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.