, rivers, railways, power lines and contour lines all end up black. The price difference is minimal, a colour one costs 45Bs (6.2€) and the black and white 35Bs (4.8€).
When I bought my maps for my trip to the north of Titicaca Valdez checked if any still had stocks of colour and only one, the border area north of Titicaca area, was available. Today we had a longer talk and he told me of when he was working near the border area where I am to cycle, it is a beautiful and he had spent some time driving in the area for work. He knew of the direction I wanted to go and advised me on the route.
I asked again if he had any in colour. I needed 10 of the 1:250,000 maps and said I would take any in colour they still had. The main IGM office is out of town so I had to go back at 4 to pick up the maps. Valdez ushered me into an office and there on the table lay 10 maps, all neatly folder and all in colour! He had obviously done a lot of begging, stealing or borrowing, some were a bit creased and had a bit of writing on the back but I didn’t care! Nine of the maps ranged from 1966 to 1974, some of them stamped with “Uso restrigido” but one mysteriously was in English and had in big letters at the bottom, “DETAILS CORRECT AS AT 1996”.
I hurried back to the Rosario and eagerly spread them all out on my bed. Some people have a passion for chocolate, I like maps. Although the maps are old, towns disappear, new towns appear and rivers change course, mountains tend to stay in the same place and the topographic details are good. I planned a flexible route to Charañi on the border. Assuming the marked roads were still there it was about 220 km to the border, probably 3-4 days given my current level of fitness. The route follows a river which means I at least have a water source.
I use the term ‘roads’ loosely. The map shows four classes of road.
* Sealed, 2 way (shown in thick red line)
* Unsealed, 2 way (shown in dotted red/white thick red line)
* Sealed, 1 way (shown in thin red line)
* Unsealed, 1 way (shown in thin white line)
There is very little red on the maps, mainly around La Paz. The roads I could find to the border did not fit into any of the above four categories. Instead there was another class in which there were two types. The thin black line meant unsealed and usable when dry or fair. These were the roads that would take me to the border.
It is exciting to be leaving. Now I can start to move the little yellow cross southwards towards the red one. The scenery along this part of the trip promises to be some of the best I will see. Some of the places I will pass through on my way are
* Lauca National Park
* Sajama National Park
* Salar de Uyuni
* Salar de Coipasa
* Laguna Colorada
* Laguna Verde
* San Pedro de Atacama
Unfortunately time constraints don’t allow me to put much detail about these places but when I’ve been there you can see the pictures!
BOLIVIA – Wednesday 11 September 2002
I couldn’t sleep last night trying to decide what I don’t need. My bags are full and the bike weighs a ton. Just to make things worse, Eduardo, the manager of the Rosario, kindly gives me a t-shirt with a hand woven design as a souvenir.
The papers and TV are full of last years attacks in the US and there is much speculation as to whether there will be any attacks on the anniversary. George Bush is desperately trying to stage a war against Sadam. It seemed like a good day to leave. Perhaps when I was next in touch with the world it would all be over but nothing changes that quickly.
I said my goodbyes, after a hearty breakfast, to all the guys in the restaurant and to Adolfo and Ricky at reception. The staff are a very long serving group, several have been there for 25 years and Ricky has been there 20. Adolfo is a relative newcomer at only 5 years.
It was an awful morning, there were the sort of black clouds that make you bring the dog in and rain looked imminent. It had been a wonderfully warm day the day before. Alex, the taxi driver Riitta and I had used, came to give me a lift up the hill to El Alto, there seemed little point in exhausting myself after a three week layoff! The grey road downhill to Viacha merged with the sky but it was only 15 km from El Alto and with a tailwind my arrival coincided with the rain 30 minutes later.
The road led to the Plaza des Armas. I cycled round the square a few times looking for a suitable exit which signified a good road to Corocoro. The rain was heavy and soon turned to sleet (räntä). Not finding anything that looked like my definition of a road leading away from the square apart from the one I had arrived on I huddled under cover with a group of 30 somethings while the worst passed. A lady hurried past me dragging her young daughter, the poor girl was wearing only sandals on her bare feet.
The group of young men standing close by started looking at me. One has a pair of jeans with a crutch that starts at the knees, his arms hang monkey like by his sides. The sneer on his face almost passes for a smile but the glint of envy lurks in the corner of his eyes and I get the impression he tortures animals for kicks. He approaches and tells me there is a ‘negra’ inside the shop and when I look confused he says ‘cholita’ (an Aymara woman) and he makes rude gestures. His friends find this funny. Emboldened, he asks how much the bike is tells me he wants me to give him money. I ask him why he asks for money. “I want it”, he says. “We all want it”, I return. I hear them discussing me, my clothes, discussing my worth. Presently someone else joins their group and their conversation changes. The rain subsides, they go and so do I.
25 km from La Paz and the tarmac finishes. I finally found the muddy track from the Plaza leading out of town past the most foul smelling river. The road is a quagmire with puddles everywhere, a truck comes past and splashes me with mud. The only good thing is the tailwind. If there had been a headwind I don’t think I could have cycled anywhere at all, the bike feels so heavy and my legs are not up to the task. For the hundredth time I mentally go through all the things I could get rid of. The Spanish verb book, the quena, the tele converter, an extra shirt, the sunglasses case. It’s a futile exercise so I concentrate on eating kilometres.
I am buzzed by an Andean gull. I hear screeching getting close and I see it streaking towards me a metre above ground. It goes just over my head, wheels around and dives on me again then flies away. Maybe it thought my rubber sole squeaking against the pedal was a threat.
It’s quite flat and the road starts to dry out but doesn’t improve. I join up with a railway line and the road follows that. At least I know I’m not lost as the line goes all the way to Chile. No longer running a passenger service because of the paved road between Arica and La Paz it takes cargo once a week. In a small village I stop to see if there’s anywhere to get some food. Only a small roadside stall sells biscuits and drinks so I make do along with a man on a motor bike who also stops for some refreshment. A man sitting by the road pleads with motorbike man to give him a lift (in a different direction to the way he is going) without luck. At the police post they tell me there is a place in the next village 17 km away so I head off following motorbike man.
It doesn’t take too long to get to Comanche as the wind helps despite the road but I’m pretty exhausted by the time I arrive. I see a man coming from some buildings at the edge of the village and ask about places for almuerzo. He points me down the road to some small buildings at the foot of a mountain covered in Puya Raimondi, a plant that grows for 100 years before producing a single flower and then dying. He also tells me there is a place to stay.
I dine on quinoa soup and the usual, rice, potatoes and a piece of tough meat. The sky darkens and it starts to hail and the temperature drops considerably. Needing no further encouragement I make for the buildings where I can stay the night. It’s a simple dorm belonging to a training centre, for what I could not fathom, but it gives me a place to make some coffee and watch the weather. Sun and hail alternate and between downpours I clean most of the mud from the bike.
Finally bad wins over good and the sun disappears for the day, lightening bolts rip from the sky and thunder rolls in from afar and the skies explode with white. I stand in the doorway and watch curtains of hail drape the air in front of me while someone operates a sewing machine on the roof. The distant mountains disappear in cloud to reappear the following morning frosted in white.
I’m sitting on my bunk playing cards at 8 when in comes motorbike man. He runs the place I’m staying at and comes bringing supper, a plate of pasta, meat, chuños, potatoes and rice all in a broth. I can’t eat too many chuños and the meat is so tough I can’t eat it so I flush it down the toilet later. I’m not sure how chuños became food, they are potatoes, left outside for three nights and trampled during the day to remove the moisture. They are black and look like diseased kidneys.
I cuddle up in my sleeping bag and await the breakfast promised for 6:30 the following morning and better weather.
BOLIVIA – Thursday 12 September 2002
Am I carrying a pistol?
The woman in the small tienda in Corocoro who’d just managed to increase my purchase from 2 Bs to 10 Bs by persuading me I needed some more biscuits, bananas, apples, chocolate, asks me if I have one to protect myself. I didn’t ask from who or what. It makes a change from being asked how much the bike is.
Her shop was just down the road from the small litter strewn river at the edge of town. The town of Corocoro, until 20 years ago a copper mining town possesses a defunct cinema and a life-size copper status of a miner In one hand he holds a mining drill and in the other, raised high above his head, a rifle. I wonder if he knew which to use in what circumstances. Perhaps this accounted for the lady’s reference to guns. Two locals standing underneath the statue shrug their shoulders in lack of interest.
Further up the hill out of town I stop to talk to a couple of men. Again, one asks if I am scared. This time, forewarned, I ask ‘of whom’. He looks at me with a lopsided grin and sheepishly tells me the people are good around here.
The day started at 6:39 when motorbike man’s sidekick brings me breakfast. Not breakfast you or I would consider as such but when food is put in front of me my mouth takes a life of its own, forcing my hands to move said food in its direction. This time it was a couple of stiff, very fried eggs in a large roll. To wash it down was a mug of water with a small green leaf sitting on the bottom like a scuba diver.
There is no wind and the bike feel heavy. The mountains around look like the sponge cakes my mother used to make when I was a child with a dusting of icing sugar. My mother’s had jam in the middle, it was normally strawberry or raspberry. She also made a wicked coffee cake with thick coffee icing on top, but I digress…
The road leads out of the village between the railway and river which I discover is ‘salada’ (salt water) so not much good for drinking. It passes a huge hacienda sitting under the mountain. A dozen pillars run along the facade. Most of the towns along the route are prefixed, on my 1971 map, with ‘General’ and no doubt it was the residence of some high ranking person. Now it is used as the political building for the district.
I pass Comanche mountain, none of the Puya Raimondi have flowered overnight. The first 10 km of each day always take a bit of getting used to. I stuffed a biscuit in my mouth as I pulled away from the village. At school there used to be a challenge where one had to eat a packet of two Jacob’s Cream Crackers in a minute. Simple you might think. Not so. The crackers suck all the moisture in your mouth and your tongue rasps over a large mass of dry crumbs. Bring in the idea of doing it at 4,000 metres while exerting yourself on a bicycle. Crumbs erupted like lava from my mouth and I couldn’t breathe.
The road is still awful, no change there. It climbs slowly and soon there is a tailwind!! Amazing, it feels so different to have a tailwind. Good!
I leave Corocoro for Pando, 7 km beyond, to I find a place to have lunch. I would find it difficult to live in this remote country with this food. The soups are often quite good but I cannot get to grips with ‘la segunda’. Fortunately I had a choice of pasta or rice and knowing how the rice comes (a bit like the Konala canteen) I chose pasta which was not an altogether bad choice. I had to leave some and also the big lump of meat floating in the soup.
Calacoto is the next village and is on the Rio Mauri shortly after its confluence with the Rio Desaguadero which flows out of Lake Titicaca. This means a downhill as Titicaca is at 3,800 m. In the distance the sky is black and it is raining. It’s difficult to tell if it is before or after Calacoto.
The road drops just under 200m over the next 23 km. Because many people use bikes or walk there are often tracks off to on side of the road when the road is bad. These are quite smooth and I use these where I can. The difference is incredible, on the road I have to really work hard to pedal to make progress through the thick sand and large stones. My speed is about 11 kmh. On these side paths I can go at 18 kmh and the ride is much softer.
The wind on the Altiplano normal gets up around midday and is often ferocious. I crossed the Desaguadero river, only 7 km from Calacoto. The blackness ahead looks really menacing. I don’t want to be out cycling in a thunderstorm. In the village I ask about a place to stay, “muy lejos”, jokes a man laughing. He then points me to a green house on one side of the square. A group of men are sitting outside and the usual 20 questions follow. Let’s see if I can remember them…
1. Where have you come from
2. Where are you going
3. What country are you from
4. What do you do if you get a puncture
5. Are you alone
6. How much is your bike
7. How much does it weigh
8. Are you tired
9. What do you do (for work)
10. Why don’t you take a bus
11. Can you speak Aymara (Maya, paya, quimsa, pusi, pesca)
12. Are you married
13. Do you have any children
14. How old are they
15. How much do you earn
16. How much is your Psion
17. Will you sell me your bike
18. What will you do if your bike breaks
19. What countries will you visit on your trip
20. Where have you been so far
Questions 21 onwards are regional variations and so are not mentioned here.
Don Sinovia, the owner, has a room and so I decamp upstairs to ‘descansar un poco’. ( I answered ‘yes’ to question 8). One of the men asks me about some stones and I suddenly realise what he is talking about when I look out from my room and see what look like the Inca tombs on the hillside a couple of km away. I remember reading about them in a magazine in Sorata. They are pre Inca burial tombs called chulpas.
There is a single chulpa quite near the village so I hike up to it. There is a dry river bed of sand that runs down to the Mauri river, someone tells me during the rains in the summer it has some water but I’m not sure if that’s what he said. The chulpa has a doorway facing east to the rising sun. I can see the other group of five further away, I decide to visit them in the morning. The chulpa is made of mud and straw, how on earth does it stand after so many hundred years.
Sajama in the distance has quite a bit of snow on it. Someone tells me of the Ciudad de Piedra, a city of stone, in Campero on my way. It is a natural wonder but there are, from what I can understand, seated Inca statues.
I stand and watch a football game with Don Sinovia, he says that lots of people left the village, 9 communities, but there are programs to bring solar panels to villages on the Altiplano and things are improving as people are returning to the village.
There’s no where to eat in the evening but a rumour goes around that a lady on the other side of the square is cooking some trout from the river. I dash over to find 5 people already seated awaiting theirs. I join them. Pretty soon word gets round and another 10 people arrive all to eat the trout she has caught. We also have quinoa soup all for 5 Bs. (0.70€)
There’s no electricity in the room, only enough to provide light for the owner and a single fluorescent light outside the rooms. A candle keeps me company. The bed is short as usual, a cardboard box has been stuffed under the mattress, maybe there would be no mattress if there were no box.
CHILE – Sunday 15 September 2002
Three things happened at once
My logical odometer ticked over 1000 km; the road kinked slightly to the left; I reached the top of a 6km climb. Time for a celebration! I stopped and took the small, carefully folded plastic bag from my bar bag. There were still no holes in it from the bouncing around on the bumpy road. I unwrapped it and poured out a double helping of what Paul and Gabie, a couple I met a month earlier in Sorata, would call ‘scroggan’. To me it was simply peanuts and raisins, carefully brought from La Paz. An extra mouthful of water was in order too, after all, 1,000 km, only 11,000 to go.
The road was busy, I had seen about 10 cars during the morning, 10 more than I would have seen in Bolivia where buses or trucks were the norm. That day there was a festival in the triangle where Peru, Bolivia and Chile meet which probably accounted for the quantity. The road here in Chile seemed better than the ones in Bolivia, at least there seemed to be a reasonable ‘cycling zone’ which did not have too many corrugations.
The llamas here too were different. Each llamas had a small ribbon of red wool tied onto its ears. They would look up from their chewing to watch me cycle past. Some were stupid looking, they would watch me, their mouths chewing as though preparing to spit if I came close. The educated ones would watch me with disdain, as though my sort of transport was beneath them.
80 km in front of me sit the twin dormant volcanoes in the Payachata range. Millenko, a young Chilean vet, doing a thesis, in Putre, on the size of fetuses in sheep at altitude, had told me the previous day that Parinacota was the more perfect cone and the higher of the two, at 6,348m. Pomerape was the ‘other one’, slightly lower.
I had hoped to reach the small village of Parinacota that day, an ambitious goal considering it was 90 km away from Visviri. I had too much faith in Chilean roads, a faith which was to be destroyed later that day as I struggled over the second 4,400 m pass against a debilitating wind, assuming Parinacota to be a speedy downhill the other side. I struggled, only to find that the road went down briefly before reaching forth to climb the next pass, a little higher than the one I had just crossed.
I sat to enjoy lunch, bread stuffed with a piece of chocolate. The volcanoes at the end of the wide valley sized me up and moved a little further away, not yet ready to meet me. Herds of vicuñas watched me from a distance. Some large birds eyed me cautiously before taking off to find a more secure spot. Time stood still. The small river, slipped by silently. Water, captured by the freeze of the previous evening, was slowly released by the sun. The plant beside me grew imperceptibly. The silence and tranquility touched me deeply. The rocks ignored me, they weren’t scared, I was only passing through. They had been here a million years without needing to move, why should they run away now.
I admitted defeat before the final pass. I couldn’t go on, there was too much sand. Parinacota had stopped running and was ready to meet me. I stood level with it and asked permission to camp at its foot. 200 metres from the road, close to some grazing llamas I pitched the tent. That night the altitude made its presence felt, it was -13º in the tent.
CHILE – Tuesday 17 September 2002
The Carabineros of Chile
“There is no corruption. If you are involved in any corruption and are caught you are thrown out immediately”. Miguel, the boss of the Guallatiri Carabineros de Chile station expressed his view passionately.
We were sitting in the living room at the station. It was the 17th Spetember, the eve of Chilean National Day. Chile was about to be 192 years old. The satellite TV presented a mind numbing show that exhorted Chilenos to start celebrating now. Scantily clad women were blindfolded and a hunky male was then invited to blow on a part of their body. The women then had to guess who it was who was doing the blowing while the compère made a running commentary. It was a million miles from where we were. Outside Guallatiri volcano smoked. Inside, our window onto Santiago showed a life that I hadn’t seen for two months. I couldn’t reconcile the fresh faced bodies, the inane humour, the fashion, with the people I had met, who had shown me warmth, humour, kindness and for whom the life portrayed was something they could only dream of.
I was in the hot seat, the closest position on the sofa to a roaring fire inside a horizontal oil drum with its side cut away. A huge metal hood covered it. Next to the fire lay Tueno, an old, arthritic Alsatian, his every movement seemed painful. The sofa was threadbare, springs pushed through the fabric. Three armchairs surrounded the TV. A speaker on the wall crackled and hissed continuously, occasionally snippets of conversation came through from the Carabineros station at Chungará. “The Carabineros were formed in 1926 by combining the rural and city police forces”, Miguel continued.
That morning had been a cold one. It was -7º in the tent and -10º outside. I had made a small mistake in my tent site. It was a beautiful spot, right on the edge of a stream that babbled away all night. The ground was flat and from the porch I had a beautiful view of Parinacota reflected in Lake Chungará. Vizcachas, a small rabbit like animal with a long tail that seems to hop like a kangaroo, hopped around the tent. The mistake was that just the other side of the stream, to the east, rocks rose up to about 20 metres above the tent. It meant that while I had a beautiful view of the snow covered slopes of Parinacota being bathed in the morning glow of the sun, I was not also receiving that glow and it stayed at -10.
I shifted all my stuff into the sunlight 10 metres away and got breakfast going. Coffee, jam spread liberally on the sopaipillas, some kind of fried dough I had bought the previous day in Parinacota, and a mug full of pito de cañagua, a floury substance that is high in energy and is mixed with hot water and sugar into a kind of porridge.
It was only a few km to the customs post at Chungará past a few groups of pink flamingos wading in the lake. I had to leave my passport with the police as I only wanted to go to the frontier with Bolivia, 7 km away. It was a lovely paved road, part of the Arica to La Paz highway. Just before the top the road was flanked by a minefield. Lots of signs and barbed wire warned of the danger. According to Bolivian Ministry of Defence there are 15 known minefields along the borer with Chile in Regions I and II of Chile. 13 of these cover and area of 3,158,100 sq. metres and the other two are suspected minefields. In seven of these minefields Bolivia reports there are 196,767 land mines. During the summer rainy season some of these mines are exposed by the rain and snow and are flushed down in the rivers to lower altitudes. In all, Chile has laid 293 minefields. The mines, supplied by America, were laid between 1974-1978 in the early years of the Pinochet regime.
On the way down I noticed a small herd of vicuña who started running towards the road to cross in front of me. I sped up, so did they. I put in an extra burst of speed. They crossed 10 metres in front of me, both of us going at high speed. It reminds me of the old joke. Why did the vicuña cross the road? To get to the other side…
Back at the border the Carabineros showed me where I could recharge my digital camera batteries. I started talking to one of the customs officers. He comes from Santiago but had been living in Arica and working at Chungará for 10 years. As useful source of local knowledge I thought but no, to almost every question I asked he didn’t know the answer. The nearest village of Churigualla is about 10 km from the border post and has some hot springs but he knew nothing of this.
The track from the border post cut the corner off a long route back down the main road to the road to Guallatiri but it was in an awful state. Sand made the going difficult. The track climbed up to a pass higher than the one on the frontier with Bolivia. Sulphury smoke drifted up from the cone of Guallatiri. Animal tracks are everywhere.
The weather ahead looked dark. From the pass I realised I was going into a very remote region. As far as the eye could see mountains dotted the landscape, small bushes and rocks covered the dry ground. The ride down the other side was hectic, my panniers were desperate to get free. The contents of my bar bag jumped around as though in a tumble dryer. Suddenly I came across the hot springs of Churigualla, a small river crossed the road and to one side a couple of bathing pools had been built from rocks. The sky was black and the wind cold. Despite needing a wash I couldn’t bring myself to bare myself to the threatening elements and moved on.
Shortly after it started to hail. The road was covered with so many rocks it must have doubled the distance I had to cycle trying to avoid them. The worst of the hail passed to one side to unleash its full fury on the cone of Guallatiri. Some time later a couple of cars approached me. They stopped and the driver of one got out to take a photograph of me. He told me not to worry, I was only 3 km from the main road to Guallatiri. “It’s much wider”, he said. I know he was trying to be helpful but how much width does a bike tyre need? Wider roads just mean a longer distance to cross between the cycle zones that often exist on the very edge of the road.
Five km later I got to the main road, still plenty of sand and corrugations but it was wider, much wider! I had to look hard to see the other side. I was now riding round the south of Guallatiri volcano having been to the north and west.
After 60 km I reached the village of Guallatiri, a barrier blocked the road. I knocked on the door of the Carabineros station and met Miguel for the first time. He had big jowls which his face a trapezoid shape. His unsmiling face and black eyes made him appear unfriendly at first. I could understand almost none of his Spanish but he showed me round the side of the station to an enclosed stable area where he said I could put my tent. “Come and get some hot water to drink later on”, he said as I went to erect the tent.
In front of the village there is a hill with a small turret at the top. From the top there was a fine view of the smoking volcano as the sun set on its slopes. I decided to take up Miguel’s offer of hot water and went round to the back door which was open. They have been spring cleaning. Miguel is in the process of rehanging the curtains and pictures. Two-thirds of the ceiling has been washed, the other third, still with soot stains on, will probably wait until next year.
A face appeared in the kitchen. It was Juan. He was cooking dinner and wanted to know if I would join them. He always had a smile in his eyes as though he is constantly finding fun in the world. He bakes bread too, the smell of fresh bread wafted out from the kitchen. How could I turn down dinner not having seen any bread for several days.
Sergio then came in to join us. Looking the youngest, he exuded a drive, determination and confidence and had a big laugh. Knowing what he wanted and how to get it, he was working here for a two year stint to get money to buy a new car. They are part of the Arica Carabineros and work a 15 day shift in Guallatiri with a 5 day break back in Arica between shifts. They get 115% more than the normal salary for working up here but it’s a lonely existence. There are 7 other people in the village plus a few remote families. Their job involves wandering the hills looking for drug runners trying to cross from Bolivia as well as checking up on the families to see if they are all ok. There are six who work the shifts with three here at any one time.
Miguel, Juan and Sergio all had wives and young children living in Arica, 300 km away. Sergio ran to his room to get a picture of his wife and kids, his three year old daughter is dressed in ballet kit and his seven month old son smiles at the camera. All their supplies have to come from Arica so during the meal they are discussing with Juan what he should bring back the next time he comes, they are short of milk powder.
The Carabineros are a unique force in South America, they have a prestige amongst the other nations here. The standards of entry are high and the result is a committed, dedicated force with a good reputation internationally. I bid them all goodnight and retire to my tent.
CHILE – Thursday 19 September 2002
Sand and hot springs, but not in that order
Last night was really pleasant evening. Yesterday, having tried to take a short cut to the hot springs at Polloquere, across the Salar de Surire, and failed, I had headed for the offices of Quiborax, the borax mining company on the western edge of the salt lake. There I had met the Conaf (Chilean forestry and parks office) ranger for the Salar. From his weathered face his eyes projected a calmness brought about by a contentness with his lot in life.
Hi voice was slow and clear. He told me about my choice of routes: I could travel to the hot springs, then return 10 km to take the road winding up through the canyon and over the pass to the plain beyond; alternatively I could take the easier route and continue on from the hot springs up a single steep climb to the pass of El Capitan, through the minefield and down the other side. “Always keep to the right hand side, that’s Chile, to the left is Bolivia”, he said.
Standing nearby, his wife offered a third option: I could stay and join him, his wife, and the sole caretaker of the Quiborax plant in their barbecue. The rest of the company was enjoying Chilean National Day in Arica, 300 km away. After the barbecue the Conaf ranger would then give me a lift to the Conaf station, 7 km away, where I could spend the night. I was unable to resist this final offer which is how I ended up having such a pleasant evening.
Two Chileans, two French and two Americans were also staying at the station. The main room had a small kitchen, a wood burner, comfortable chairs and electric light; a gas burner heated water for a shower in the adjoining room. After several days with little or no company I had a chance to speak English, spend the evening without wearing my down jacket and see without having to point my head in the direction I wanted to look. Simple things, combined with a hot shower and good company, made for a very pleasant evening!
So it was at 7 this morning I awoke. The clothes I had rinsed in the shower last night hung stiffly from their drying place. I put them in the sun to thaw and dry while I made breakfast. Shortly before 9 I am ready, my clothes are not quite dry, so I tie them onto my rack for some air drying. It’s a reasonably flat, 18 km ride, from the Conaf station to the hot springs at Polloquere. Apart from a few sandy places I make good time.
I’m overtaken by the three vehicles of the others staying at the station. I watch their dust plumes in the distance and marvel at how a vehicle makes such simple work of 18 km. For me, 18 km is one hour 20 minutes of mixed emotions. My legs rebel at being asked to perform again; the brain tells them not to whinge. A rhythm develops and my breathing settles; a patch of sand reduces my speed from 20 kmh to 6; I force through it, reaching firmer ground to re-establish my rhythm again. The interrupted rhythm causes me to focus on the cycling, to notice the jolts in the road. Another patch of sand, this time longer and going uphill, forces me to push.
At the hot springs the American girls are just stepping into the water. Right at the edge of the Salar sulphurous steam hovers over the shallow water. Deep slimy grey mud lines the bottom of the pools. In the water it must be mid 30s, but above the water the freezing wind raises goose bumps. As I slip deeper into the water the grey mud starts to fill my underpants. After 20 minutes in the pool it feels really pleasant to stand at the edge. The, now refreshing, wind cools us. Two large birds with white necks, perhaps condors, soar over the nearby mountain.
After an hour at the springs my body rejects the thought of mounting my steed again. It’s a 7 km climb to the pass of El Capitan. It’s very steep. With an unladen bike, and a body that had not just spent an hour in a hot bath, I could have cycled it. I push the bike for 5 km up the 200 m climb to the top. There is no alternative, no buses to catch, no jeeps to flag down, no lorries to appeal to.
At the top is a minefield. The road through it is very narrow and rocky; the tyre tracks are deep and the central ridge high. At either edge of the road are the metal fence posts connected with barbed wire. They are in a poor state, in some places lying flat on the ground. The proximity of the bad fences lends an extra instability to my steering; whereas I could normally steer round large rocks, I now ride over them. Some unseen force seems to want me to fall. Much later, reading a report about landmines in Chile, I discover that many mines have been washed out of the minefields during the summer rains and are deposited on countryside much lower down.
The Conaf ranger had said keep right, so when I breath again as I past the last fencepost, I take the small track leading off to the right. It doesn’t seem like a probable path but he said keep right… It’s very remote here. Visibility here is very good, the view from the pass shows an unbroken display of harsh terrain. Distant volcanoes burst the earth’s surface displaying a glimpse of our interior; flat plains disappear into a shimmering haze; dry river beds cut through the arid landscape like cracked skin.
My track meets the other one from the Salar. I stop for one of the pieces of sopaipilas (fried dough) I bought four days ago. The blackcurrant jam makes it palatable. My leaden legs, after the hot springs, plead for me to stop. The track disappears across the flat plain. It is heading for a gap in the distant mountains. The headwind whips at my jacket. The sandy track is full of corrugations; in places vehicles have made three sets of tracks, each new one trying to find an easier route; none are suitable for bicycle. The guidebook had said to check with rangers during the rainy months as this route can be ‘iffy’. I’ll say! The sand goes on forever. I have to push for ages. My mind becomes numb; I focus on each 50 metres trying to find the easiest route.
Days later the road starts to go downhill. My mind awakes. Now I have a tailwind but still plenty of sand; I have to be careful; sand and speed don’t combine well. Several times I swerve to a halt from 30 kmh desperately trying to hold my bike upright. Funny, the bike always turns to the left.
Ariel, one of the Chileans, had mentioned a Conaf station in Enquelga, so I decided to stop there. When I arrive it is closed. A man offers me a room in his lodgings; I’m too tired to turn it down. There are six beds in a small room that smells like a dog kennels under scrutiny by the RSPCA. As an afterthought, a small table and two chairs have been squeezed in between two beds. The concrete floor has not been swept for a long time and the blankets of the beds lie in the dust. The walls are covered with posters of churches. Two certificates hang on the wall proclaiming some award in church activities. I take the biggest bed, knowing it will be too small. My sleeping bag comes out again, the chance of bed bugs high.
The owner has a small shop; I am so hungry I take a selection of snacks while his wife cooks me some pasta. I get through a packets of biscuits and a tin of peaches before the pasta arrives. The first plate disappears along with two rolls. The wife brings another plate of pasta and that follows the first and I start to feel better. The electricity comes on at 6:30, but the owner comes to apologise at 8 saying the light will go out at 9; however, my mental light goes out before that and I collapse into my sleeping bag.
BOLIVIA – Friday 20 September 2002
There was a llama eating my tyre
As I leave Enquelga at 7, I wonder where I will be at the end of the day. The border crossing at Pisigua brings me into Bolivia to the north of the Salar de Coipasa. If there is no way across the Salar de Coipasa then I may have to stay in Chile. The problem with staying on the Chilean side is that, according to the 2002 Turistel guide, there is no road between the Chilean border town of Colchane and the next Bolivian border crossing. I leave that little problem to resolve itself as I discover, to my delight, a piece of paved road; I hurtle into Colchane at 40 kmh.
Colchane is a neat little border town. Everything seems shut. Maybe everyone from Colchane has gone to Iquique for Chilean National day celebrations two days earlier. I spy a Carabinero heading to the police station and I arrive in time to accost him before he can get his breakfast. I wanted to find out if there was a road to the small village of Irpa on the southern side of the Salar. He tells me I must first cross to the Bolivian side and then a small track runs back into Chilean territory to cross the Salar to get to Irpa.
That all sounds easy. On the map it is only 20km or so to Irpa, so I set off confidently through No Man’s Land to Bolivia. Arriving back in Bolivia after a few days in Chile is such a contrast. Whereas Colchane is quite and neat, Pisigua is full of people sitting around. Dark skinned cholitas sell biscuits and basic provisions in small stalls; behind the stalls several tables on the hard earth offer a chance to eat hot food. Even though it’s not even 9 I have a plate of chicken, rice and chuños. Ah, back in Bolivia, chuños again, those black potatoes with a peculiar taste. A spicy chilli sauce is agony on my lower lip which is blistering in the harsh sun and wind, despite using factor 25 lip cream.
The sandy track that leads away from Pisigua doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction, I have certainly not gone back into Chilean territory and the white of the Salar is getting closer. After 8 km, I turn round and go back to the village in the hope that someone can point me the right way. The map, from 1973, clearly shows a track just after the village leading back into Chilean territory. In the village I see a man, his wife and daughter removing fresh bread from a bread overn in their garden, so I try to ask them about the route. It is hopeless, the daughter, a teenager, is moody and agressive and they all deny all knowledge of everything. I give up and buy some bread from them which makes them happy. Amazingly, a jeep comes down the track so I flag it down and find out that the driver has come from Llica, which is where I am heading. He assures me that the track goes my way and offers to show me the way on his way back.
He catches me up at a fork in the track, 12 km later. I am just about to go right as it looks as though it goes to the headland in the distance, but he tells me to go left and cross the Salar. He points to a rock in the far distance and says I should leave the Salar to its left hand side. With a last attempt at trying to persuade me to take a lift he sets off, and with some trepidation I try to follow him. Of course he quickly pulls away, but soon I am on hard packed white salt and I cannot see his white vehicle anywhere. The vehicle tracks almost disappear but I can follow what’s there. A track goes off to the right, that’s the direction I want so I follow it. A finger of fear starts to tickle the base of my spine. How soft is the salt; can a 50kg loaded bike break through the crust; am I taking the right route?
The tracks start to become clearer and I realise it’s because the salt is getting softer and a thin film of water is covering the salt. What’s this? What does it mean? Ahead the tracks become very clear and the level of water on the salt reaches 3 cm. The finger of fear that was clasping my coccyx works its way higher, reaching the middle of my back. I am not heading for the rock mentioned earlier by the driver so I change course and head directly for the rock. It’s only 15 minutes away. Despite the fear, the effect of water on the salt is beautiful. The sky is reflected in the water and distant mountains start to shimmer and disappear. It reminds me of Stephen King’s, writing as Richard Bachman, The Langoliers. In that book the Langoliers eat up the past, crunching their way through the earth, eating up the horizon. The effect is the same as the sky starts to take over the ground.
My back tyre digs into the salt in places and my speed drops. That finger of fear is creeping up my neck now. It lends strength to my legs and I power through soft bits of salt. Thick salt is starting to clog around my brakes; my shoes and calves are white. 30 minutes later the rock is still 15 minutes away. I am getting tired and I don’t want to stop in the middle of the water. At last the water ends and I am back on hard salt again. A jeep track crosses my path, heading for the land at the western edge of the lake, so I take off along the track. Small rocks have been placed to mark some sort of route and the tracks and I follow it until the tracks veer north in the opposite direction to the one I want.
Turning back to the south again I make for land, the rock is still 15 minutes away and I’ve now been an hour on the Salar. At last, after an hour and a half I reach the edge. I’m not sure exactly where I’ve landed; my map shows a big expanse of white where Chile should be. The road edges round the Salar so it’s still quite a firm ride and soon I see a figure in a sandy field at one side of the road. Leaving my bike on the track I make for the seated figure, which turns out to be a lady of about 300 and her 5 year old granddaughter. The woman’s face sprouts a few teeth and her wrinkles would excite a Braille reader. She’s tending some sheep and a few goats; what they can find to eat in the sandy field I cannot fathom. She tells me the nearby village is Irpa. Bullseye!
At Laqueca, at few km further on I stop to clean my bike. Everything is white with crusted salt. A man lends me half a plastic bottle and I can scoop water over the bike. Within a minute, about 30 children are crowded around me, sitting, watching intently my every move. We play a game. Before I wash each bag I ask, “limpio?” (clean). “No”, they chorus, so I start to cover it in water. After I’ve washed it, I ask again, “limpio?”. “Si”, they cry in unison and I start on the next. At the end I say to one of the boys, “limpio?” and he replies, “no”, so I make to cover him in water. Their giggles go on for ages, they all sound the same, as though they have learnt to giggle from the same teacher.
After half an hour most of the salt is off and I can then move on but the kids won’t let me go. They hang on to the bike, try to pull of my spare tyres, knock my empty Coke bottle of the back rack. Finally I take them by surprise and make a break for it; they run after me laughing and shouting “limpio?”, threatening to throw water over me. A little while later, just before the next village of Liviscota, I walk off the road to the middle of the pampas and put up my tent in a group of grazing llamas. The huge scenery makes me feel so small and I watch the sun turn the mountains red then black.
It is at 3am that I hear the llama eating my tyre. I quickly unzip the tent doors to find the wind flapping the tent against the tyre. The llama has gone!
BOLIVIA – Monday 30 September 2002
Inside a Kactus
The sun has set and the street is cold and deserted. A wooden sign hangs from the wall and in big letters, the word, Kactus, is etched in an arc. It reminds me of a small town in a John Wayne western. A free-standing sign on the pavement advertises heating, a rarity in Uyuni restaurants. Glass panels in the wooden framed, double doors give a glimpse of the interior. Inside, candles glow on the tables, inducing a warmth that reinforces the advertisement. Just then the icy wind blows a little stronger, the decision is made easier. An ultraviolet strip light at the door examines me for any white clothing as I pass through the doors; I’m found not guilty.
Inside, the room is lit by yellow bulbs, set in small wooden boxes, which hang from the corner of the ceiling. Two wagon wheels and an old oil lantern are fixed to the walls. Half a dozen wooden tables fill the room; some are painted green with a maroon border, others are just the bare wood, like an English farmhouse kitchen table. The candles on each table are held by twisted metal candlestick holders, each one a different design, shaped into small figures. Round each table there is a mixture of cushioned chairs, some with plastic covering still on, the owner unsure if practicality is more important than aesthetics.
In the back corner by the door to the kitchen, a wooden bar is covered by a Hawaiian style canopy, lit from underneath by red lights. From the canopy hang several champagne flutes and in the mix of red and yellow light they glow red and gold. In the corner of the bar top, a large barrel holds all the drinks bottles, lit from inside by another yellow bulb.
The double doors swing both ways, but just inside one, on the tiled floor, is a brick, to keep the door from blowing in. Unfortunately customers seem to use this door, causing a resounding thud as wood meets brick.
A heavily built waiter attends the clients, his blue woollen waistcoat, embroidered with a large yellow ‘J’, perhaps for John Wayne, looks incongruous against his white shirt and black bow tie. Pink Floyd is playing and his fingers play tap on the head of the waitress in time to the music.
A man, exuding confidence, is holding court to four Italians. He speaks good Spanish, but with an accent only those born in France can cultivate. A pretty girl next to him, gazes adoringly at him, her eyes alight, as he tells about his trip on the Amazon and in the jungle of Peru. She fills her glass with fizzy water from the bottle, which like a soda fountain, shoots water into the glass at high speed and which rebounds straight back out again, all over the table, interrupting the Frenchman’s tale of another battle with a boa constrictor. His voice starts to grate, it is very loud and self-important. His chair rises into the air and he hovers 30 centimetres above the others looking down on them as Subjects, expecting supplication and applause.
A thickset, Spanish speaking man, whose hair protrudes, as though trying to escape his forehead, pours a beer that spills over the table. For a while he plays with the puddle in front of him until John Wayne comes to mop it up. The man ignores him completely, not a word of thanks. John wayne throws the sodden rag onto the man’s lap; well he should have done.
An obviously English, young couple are sitting stiffly at another table; they get two candles, John Wayne recognised young love. They are discussing in hushed tones, accustomed to each other’s company. He looks like he would enjoy inserting a RAM upgrade to his PC at the weekend rather than explore the wilds of south western Bolivia. A large, two litre bottle of orange Fanta stands between them which reflects the state of their relationship; cold and wet.
The Englishman’s hands creep across the table to the woman, her hands withdraw to her chest. He plays with his fingers, not wanting to admit defeat by withdrawing his own. Who will change positions first? He withdraws. After a while he reaches for her hand and tries to pull it to him, she resists and wrenches her hand free. He persists and she relents; for a brief moment their hands hold then they break again. John Wayne brings a large ice cream sundae to the table interrupting proceedings while they both tuck in.
To be continued …