Someplace like Bolivia
Andrew and I arrived in Bolivia at the beach resort of Copacabana, not, it must be said quite as fabulous as it’s more famous namesake. The views across Lake Titicaca were stunning however, quite different from the marshy northern end. Somehow, at almost 4000 m up, this was a vista reminiscent of the Aegean.
Copacabana is also proud to be the home of the Bolivian navy, possibly the second most powerful force on the lake. The Bolivians lost their coastline a long time ago in a war with Chile and this is the next best thing.’The sea is ours by right, it is our duty to get it back’ a sign proclaims, although there is no indication as to how this might be achieved.
We took a day tour of Isla del Sol, the most touristy thing it is possible to do here. It was fabulous, a jewel of an island amid the azure waters. In this setting, even waiting for the unacclimatized and unfit members of our group was a delight and it seemed to us, as we sipped a cola with the sun glistening off the lake, that the Bolivians shouldn’t be too disappointed with their lot.
Following our standard rule of not riding into major cities if we could help it, we caught a bus to La Paz. A good decision we decided as we descended into the chaos. The other benefit of busing in was that it bought us a day before Andrew flew out in which to do some single track riding with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This really was something special and is a must for any mountain bikers who are passing through.
Simply getting pegs into the salt was a challenge and I clocked a temperature of -5 °C inside my tent. What a place to wake up though!
Many of the Gravity staff are also ex-tourers themselves and are very helpful in obtaining parts that are unavailable elsewhere in Bolivia. Drop them an email and they’ll get in what you need.
Andrew and I said an emotional goodbye and I was on my own. I wasn’t entirely happy riding through Bolivia totally alone and so I was pleased to meet some English cyclists who agreed to let me ride with them.
Riding south from La Paz was more of the same flat altiplano, but there was a treat in store, in fact the main reason that most cyclists come to Bolivia at all: the Salar de Uyuni. This is the largest salt lake in the world and in the dry season (which ends around January), it is possible to ride across it.
Salar de Uyuni
We decided to ride along a road to the north of the lake to the village of Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Villages and roads marked on the map here may or may not exist and so navigation proved tricky. I have a page detailing how to do it in my ‘how to’ section: here.
The salar itself is mindblowing, we spent two nights on it, one on Isla Incahuasi and the other camped on the salt. Incahuasi (also known as Isla Pescadores) is a beautiful cactus-covered lump of rock in the middle of the salt. The views are breathtaking and if you arrive under your own power you can sleep in a room they have on site. There is also an excellent restaurant and some very basic supplies. Best of all, I got to enjoy the island alone at 7 am, before anyone else was up and long before any of the day trippers arrived. Magical.
Camping on the salt is another experience not to be missed although it makes for a considerably less comfortable night. Simply getting pegs into the salt was a challenge and I clocked a temperature of -5 °C inside my tent. What a place to wake up though!
Uyuni to Argentina
I’d heard some excellent things about the north of Argentina and so decided not to take the standard bike tour route across to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Avoiding any more desert riding may have had something to do with it too. I headed for La Quillaca and the border. The road continued with the terrible washboard surface that I’d come to hate and, shortly after the town of Atocha, disappeared altogether.
The route from Atocha follows a semi-dry riverbed (not an unusual surface in these parts) but then goes off on a side track. At some point I clearly took a wrong turn following the sizable track, crossed a 4000 m pass and ended up in a small village.
The freindly inhabitants there didn’t seem particularly suprised to have to tell me that the road I wanted was in another direction entirely. They get a car, bus or cyclist daily and have to redirect them. I wasn’t able to discover whether they are cannily reaping the benefits of selling water and chocolate to lost tourists, or whether they are just too stupid to erect a sign 20 km up the road.
Back over the pass I went and with little other alternative, decided to follow the railway towards Tupiza. This was a novel experience for me since there was often no alternative but to bump over the sleepers. Worse still were the bridges – dragging bike and BOB trailer forty feet above a river and jumping from plank to plank is not something to try at home. Nevertheless, eighty somewhat perilous kilometers and one surprised train driver later, I made it to a more appropriate road. From there it was more terrible washboard (remarkably, some worse than the railway) to civilization!