Hell in Tacota and Heaven in Mendoza

Rien giving me the thumbs up

Rien giving me the thumbs up

road to Tacota

road to Tacota

Sand, what can I say

Sand, what can I say

JR on his birthday

JR on his birthday

Tonight I’m in Mendoza. It is a place that I’ve looked forward to since before my trip even began because of my time spent with good friend John Wood following our summit of Aconcagua. We spent our time walking through the plazas and parks, eating those two inch thick tornado steaks, listening to street music, and just totally relaxing in this great Latin American city. Like all cities and towns in this part of the world the place to be is the plaza (central park). It’s designed to be the physical and social gathering place for the whole community. In a city the size of Mendoza there are several plazas with the main one being the Plaza Independencia. I’m in the same hotel tonight that John and I stayed in ten years ago, just a block from this plaza. There are four other plazas surrounding the main one all just a couple of blocks away. These areas boast large shade trees, walking paths, beautiful flower beds and comfortable benches as well as fountains and statues of past dignitaries. In Mendoza, as well as the whole surrounding area, the lifeblood is the water coming out of the Andes through an amazing aquaduct system. You can actually see standing waves when it is really coming down – children sometimes drown when they get caught playing in it. This system feeds the vast network of vineyards and keeps the 2 million people of this city supplied with water thus turning the desert into an oasis. Argentina and Chile are famous for their wines, particularly the Malbecs, and they both depend totally on the melt from the largest mountains in the Western Hemisphere. The streets and avenues in this part of Mendoza are lined with large old shade trees that have a channel of water on the street side which keep the trees leaning over these surfaces blocking out the hot Argentinian sun. It’s a very comfortable place to be. We were joined in the climb by Gary Tabor, a longtime friend of John’s from Bozeman, Montana and Lucas Dauria from here in Mendoza. Since that trip in 2004, Lucas has married and has two children. I’ll get to see him tomorrow for dinner.

We had six days of cycling since our last rest day in Chilecito – the first two were through some beautiful canyon country and though they were long we enjoyed our rides and the pavement which made our days a little easier. I tried to cover as much ground as I could in the mornings before the heat became oppressive. The afternoon sun in this area can get really hot, creating temps well over 100 degrees F even this time of year here (spring). This strategy worked well for me the first couple of days. It’s also so much more relaxing to get into camp early. Our third day was 135K long with over 1800 meters of climbing. The first 100K’s were paved and I moved along rapidly, biking with Hardy. At the 99.7K mark we moved off the tarmac and onto a gravel road which started out pretty well but after about 6 or 7 K’s it turned into a miserable loose sand and rock mix with periods of teeth rattling washboard. You couldn’t escape the bad surface no matter how you tried to jump from one side to the other. The sand would bog you down and force you off the bike. The only option then was to push the bike along until it looked like the surface was solid enough to hop back on and pedal. The ride had turned into a slog – no way for me to escape the heat. This back country road was also uphill the whole way to our destination that day, Tacota. Tacota is a name which will live along with Cerro de Pasco forever in my memory bank. Cerro de Pasco was the miserable, cold, dirty high altitude mining town in the Cordillera Blanco area of Peru. We never got warm there with unheated hotels, restaurants and a miserable climb in to the town. We all cringe when somebody mentions it. Now we can add Tacota as another name which will bring a curse to our lips. This place consists only of a small national police facility on the top of the desert climb located there so horseback patrols can chaser poachers of vicuna. The Chilean border is less than 100K from here. The last 13K’s took forever for me as the sun produced temps over 100 degrees and the terrain was defeating me. Sand. Bicycles are not designed to go uphill in the sand. I could not drink enough to cool my body. Walk for a half a K , stop and rest, then make yourself get back on the bike and try to push through again until overheating put you back into step one again. I wasn’t having fun. I questioned just what the hell was I doing here. It was a desert with no real redeeming features for me. A road I couldn’t ride. I don’t do well in the heat and this was real heat. Ahead I saw the lunch truck which had passed me just a few K’s back when I was still moving along somewhat like a cyclist. They had a leak to fix in the fuel system. Hardy had gotten on the truck with a half dozen other riders. A full truck. I filled my two water bottles and drank my fill as well then moved on as I was assured that it was less than 10 K’s to go. It didn’t get any better despite the rest stop and precious water. The lunch truck passed me in what seemed like hours later (it was maybe an hour) and assured me that the campsite was in the trees just ahead. I struggled into camp totally exhausted to cheers and encouragement only to flop my bike down and dump cold water over my head. Sat in the shade and drank and drank. Others came over and I found that everyone had struggled mightily and were just as shattered as I was. Other difficult off pavement sections on the Andes Trail had all had redeeming vistas and features that helped move you along. This road to Tacota across a desert just had nothing redeeming to justify the effort. Hardy II rejoined us two days later (he went off on his own after Salta as he had planned) and related that he started on this track, found it too crazy, and retreated to the pavement around this area. After reaching Tacota we still had 54K’s downhill on this same sandy crazy surface the next day and 121K’s total. Some of our stronger cyclists could push through the sand on the downhill but most of us had real problems again moving down as well. I couldn’t really try to push through as I was afraid to fall again on my shoulder. Cyclists should not be pushing their bikes downhill but there I was. The result of this two day effort was a lot of really tired bikers. In my case I also had a problem with my derriere from all the washboard and bouncing. New Argentinian biking shorts added to the damage to my backside. I couldn’t ride the following day – had problems just sitting. I don’t think further description is necessary.

We lose one of my favorite cyclists in Mendoza as well as Ellen, our cook since Quito. Rien is going home to Holland to help his niece remodel and open a new store. He is probably our overall strongest biker when he decides to race, but he is also fun-loving and loves to spend time cycling with all others no matter what their ability. One day you might find him pushing the pace with James, Alfred, Joost and others and the next day just cruising along near the back of the pack chatting away and taking photos. He just loves to cycle. I’ll include a photo of Rien giving me the thumbs up. It’s also JR’s birthday. I’ve known JR from my days skiing the Tour of Anchorage XC ski race some years ago. He joined this Bike Dreams trip without knowing that I was already signed up. It’s great to have him here. Last night we had a barbecue in the campgrounds here in Mendoza to say goodbye to Rien and congratulate JR. Although some of our group had already made plans and left early to get into town, it was a really fun gathering and great food put together by Ellen and Gertie, our cook for the remainder of the trip. I’ll add a photo of JR as well.

Villa Union and the New Road

near Villa Union

near Villa Union

Barry, Terry and Jurg

Barry, Terry and Jurg

along new road

along new road

riding through new construction

riding through new construction

Today was the first in six days of riding before Mendoza and two days of rest. Each morning at breakfast Bike Dreams co-owner Rob passes out the days profile, map and instructions for our ride. Then he goes over it with us to be sure everyone understands and adds any additional information he may have for us. This morning we were surprised when he gave us two possible routes, then mentioned that there may or may not be a lunch truck so bring your own food and extra water. It turned out that our original route is on a road that is not opened yet. It is brand new and still under construction. We are riding today and it is not scheduled to be open until tomorrow. Rob thinks that our bicycles will be allowed to be on the road but our Bike Dreams trucks may not be allowed to travel on it until later in the afternoon. So, our lead driver Rob will take the long 300K round about way to Villa Union from Chilecito with all our cyclists camping equipment and Walter, our lunch truck driver, will proceed to the new road and see what the construction people allow him to do. We can either take the new road the whole way or bike off pavement on a road which leads into the new road about 35K further on. About half of us take the new pavement and the others follow Rob on the gravel road that will merge with the new. I hook up with Barry, Terry, Jurg, Hardy and several others on Ruta 40 to a cutoff that leads to our route. Several other riders had left earlier and we met at the junction. We were sailing along. We have to climb across the mountains during this ride – it is our first real climb for some time as we have been on the altiplano for six weeks and then the flat plains and canyon lands. Pavement is easier climbing as the percentage of grade allowed is lower. It was still a good long climb though of about 15K before we found ourselves at the lunch truck and the start of the continuing construction on our road. Our truck will have to wait until the road construction is over for the day before they can proceed on the new road. We could see snow falling on these mountains while we were having breakfast – by the time we cycled there the snow had passed as had the rain in the lower elevations. The workers were letting us cycle through. It’s rough, rugged mountainous terrain and a real challenge to those designing and building a road winding around, cutting through and forcing its way up and over this land. We find our way past caterpillars, loaders, big trucks, and hard hatted Argentines all raising dust, rumbling and roaring their way through the solid rock. These machines require temporary side roads to get the rock moved and allow themselves to work at the same time. Some of these sections are what we are cycling on – the grade for these byways was steep. It was challenging for my level of aerobic capacity following those days of inactivity after my cycling accident. Huffing and puffing my way along, I followed up and down the rugged tracks with my three fellow cyclists. We all agreed that there was no way that this road should be, or could be, opened for traffic the next day. Sometime during this portion of the climb, the rough surface caused the extra water bottle I was carrying in my cycle jersey to start leaking. I had filled it with Coke for energy in case the lunch truck had not arrived. Barry informed me that the back of my jersey was staining brown. Stopping for a minute, I also found that the emerging sun had melted the three various chocolate bars in another pocket – fortunately that mess stayed in their wrappers. I emptied half of the bottle and got back on the bike. The mountains we were moving through slowly evolved into beautiful eroded canyons much like the country we had cycled earlier in Argentina. At one point in the canyons the sky was full of vultures. Circling, swooping and soaring, their presence indicated a fairly large dead animal about a half K away. Some looked much larger than others and also had some white on their bodies. I thought maybe Condors? Since I only had my I phone I couldn’t get a photo at this distance. Later, I got a look at a photo that Jan Willem had taken – they were Condors! I took photos when I could but the four of us (Terry, Barry, Jurg and I) felt we should keep moving as we had no idea about the coming road surface or the possible head winds as we came out of the mountains. We also didn’t know if the days ride would be 118K or 143K since Rob wasn’t sure about where we would be camping. Those were the two possibilities Rob had listed on our info sheet. When we finally crested over the top of the pass the view was all downhill. A big relief to tired legs. A long, long downhill and the winds were negligible. I moved out of the front and asked Barry and Terry to take over – I’m much slower on the descents. Off we went. Following the long descent we came to the gas station at a junction where our info had indicated would be our destination for the night. I hollered at Terry and Barry to stop, knowing that we were the first cyclists to arrive, I slid past them and into the station. Yay!!! My first stage win! Of course it really wasn’t since we weren’t racing and half of the riders had taken a different route earlier. But I had my fun, and Terry took an arm raised photo of me celebrating. Why not!

I’ve regained the weight I lost when I was sick in Peru. I’m thinking I have to slow down on the ice cream. We burn a lot of calories while on the bike but the lower altitude and fewer climbs make riding easier than it had been. Our breakfasts consist of a lot of bread, jam and granola. We have four meals a day. I did slow down on the chocolate I’d been eating. Back to some balance now.

While I try not to look ahead – to stay in the moment, in the present – I’m excited to reach Mendoza in less than a week. This city was where John Wood and I celebrated for a wonderful week following our summit of Aconcagua ten years ago.This mountain is the highest in the western hemisphere. Our other partner in the climb, Gary Tabor, returned home right after our climb so he missed that week. Mendoza is also where our climbing friend Lucas Dauria lives.
I will meet with him and his family while we are there. Also, my close friends, Deb and Brian Bennett will be joining our Bike Dreams group to cycle from there to Ushuaia with us. We still have five good long days of cycling before our arrival but my mind wanders.

I’ll try to post some photos if internet here allows.

Chilecito and a tired boy

We have just one more in a string of six cycling days before our next rest day in Chilecito which will also be our last hotel until December 8th in Chile. Most of the time we’ll be staying in campgrounds such as where we find ourselves this evening. Other nights will be in bush camps. We started with a 96K ride into a bush camp and then two campgrounds after rides of 94K and 78K to great little Argentinian towns of Cafayate and Santa Maria respectively. Traveling through some beautiful canyon lands on those rides and very little climbing, pleasant days and nice pavement we found ourselves getting a little spoiled. Getting into camp early everyday left us time to relax, get our chores done and added a calm to our time off the bikes. Our 122K ride into a bush camp at Hualfin brought reality back quite unexpectantly. Our day’s profile looked great – no real climb at all. However, we are now in Northern Argentina traveling south. Headwinds. We had a real headwind on this day that wanted to chase us back north. Enough to drive a lone cyclist off the bike. It was back to the peloton for us. For those of you who haven’t read my earlier post about pelotons I’ll just give a brief idea of how we deal with this wind. We had the same type of headwind in the Peruvian desert country on our way to the coast. As we head out from camp, riders informally group up generally according to abilities. In our pelotons we ride two abreast in close quarters with the riders just ahead. The lead cyclists bear the brunt of the wind with those behind finding themselves free from most of the force. Rotating cyclists keeps everyone fairly fresh during the day. However, the headwind on this day was so strong that even this strategy left us all exhausted by the end of the day. “There are no easy days on the Andes Trail,” Bike Dreams co-owner Rob likes to tell us. It was certainly true on this day. There are several major disadvantages in riding in the peloton. If you like to stop to take photos you just can’t do it in a group. You’ll be left behind – for the most part you are busy watching the wheel of the cyclist ahead of you. Most of the time your front tire is just inches from the back tire of the rider ahead of you. If you hit that tire you’ll find yourself on the pavement and so will several of the cyclists behind you. A mistake in a peloton can end the trip for riders caught in the pile-up. Trust is a big part of taking part in this strategy – it’s good to get to know how different cyclists ride so you’re comfortable behind them. In our group we have a policy of stopping when someone has to empty their bladder – if we didn’t then whoever had to answer the call would be left behind. A single rider has a hard time catching up to the energy of the peloton.

We left camp early next morning anticipating a long day with 160K’s to ride and thoughts of yesterday’s headwind very fresh in our minds. We had camped in a little run down resort located in a beautiful box-canyon. It was a difficult place to find; a little maze of single track dirt lanes left several cyclists trying one and then the other before finding their fellow bikers putting up tents wherever we could find shade. The claim to fame here was a hot springs and sure enough there were a passel of youngsters splashing, screaming. jumping and undoubtedly peeing in the pool. Fortunately they had four small rooms a little higher up where pipes brought hot water into individual shower liker facilities. After my quarters were situated I climbed up with shorts, soap and a towel to wait my turn. Kristin was just a head of me so I parked outside and listened to the mother and youngsters who were in the adjoining room just having a ball. Kristen came out looking like she was just back from heaven – I got my turn next. A single pipe poured 37 C water out from six feet above a split level concrete enclosure. That water felt so good I didn’t want to leave. I’m not sure if 37 C just a perfect temp for our bodies or if at this point at the end of a huge day anything would have felt great. I really believe in the 37 C. Nothing else worked including the banos, but that perfectly tempered water put smiles on all of our faces. The ride itself called for a peloton. Even if we don’t get the headwind, the distance alone will go much faster in a group and the scenery has not been inspirational. We were tired and nervous about how we were going to get through the big K day if the wind is like yesterday. Well, the gods were good to us – very little headwind, a beautiful day, very little climbing and a group that worked very well together. It was a very relieved gathering of cyclists relaxing rather early in a little campground that afternoon. Relaxed and relieved. Music playing. Computers out on tables in the shade. A few beers cracked. It’s so nice when it is nice.

With any group of people living side by side for several months there are bumps in the road, personalities that don’t always fit, stresses that are difficult to manage. We have become a large family. The focus of cycling and working together relieves most of these pressures. What was a problem in the morning is dissolved by evening. We have to work together to get our equipment loaded and unloaded each day. Bags come off the truck on arrival and back on in the morning. Dishes to wash and tables to set. Tables and benches to unload, set up and reload. Dinners to serve, tables to clear. All of these things have to be done as a team and efficiently. Teamwork keeps conflicts to a minimum. Of course now that we are camping every night we also have our own tents to set up and take down and our bags to settle inside. Our little homes. A bit of a challenge to keep things clean in this dusty deserty part of Argentina.

The last day in a string of 6 cycling days – we have 120K’s to ride and we are all tired from the previous five. It was hard for me to shake the cobwebs off this morning. Usually I’m awake by five am at the latest, up and organizing my stuff in the tent but this time the sandman didn’t let go until of me until six thirty. Had to hustle to get the tent down by breakfast and bags packed over to the truck. Breakfast down. Teeth brushed, a little water across my face, grab the helmut, get on the bike and fall into my group. A few K’s in I notice I didn’t refill my water bottles before I left. Damn. Luckily it isn’t hot yet and I can get some at lunch. We change the lead every fifteen minutes and the wind lets us alone till about eleven. We do have hills and tired legs though. By early afternoon I’m struggling. Most of the rest of the group is too. As we approach Chilecito and our last hotel until Chile, Michelle is repeating her day’s mantra – Cold cervesas, cold cervesas – to keep her moving forward. Kristin has a chain problem, we all stop and it feels so good. Back on the bikes after a few minutes we finally roll into Chilecito and find we’re staying a little beyond town in some apartments. We like to be right in town so it will be taxi time tonight for dinner.

Tonight Barry, Terry, JR and I are heading into town for a well deserved steak. I’m tired. We want to take a look at the statue of Che Guevarra (sp). I hope to get a photo of him on this blog.

Salta, Back on the Bike and Off the Altiplano

world's largest empty swimming pool - James set up camp in the middle

world’s largest empty swimming pool – James set up camp in the middle

After over six weeks of living in high altitude day and night, we left our bush camp and headed down into our first campground at Yala which lies at just 1400 meters of elevation. Our day map profile looked like a big drop downhill that should be fast for all cycling but it was somewhat deceiving because in actuality it was a slow winding downhill that was accompanied by a strong headwind. The cycling was hard and long. All were rewarded by a very pleasant well appointed municipal campground that actually had hot showers and a good little restaurant with wi-fi . We have learned to appreciate the little things in life. Sleep came early this night. Robert, our lead driver, asked about using my bike for the ride into Salta the next day. His lady friend Maria is leaving us after Salta – Robert has the day off to cycle with her. Pedals are changed out and the seat lowered for Maria. I will be riding on the truck with Rob, co-owner of Bike Dreams who will fill in for Robert, and Ellen, our cook. The cyclists are off the next morning early. They are biking on a beautiful paved tree lined lane that winds into and through the city. We take the truck on a big highway around Salta and into the south side of the city to the municipal campgrounds. After a few swings through the maze of winding streets and avenues we enter the campground and head for the far end. Here is a place where the world has stood still since the 60’s but the decay has not. I’m looking at the largest pool I’ve ever seen. It’s enormous. Judging from the small grasses growing through many of the cracks, there hasn’t been water in this thing since not many years after it was built. There is what must have once been a hotel facing this empty facade just down from our end of the grounds, and beyond us a building housing banos and showers. It was locked when we arrived – from my point of view once I entered, it should have stayed locked. All buildings and camping fixtures such as the concrete tables and benches seemed to be of the same vintage as the pool and one-time hotel. There was no conversation in our vehicle. Rob backed the truck into the shade – we started unloading all the gear. I took my tent and looked for a spot. There was garbage everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Bottles, cans, paper, food wastes, yuck and more. Rob grabbed some garbage bags and we started in picking it all up. This night we are having a barbecue here for the eight people leaving us and the one new arrival, Lettie, a trauma psychoanalyst from Holland. We need to turn this horrendous place into a party somehow. In time we have a full dumpster and hopes that we can overlook the decay. The cyclists began appearing in camp, some grumbles start but cold beer and open wine bottles tempered the complaints. Robert started the charcoal and got the meat on the grill – cooking smoke and liquor along with dance music on the truck speakers and the party was on! It was a great way to say goodbye to our friends and re-live our shared experiences. Eating, dancing and drinking our way through the evening – every time someone tried to turn the music down to a livable level, Lucho was there to crank it back up. He comes alive with the music. Shortly after we had cleaned up the area, a double decker bus arrived and out poured a group of chattering, bouncing, giggling moms and daughters. They quickly filled up many of the tables and benches. A certain level of cacophony became a constant in the neighborhood. The bus freight was also unloaded and the big vehicle disappeared. Rob went over to chat and was assured that they would be gone by five but we soon discovered that the bus had a mechanical problem and they had to wait till it was repaired. The group was on a holiday together – their destination was still five hours away. We spent the whole evening with them in our midst – it was great. They loved to dance and the young girls couldn’t get enough photos with the blue eyed gringos. A new bus arrived some time after one in the morning – when I awoke they were all gone. The party was a big success – we now had two additional days to enjoy Salta, just a short cab ride from our campsite.

Today (16th October) I got back on the bike for the first trim since my shoulder separation. The last few days I put my sling in the tent and tried life without it. No real problems so I took off this morning for a 96k ride on pavement with no big hills. A good day to give it a go. Trees have once again become a part or our environment since we dropped down from the altiplano. The first trees that stood out were some large very green willows, then we noticed a type of European poplar and soon the whole landscape was filled with trees. A big change from our days of Cerro de Pasco and Huarascan national park. In Salta I saw trees that I haven’t seen since a little oasis town in Namibia – the Jacaranda tree with beautiful lavender lilac like blooms filling the green spaces with color. We were traveling through a valley bordered on both sides by soft flowing mountain ridges. In the early stages of the ride there were a lot of planted fields and small orchards that gave way later in the morning to rolling wooded hills. It was a beautiful morning on the bicycle. Experience has taught me that the afternoon will bring hot temperatures (in the mid 40’s C) and often times headwinds as we move south so I move right along to try to reach camp early in the day. Lunch was at 60K and I didn’t dawdle – off as soon as the sandwich was gone. Ten K’s later and the heat was on. A dry sharp hot wind seemed to be rising off the pavement and sucking the moisture out of me. I drank as often and much aa I could while I moved along. Then I heard a shout from some of my mates sitting in a little restaurant in La Vina so I pulled over to join Barry, Rien, and a couple of others for a soft drink. A bottle of Fanta slid down my throat about as fast as it could then I grabbed another bottle of water and was off for the last 13K’s of hot hot headwind. I don’t do well in the heat.

Shoulder was fine.

Some of you might have seen the rankings of cyclists on the Bike Dreams web site. This Andes Trail ride is a race for all who are interested. My roommate before JR arrived in Cusco, James, is a very strong skilled cyclist who is far ahead in the rankings. Several other cyclists will race on certain days (stages) to try to get a stage win. Most of the cyclists here are not racing (including me) – we stop often for photos, a cafe, a party of locals along the roadway or any other opportunity to enjoy our environment. I found myself in 8th place through much of Ecuador and Peru not because of my abilities or because I was racing but merely because I did
not miss any days to sickness. I made up for that later in Peru and again with my shoulder injury. If you miss a racing day you are penalized 12 hours. That penalty adds up quickly if you do get very ill. There are only about 20 of us doing the whole distance from Quito to Ushuaia – very few race but those who do really enjoy the competition.

Argentina hlight and the ride in and out of la paz the low point for me. that trip into the valley was just too crazy busy with competing traffic for any cyclist to have to contend with. then came my biking accident with the dislocated shoulder. the silver lining there was the full realization of what a team we have become. The care and concern of all my new friends here was so rewarding. I can’t say enough. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and now the largest of them all, Argentina. we will be here for some time. I look forward also to our two detours into Chile to ride among glaciers and mountains and seacoast. Right now I look forward to just getting back on the bike. I have had a good prognosis from my good friend Dr. John Wood with which our team doctor Annelot readily concurs with. In consultation with orthopedist Dr.Joel Zamzow, John has indicated that I have about two weeks with exercises that he has sent me, care to avoid re-injury and continued use of a sling before I get on the bike but I should be just fine for the rest of the trip. I plan on getting back after our rest stop in Salta. We will lose eight of our cyclists there as they head for their respective homes. A sad day for us but we plan on a big barbecue to celebrate our time with them. Dave, a record mixer and producer from England; Theo, a staff member at a psychological hospital and his wife Toos, a university research scientist from Holland; Patrick, our youngest member who is re-inventing his career when he gets back to Holland; Mario, who joined us in Cusco and is returning to Holland; Elizabeth, who is heading back to her career in the health industry in Australia; i have become such good with these people. a little erosion in the landscape can be unsightly but a lot of erosion can be spectacular. that’s what we’ve had the last few days. i described some of it in my last post as resembling canyon lands in utah but without the people a popular park brings. today we drove the first 100 some k’s in land that more resembled eastern colorado but then were rewarded the last 15k’s with rugged canyons, multi—colored eroded buttes and soft mountain tops, volcano remnants and remarkable layered slopes. the cyclists had 120k’s of paved road but very little climbing and beautiful blue skies. despite a limited campsite, there were smiles all around as they pedaled in off the pavement. i miss the biking and the closeness it brings you to the people and the landscape. i feel the same about getting into my sea kayak. you feel almost a part of the liquid you’re paddling through – no longer looking down at it but truly immersed. yet i will make the most of my time on the truck. i also really enjoy rob, maria and ellen’s company. when we leave salta in a few days we will be almost entirely in bush camps and campgrounds for the remainder of this trip. internet service for me to continue this blog will be even more sporadic but i will post as often as possible. thank you all for continuing to follow along – it’s inspirational for me. tomorrow we leave the altiplano. it’s held us between 3200 and 4300 meters in elevation for more than 6 weeks. i look forward to sleeping better, digesting easier, and staying warmer. it’s been a beautiful landscape, though, that i’ll not forget. saturday – october 11

Argentina, we are here. crossed a busy border two days ago, since I am now traveling on the lead truck with our driver Robert from barcelona, his friend Maria who is here visiting him until we reach Salta, and our cook Ellen, I got to experience the process of getting one of our Bike Dream trucks across the border. a large tourist bus had arrived just before us – they were making all of the passengers bring their personal luggage with them through both the exit process from Bolivia and also the entry process into Argentina. It was a very slow line we found ourselves in and a hot sun to add to our impatience. We finally all walked away with exit and entry stamped passports then waited while Robert presented the large packet of paperwork covering both the vehicle and bike dreams work permits in Argentina. It really didn’t take too long – the authorities opened a couple of the sliding doors on the truck but we didn’t have to pull out any of the contents. while we waited we found we could walk freely between the two countries without question. I think you could actually just walk across without anyone questioning anything. as an American citizen it was required that I have a $160 reciprocity receipt with me – it’s good for 10 years. Canadians and Australians also have to have them. I had previously had one in 2004 but was expired now.

Now we are in the land of Malbec wines, toronado steaks and gauchos. Looking at my route map, this moment had seemed such a distant goal at the end of July. Bolivia has been a pleasant surprise. very friendly people, quiet roads to cycle, beautiful countryside, and good but simple food. the salar de uyuni was definitely a highlight and the ride in and out of La Paz the low point for me. That trip into the valley was just too crazy busy with competing traffic for any cyclist to have to contend with. then came my biking accident with the dislocated shoulder. The silver lining there was the full realization of what a team we have become. The care and concern of all my new friends here was so rewarding. I can’t say enough. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and now the largest of them all, Argentina. we will be here for some time. I look forward also to our two detours into Chile to ride among glaciers and mountains and seacoast. Right now I look forward to just getting back on the bike.

I have had a good prognosis from my good friend Dr. John Wood with which our team doctor Annelot readily concurs with. In consultation with orthopedist Dr.Joel Zamzow, John has indicated that I have about two weeks with exercises that he has sent me, care to avoid re-injury and continued use of a sling before I get on the bike but I should be just fine for the rest of the trip. I plan on getting back after our rest stop in Salta. We will lose eight of our cyclists there as they head for their respective homes. A sad day for us but we plan on a big barbecue to celebrate our time with them. Dave, a record mixer and producer from England; Theo, a staff member at a psychological hospital and his wife Toos, a university research scientist from Holland; Patrick, our youngest member who is re-inventing his career when he gets back to Holland; Mario, who joined us in Cusco and is returning to Holland; Elizabeth, who is heading back to her career in the health industry in Australia; and Hardy II who joined us in Cusco and is continuing his solo trip he started in Brazil by biking to Buenos Aires and then on home to Germany.
i have become such good with these people.

A little erosion in the landscape can be unsightly but a lot of erosion can be spectacular. That’s what we’ve had the last few days. I described some of it in my last post as resembling canyon lands in utah but without the people a popular park brings.  Today we drove the first 100 some k’s in land that more resembled eastern colorado but then were rewarded the last 15k’s with rugged canyons, multi—colored eroded buttes and soft mountain tops, volcano remnants and remarkable layered slopes. The cyclists had 120k’s of paved road but very little climbing and beautiful blue skies. Despite a limited campsite, there were smiles all around as they pedaled in off the pavement. I miss the biking and the closeness it brings you to the people and the landscape.  I feel the same about getting into my sea kayak. you feel almost a part of the liquid you’re paddling through – no longer looking down at it but truly immersed. yet I will make the most of my time on the truck. I also really enjoy Rob, Maria and Ellen’s company. When we leave Salta in a few days we will be almost entirely in bush camps and campgrounds for the remainder of this trip. Internet service for me to continue this blog will be even more sporadic but i will post as often as possible. Thank you all for continuing to follow along – it’s inspirational for me.

Tomorrow we leave the altiplano. It’s held us between 3200 and 4300 meters in elevation for more than 6 weeks. I look forward to sleeping better, digesting easier, and staying warmer. It’s been a beautiful landscape, though, that i’ll not forget.

saturday – october 11

Flying Leap into the Truck

after leaving the salar de uyuni and a day of rest in a great little hotel and restaurant in uyuni, we headed off further into the wild back country of bolivia with a bush camp and small town hostel scheduled before a rest day in tupiza. we had two full days of unpaved rough corrugated roads and trails. 109k and 102k’s respectively, with quite a bit of climbing on the second day. rough, it turned out to be. constant bumping, jangling, rattling and vibrating to your core. we found ourselves forever moving across the roads and trails and into the ditches just looking for a quieter place to move our bodies and bikes forward. as i struggled along our basic road i noticed a couple of cyclists had moved down about a 10 foot rocky slope to what appeared to be some smoother surface below. i followed suit and slid and bumped my way along the short descent when suddenly the front wheel impacted an unseen small ditch at the bottom of the slope. that impact sent me flying over the handlebars and onto the rocky surface where my rolled shoulder collided in an unforgiving manner. my first reaction was to grab that shoulder and move to get up – i found it not possible. of all the falls and spills i’ve taken i’ve always been able to shake it off and scramble back up in some manner. this time my body just wouldn’t allow it. i was soon surrounded by concerned cycling friends. all trying to help me up either physically or with their encouragement. i just wanted to lay there. i’m told i fainted a couple of times and their efforts evolved into getting help. my friend Barry hopped on his bike and sped off to find our bike dreams truck with driver walter and group doctor annelot aboard. kristin and hilde, two norwegian sister nurses and fellow cyclists assisted me in the meantime. the truck arrived and it become clear that my falling blood pressure was going to make it difficult to get me up into the high unstepped seating portion of our work horse truck. then an suv driven by a kind bolivian stopped and offered to help. he patiently waited while annelot , kristin and hilde got me slowly to an upright position so helping hands could get me into the vehicle. the local bolivian man knew the way to the hospital and our bike dreams truck followed close behind. they took me into the emergency room and we awaited a doctor’s assessment. all things take time and my time in that room was no exception. i have no complaints though. these people are busy. i got down to the X-ray room for a couple of photos (in a wheelchair!) and back to the little room. the bolivian x-ray technician came in and confirmed to annelot that i had dislocated the shoulder socket then asked us to await the doctors confirmation. some time later we had that confirmation but also with the info that no one there could re-locate the shoulder and they wanted to send me in the ambulance to potosi, 3 hours in the wrong direction. they gave me a shot of something in the top of my behind. annelot had also given me a couple of pain
pills with kristin trying to relax me and every so often telling me to breathe. what was going through my mind was how could this spill on my shoulder possibly make me so helpless – where was all this pain coming from and why was i such a baby about it. annelot asked me if i was willing to let her try to reset it. YES. easy answer. so kristin and annelid took charge of the room. kristin found some morphine and prepared a shot. walter made a sling to hold me with and annelid moved my arm into position then asked if i was ready. you bet. she pulled while walter held and kristin comforted. POP. what a beautiful sound. the absence of pain.

my accident was very disappointing. i want to be on the bike, seeing the countryside close up and spending the time with my fellow cyclists. however, i feel so fortunate to have had annelot, kristin, walter and my fellow cyclists there to get me through it.  so lucky.   the choice i have now was whether i wanted to take a bus ahead and wait in a hotel or ride in the truck and spend the time with my fellow cyclists in bush camps and hostels. it was an easy choice. i also took the opportunity to offer the use of my bike to our beloved lucho, our bike dreams mechanic and former peruvian cycling champion. he always tells me how much he admires my bike. yesterday he changed out the pedals for his shoes, lowered the seat and off lucho flew. my bike has never gone so fast.  made me happy.
yesterday i rode with robert, his girlfriend maria and ellen our cook in the lead bike dreams truck. hannie, married to marius, rode as far as the half-way point at lunch then biked the second half. hannie and marius have cycled so many places in the world i can’t begin to recount them. marius is a head and neck surgeon in holland – they have three grown children.
hannie and i marveled at the scenery – at one point she said to me “this reminds me of a park we cycled in america. you know, where it looks like giant footprints.” “canyonland” i replied. “yes” she replied. as the truck bumped and bounced its way through tight curves, ascents and descents, steep drops and dust swirls along this rough single track we held on to anything we could.  we are still at a high elevation here as we have been for better than six weeks so we weren’t too surprised to see vicunas along the hillsides.  robert has a busy schedule when we arrive at our next stop so there can be no photo stops – the scenery is fantastic. i miss most of it as far as photos are concerned since we are bouncing so much and moving through it all rapidly . occasionally i try through the window but i don’t have high hopes for the results. i’ll post what i can but i hope you realize that its much more than i have captured.

i’m sure you noticed the absence of caps – just too hard with just one hand.

Gracious Bolivian Hosts, Rain, and the Otherworldly Salar de Uyuni

After leaving La Paz we headed for the back country roads of Bolivia.  We have been on the altiplano since the southern part of Peru – finding ourselves between 3600 and 4400 meters of altitude.  This area is the second largest high plain next to Tibet.  It reminds me of Mongolia with the rolling sweeping plains and “hills” rolling up higher than the rugged mountains of Colorado.  It’s easy to forget the altitude since we tend to equate high elevation with ranges of mountain peaks rather than these softer mounded hills.  The vegetation is largely tufted grass and lichen with tiny wildflowers which are hard to pick out since the summer growing season hasn’t begun here yet.  Quinoa grows well here and we have seen some furrowed grounds awaiting the rainy season.  What does thrive on this boundless plain are all the llamas, alpacas and occasional vicunas.  They are everywhere.  Hundreds. Thousands.  The llama and alpacas are domesticated – one passes herders with small flocks of perhaps a hundred mixed animals and of course the ever-present rock wall pens where the animals can be gathered for shearing and also brought into for protection.  I remember my first sight of llamas in Ecuador and the excitement and flurry of camera clicks.  Now I pedal past with the camera remaining lodged in my cycling jersey pocket.  We pedaled flat pavement with tail wind on our route to Orura – a large city on our way to the Meteor Crater and then on to the Salar de Uyuni.  Orura is a city of 420,000 which was founded in 1606 as a silver mining center.  When the silver was depleted tin took its place.  Now the city is best known for its Carnival which is the largest cultural event in Bolivia and is recognized as a Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in 2001.  I enjoyed a good meal in this city but no Carnival and lots of traffic for a bicycle.  On we went to our next bush camp at A Andamarca, a good 110K cycle on new pavement and ending with rough backroad to the small village.  We find ourselves biking on a newly paved uncompleted highway, having it all to ourselves.  This is the home area of Evo Morales, the popular peasant president of Bolivia and consequently the region is finding itself the happy recipient of Evo’s largesse – at whatever level a poor country like Bolivia can produce.  There is very little traffic on this side of Orura anyway, but what there is is on the older highway and we gringo bikers are on the brand new road.  Feeling pretty special.

For the last two Bike Dreams trips here in Bolivia, in 2010 and 2012, the riders had a total of 5 minutes of rain.  We have found the wet season 5 weeks early and have been beset by tremendous thunder and lightning storms with heavy rains and big winds besetting us in the afternoons.  We biked into our bush camp with this kind of weather pattern making the prospect of setting up tents and bush kitchen facilities a little bleak.  Rob and Maria in our lead truck pulled into A Andamarca while we bikers were still on the trail and asked the locals if there was any space we could use for cooking and eating.  This, like all villages in this rugged region, is a very poor town.  Some of the little villages we pedal through are deserted.  The people of A Andamarca welcomed us with open arms.  Of course they had never heard of Bike Dreams nor had any idea why any grown people might want to bicycle to their town.  Yet the answer was a very gracious, “you are most welcome to whatever we have here.”  We got our tents up in the rocky ground surrounding the basic school/community building while the kitchen was being set up inside – the rain came with a fury and the winds whipped our tents.  Some of our late arrivals set up sleeping quarters on the floors inside.  We enjoyed a great meal in dry quarters and felt so lucky.  The storm at this altitude is also very chilly.  Hypothermic weather.  All the village leaders asked of us is that we come to their church that evening at 8 so they could show us of what they are most proud.  We all gathered in our rain gear and headed through the small square to the rugged, ancient appearing church building with its adjacent tower.  The tower happens to be the highest structure in all of Bolivia.  The church and tower date back to 1623 when the Spanish arrived in this part of this country.  It looks as old as it is at this time.  The interior murals had long ago fallen into decay and been repainted white.  The exterior walls were mud plastered decaying brick.  The gilded  baroque figurines and moldings were intact and impressive but incomplete due to the ravages of time and lack of funds.  We listened as the two elders gave us the story of their most prized possession, this ancient church building, and their dreams of restoring it as a tourist attraction.  May the hopes and dreams of these gracious people remain ever strong.  May the reality of their remote location and the impossibility of funding in a country too poor to care for the health and vitality of their people as it is never dim their spirits.  It was with these mixed emotions that we departed this church and the two kind hearted leaders and crawled into our tents.

Our next bush camp location was at the Meteor Crater about 110Ks away.  We were scheduled to bike an off road trail but because of all the rain, there was concern about getting the trucks through that route with our getting them badly stuck.  So the options we cyclists were given were to ride the off road trail with no support or lunch, or take the paved road about 60K to an off road route of another 60K to the camp.  Our trip leader Wilbert was not sure of the distance of the paved route.  About half of the  cyclists took the paved route and the others followed Wilbert on the unpaved.  As it turned out the unpaved road was really a very good surface and the paved portion of the other route was actually 95Ks not 60 and still left 60ks to pedal to camp.  Of course I was on the 155K route and it was a very long day.  With the thunder, lightning and rains all around us we were lucky to avoid them all day, but when we hit camp lightning was all around us.  I hurried to get my tent up with rain pounding my little cycling rain top and soaking the rest of me.  As I was trying to get in the last two pegs to firm it up the wind suddenly appeared and swept into a fury – of course I had the little one- center pole tent facing the wrong direction and it flattened the poor thing before I could even say “damn it” through my chattering teeth.  Seeing my dilemma, my buddy JR came running over and suggested we pick it up and set it upright again behind a wall on the other side of the school building.  Again, the local villagers were allowing us to use their school house for our kitchen and dining room.  We both took and end and got the tent upright in a better location but we shivering puppies when we finally got into shelter.  After such a huge day of cycling I had little resistance to the wet and cold.  Rob, our driver, kindly handed me his down jacket so I could get my shivering under control.  A half hour later I had dry clothes back on and everything in my tent.  Again, we felt so fortunate to be treated so well by the local folks.  I had no energy (or light) to walk over to the Meteor Crater to see this phenomenon.

We have all been looking forward to getting to the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat.  We were happy to leave the Meteor Crater and start our 78K off road trip through the countryside to Tahua located on the edge of the Salar.  The journey proved to be a very rugged series of roads and trails which took us past several villages, only one of which seemed to have any life and that one no center or store.  There was one old church standing that would be interesting to know its past story but that was not available to us passing through its deserted cobblestones.  We were now climbing at times as our route took us around a volcano and then back down to the salt flat edge at about 3700 meters elevation.  The countryside was beautiful – one could also see the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Real, some of which are over 6000 meters.  The volcano peak was surrounded by dark rain clouds and mist all day as we bounced and jolted our way on this rocky rough terrain hoping our bodies would somehow retain there former shape when we could get off of our bikes in Tahua.  Up and up we rode till finally there it was!   Incredible.  The horizon below with the exception of a few mountains and islands was flat white as far as you could see.  The Salar de Uyuni.  Such a unique and bizarre sight.  Out came our cameras  and the five of us riding first down to Tahua wished we could capture truly on digital what our eyes could see so vividly.  Down we rumbled into the town and hung out while Rob and Maria again arranged for cooking and eating facilities, this time in a warehouse.  The green area that Bike Dreams had previously used for camping was now being used for agriculture so we waited in the town square till a new solution could be found.  We ended up camping on the edge of the salt flat itself.  There was no moisture whatsoever on the bottom of tent floors with the terrain we were parked on.  Had a great meal in the warehouse and no rain this evening.

Morning came and we finally got on our bikes and off on our cycling journey across 102K of salt crust on the largest of all the salt flats in the world.  It dwarfs the Bonneville salt flats in Utah.  The crust itself is a few meters thick and the terrain is so flat that there is a variation of only one meter over the entire area of the Salar which is 10,500 square kilometers.  Below the crust is a pool of brine which also holds about 60 percent of the world’s lithium.  Of course, we’re not thinking about all that – we are having a ball cycling on this huge solid remarkably surface of salt.  You can just fly.  Cars and buses can be seen taking tourists out to an island about 40K’s out where will have lunch.  Then we take a sharp left and head for our home for the night, a salt hotel on the other edge of this part of the Salar.  It was a day of play.  Photographs abound.  We all have to be very aware of the sun and the reflective nature of the salt surface.  I cover every part of me that I can and slather sun screen on the rest.  I end up cycling with Joost, Patrick, Michelle, and sometimes Lucho in the afternoon.  We have fun with trick photographs which I hope to share with you either on this blog or the next.  What a day.  The sun starts to wear us out with about 15-20K’s left and we cycle in tired but happy at the salt hotel.  This is a very basic lodging but its uniqueness make it a welcome place for us to stay. It is built entirely out of cut blocks of salt, including the furniture and beds – the floor is all loose salt.  We are all in early and happy so out come the beers – I get a bottle of wine for JR, Joost, Michelle and myself.  Two more bottles and a few hours later we still haven’t eaten since Ellen and crew are also enjoying a few spirits.  It was a late night to bed (10) for us cyclists but a great day of a fantastic part of this world.

Heading out onto the Salar

Heading out onto the Salar

Lunch on the Salar

Lunch on the Salar

Cactus on island near lunch on the Salar

Cactus on island near lunch on the Salar

Lucho and I celebrating

Lucho and I celebrating

Joost, Michelle and JR celebrating inside salt hotel

Joost, Michelle and JR celebrating inside salt hotel

Volcano on route to Salar

Volcano on route to Salar

Buck and bike havin fun

Buck and bike havin fun