Return ticket over the Andes
Date: 25th September – 4th October 2012
Where: Challapata – Llama camp – Canyon camp – Tarapaya –Potosi – Porco – Road camp – Pulacayo – Uyuni
Distance: 5267 to 5530 miles
By the time we’ve woken up, watched a bt of TV and Geoff’s devoured his now-daily protein shake, the motorbikers have gone. A late morning is OK every now and then, and especially today, as there is not much prospect of a comfy bed until Potosi, three days away and over the Andes.
Rolling over the last ‘plano’ (flat) part of the altiplano for a while we pass a lake with yet more flamingos. These no longer interest our cyclo-twitching tick-list anymore though (although they´re still beautiful), now we’re looking for condors. The hilly terrain for the next week should be a perfect opportunity. We stop for lunch halfway up the first bump cooking a soup by a stream, the blissful ambience only briefly disturbed by a pack of stray dogs coming to see what we’re cooking. They wait menacingly on a nearby hillock to pick up the scraps.
We reach a higher version of the altiplano and gradually the blue skies disappear and heavy rain appears ahead of us. We can’t tell which way the wind is blowing up there (but our tailwind helped a lot) and decide to look for a spot to camp. 50m of pushing later and we’re in a sheltered secret spot above the road looking down on a plain full of llama. As we cook and prepare the tent, a distant lady herds the llama home with the last of them reaching the distant dwellings as we eat yet another pressure cooker success.
We sleep well and wake early to set off for the next leg of uphill. We find a small village and fill our bottles. We need 11 litres of water a day and there aren’t many streams about. A tasty lunch in the one settlement on the map fills us and we make good progress that afternoon. At one point we see a funeral procession walking into the hills. The timing is impeccable as threatening clouds catch up with us and we find ourselves being hit by small snow flurries. Miraculously we manage to remain in the one patch of white-grey cloud for the rest of the day and escape a soaking. It is 5pm by the time we find a flat spot of land above a perfectly formed canyon in a flat valley, reminiscent of Canyonlands National Park in the USA for those who’ve been.
We wake to snow-dusted peaks and quickly pack up to get over the rest of the mountain mass before the afternoon clouds smother us. We scoot down the other side and by early afternoon reach Tarapaya. We have time to make it to Potosi today, but Sarah wisely chose a much better option. 2km in the wrong direction and we find ourselves slumped in a swimming pool filled with hot spring water. The camping and 3-hour soak cost us £2. We pondered why such a simple hot communal bath doesn’t exist in the UK for people to come and chat in the evening.
The hill up to Potosi the next day was punishing, our thermally overloaded bodies were severly dehydrated. We were lucky to have the encouragement of the baths’ dog, which followed us for 5km, to egg us ever onwards as we tried to outrun it so that it would go home. A few stones finally did the trick. Going round a corner we saw the ´Cerro Rico´ for the first time (rich mountain, or more literally delicious hillock). This extinct volcano rises in a red cone above the City and is (was) jam-packed full of silver! Eventually we found a small shop and water. This made things easier and we soon reached the outskirts and a load of rocks in the road again. Then we recognised the baths’ owners, who had come to town to shop, and asked what we had done with their dog! It was nice seeing a friendly face, and from them we discovered that the whole town was on strike, but we could enter OK on our bikes. We easily found our hostal in the deserted streets.
Hostal Koala Den was a haven like no other, with all-you-can-eat breakfast, internal room heating, bed-side lamps and hot water out of both the shower AND the wash-basin tap (a first for this trip). We stayed for two days. In this time we managed to visit the national mint, an impressively stong building where all Bolivia’s coinage was minted till the 1950’s. The whole complex with all its artefacts and history were really fascinating. We also ate a lot of very fine beef steaks and spent some time just meandering the lovely bustling streets popping into the churches every now and then.
Then back up the Andes we went, finsihing in Porco that day and having one of our worst accomodation experinences thus far. We both wish we’d camped. One alojamiento (hostal) was ‘occupado’ (full), one ‘no funciona’ (doesn’t work), and we wound up in the entrance hall of the Police station. Sarah went and got takeaway food and we quickly got into our sleeping bags, hiding in the corner as much as possible. Midway through the night the inevitable knock came on the door and all the Police filed out, leaving the door OPEN as they didn’t have a key. We felt very vulnerable. Shortly afterwards they returned, with a man they then locked up behind a wall, but 3m from us. He screamed and banged and cried for nigh on an hour until at last his family turned up and took him away on bail. An hour later, more people came…and so it went on.
Relieved to get out, we left early and then had a beautiful day’s riding through spectacular changing scenary. The flat plateau out of Porco soon plunged down through all manner of rock formations, similar to ones we had seen in El Torcal in Spain 3 years previously. We emerged into a valley of sharp-edged rocks which looked like the English Peak District, but with sand dunes. Descending yet further reds, greys and yellows appeared on the hills and huge cacti everywhere. This scenary continued up another big hill as we left the clouds behind, and a strong sun and wind lashed into our faces instead. Exhausted at reaching the top, we camped above the road, but barely 5m from it. As the sun set we watched in awe as two condors soared above us, their wing-tips bent upwards by the fierce wind.
A restless and cold night where neither of us slept much ensued. At 4 in the morning we heard the lock rattling on our bikes, but on going out to invstigate there was no-one there. We didn’t sleep much after that. Luckily it was all downhill to breakfast in Tica Tica. The rest of the day was hard. A headwind and beating sun made sure of that. At 6pm we arrived at Pulacayo only to be told the alojamientos are now mining offices. It turned out OK though, as the man who ran the tourist office let us stay there and gave us a free tour of the old mining community in the morning. The downhill into the town of Uyuni after this gave us spectacular views of far-off volcanos and the altiplano. As we turned one corner, the altiplano became something far more special: the Salar de Uyuni. The world’s largest salt flats and our next (and biggest) challenge on the bike after some R & R in town.
We feel as strong as we could be. The e-coli hasn´t flared up again and Sarah´s recent knee troubles seem to have gone away. We´ve been at altitude for a long time now, even managing to run up stairs without losing breath. We have managed to meet some old friends again for the next leg: Emilien & Xinhan (from Nicaragua and Costa Rica). All looks good for a successful for trip across the salt flats and the ensuing 9 days of dirt and dust to Chilean tarmac. Fingers crossed…here goes!