Blessings in Bolivia
Suggestion: This is 10 Pages of Pure Lovin' Adventure. Print it out on some scratch paper in draft mode and enjoy it slowly.
Exciting Photos: Just click the link below. Big thanks to Panasonic for the cameras:
Sending big love from the Atacama Desert in Chile where my good friend Sara has treated me to a stay at the Atacama Adventure and Wellness Lodge to celebrate my first five South American countries completed! I’ll be grounded a while getting my bike frame and a slew of other mechanical issued fixed and will be skiing the Andes until it’s all dialed in. Not a bad place to be grounded! Soooo, back to Bolivia!
My first of many surprises in Bolivia came at the border with Paraguay where I was charged a whopping $135 for a visa, the most expensive of my entire journey to date. I guess it’s fair since us Yanks charge the Bolivians the same to come out the states. But this fee was not mentioned in my guide book and I had quite a scare since I could barely scrape up enough cash digging into various hiding spots in my gear.
The next surprise was far more positive. I arrived in the town of Camiri with absolutely no idea where I was going to stay, what to do or who I would meet. I simply chose the town from the map randomly as a recharge and launching point to the highlands I’d been dreaming of exploring for years. I was feeling quite low from the loss of my great friend and cycling partner Cristina who just left the day before after 18 days of adventuring in Argentina and Paraguay.
As I pedaled into town a smiling man named Teofilo rode up alongside me on moped and began snapping photos. Up ahead he motioned me to stop and told me he was working with a national paper El Deber and wanted to do an interview. He also guided me into the center of Camiri right to a perfect hotel room steps from the plaza where, as my luck would have it, the city was gearing up for a huge anniversary celebration of the town. Live bands were scheduled, a full-blow fair was in swing, and a festive vibe in the air.
My original plan was to spend just a day or two there but when I heard the famous Bolivian band Azul Azul was playing with a full lineup of traditional dance performances from around the country it was easy to stick around. I met the head promoter of all the music and dance and he gave me the green light to capture some brilliant performances in the evenings and I spent the daytimes writing, charging batteries, offloading footage and diving into the festivities around town.
One of the workers at the hotel named Mauro and I caught eyes one day and I liked his big smile and positive energy as he went about his work. He also loved bikes and rode his bike to work every day so it was a no-brainer to do a sunset tour of Camiri together. He explained that he is an orphan of 22 years old and lived his entire youth in two Catholic orphanages until he finally went out on his own with the support of his sister, a nun from Italy. We had some deep and meaningful conversations and I invited him to pedal along with me into the mountains. As much as he would love to, the truth is that he, like almost all Bolivians, work a strict 6-day work week with only Sundays off. I was planning to leave on Saturday but delayed my departure a day to give Mauro an adventure that I knew he would never forget.
Saturday night the hotel was booked and finding a bed at any hotel impossible due to the festival. Luckily Mauro offered to let me sleep in his bed since he was working the night shift the evening before our adventure. His pad is about as basic as it comes with no electricity, running water or furniture. Just his bed, two pets—a rat and cat, and a slew of random articles he salvaged for some future purpose. I felt right at home.
I slept like a baby and was up early Sunday morning for our short yet challenging ride to Ipati. He had to work the entire evening and into the next day but still was charged up and smiling ear to ear when we finally got geared up and ready to ride. He proudly sported his Assos cycling gear while I set up the bike for the day. Unfortunately, while lubing the chains I discovered two cracks in the welding on my bike frame. I was shocked. The frame is Titanium and the chances of finding a Ti welder in Bolivia are slim to none. I prayed for the best and rode on.
Mauro was loving the ride and we were soon motoring along the smooth rolling hills on the Bolivian Chaco together. Mauro had never been on any kind of adventure outside Camiri and his wide eyes and optimism was contagious. We had some lovely chats and I learned about his life philosophy of treating life as a game; never to be taken too seriously, with strategies, players and rules. He admitted that by not having any parents he felt he might be a bit “crazy”, but after talking further we both giggled realizing that we are both kinda crazy, not to mention just about everyone on Earth.
After battling a pretty stiff headwind and a steady 20km climb we finally hit Ipati with the cameras still rolling from our rolling philosophy session. We rode onto a dusty main road and arrived right in the middle of a soccer game going on between Ipati and a neighboring village. All heads turned as the tandem train rolled in; a few with smiles, most with looks of bewilderment and a few with frowns. But our smiles and positive energy was like a magnet and within about 7 minutes we met Oscar, the owner of the house right in front of the soccer field, who offered to host us both for the night and enjoy an evening with his family! Goal!!!
Oscar’s pad is painted a lovely shade of pink that matched the pink in the clouds from the setting sun. He has chickens, ducks, dogs, a 92 year old neighbor with gusto, two beautiful children and his cherished wife. After the game I offered to head into town and look for some meat to add to the evening supper, a mission that went on for about ½ an hour but we finally returned with chicken, bread, soda, beers and dessert. Life was good in Ipati!
Mauro was having such a blast on our adventure so he changed his plans to bus back that evening and we shared a spare room in Oscar’s pad normally used by students. The next morning I offered to give Oscar a ride to his job at a local farm that day and he shared his total passion and commitment to his wife and two kids. He thinks about them all day and can’t wait to get back to see them every day. He also shared how much he cherished our short but meaningful time together. I was his first international guest in his house and he said he is now going to start inviting the bike touring folks who normally set up tents in the soccer field to stay the night, even though the language barrier is usually the culprit keeping them in the tent.
I rode Mauro to the bus station and when his bus came I decided to give him a hug like I do to all my good friends. We had spent 3 days together from Camiri to Ipati so I felt a hug was in order. He gave a half hug and then told me it was something he’s working on—being able to hug people. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be an orphan, but I can understand how hugging might be out of the comfort zone.
So there I was, at the crossroads that would begin a long, challenging journey into the highlands of Bolivia. Ipati is at about 1,400 meters (4,500 feet) and I would be adventuring on some of the world’s worst roads up to 4,200+ meters (13,000+ feet). I had no takers on my invitations at the crossroads as I left the pavement and immediately began climbing steep, dusty, rocky and often sandy roads westward. I cranked up the Ipod, took off my shirt, lubed up on sun cream and off I went—fired up as ever.
The steep rocky climbs gave way to rough, wild and hairy descents that made all the climbing worth it. However, I was still without front suspension since my fork blew up in Argentina and the part was on the way to Chile. So it was fun, but sure did take a beating on my body. You don’t know how much you your suspension does for you until you lose it, especially on Bolivian back roads!
At about the 30km mark I stopped for lunch in the shade and decided to check the crack in my frame to see if it moved anywhere from the yellow mark I put at the ends of it back in Camiri. I did not budge on the pavement back in Ipati so I was optimistic. But, to my horror, when I did my investigation the cracks had indeed grown longer and more visibl! I was gutted! I had dreamed of riding into the Bolivian Altiplano for years and just 30km into it I’m faced with a pretty major decision to make. I can carry on and risk the frame breaking and not being able to ride in Boliva or Atamaca in Chile with Sara or get to smoother roads or even some very rare Bolivian pavement. I sat in the shade, did some meditation and praying, and waited for my answer.
Before I knew it I was disassembling my bike but in a pretty sour mood. But just then, the wind shifted. It was a truly magical experience. I had a tail wind all morning pushing me along the wild roads. And as I turned the wrenches the wind was now stiff in my face and I saw it as a sign that I was doing the right thing stopping and caring for the frame and ensuring I’d be able to ride up ahead. My mood improved immediately as I sat solo on a quiet country road hoping for a lift to smoother grounds.
After a long 4-hour wait I finally got a lift from a huge empty truck that zipped me over what would have been the first of many huge passes over to the next town of Muyupampa. The second I got off the truck I saw two friendly looking Bolivian guys with huge balls of Coca in their mouths and I decided to strike up a conversation. Bruno and Baimair are their names and we got along like brothers right from the get go. I found a cheap crib for 4 bucks, showered off layers of grime and met up with the boys for some food, a beer and my first ball of coca.
As you may know, coca is a plant that grows throughout Bolivia, Peru and Columbia and has been a sacred leaf chewed by locals for thousands of years. They use it to help with energy and to keep workers from feeling hungry or thirsty. It’s also the main ingredient in the illegal drug cocaine. It’s only legal to buy the coca leaves in these three countries as far as I know. The effects of chewing natural coca leaves are nothing compared to cocaine (so I’ve been told), except the numbing effects in the mouth. Bruno gave me a handful and instructed me to pack it into my mouth and chew on them a bit. Then comes bicarbonate that activates the alkalines and really gets the saliva cranking. I could see why the locals like it. It’s social, pretty tasty and gives you a nice kick of energy equivalent to a few cups of coffee.
Bruno and Beimar both work as engineers installing large water systems on big government projects and travel out to remote pueblos regularly. They live in Sucre, the final destination of this leg of my trip, so we vowed to connect when I arrived. I also planted a seed with the boys that I wanted to look for a small charity project to start with some locals and a water project seems like a great fit considering their expertise. Bruno’s eyes lit up and he shared that he had wanted to start something for the smaller villages off the government’s radar.
After a lovely night sleep I spent the next 18 hours on bone-jarring public transport towards the mysterious town of Padilla. I chose Padilla since the map I was carrying showed the road changing colors to red at this town towards Sucre. I was blindly optimistic that the roads must be better, even though both Bruno and Baimair said they were only marginally better than down below and encouraged me to bus it all the way to Tarabuco. I arrived in Padilla at 1AM feeling like I just got off an all day stint on a massage chair with bonus features of Mike Tyson punches.
The next day I was ready to finally get riding and get this expedition underway. I strolled the streets of Padilla and spent an hour in the plaza chatting with locals. I had high hopes to find some friendly pedal power to help me combat a brutal headwind that was already showing her face at 9AM. But no go. No takers. So off I pedaled on a short 35km ride to the town of Tomina. I had hoped to arrive early to allow me some time to get to know the people, find a cool home stay and a guest rider for the next day.
I left Padilla solo and the boys were right, the roads were just marginally better than down below. I let a bunch of air out of my tires to lighten the strain on my broken frame and made my way. Just a kilometer out of town there is nothing but dirt, beautiful dry mountains and apparently abandoned farms. The only sign of life I found was at about the 20km mark when I stopped to chat with an 89 year old man Don Sisto who was sitting in the sun holding his feet.
Don Sisto shared with me four horribly disgusting and infected wounds on his feet and hands so I spent the next 30 minutes setting him up with anti-bacterial cream and bandages. His grandson Alandro came out and we sat in the wind and sun chatting and chomping down some snacks. They were grateful for the help and I left him some cream, bandages and instructions to cure the wounds.
The landscape continued much the same and my progress painfully slow into the wind. At about 5km shy of the city I saw the only sign of life on the road all day, a 12-year old boy walking towards Tomina named Alfonso. He accepted the invitation to ride and gave some nice pedal power a few clicks while sharing with me that what he likes to do most for fun it work with this dad and he had no other hopes or dreams besides continuing to do just that.
I had a good feeling about Tomina when I rolled in. Just the right size to have plenty of people to play with but without all the hustle and bustle of a city. I was immediately welcomed by two smiling guys Stephan and Giovani and I shared my desire to get to know the local culture and perhaps stay with a family. Their first response was to talk to the government officials but within five minutes Stephan offered to host me when he got off work as an ambulance driver. Giovani offered to ride with me the next morning at 8:30 so my stay in Tomina was off to an epic start!
I had about an hour to kill until Stephan got off work so I offered to give some rides around town and have the locals be my tour guide. A 13-year old Juan did not hesitate and we zipped down into town where a smiling Quechua woman offered me a sample of a lovely warm drink made from corn, sugar, water and cinnamon—really yummy! I ended up giving rides to four youngsters as the sun set.
The last event in the evening was a bike race with me and Juan and the tandem versus tow other bikes from the top of the hill into town. I had the weight of my bike working on me but I knew these guys would get us off the line. I ran the cameras and 3-2-1 we were off! About half way down the hill we overtook our opponents with ease but one of them took a spill at top speed with screams coming out from behind. We rode back up to survey the damage and one scraped up teenage with a severely bruised ego was being examined by his friends. Luckily we were right next door to Stephan’s hospital and the head doctor offered to clean and bandage him up at no cost.
Stephan got off work and we pedaled our way through the dusty back streets up to his house where his wife Louisa was working on some “camas”. Cama means bed in Spanish but these camas are really colorful traditional Bolivian wool blankets you see the locals wearing and carrying their goods in. They are one of the artistic icons of Bolivia and many tourists pick them up as a souvenir. It was fascinating to see someone making them out of the tourist scene but for actually use in her large family. She was even putting the name of the recipient on the cama. Lovely.
Lousia was a bit skeptical at first when her husband rolled in on a huge tandem with a scruffy white boy, but she warmed up pretty quickly. They offered me a bed in the room where she makes the camas and rushed me over to the shower to clean up before they cut off the village water every evening. So I landed not only a home stay but my own room, bed and a very rare hot shower. After dinner I got to watch the family making their traditional bread, an event that happens once a week. Fresh bread is like gold to a hungry cyclist! I walked into town for some local grub and conversations, sampling the all too common versions of chicken n chips that half dozen chubby Quechua woman sell side by side in virtually every corner of Bolivia.
I was excited the next morning to do a local ride with Stephan and a longer ride with Gioviani. I got up early to do some filming over the city and went down to fetch Stephan. Unfortunately, he was rushing off to an ambulance call in the countryside so our ride could not happen. I packed up, said by goodbyes to Louisa and the family and was off to pick up Giovani for our ride. I knocked on his door but no answer. I waited around a bit but still no sign of the cat. Double bummer!
I was well rested and in good spirits so I pedaled off on what I was warned would be a very difficult day up to Zudanez. Today would be a 55km ride, again into a stiff head wind, but with tons of climbing and mean roads. Just out of town I spotted a local Quechua man walking solo with a small bag going my way. I mustered up all the positive energy I could and invited him to ride. But he was just going up a few hundred yards and preferred to walk. Yikes! The Bolivians in this region sure are lacking in the adventure department, I told myself bitterly.
The rest of the day was, as the locals promised, grueling. Lugging over 100 kilos over 3,000 vertical feet on steep, sandy, rocky terrain with a blown our front fork into a headwind is not my idea of a good time. Some cyclists like this stuff, and can do this day after day. But for me, spending hour after hour looking at the same dry scenery is not my cup o tea and not the reason I choose to do a tandem cycling adventure.
By the time I was just outside the town of Zudenez my body and mind were totally exhausted. My mild cold I was fighting was getting worse. My road that day was almost completely void of any signs of life. But then I saw a human figure on the side of the road with a small backpack in the distance and I grew hopeful once again for some pedaling company. I struck up a conversation with the solo local guy named Jose on the side of the road and invited him to pedal the remaining 8km to Zudenzez.
His smile and curiosity spread quickly to me as he scoped out the ride. But just as fast as my hopes rose they fell again when he informed me that he must make it to Sucre that night to see his family and was hoping to hop on a truck all the way. He invited me to come with him, saying that the roads ahead were in even worse condition due to major road construction. He suggested heading up to Tarabuco, which is 65km before Sucre, where I would be treated to some rare Bolivian asphalt. I took him up on the offer, disassembled the bike and we magically caught a truck within ten minutes to Tarabuco.
Jose was indeed my Angel in disguise since the road from Zudenzez to Tarabuco was beyond atrocious with long stretches of sandy construction detours and more barren nothingness for dozens of kilometers. In Tarabuco I slept for 15 hours straight and was up early to search for a guest rider to Sucre. I hung out at the mini-bus top to Sucre for over an hour chatting with numerous folks heading to Sucre, gave a few local test rides but, in the end, I was once again pedaling solo for the long haul. The thought of finally pedaling on asphalt and arriving in Sucre on a festive Friday evening where I would finally see some significant signs life kept my spirits high as I pedaled out of town.
After a long day of tough yet beautiful riding I finally hit the outskirts of Sucre. After six days of adventuring in rural Bolivia, seeing predominantly the color brown in every direction, I was blow away when I finally descended into Sucre. I honestly felt like I was entering another country. The dry, brown, featureless landscape of the campo was instantly replaced by bright white colonial buildings, green trees, manicured gardens and the first white gringo faces I’ve seen in over a week. I’m not normally a big fan of bumping into lots of tourists but today they were a sight for sore eyes and I was eager to dive into some of my favorite comforts like a hot shower, a cold beer and some live music.
I loved Sucre right from the get go. It is just the right size city for me—not to big to have pollution and high crime rates like La Paz, but loaded with rich history and with plenty to see, do and experience. I showered up and popped into the local live music venue Bibliocafe Concert where I met the owner Renato. Renato and I hit it off right away and he styled me out with a meal, cold brew and access film the Saturday night concert of the local Sucre rock band. My stay in Sucre was off to a great start.
The next day my legs were sorer than they have been in years. Lactic acid levels were high and my arrival in the city for a significant rest was perfectly timed. My neighbor at the hotel was a Czech woman named Sofia who agreed to be my assistant for the evening filming activities and I hit the streets to explore. I ran into a group of indigenous folks petitioning the government for more rights for natives followed by bumping into Renato again on the street. I told Renato I was looking for some traditional Bolivian music and he stopped his day to take me over to the Las Masis Cultural Center where, as my luck would have it, there was a private concert just minutes from kicking off! I was able to film some of Boivia’s best musicians then met the man who would become one of my best friends in Bolivia Roberto, a super talented musician in the band. Roberto and I connected on a deep level immediately and he invited me to do some exploring the following day on the bike.
Sofia and I hit the concert and we were joined by my friend Bruno who I met on the road several days back in Muyupampa. Renato styled the three of us out with a huge meal and free drinks while we set up two cameras, mics and lights to capture the concert that evening. Roberto and Rene from Los Masis joined us later and it was a stellar evening of music, food, fun, dancing and great new friends until 5AM.
The next day Roberto and I hopped on the tandem to explore Sucre. We rode up to a small barrio where a student of the Las Masis music school Miguel and his family have a small business selling salt. Sonja joined us soon after as Miguel played a number on the guitar for us and explained his passion for music. Soon a wild private concert began when an intoxicated elderly man grabbed the guitar and began ripping out number after number of classic Bolivian hits. Roberto and Miguel, both excellent vocalists, joined in while a crowd formed around the tandem in the sunshine. Check the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRACFvRkUeg for a taste of the magic. From there Sonja and I went back to Las Masis to interview the founder and record another small private concert performed by Miguel and his sister. It was an unforgettable Sunday full of great music, people, culture and plenty of fun filming work.
Monday was meant to be my last day in Sucre but we ended up being invited to experience and film some of Bolivia’s top chefs at El Huerto Restaurant (elhuertoweb.net). The folks at El Huarte take traditional Bolivian dishes and local ingredients and turn them into masterpieces enjoyed in a lovely outdoor patio. Rene and I pedaled over there where the owners were ready to show their country’s delights in the kitchen. Roberto and Sonja soon joined us as we took over the kitchen creating, eating and sharing some unforgettable dishes. Rene even gave a private flute concert in the garden. This is my kinda Monday!
I decided to devote Tuesday to prepare for the 3-4 day ride to Potosi. I asked for assistance from my friend Bruno, who was more than willing to help. Based on the lack of local riders and connection from Camiri to Sucre, Bruno had several suggestions. I pedaled to his house where his wife and two baby boys were a treat as we shared a traditional breakfast. From there we pedaled into Sucre and spent almost five hours together on our preparation mission. First, Bruno taught me some basic words and phrase of the native Quechua language in the plaza. Then he took me to buy my first kilo of Coca leaves and I learned how to chew it and invite others to join me—this is an ancient tradition dating back thousands of years. Finally, we hit the music store where we bought some Bolivian music to play on my bike’s sounds system. The goal of all this was for me to arrive in the smaller villages making as much an effort as possible to respect their traditions and demonstrate my genuine desire to connect.
Bruno and I also had one final objective together this special Tuesday and that was to ink our partnership in a new charity project called Operation Agua. Over 30% of Bolivians live without access to clean water and during my 5-day stay in Sucre he and I talked enthusiastically about starting a project help bring this number down. Bruno is a water engineer with many years of experience and Sonia and I have networks in North America and Europe to find support so we decided to call it a deal. I’m happy to report that now, about a week after we parted ways, we have our first pilot site almost dialed in and our website up at www.operationagua.org. Stay tuned for more!
My good friend Roberto rode out of town with me the next day but had to get back early for a work commitment so we could only ride about 20km to Yotola. We had some lovely chats with the cameras rolling and shared a truly joyful morning together. But once again I was on my own after Roberto caught his bus back to Sucre so I put on the Ipod and began cranking the pedals up the hills towards Potosi, chewing a huge ball of Coca leaves, optimistic about my new strategy to connect with the locals in the countryside. I pedaled until the sun was about an hour from setting where I saw a small village coming up in the distance in the setting sun. This would be my home for the night, and where I would find some indigenous guest riders to play with.
I stopped the bike about 200 meters from the entrance to the village to prepare myself for a successful entry. I popped in a fresh wad of Coca, turned on the sound system with Bolivian music, brushed up my Quechua phrases (I even put some cheat sheets in my handlebar map case) and hit the road with optimism and a smile. I rolled into this small village, not even on the map but cute as ever, as kids played soccer in the setting sun and the elders were working at a small community center with the Bolivian government on a census project. The whole town was at the one building and I received smiles and cheers as I cranked the bike up the steep rocky hill to the center.
I gave my Quechua greetings Napaykullayki (Hello) and Emiyna Kah Shankee (how are you?) as Bolivian folklore music played from the bike. I parked the bike, took a seat and immediately started to introduce myself in Quechua. I then began to invite numerous locals to enjoy some Coca with me. I really felt like I was off to a great start. The broken Quechua soon turned to broken Spanish and I met a handful of enthusiastic pure blood indigenous and mixed characters in the village. I shared my intention to stay in the village that night, learn how they are living, share it with the world with my film project and find a rider the next day to pedal at least to the beginning of the major 5,000 foot climb at Retiro Baja.
The word spread fast and I was assured I would have a place to stay that night and over the next three hours I had five different people tell me they wanted to ride the next day. Based on my experience of Latino’s saying one thing and doing another I tried to cover the inevitable likelihood that a few would flake by double and even triple booking my partner in crime for the next day’s ride. 9-10AM was when I would be meeting my riders at the community center. I was pumped!
The cute, pudgy indigenous woman who promised to host me disappeared after the meeting but a new character Modesto came into the picture and we hit it off right away. Modesto is “Misto”, his mom is pure blood Quechua and is father is mixed with blood from Europe. Modesto understood my request and went to work clearing a chunk of floor space in his humble little home for me and my gear to call home for the night. I set up my bed, sleeping bag and we hit the village for some food a chats with the locals. We spent the evening with some of his friends, playing with their kids, chewing tons of Coca and sharing stories.
The next morning he and his mom brought me breakfast in bed. It was a bowl of fried corn, a piece of locally made bread and a cup of tea. I felt so warm, welcomed and yummy inside. I peaked outside my room and saw Modesto’s mom cooking up corn and doing chores outside and I gave her a nice smile, which was returned softly. Usually, actions like this signify that I am welcome in the home and I made the assumption that I could share this lovely wakeup call with the viewers of my show by doing some filming. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a dangerous assumption.
I walked out of my room smiling, with the camera rolling in one arm and my cup of tea in the other, explaining my wakup to the viewers. As I made my way down to the fire the eyes of terror, anger and disgust in Modesto’s mom and her chubby little friend will stick in my mind until the grave. She immediately screamed something to me in Quechua and left the fire. Her chubby friend spoke some Spanish and began to share the anger by saying, “Estas aqui para robar mi Sanre?” or “Are you here to steal my blood?”. I was shocked. Was she joking? Did this mean something literally or spiritually or what? Modesto came out and she began to ramble on in Quechua to him.
“What did she say, Modesto?” I asked
My adrenaline was rushing. Tears almost began to fall. And they finally did when Modesto said “Mi madre quiere que tu salgas la casa”…”my mom wants you to leave the house.” I was crushed.
I grabbed my things, abandoned my meal and began packing my things outside the house. A few tears did fall while I was packing. Modesto came out and told me he wanted to give the bike a try but first said his mom wanted me to pay her for my stay. I gave him about 3 dollars, far more than he expected, and coldly finished packing my bike. By the time he came back out he now had a full day’s work to do and could not ride even a pedal stroke on the bike. I could tell he was uncomfortable and he ensured me that it was just the “abuelas”, or old people, who had these extreme fears of white people still. I tried to keep my spirits up and pedaled over to the community center in hopes that at least one of the five friendly people I met the night before might keep their word and come out for some pedaling.
I sat at the community center waiting but nobody showed up. My heart sank. All the energy I put into trying to connect with the folks in the campo were futile. I pedaled off and began several hours of tough climbing into a wicked head wind in as sour a mood I’ve been in years. Not a soul out of their homes to even attempt to invite to play. I felt lonely, sad and all the excitement I had for my ride to Potosi escaped into the headwinds that morning.
By early afternoon I hit the Retiro Bajo. This is the beginning of one of the largest and most difficult climbs on planet earth. It starts at about 2000 meters and goes stratight up to over 4000 meters non-stop on steep grades. As I was fueling up on my staple bread, salami and cheese a truck pulled up, stopped, and offered me a ride up to Retiro Alto. I would not have made it to the top before sunset so accepted the ride from my mystery Angel driver #2 on my Bolivian adventure. By the time I hit the top the headwinds had hit almost gale force speeds and the temperatures were super chilly. Needless to say, I stayed put and charged all the way to 13,420 feet in Potosi with hopes to leave this experience in the past and make my way to the Salar de Uyuni, or the famous salt flats of Uyuni.
In Potosi I got an email from a solo French cyclist Jass who I met in Paraguay. She had been in Uyuni for four days waiting for the winds to stop and had given up hope. She was on her way to Potosi. The thought of having some company in Potosi brought my spirits up and we ended up meeting up for lunch and some local touring. The cold I was fighting off for over a week hit hard the next day and Jass was also ill. The extreme cold and altitude is no place to heal up so I was hoping to head to Uyuni where at least I’d be a few thousand feet lower (although it’s still at almost 12,000 feet and very cold).
At the Internet café I checked the weather report and it showed strong winds in Uyuni for another four days, which meant no riding in the salt flats (you can get lost and die out there without being able to see the landmarks). Out of curiosity I also checked the surf report and weather in Iquique, Chile where two very enthusiastic Couchsurfers Roberto and Fran were more than excited to host me and connect. The weather showed in the 80’s with a nice long period 6-8 foot swell holding strong. Roberto was online on Skype and within a few minutes of battling with my ego and chatting with Roberto I changed my plans and booked a 16 hours bus adventure to sea level for surfing and healing.
All in all, I am thrilled with my Bolivian adventures and feel blessed to have been given the opportunities to have such a wide range of experiences. Yes, it was a tough country to crack the locals in the campo and I had my fair share of struggles physically and emotionally. It was the hardest country to cycle to date, no doubt. However, when I look back on my Bolivian adventures I am filled with warmth. The short term bitterness I felt has left and what has stuck strong is the gratitude for the friendships I built with my soulful Bolivian family Mauro, Stephan, Roberto, Bruno, Renato, Sonia and Franklin. I plan to return to Bolivia one day in the near future to work on the Operation Agua project and revisit Modesto and his mother on better terms. Until then, I’ll ride onwards having learned some valuable lessons I know will only enhance the rest of my travels north to the states!
Over n out from the Atacama Desert in Chile! I’m taking some time off to get the bike frame fixed, do some skiing and will be back on pedaling late August or early September northbound towards Columbia!
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