Month: November 2017

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

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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