Andes

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

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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

Back Up

Already on my first day in Bolivia I could see silhouettes of mountains on the horizon. All the time, pedalling the plains of Paraguay, I was aware of the Andes hidden somewhere in the distance. Could not see them but I was aware of their presence.
A few days in Villa Montes to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable climbing ahead. Then, to “battle”! After a few kilometres the asphalt stops. I don’t even manage to make it up the first proper climb, already I have to deal with a puncture. I change the tube, patching it will wait until evening.
About a week of a bit up, a bit down. A bit on paved, a lot on dirt roads. These are a mix of fine powder and loose rocks. Every time a vehicle passes my by, I’m left in a cloud of dust. It has been two years since they started widening and improving the road and the works will go on for another two years. That is, if all goes to plan!
Thanks to road blocks which are the result of the road works, the last 50 kilometres to Tarija, the first major city I have encountered in Bolivia, I’ve spent in the cabin of Daniel’s truck. They open the road midday for an hour and a half, while the workers go for lunch. Absolutely not enough time for me to make the necessary 20 km uphill. So I’ve stopped, lifted my thumb and Daniel with an empty truck on his way back to Tarija has stopped.
In Tarija I’ve ended up in a hostel. Sort of unplanned, but based on the welcome I have received, it was immediately clear to me that I simply had to stop here. Juan, Argentinian volunteer working at the hostel, received me with a “torta frita”, a typically Argentinian snack, sort of a fry bread. Not even managed to finish it, I already had maté in my hand. Just as a welcome!
The warm and pleasant atmosphere of the hostel as well as good company of Marcos, Tomas, Virgi, Lele and the others “kept” me there for a whole week. Just to be clear, it was not all about doing nothing. Lou was looking for a new rear rim which again “developed” anomalies. It was better to take care of it there and then as opposed to later somewhere amongst lamas and alpacas.

The next stop on my repeated climb into the Andes was Potosi. Between me in Tarija and Potosi, there was about 350 kilometres. And 3 very decent climbs. The first of which started just outside the city and ended 1500 metres higher up. At least that was what I have thought. There was a tunnel up there and I have naively expected that the road will start to descend on the other side. Well, it didn’t!
After surviving some stressful moments in an otherwise lit tunnel, where the lights in the middle of it started to go out just as I was passing them, the road first went a bit downhill before it started to slowly but surely climb back up again. But what goes up must come down. Just that this time way more aggressively than when it was going up. The brakes were suffering. Up to the point when I started to hear a metallic noise. I’m losing the brake pads in front. So I stop and change them.
Front brakes always were and continue to be Lou’s weak point. They are practically impossible to properly adjust. The rest of the descend I was stopping every 2 km. To check if the breaks are OK. At the beginning they weren’t and they demanded some attention. Just as I managed to come close to fixing them, I was almost at the bottom of the descent. With an empty tyre. So I was again changing the tube and patching it in the evening.
The first climb done, about 100 km of almost level cycling, another flat (this time it was a thorn from a roadside bush). Starting the second climb. Not feeling well, I have a headache. A stop in the shade for about an hour. Not feeling any better, definitely not in shape for a new climb of more than 1.000 metres up to 3.500 metres above sea level. So I turn around, back to the first town. Looking for a cheap place to hide away in a bed and wait for tomorrow. In this search, I pass by a service centre of a local mobile provider. For almost a week I’m unable to connect to the network. Well, since I’m here, I might as well enter and solve this.
Alejandro receives me, solves my problem and in the meanwhile offers me to wait for 5 minutes for him to finish his shift. Then I can go with him to his house, where I’m offered a room that they don’t use, so that I can lay down and rest. I’m also treated to a lunch and dinner.
The next day, well rested and without a headache, in my second attempt I to drag myself up to 3.500. Wasn’t that easy, but I’ve managed. At some point of this ascent I’m still climbing. Slower than the inclination would deserve, the legs also aren’t tired, but it just can’t go any faster. That energy that still lays hidden in the legs, just cannot come out. Then it occurs to me – there is no oxygen up here! So I continue in my own slow pace. To the top, then a short, violent descent and again a flat tyre at the bottom. This time due to the excess of quality of the patch still from Nicaragua. Again, I change the tube, another half an hour climb and that is it for today.
I come to an abandoned village of about 20 mud houses. The only sign of life is and elderly woman sitting on the ground, her back against the door of one of the houses. I park Lou, approach and start talking. The answer I receive is: “Mana intindini castellano.” The lady doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, only Quechan. With her hand she points somewhere behind a nearby wall. I interpret this gesture as that there I will be able to find someone speaking Spanish. An old man is just taking a donkey into the yard. I ask for permission to pitch my tent here between the houses, where there is shelter from the wind. Highlands are the realm of the wind. Permission granted I look for a suitable location.
I pitch my tent, next on the list – water. There is no running water, of course. The old man directed me towards the “river” which is not a river. A group of puddles in an otherwise dry riverbed. I look for the cleanest of them. I take out a filter that is supposed to filter up to a litre per minute. After about 20 minutes I have about 2 litres (would probably have more if only I would have cleaned it after the last use). Then I treat myself to a litre of unfiltered water to quickly wash myself before the sun goes down together with the temperature. The next task is to patch the tube, but first I have to locate the hole. This requires another visit to the puddles. After locating the bubbles, I’m almost there. Returning to the tent where I put a kettle on my camping stove. After all this I deserve a coffee and a smoke!
Gazing at the stars, listening to the wind (and an occasional truck passing by on a nearby road) and I simply Am. With every passing minute I’m further away from all the effort I have put into this day. I simply am Here and Now!

New morning, new day. The sun pushes away the clouds.
Breakfast, coffee, drying the condensation on the tent, putting away all the stuff, loading up Lou and we are off, exploring the mysteries behind the curves. All day I’m climbing and descending, a little up, a little down. For 100, 200 metres. After 5 – 6 hours, with the wind picking up and black, stormy clouds looming, I’m just tired enough to start looking for a location to hide away for the night. At this point I see a white van, stopped on the road a bit further on. It’s apparent it is waiting for me to pass by. Indra’s friendly smile greets me as he immediately offers me to take me a bit further on.
“Where are you heading?” I ask.
“To Potosi.”
“And you have space for me and my bike?”
“Sure!”
Such a gift from the Road cannot be turned down. We load up Lou and about an hour and a pleasant conversation later I found myself on the main square in Potosi.
Before I manage to collect all my stuff, there comes Lucas, a guy I’ve met in Tarija and now works here at a hostel as a volunteer. Together we go there and I end up at a new hostel.
Coffee in hand I sink into an armchair. Next to me there is a couple, looking at Lou, leaning against a nearby wall. They are talking about how nice it must be to travel by bicycle. In silence, I unintentionally listen to the conversation, just being content with being where I am.
They are dreaming aloud, all exited, how one is cruising the roads on a bicycle, taking the curves at one’s own pace. I’m thinking:” Yes, and meanwhile hoping that you don’t get a flat!”
And again, how on a bicycle one can take one’s time to soak in the surroundings, listening to the wind, smelling the autumn leaves,… And again me: “Yes, and inhaling profoundly the big, thick, black cloud of smoke that the passing old truck is leaving behind!”
I move away silently, before I burst their romantic bubble.

All that being said, I can, with a complete peace of mind, say – I like it!

I did however take some days off here in this hostel. In about a day or so I’ll embark on a new search of romantic on the high mountain expanses of the Altiplano. Heading for Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the World. To let the wind blow through my soul.

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

Paso Agua Negra

I have stayed one week in La Serena. Desperatly needed rest after kilometres and kilometres of desert. In my mind I was already flirting with vacations at the end of March thou it was not even the end of Januray. But it was not only the two months that were separating me from the vacation, there was another little detail. I was on the wrong side of the Andes. When I will return to these parts of the World, automn will be already saying its’ goodbye. And this means that crossing a 4.000 and more metres high mountain passes will not be sometthing that is recomended on a bicycle without chains for the tires.
So I have headed east from La Serena towards 250 km distant mountain pass of Agua Negra. With its’ 4.780 metres above sea level it is the highest mountain pass between Chile and Argentina, just so that my job would not be too simple. And to make it a bit less easy, 120 kilometres of the road crossing it is gravel.
But the motivation was there as well as the desire to get it over with the task that separates me from my vacations.
Three days of pedalling through a narrower and narrower valley pass the Chilean border post, all the way to the beginning of the gravel. Menacing clouds and a few rain drops force me to seek shelter under the roof of a solitary shelter the original function of which is still unknown to me. My first night on a, one could say, no mans’ land. I’m on Chilean side of the pass, but officially I have left Chile about 20km ago when the border police stamped my passport.
The next day I’m dealing with a loose gravel road, the result of road works being done by the Chileans. The progress is difficult. Lou sinks into the loose gravel on more than one occasion and leaves me no choice but to push it along.
The countryside is stunning. Mountains changing colours, the intense blue of the sky, a tranquil lake, first snow-capped peaks beyond which lies Argentina start to appear.
Around 16h heavy storm clouds start to appear again. Today I’m not as lucky with the shelter, some grains of hail and a bit of rain catch me. However I do get lucky meeting an Argentinian family traveling with a van. They stop by my side and give me water. This way I do not have to fill it up and filter it from the nearby turbid stream.
The third day in the mountains I pedal until just after noon when I come to a point where the road continues in a zig-zag up the slope. This means that some flat areas to pitch my tent are probably non-existent all the way to the summit. And I need more than just half a day to the top. So I decide to stop and pitch my tent for one more night on this side of the pass.
I spent the afternoon in a shade of a rock. Observing the landscape and searching for molecules of oxygen in my inhales. I’m at 4.100 metres. A condor comes to say hello (flies over me at a safe distance).
Waking up into a fresh new morning. The day is going to be long and difficult, that much I can tell. The higher I am, the more times I need to get of Lou and push it. Every a bit more steep inclination stops me. At one point I have to push Lou in a zig-zag as doing it in a straight line is just impossible.
Gravel road, the wind and the altitude take their price. I’m moving at about 3 km/h, little break frequent, summit still far. I catch a glimpse of it turn one corner. Still missing about 7 km. But this is a distance that I can do and I can do it before the afternoon clouds roll in with a good chance of precipitation that follows. Slowly but surely I make my way towards the top. The last 2km I walk, the wind coming across the pass forces me into it. Just one curve and I’ll be at the top. Gathering my strengths I mount on Lou and the last 200 metres I cycle. I pass under a sign “Paso de Agua Negra – Limite Internacional”, I stop and I cry. Joy, relief, end of exertion, a flood of emotions.
After a short break I descend on the other side. The battle with the gravel road and the wind is still not over. After two hours of going downhill I’m rattled to the bone, hands are numb. I make camp among the ruins of an unfinished house. At least I have some shelter from the wind.
The next day another 15 km of gravel road before I hit brand new asphalt. Descend towards the gendarmes and then to the border post. New stamp, I’m officially in Argentina.
2km down the road is a small town, Las Flores. In the park in front of a gas station a young family on their way back from vacations in Chile is waiting for me. A while ago they passed me by and invited me to join them in Las Flores. Cold water and a meat sandwich (well lots of meat covered by a bit of bread) – Welcome to Argentina!
After about an hour we say goodbye to each other. They go on on their way home, me … Actually I don’t know, I feel lost, without a goal. The task that I had to do before my vacation, that is to cross the Andes, is done. It was tough, probably the toughest mountain pass that I have ever cycled, but now that is all behind me. So what do I do now?
I wander for a while through the small town. Just enough that the feeling of being lost fades away and a more rational thinking can prevail.
The date on my plane ticket is fix and it will not happen sooner nor later regardless of what I do. Besides there is one more little, pleasant task to do. I have promised Andres I will visit him at his home in Santa Rosa, La Pampa. Still missing about 1.200 kilometres. Since I cannot teleport myself over there I climb on Lou and together we hit the Road.

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

The Plans Are Changing

Sitting in a small, stuffy hotel room (fuck it, it’s cheap) in Nasca. Still in Peru. After almost three months it seems like it’s never going to end. A few days ago I saw a sign that indicated that I still have more than 1.000 km to the border. I do have to admit it’s starts to drag a little.
But on the other hand I’m glad that the mountains are behind me. Regardless of their beauty and mightiness they are though. Especially when, for I don’t know what day in a row, you wake up in a tent by the roadside and you know that it’s just going to be another day of grinding uphill and still it’s not going to end today. It’s simply wears you down.
It’s also because of this that I felt some kind of relief upon reaching the coastal lowlands. It will keep on going to be tough as it was shown to me in the first days of it since this is desert land. Here the sun and the wind can form a ruthless partnership that slowly but surely drain your energy away. But then again this combination does have it’s magic, especially in the evening when the day is saying it’s goodbye, the wind is calming down and the sun takes on a painter’s role of pastel colours on rocky or sandy plains which seems to get lost somewhere in infinity.
Though this plains can lose some of its magic in the morning when you are walking and walking in search of some privacy from the looks from the road and “restaurant” behind which you camped. I like to do my morning no. 2 in peace and a half-hour walk towards horizon when you can clearly sense movement in your intestines doesn’t feel that magic.

But let me try to go back to the theme I wanted to write about – The plans are changing.
Sometime in the last days of Ecuador my conscience started to receive the first signals that the Road in front of me is still long, very long. Mountains of Peru, plateau of Bolivia, desert of northern Chile, plains of central Argentina and to finish it off the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. About 10.000 kilometres more. And timing isn’t really on my side. From about November up to March there is a rainy season in Peru and Bolivia. And as I was to later find out in the mountains of central Peru through first-hand experience, this in practice means afternoon storms. They seemed to be an everyday occurrence. Right around 14h everything is cloudy and an occasional thunder can be heard with a lightning brightening up the sky. Above 4.000 metres there is no rain but rather hail, from time to time even snow. Not that pleasant if not outright dangerous. Also because of this Andres and I normally stopped for the day around that time. With ample time to find maybe another roof over our head but surely some shelter from the wind that can be surprisingly cold and does keep on reminding you of any potential hole you might have in your windstopper.
This early calling it a day obviously slows you down. Since I’m no Lance Armstrong this additionally shortens the distance I get to cover daily. Consequently this prolongs my stay in Peru.
This much I did learn in my life that I cannot change the topography of the countryside nor can I do anything about the climate. This left me with no other option but to start looking at other options that would enable me to visit the places that I want to visit and in doing so try to avoid as much of inconveniences in form of rain and cold as I can. The more I have fiddled around with different options available to me, the more I started to realize that my physics teachers were right – it’s physically impossible to be at more than one place at the same time. It simply cannot be done! After being stuck for a while in this seemingly unsolvable puzzle a revolutionary thought passed my brain. What if I change my route and start to calculate to visit Tierra del Fuego next summer in the Southern hemisphere (i.e. December 17 – March 18)?!
Be as it may, in Life you can make plans for the future and worry about what is going to happen and then you meet reality and it forces you to change your plans a bit. And it’s not that bad at all, is it?! After all, it was Forrest Gump who said (well actually it was his mother but let’s not go into too many details): “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get!”

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

Just watched it the other day – memories!

 

snowing
Snowing!

 

goodbye_mountains_in_peru
Goodbye mountains in Peru!

On Education

Not going to write about how important it is to go to school, listen to the teacher, do your homework and all in all be a good student. No, what I will write is about the lack of education and how sometimes it is delivered in improper manner in some parts of the World.
In Peru, where I’m currently located, the lack of education can be seen on a daily basis. Just so that there will be no confusion or mistake, it’s not only Peru where this occurs. And that it is delivered in an improper manner was very explicitly demonstrated to Andres and me on one sunny day when we have reached yet another small town by the road.
After visiting several shops we managed to buy bread and butter so we decided to have a short break and have our lunch on the main square. In all Latin America the main square is reserved for a small park and it is surrounded by a church, usually the municipality building and sometimes some other very important public office.
This town was no different so we have searched for the only shadow that was available to us. While I was parking Lou I turned my head away from Andres and when I have turned it back once again, he was already surrounded by about ten kids aged on average around 10. Great, there goes a peaceful lunch. Countless questions were inevitable. So we sat, kids all around. We were trying to put butter on our bread without putting it on any of the heads that were curiously, annoyingly prying into us. The conversation soon touched the theme of God, his miracles and similar. The kids were able to dictate everything by heart.
I will not go into sensfulness of the education provided (forced!) by the Church since that would be more like a battle with windmills. The interest of capital here is just too strong. The sheep needs to be straighten out early, very early. Best if it is yet unable to read or write and later on any potential access to information needs to be cut off from it. Uneducated it can be more easily manipulated. And here in Peru (again, not only here but all over the World) they seem to be quite successful in doing so.
We have received lots of stares full of condemnation of heresy from the kids that have started to argue with us as we have said that our mothers gave birth to us and that we were not created by the angry dude with a grey beard that is hiding somewhere up above. It’s no surprise that we are meeting 15 year old mothers with babies.
But the purpose of this post is not just to be grumpy about it all. No, I actually have some constructive suggestions that I would like to share and to the best of my knowledge I will not be in any conflict with what the Bible is teaching (fuck it, I haven’t really study it so I cannot be sure).
Let me put some concrete ideas here (all references to the Bible are based on my vague memories, so there will not be any exact quotes):
1. When you are teaching them Genesis and how God created everything on Earth, do tell them that God’s idea did not include piles of shit and plastic on every step. And that he wants it to stay that way! – Maybe this way we can keep the countryside clean.
2. When you are describing to them the Last Supper. Do please put some emphasis on the fact that there is no mentioning of there being more than 13 of them in the room. That they had peace while they were eating and that nobody was asking Jesus why he talks so funny (e.g. “This is my body given for you…). – Maybe this way future cyclists passing through here will not get the feeling of being an animal in a ZOO. Maybe they will be able to avoid the situation where the municipality does provide you with an empty meeting room for the night. Just that you then end up sharing it for at least 3 hours with a night’s guard and two of his buddies, Them sitting at the table, observing you how you are repairing a bicycle, preparing yourself dinner, how you eat and wash dishes. Somehow we than managed to make them go away before we unrolled our sleeping bags and have fallen asleep. To avoid nocturnal observation we blockaded the door.
3. When you are teaching them the teachings of Jesus, in particular about loving thy neighbour. Do explain them this more in details. It seems that the current explanation does not have the desired effect. If it would have had, then we would not receive several times a day shouts of “Gringo!” with a very negative tone.
I will stop here so not to be too long. There are more ideas that I have. Maybe something in line of logical thinking as to avoid stupid questions. An example would be when they are staring at you with a bicycle, probably all sweaty and in the end they ask you: ”Don’t you get tired?” “No, you dumb idiot! I’m some sort of a special species from another planet that gets tired only if it lays still!”
Obviously there is plenty of other, way more useful knowledge than knowing the whole story about a madman that has heard voices in his head, built a boat on top of a mountain into which he put two specimens of every species on Earth (by the way, today, a few thousand years later we are still discovering new species). Maybe they could do something in the direction of general knowledge. This way people (e.g. police) would not be asking Andres where is Argentina. The whole continent has 12 independent countries. And maybe he would not be congratulated by the locals on how good he speaks Spanish.
I will not go into the fact that some of them have no idea that Europe is another continent when the debate comes to a point when they ask me where I’m from.

It could be that I have high expectations, but we have to aim high!

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

a_more_representative_photo_of_the_landscape
Surely a more realistic photo of a Peruvian landscape