On The Importance Of Being Lucky

This post has been lurking inside of me for a while now. In different forms, with different aspects on the same topic. But here I will focus on the aspect in which this post was born.
The post emerged on a cold morning when I’ve opened the door of the shed inside of which I have spent the night. Outside the wind was bending those few trees and the snow was falling almost horizontally. I was in Patagonia, middle of nowhere. In the direction I was coming from, the first town was 130km away. In the direction I was heading for, the next one was 230km away. In between is immense emptiness. Some might say, lots of nothing but I would disagree. There is something, there is emptiness. And in this emptiness is an endless steppe, there are colours that the sun provokes, there is wind that is chasing the clouds and in doing so pictures a movie in front of my eyes, there is Life.
There are no houses, no traffic, no people, no Wi-Fi. The only sign of civilization is the long, endless black asphalted snake that disappears somewhere over the horizon.
I’ve got somewhat carried away so let’s get back to the topic at hand. It’s morning and outside is freezing wind with snow. Far from an ideal situation for a cycling wandering in Patagonia. But I don’t care. No, it’s not that I don’t care, I’m actually happy, excited like a small boy and all because it is snowing. And not only that, in spite the inhospitable face that this morning mother nature is showing, I have a roof over my head and four walls that more or less keep me from the hardship outside. And in this moment I again become aware how lucky I am. Lucky that I’m Here and Now. Again, as so many other times on this trip, I’m lucky to find just what I need at the moment when I need it. Lots of times I do not even know that I need something until the Universe offers it to me and I accept it. And that is what has happened yesterday.

Yesterday Andres and I have started about 18km away from this small settlement of about 20 houses. By some turn of events (not coincidences, since I do not believe in coincidences) we found ourselves in front of some sort of health centre (it’s called Puesto de Salud which could be more properly translated as point of health). I had to use the toilet so we entered and were welcomed by Juan Carlos who works here as a nurse (and in doing so, he is the entire medical staff of this health centre). He allows me to use the toilet and so we start a conversation. This quickly leads to him offering us to camp here. Well, if we want, we can sleep in a shed. Apart from that, we have access to hot shower and toilet.
It’s still early, just past midday. But some internal voice (intuition maybe) tells both Andres and I to accept the offer. Take some rest, shower and tomorrow continue on. So we have stayed. Enjoyed the sunny day and a quiet evening without having to set up our tents. And the morning – well, the morning showed to us that we have made the right decision. If we wouldn’t have stayed, the morning blizzard would have had found us in the middle of the above mentioned emptiness. And I cannot imagine I would have looked at how the wind is carrying snowflakes horizontally with the same excitement.

And this was not an isolated case. Ever since the beginning of this trip, luck is on my side. I will not go into naming all the times I was lucky since in doing so this post will become more like the novel War and Peace.
But seems that my good friend Toni was right in one of our many conversations. He said: “Luck needs to be provoked. You have to do something in order that luck has an opportunity to show itself.” Maybe this means that when it has just started to rain you have to lift the gate off of its hinges to gain access to a big roof that by design serves as a shelter for the cows. But it seems that they haven’t used it for a while. This way you spend the night under the roof and in the morning you start a new day with a dry tent and equipment. Or you might have to do 130km crossing the Patagonian steppe to reach Juan Carlos. Or something else, but for sure you have to do something to allow the Universe to enable you to experience Luck.
And yes, it does help if you can recognize the situation. That you know that when someone unexpectedly offers you free camping in the middle of the day, that you have to take the offer. Or that you see the roof for the cows and that for miles around there isn’t anyone that will use it. During the following day we saw several other cyclists that didn’t recognize the situation and had to dry out their soaking tents and clothes.
I believe that we all have the capacity to recognize these kind of situations. That we all possess intuition. Experiences serve to polish this intuition. I cannot imagine that those soaking cyclists haven’t noticed the roof under which Andres and I have made our home. But probably for the lack of experiences or because they were in their mind already focused on reaching a campsite that was 30km away, they simply did not stop, did not listen to intuition. This is how the rational part of their brain led them soaking wet to their goal.
After almost three years on the road I believe I have some experiences. But in no way am I imagining that I master the topic and so I’m being surprised over and over again every time the Universe shows to me that I have taken the right decision. And that is when I realize that I’m Lucky.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Good morning

Patagonian emptiness

The Shed

Snow is just a memory

Snow penetrated also inside the shed

Under a roof on a rainy day

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And Once All This Comes To An End

Visiting Slovenians in Bariloche and surroundings enabled us to rest, to spend time in good company and to recharge our batteries. But the Road was calling us and we answered its call. Onwards towards South, a few more kilometres in Argentina, then Chile – Carretera Austral or Southern Road as it would translate, back to Argentina and I’m almost at Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia. And then what?
This question: “And then what?” appeared quite frequent in all the encounters with the people on this voyage. Normally it has started with: “Where are you headed?” If I was in the mood (and usually I was), I replied with two or three places I will visit next. The conversation always continued with: “And then what?” Up to the point when naming next places came to Ushuaia. There the situation became a bit more complicated since I was left without a fixed point to name as a reply to “And then what?” My reply at this point was always: “We’ll see. First I have to reach Ushuaia, then …”
I on the other hand, rarely asked myself the question: “And then what?” Not that I wouldn’t be interested in the reply as I am quite curious. No, it was more about being aware that I’m still thousands of kilometres and months if not years away from the point when I’ll have to ask myself this question. And given the fact that I was so far away, looking for answers (and by continuation posing the question itself) seemed absurd. All this time and kilometres that laid before me contained in them endless options, endless moments that impact the course of events and in so the future. And who know in what kind of circumstances will I reach Ushuaia, if I’ll even reach it?
Mainly at the beginning of this Tour the question of even reaching it was more relevant. Today it’s a bit less relevant, but since I’m still missing about 2.000km, nothing is certain. However it’s true that here I have way more chances of reaching it as I had in Halifax when I have started.
Apart from above mentioned, I didn’t pose to myself the question because I always had some other goal closer by. In Canada I needed to get to the US, then Mexico, then across Central America and into Colombia,…
All in all, always something and Ushuaia always so far away in the future.

And then I said goodbye to Joško, Lojzka and their three girls and headed south. Once I started to turn the pedals I had a strange sensation. After a while I realized that Ushuaia all of a sudden became close by. A few more months and I’m there. And all on its own the question emerged within me: “Once all this comes to an end? Then what?”

I still stand behind the answer I gave to countless that have posed this question to me.
I have no idea what will happen then. I will see, I still have to reach it first.
There is just one difference. Given that a few days ago I have bought a plane ticket back to Europe, I at least have a rough plan. From Ushuaia I will head towards home. Somehow reaching Buenos Aires, a few days there and then towards home at the end of May. That’s the plan. Details will be provided by Life.

Being where I am (in a tent somewhere in Patagonia by the route 40), I’m happy to be Here. At the same time I’m happy that I will be going back home, that I will drink a cup of coffee on a balcony with my brother (or both of them), will go out for a beer with my friends, will see my nephew that was born just days ago, that I’ll enjoy sharing moments with my close ones,…
And at the same time I’m happy that I’m not there yet. That I’m Here and Now. That before me lay kilometres of Patagonian steppes, mist covered mountains of far south Argentina and Chile and also the mystery at the end of the World – Tierra del Fuego.
Feeling lucky and privileged to be Here and Now!

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Here and Now

The route from Santa Rosa to Bariloche I have done in accordance with the thought from my last post. I was Here and Now! In doing so I haven’t thought much about you who read my sporadic writings. What can I say – Though luck!

With Andres we have set our course due SW. Kilometres and kilometres of nothingness. A long, straight road leading to infinity, shade only if we were lucky, sun that burns and emptiness. Not a living soul, just cars passing by. Every now and then we had access to water when there was a windmill pumping water from a well was close to the road.

Windmill – water

Obviously when the windmill was intact and the wind was blowing. There was lots of wind but not always when one needed it. And when I didn’t need it, there it was. I particularly didn’t like the fact that it normally the wind was not going in the same direction that I was going. It was very much in a rush in the opposite direction. A typically cyclists situation – headwind. Though I have to admit that it wasn’t always so and that there were days without wind or even some tailwind.

From Santa Rosa to Bariloche it is 999km (supposedly, never saw a sign with this info). Andres and I have done a bit more. The route that we choose wasn’t the most direct one. It did however took as on a road nicknamed »Ruta Campaña al Desierto« or I also heard » Conquista del Desierto«. It could be translated as »Route Campaign into the Desert« or »Conquest of the Desert«. And who would have thought – there is nothing there. It’s not that classical sandy desert with camels and dunes. Here the highest plant reaches about shoulders high, we came across two small towns and that was all for about 400km until the border with the province of Rio Negro. Lots of sun, little water. But at the end of the day we always managed to find something to pitch our tents.

Roadside camping

Wind shelter in the form of trees of a roadside rest area, water from the windmill and picture perfect sunsets.

A long and straight road at the end of the day

Then at the border between La Pampa and Rio Negro, we have crossed Rio Colorado and the countryside on the other side was identical. Just the vegetation moved a step down so the highest plants reached our hips, normally only up to our knees. So we had about 150km of this and then greenery, trees, river and population. And encounter with Slovenians or their descendants that live in the city of Neuquen and its surroundings. Edgardo was our guide, Mariana our host. Bed, hot water and commodities of civilization.

With Edgardo and Mariana

We took advantage of the time we spent there doing some standard chores, like bicycle maintenance, stocking up on provisions, laundry and spending time with the locals. Amongst others, the Slovenians organized a small reunion in our honour.

Slovenian reunion in Neuquen

After three days being spoiled by Mariana and Edgardo who also took us on a tour of the vineries (I strongly urge you not to do it on an empty stomach), we were back on the Road. Back to what we are used to and became used to in the kilometres to here. Lots of nothing, headwind, sun and then a quiet evening when a cup of coffee accompanied by a chat makes you forget the effort you have put into getting here. Our goal were hills and a new route with a name – “Ruta de los 7 Lagos” (Route of the 7 lakes). Still more than 350km away, but there again we were greeted by greenery and water.

What a nice change of scenery

The hills made sure the road started swerving a bit. This meant the end of the endless straight lines where you could find yourself staring at an antenna on the horizon for more than 20km. You watch it grow from a size of a toothpick to reaching more than 50, 60 metres high.

Meeting with Slovenians in Neuquen started some sort of a chain reaction, we started to visit Slovenians. In Junin de los Andes we were invited to Janko and Martina. Not only they had welcomed us, Martina almost made me cry when she put krofi (Slovenian type of doughnut) in front of me and I certainly did cry when horseradish appeared on the table.

Janko and Martina with family

A day of luxury and comfort and we hit the road again. This time for real “Ruta de los 7 Lagos”. The road winds between the mountains, forest all around, s smell of pine fills the air, all is green and one is never too far away from water. And since the route is called 7 lakes, there are lakes as well (reinventing the wheel, I know). On the shores of one of the lake there is a small cottage where Victor and Regina, descendants of Slovenian parents, otherwise living in Buenos Aires, are spending their holidays.

With Victor and Regina

Lago Meliquina

Again a warm welcome and with difficulty we said goodbye and moved on. But we “had to” move on since a few days later we were expected in Bariloche by Janez and Maria. Next stop on Slovenian tour.
Before Bariloche we visit a few more lakes, we take a few brakes on the riverbanks, mate or coffee or just a chat with a camp employee.

Lago Espejo in the morning

Mist rising from Laguna Fria

Lago Nahuel Hupai

Perfect place to have maté

Not to appear too kitsch. We also had rain, that small, drizzling kind that just lingers on and on, there was also wind moving us all over the road,… But I was always Here and Now!
If I was to write that I was enjoying and screaming of joy all the time, no one would have believed me. Also because I would have been lying writing that. But I was Here and Now! Listening to the river or music, whatever felt like right thing to do. Soaking in the sunshine or searching for a roof so that I would not get too wet. Pedalling like mad being swept by the moment on a downhill or cursing into the wind that almost stopped me… And if it looked like it’s going to be miserable since the rain is going to soak everything, I remembered that tomorrow is another day. Another new day awaken by the sun that will dry the tent.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Route To Santa Rosa

Always when I allow a long time to pass in between two posts, I come to a point that when I sit behind a computer, I have a problem choosing the topic to write about. It’s a fact that there has been well over a month since my last post. And that is a long period of time. In this time I have again crossed the Andes, I have been crisscrossing through the valleys of NW Argentina, I have been forcing Lou over immense vastness of seemingly endless road, I have been running from storms, I have been baked by the sun without any hope of coming across a shade, I have been battling mosquitoes,… And I have met lots of people with lots of stories. And how does one, amongst all these, choose the moments to share with you?

Leaving San Pedro de Atacama I had only one, clear goal in my mind – to reach Santa Rosa, La Pampa and my friend Andres. There I will stop for a few days before I head south.
Good plan that did however had one detail I really did not like. There is more than 2.000km between San Pedro and Santa Rosa. And my goal was to do this distance in under a month. Not an impossible task, but far from being easy. To make it happen I would have to pedal and pedal a lot. From morning until evening with a few short brakes in between. Again, doable but not easy.
The problem with this kind of approach to traveling is, that you can easily forget to enjoy the moments that Life brings you across your path. You focuses on doing the kilometres that you have set in your head and all the rest becomes secondary. Turning the pedals and nothing else matters!
Since this is not my approach to Life, but I still had to do the kilometres, I had decided to hold myself back, to brake. To allow myself to be touched by the surroundings, by the moments. I have to say that at least at first I was doing well. That I have manage to take a side road where I was embraced by the trees (after such a long time in desert landscapes), where I was able to observe the play of light and shades, smell the freshness and listen to sounds.
But with each passing day it was getting harder and more difficult to brake. Awareness that Santa Rosa is still sooooo far, far away was settling in. So I pushed harder, giving into the need to do the kilometres. To make it to my goal as soon as possible.
Those days passed by in a constant frustration of being too slow. This kilometres were looong and in the evening when I was falling asleep, I was tired and in a bad mood. And in the mornings I was getting up completely without motivation. Luckily on such days the Universe intervened. Sometimes it was a storm, other times it was a minor defect with the equipment (flat tire, broken support for a pannier), once even a tornado. Always in a way that I was able or forced to stop and allow myself to calm down. To take a deep breath and allow the apparent urge, to get to my goal as soon as possible, to step aside to taking in the moment.

Obviously I wasn’t always able “to run away” from the pressure. Quite a few times I managed to carry it with me or I have all to easily allowed my actions to be again governed by it. And the Universe just kept on putting brakes, again and again. Up to the point when I was able to give into the moment – Here and Now! And the most interesting part is, that once I have really reached the Here and Now, the pedals started to turn on their own. The kilometres started to fly by – 80, 90, 100, 110, 120, 130. I have found the Equilibrium!

Andres and his family opened the doors to their home with a warm welcome. The have enabled me to stop for a few days, to take care of Lou, to wash and patch my equipment,… and yes, they made sure I wasn’t hungry, mainly with several asados (barbeques). The first of which came with a gift from Andres – from here I will not be hitting the Road alone, we are going south together.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Sand, Wind And Solitude – Part 2

I have rolled into San Juan in the early afternoon. Look for a cheap place to sleep, park Lou and then visit all the local shops to find supplies for more than a week. Not counting parking Lou, the tasks were not as simple as they might have appeared at first glance. The fact is that in these small, remote towns it’s not that easy to find an open cheap accommodation in the middle of the day. The owner normally work on fields during the day and only return to their home about an hour before the sunset when all the tourist jeeps stopping for the night arrive.
Still I did manage to find an open “hotel” where could stay for the night. Then shopping. The prices around here are about double what I was paying in the rest of Bolivia. Reason – remoteness of these places. Uyuni, the first decent town is more than 150km away. And all the merchandise comes from there.
I find a shop that has a bit more on offer than the others. I stock up on rice, pasta, instant soups, biscuits and similar. Then I go back to my “hotel”. Tomorrow the second part of this high-altitude tour begins.

For my first day I have chosen a bit longer route that takes me all the way to the border with Chile. But based on the info I managed to collect, this way I can avoid climbing a pass with a bad road leading over it. On the other hand, the road to the border is almost completely flat. The only problem I can see with my plan is, that I’m going west. And the prevailing winds around here are westerly, south-westerly. But they should not be too much of a problem, since they normally pick up only in the afternoon.
Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately nobody told the winds about my plan. On the day of my departure their afternoon started sometime before 9 a.m. That meant it took me more than 10hours (including short stops along the way) to cycle 65km to Avaroa, the border town. There I found refuge for the night in a house under construction. The workers there allowed me to set up my tent in one of the rooms.
Here in Avaroa I had the last chance to opt for an easier way out. Cross the border and descend down in Chile on a paved road. But I have opted out of this option. I turned away from the border and started to climb on a surprisingly nice, well maintained gravel road towards the interior. Towards the junction for the lagoons.

One last look back – Here goes nothing!

After about 30km I came to the point where the route towards the lagoons splits off. Courageously I took the route of dubious quality.

Signpost for cyclists – Seeing this means you are on the right path

The road confirms the signpost

Managing the first pass. Steep, rocky road was done with a lot of pushing. On the other side I’m again faced with the lottery of tracks. Which one to choose?!

Decisons, decisions…

At the end of the day I manage to haul my ass to the shores of the first lagoon. There I’m greeted by Severino, man responsible for maintaining the road. Well, a small stretch of it. The last 5, 10 km and the 10 that are ahead. But more than in his care of the road I’m currently interested if I could use his house as a shelter from the wind to pitch my tent. No problem, but if I want, I can sleep inside his house. His “roommate” has gone today to Uyuni since then ran out of bread and vegetables. He will not be coming back until tomorrow. This has left him with a spare mattresses next to a warm stove inside the house. It didn’t took him long to change my plans!
I park Lou outside and move myself inside. Our supper is a delicious stew that has been brewing on his stove all day long. We finish the day with a nice conversation. It’s nice and warm being inside!

Severino and me

Saying goodbye to Severino, I set off the next day. It’s about 10km to the next lagoons. Takes me more than 2 hours to reach it. Enjoying the shade of an eco-hotel “Los Flamingos” I decide to stay here for the night. It another 40km of mostly sand to the next populated place. That’s a bit too much for today.

Laguna Hedionda

Flamingo

So I befriend Samuel, manager of the hotel. I do ask about the price of a room, but when he mentions 140 USD/night, I only kindly ask if I can pitch my tent in the nearby house under construction. And that’s how the future toilets become my home for the night. I share it with an elderly Australian couple that arrive a bit later on their bicycles.
In the morning the Aussies are in a rush so they roll out at 7h. I take it a bit more easily and so I receive an invitation by the cook to a breakfast. Pancakes, toast, fruits, yoghurt,… Luxury!

Breakfast at Laguna Hedionda

After about 10km I leave the last lagoon behind and the road disappears. What I’m left with is more like a field of 4×4 tracks all leading in the same direction. Some are sandier, others less, but non suitable for cycling. Most of the day I’m left to pushing Lou up a gentle uphill and into headwind. Until I had enough of it a bit past 3 p.m. I head towards a nearby rock formation that should provide me with some shelter. Hopefully this way I will not be blown away, tent and all, during the night. The wind up here is ferocious.

Campsite at 4.600 metres

I sleep with a bottle of water next to me inside the sleeping bag. The rest of the water that I have left outside overnight has turned to ice.
I start day five of the “Ruta de las Lagunas” where I have left off the day before. In sand! Pushing and pushing, seemingly not moving at all.

Sand, sand and more sand

Common sight – Simon pushing his bike

After about 5km the sand is replaced by rocks. Not yet cyclable, but easier to push the bike. That’s how I make it atop another pass. I’m about 10km from Hotel del Desierto, the nearest building that also promises water and shelter for pitching the tent. Maybe even sleeping inside. I will anyhow reach it only by the end of the afternoon, maybe early evening. As it turns out, I have to push Lou even on the downhill as the sand is so deep that even the gravity is left helpless.
I reach Hotel del Desierto about an hour before the sunset. Price of the room – not even worth mentioning – 150 USD/night. But the kind lady at the reception mentions that they make an exception for cyclists and they allow us to sleep in the rooms reserved for the drivers of the tour jeeps. The promise of a hot shower, warm bed and a breakfast that is included in the price, help to convince me that I do not feel like setting up my tent. It looks like that I will anyhow camp tomorrow evening.
So I say goodbye to the day nicely showered, covered with a warm blanket and a few wet clothes drying on the heater. Making the most out of the situation, I use the opportunity of having running water to do some laundry.

High altitude desert

I make the first 10km from Hotel del Desierto half cycling, half walking. Initially my morning choice of the 4×4 tracks looked very promising. But after about 5km they turned into sand and I was returned to the reality of the past 2 days. Off of the bike and pushing towards the horizon that can never be reached. Eventually, after about 3 hours of this torture, I was greeted by a maintained gravel road. For the next 20km I was able to enjoy the fact that I only had to get off the bike sporadically when I came across a sandier patch. Or I was pushed into it by a sudden stronger gust of wind. The road might have been a maintained one, but it has been a while since the maintenance guys have pasted by here.
By the evening I find shelter behind a house of some caretaker who today is not at home. Watching the sunset and observing the game of hide and seek by the shadows and the fading light. The hardest part of the route should be behind me as I have reached the maintained road.

Another day is ending

New day, new curves. After about 5km the descend to Laguna Colorada begins. And again sand, deep sand. At least 80% of the descend I have to push. Lou just sinks in too much. And no, the headwind, that has started again early today, does not help at all. By mid-afternoon I manage do make it to the entrance to the national park. I pay the entrance fee and decide to spend the night in one of the refugios here. A bed for 4 EUR/night, cheap dinner of pasta with tomato sauce. Easy life!

I have decided already yesterday that I will not be climbing almost 5.000 metres high pass laying ahead on this kind of road. True that the actual altitude difference is only about 600 metres since I’m sleeping at 4.400. But based on the info I’m getting from the local drivers, the road to the top is same or very similar shit. Nope, that’s not for me!
So I move towards the entry to the national park and I wait for some tour jeep that could take me at least to the top if not all the way to the first house on the other side. I wait all day in the company of Reynaldo, the park ranger. There is no traffic passing by, so I have time to enjoy a tasty lunch that Reynaldo offers me. And I watch how the wind plays with sand.

Sandstorm over Laguna Colorada

In the late afternoon several jeeps arrive but they are all full and cannot give me a lift. All up until when Omar and Gonzalo come with their tour of 4 backpackers. Since they are not full there is a space for me. Lou and all my equipment go on the roof.
While driving to the summit and chatting with the guys, I manage to find time to look at the road. I’m even happier that they are giving me a lift.
They take me with them all the way to a refugio by the lagoon on the other side where they plan to spend the night. The refugio itself is full so I say goodbye to the company. I manage to persuade Damian, manager of a nearby restaurant, to allow me to unroll my sleeping bag in one corner of the restaurant. I have a headache and I’m feeling sick. After so many kilometres I have done cycling on these altitudes, my body somehow could not accept the fact I have climbed to 5.000 metres that fast. But I’m too tired to be bothered by this. I have a quick dinner, roll into my sleeping bag and fall asleep. Tomorrow is a new day!
In the morning I have all packed up and Lou is ready to depart already by 6 a.m. That is when the first tour jeeps arrive for breakfast. But I do not set off that early. Yesterday Damian told me that if I wait a bit in the morning, I can even get a breakfast. Food that is left over by the tours is worth a fortune to a touring cyclist in these parts. Before setting off Damian and one of the employees give me even more extra food for the road. Time to say goodbye.
Taking into account the local conditions, the road on this side feels like highway. I slowly climb from 4.400 to almost 4.750 metres while constantly turning my head left and right. Every mountain that comes into view seems to be of a different, immensely intensive colour. I did try to take photos, but somehow it seems that the colours and the contrasts on the photos just cannot capture the reality.

Morning mountains 1

Morning mountains 2

Morning mountains 3

Morning mountains 4

After the climb, there is a descend of about 20km. To the other side and the last of the lagoons and a refugio on its shores. Give it is already afternoon, I’m again greeted by the headwind. And not to have it too easy today since I practically have not pushed the bike, I take a “shortcut”. This way I get the chance to again push Lou uphill. As not to forget.
Well tired I make it to the refugio where I get a bed and food. The last port of call before the border. I’m just a gentle 6km uphill away from it. That I leave for tomorrow.
My last day in Bolivia I start easy. Also because while I was yesterday fighting with the wind, I have decided that I will turn right and not left as initially planned at the first junction in Chile. Left would continue to take me through the high mountains to Argentina. And the first sort of decent town in Argentina is about 4-5 days cycling away. Going right, well going right I have about 40km descend to San Pedro de Atacama. Another tourist Disneyland, but exactly because of this even more appealing to me right now. Since if it is a tourist destination, that means there is all the commodity that I have been missing for the past 14 days. Running water, electricity, internet, comfy, cosy bed,… And let’s not to forget to mention, San Pedro is more than 2.000 metres lower and that is well reflected on the temperatures. About 30 degrees during daytime. Isn’t that nice?!
Saying goodbye to Bolivia I roll into Chile. Tarmac! What a luxury!

Goodbye Bolivia

One foot in Chile – Asphalt!

Nice sight – Paved road

After more than 40km downhill into headwind that this time around I’m glad I had since it helped me brake, I make it to Disneyland. Clearing the immigrations I head straight to Sonchek where the owner Mojca, a Slovenian living here for more than 23 years, opens the door.

I’m saved! Well at least for a few days. Argentina is still on the other side of the Andes and it is still where I’m heading to. Let me just first take in the abundance of oxygen and indulge myself in all the comfort.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Sand, Wind And Solitude – Part 1

Second day in a hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Shade, 30 degrees, roof over my head, running water and electricity, all the commodities of civilization. Now, let’s see how I ended up here!
After returning from a short trip to Machu Picchu, it was about time to saddle up Lou and to finally start moving sort of South.
While I was absent, Lou was in the good hands of Luis and Marina, owners of a cheap lodging in Challapata, a small town on the main road La Paz to Uyuni and then Argentina. Two, three days of preparations, doing laundry, shopping, reviewing Lou and it was time for new adventures on the road. Based on the info I had for my intended route, the next 600km will be “adventurous”. Interesting “roads” which are a mix of rocks, sand, washboard, headwinds (prevailing winds are westerly or south-westerly), sporadic access to water, small shops with food are more of an exception than a rule. Oh, let’s not to forget, all this is happening between about 3.600 and 4.600 metres above sea level. Just in case, so not to be too easy.
My first goal was the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the World. Absolute flatness of pure white that stretches beyond the horizon. It was just a matter of getting there.
On the first day I got a pleasant surprise in the morning when Luis, the owner of the place where I was staying, told me that the road to Salinas de Garci Mendoza, a town to the north of the Salar de Uyuni, is completely paved. The info I had, which were a bit older, prepared me for dirt roads, so pavement will be a nice gift.
After about 30km on the main road to Uyuni I have headed west. Morning predictions of tarmac proved to be true, so I was enjoying the gift. Wide, open expanses of the Altiplano are battered by the wind which produces dust storms that sometimes cross my path and cover me with dust. I’ll have to get used to this.

Sandstorm in the distance. We crossed paths a few kilometres back

End of the day in a small village of Vengalvinto where the local teacher opens the door to the schools dining room where I can roll out my sleeping bag. Dark, black clouds looming on the horizon. Just in time as 10 minutes later the village is engulfed in a sandstorm that covers everything in a cloud of dust.

And all of a sudden, I was only able to see a few metres down the street

The next day the tarmac continues and the only inconveniences are the two small storms that catch up with me just when there is a possibility to seek shelter under a roof of a house or an open shed. To finish it off for a day, I treat myself to a cheap hotel and a hot shower in Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Tomorrow I’m heading south and my goodbye to tarmac is swift yet touching.

Exiting Salinas I’m greeted by a sandy road and the logic of the local paths. Often there are more tracks to choose from and you have to decide which one you like the most.

Choosing a path

To make a judgement which one of them is the most passable (i.e. least sandy), you have to rely mostly on luck. So I choose one that seems like it will take me across the dry mud flats to reunite with the main road with the least effort. From there it’s just over a small “hill” and the promised flatness of the Salar. I enjoy the unexpected plains so much that I do not even notice the track has taken me away from the main path. All of a sudden the track practically ends and I’m left with no other option but to get off Lou and push it through sand for about an hour back to the main road. Latter it will turn out that this was just an intro to what will become a quite common situation in the coming two weeks – pushing fully loaded Lou through deep sand.
But today I make it back to the main road, head uphill on top of which there is immense whiteness on the horizon – Salar de Uyuni!

That white thing on the horizon

I descend to the other side and on the edges of the Salar I find shelter for the night. A small community house that is currently not in use.
Beautiful, sunny morning, a bit fresh. Today is the day for Salar. The road takes me out of the village and after about two kilometres it transitions from rocks to salt. Flatness!

Entering the Salar

Today’s goal is Isla Inchuasi, a small island in the middle of the Salar. I turn in the general direction of the island. Same as yesterday, there are plenty of tracks to follow that all disappear somewhere in the distance. I decide on the dirtiest since it means they are the most transited ones. And based on that logic they should lead to the island.
The horizon is endless, whiteness everywhere you look!

I’m on the road to nowhere!

Only after about 15km a small dot starts to emerge on the horizon. It confirms I’m moving in the right direction. Slowly, way too slowly it’s getting bigger and bigger. Here on the Salar the distances are misleading and are practically impossible to judge them.

That small dot in the distance is Isla Incahuasi. Still more than 20km away!

Contrary to what I have expected, the road is not exactly smooth. Sure there are parts that I can ride practically with my eyes shut, but mostly that is not the case. There are small potholes or small bumps or just the connections of the salt plaques. They transform my ride across the Salar into a slalom across a minefield.

Not at all smooth

After hours of whiteness, nothingness and the sun that burns I make it to Isla Incahuasi in the early afternoon. The solitude is replaced by Disneyland of tourist that make it to the island on a day trips by jeeps. The price I have to pay to visit one of the touristiest destinations in Bolivia.

Welcome to Disneyland

My arrival is followed by a long period of questions from all the tourists. To them I was probably an even bigger attraction here in the middle of the Salar than the cactus filled island. After replying to all of their questions I manage to get some time to myself. That means a quick befriending with Juan Lopez, the guy in charge of a small group of workers, taking care of the island. After we establish that I will be staying on the island for the night, he offers me to sleep in an office that is not being used. The price of this luxury is buying the ticket to visit the island. Obviously for me, a cyclist, the price will be local, 15 Bolivianos (about 2 EUR). Officially this is the price for Bolivians, for foreigners the price is double.
I accept the offer since it means I will not have to seek shelter for the tent neither will I have to set it up. And yes, buying the ticket also gives me the opportunity to climb to the top of the island to take a view of this white immenseness.

That is what I have cycled today

And that is for tomorrow

Just before the sunset the Disneyland ends and all the jeeps head back to Uyuni. Now it’s just me and the caretakers on the island. Each of us turns to his things. For me this means first a coffee and looking at the sunset as the wind blows to my face.

Sunset over the Salar

Already before 5h I’m awaken by the jeeps that start to arrive with new hordes of tourists. I get up just in time to catch the weakening of a new day and then I head south and out of the Salar.

A new day awakens

This means another 40km of “minefield” that somewhere halfway through turns into a smooth surface so that I can do some more kilometres. Nearing the exit from the Salar I focus on following the tracks leading out of the Salar. Still have a vivid memory of pushing through the sand two days ago.
So I’m again welcomed by washboard, sand not being far away.

Washboard

And yes, there was also sand not far away

Given being reunited with the reality of local roads, it is not that hard to decide to finish the day a bit early. Well that and the fact that my equipment started to rebel a bit. Already in the morning I broke off my rear view mirror, then somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Salar I broke the stick I had to support Lou when I stop. After that the antenna I use as a flagpole almost got between my spokes and to finish it off I find out that one of the hooks of my panniers has broken lose. Added by the fact that it’s already afternoon and that the wind is already wide awaken, I can with a complete peace of mind turn towards the nearest town where I find a cheap bed and a hot shower.

Tomorrow I have another 30km to San Juan which is my last option to stock up on supplies for “Ruta de las Lagunas”, another 300km of dirt roads, sand, wind and wilderness all the way to the Chilean border. But that is a story for next time.

Sandstorm on my way to San Juan. A sign of what is to come?!

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Sometimes It’s Good To Have A Plan

And I’m back. Not only am I publishing a new post, I’m also back in Bolivia. In the meantime I had a short trip north, to Peru.

From Potosi I have headed towards Uyuni, like I have announced in my previous post. The route that I chose has lead me, after 4 day, to the main road La Paz – Uyuni. Into a small town, Challapata. Here you turn left and you head south. First Uyuni, then Argentina and a few kilometres (let’s say 5 – 6 thousand) later you are on Tierra del Fuego, at the end of the World.
It’s just that I had a small errand up north. Despite almost 4 months that I have spent in Peru last year, I still haven’t visited Machu Picchu. And I cannot finish my stay in South America without visiting it’s probably most famous tourist attraction. But since I was (and again am) about 1.000 km away from it and since there is more or less only one main route leading there and back and because … Well, because I felt like it, I have decided to leave Lou here with Luis, the owner of a cheap accommodation in Challapata and to take a bus to Machu Picchu. I wouldn’t exactly call this an easier option (changing on small local bus for another, a bit bigger and then with the biggest one to Cusco – just the last part was almost 14 hours on a bus), but it certainly is a faster option. This way I will be left with some more time for Argentinian south and will still manage to reach Tierra del Fuego before the southern winter.

I have started with a rough plan, a minivan to Oruro, then a bus to La Paz and another bus to Cusco, ancient Inca capital which also serves a first base camp for at least 95% visitors to Machu Picchu. From there on, I’ll figure it out.
After the bus marathon, I was in Cusco at 6 a.m. There I found a cheap hostel and after a morning coffee and a short brake, the work has begun. Already in advance I knew that a visit to Machu Picchu should not be taken lightly. There are two main, interconnected reasons for this. Given the fact that this is one of the biggest if not the major tourist attraction of South America, everything connected to it is very touristy. And this means highly overpriced. Even before I came here I have searched the web a little. And the numbers I saw almost made me forget about the whole thing.
First there is the entrance fee which is almost 40 EUR. Then one has to get there. The train (which is the official means of transportation since there are no roads) from Cusco is probably by kilometre the most expensive train on the planet. For roughly 110km to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo), second base camp, the cheapest ticket costs almost 50 EUR. This makes it almost 50 cents per kilometre. And just as much for return! And then there is accommodation in Aguas Calientes since if you want to escape the main tourist rush, it pays of to be among the first one’s there,… The numbers made my head spin, so I left the details of this part of the expedition for Cusco.
But once in Cusco, I had to face the fact that now I’m here and that I cannot postpone any more organizing the visit. I need a plan!
So I went out, making a tour of the tourist agencies which in the city centre are more abundant than trash bins. After visiting about ten of them, I had a rough picture and I surely had no more motivation to visit another one. In every one there is a seller with a cheap smile that then presents you with the most expensive option. Before you manage to stop him/her in order to ask about cheaper alternatives, you are almost without any desire to keep on. And this scenario was repeated almost 10 times. The options are more or less the same at all of them, the only difference is the price and sometimes not even that. However you still have to pick one.
Then I went in line for the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu (it has to be bought in advance since they do not sell them at the entrance). At least this task is much easier. There is the official ticket office and you have to buy it there. And the price is fix, no haggling or anything like that.
Entry ticket in hand I made my way back to one agency. The one that was closest and cheapest. It is possible to reach Machu Picchu even without the train or, again official, 4-day trekking (which is obviously even more expensive than train). There is a back door which is a marathon of local buses, minivans, maybe even riding a llama. This way you can come within about 10km of Aguas Calientes (second base camp) by road. From there to the town itself is about 2 hours walking along the train tracks. The bus marathon and the llamas can be avoided by going to a tour agency and buying a seat on a direct minivan. And that is what I have done.
First part of expedition planning behind me, the second to be done in Aguas Calientes.

On the day of departure I was at the agreed upon location (in front of the agency) at the agreed upon time (7 a.m.). But I was the only one keeping up the agreement. The agency was closed and there was nobody in sight until 8 a.m. when a guy showed up. After we established that he was looking for me he took me in a taxi almost to the other side of the city where a van was waiting only for me to show up. I have climbed inside, took and empty seat and braced myself for a 6 – 7 hours ride. Our driver made it in under 6. Probably because he was convinced that he is the reincarnation of Colin McRea, judging by the way how he drove.
After two hours walking I found myself in Aguas Calientes, the most touristy town in Peru. Second phase of conquering Machu Picchu can begin. Searching for accommodation! After about an hour I have in light of my plan and budget the most optimal location. A hostel that starts to serve breakfast at 4 a.m. This is very important for the execution of the third phase which is the climb itself. If I want to avoid the hordes of tourists, then I have to aim at being among the first ones at the entrance which opens at 6 a.m. Satisfied with the execution of the second phase I treat myself a beer before heading to bed (it also makes it easier to fall asleep).

The next day phase three begins. In accordance with the plan this means getting up at 3:45 a.m., breakfast at 4, a morning visit to the toilet and at 4:40 starting from the hostel. Just before 5a.m. I join a line at the bridge. We are waiting for it to open. On the other side and almost 500 metres higher is Machu Picchu. There is about 8km of a zig-zag road leading up or not even 2km long walking trail which goes more direct and is almost all staircase. You can also take a bus, but that is almost 10 EUR one way.
At 5 a.m. the bridge opens, I cross it a 5:10. The gate at the top opens at 6 a.m. so I have to hurry. The walking trail is supposed to take about 1h, I make it just under 40 minutes. Sweating and cursing all the way, but I do not stop. I know if I stop, it will take a while to start again.
I’m not the first one at the top, but I am among the first ones. When the gates finally opens, I pick up the pace a bit and at the first possible option I take a turn away from the herd. Left and up towards a viewing point. A few more stairs, a bit of left-right and I get a view of Machu Picchu without tourists. A photo and then I look for a quiet spot (yes, this early such spots can be found). There I sit down and admire the remains of the Incas’ hidden city basking in the morning sun below. Plan successfully executed!

Up here I’m in almost complete silence. There are just two employees down there making noise with a couple of weed-whackers!
You cannot plan everything in Life. There always have to be room for surprises. Like for a beautiful sunny day, which is not so common on Machu Picchu.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon