Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Of silver mines and dinosaurs

A holiday from a holiday more or less sums up the last few days! Since arriving in Potosi in a massive thunderstorm on the 24th, I haven´t done anything more onerous than walk around. It feels very strange! The biggest town I´ve been in since arriving in South America, Potosi is a great place. Extremely wealthy during colonial times due to the local silver mine, it is extremely lively, with great markets and numerous richly decorated churches. The perfect place for a few days relaxing and sightseeing. Or lying in bed sick in the case of Lisa... somewhere the food or water came with some added bacteria...

The original mine basically comprises the whole of the mountain towering over the town. Whilst much of the silver has now been extracted, several small mines are still active, producing tin and zinc in addition to silver. And it is possible to go down them...

Having the chance to chat to the miners was fascinating and entering the mines was quite an experience. The conditions the miners work in day after day are horribly tough; a couple of hours was more than enough for me! Since I went on a Friday, it was also obligatory to join the miners in shots of Ceibu, the local 96% firewater... I´m not sure whether this had a positive or negative effect! I don´t really like small enclosed spaces underground, and as we descended deeper into the mountain, the tunnels got smaller, the heat, dust and smelly gasses increased, and the lack of oxygen became increasingly apparent. Just trying to help raise a bag of rocks (left) was exhausting! I now have a very healthy respect for anyone that works down a mine - I certainly couldn´t and it was a relief to see the sky again!

From Potosi, we took a side trip to the town of Sucre to the East for a couple of days. At 2,800 metres, it felt postively oxygen-rich after the 4,070m high Potosi! With a fantastic climate and loads of beautiful old colonial buildings, its a wonderful town and a great place to relax and recuperate. Famous for its sausages (delicious) and chocolate (hmm), we could have stayed there for days! It is also the site of thousands of dinosaur footprints - some of which can maybe just about be seen here to the left of the fault on the right.

The scenery around Sucre was again totally different from anything we´ve seen so far in Bolivia, and also stunning - high mountains and altiplano, with deep gorges and then rolling countryside.

Bolivia is truly a beautiful country and I´m really looking forward to getting back on the road again and seeing more of it. We´re now back in Potosi and leave tomorrow for Oruru and La Paz to the north. The road is paved all the way, but that´s about all we know...!!

Uyuni to Potosi

After our tour of the salar, we left Uyuni for Potosi on Jan 21st. The maps and local information being what they are, the road was a complete mystery and it felt a bit like cycling into the unknown. The road was apparently hilly and apparently in a terrible condition in parts, so we set off with plenty of food and water, not really knowing what to expect...

The first day was tough, and in hindsight, we could have probably done with an extra day of recovery in Uyuni. The area was incredibly hot and dry and the road out of town rapidly turned into a lung-scorching beast of a climb with not an inch of shade to be seen anywhere. Exhausted, we then had to negotiate an increasingly sandy road before our reward - camping next to a fantastic hot spring. Relaxing in the hot, sulphurous waters was the perfect way to recover, and the sunset from our camp was really quite something:

With low expectations for the remainder of the route to Potosi, the next couple of days were a dream - good quality road (there were even bridges across the rivers!) and fantastic views. The area felt a lot richer than previously, and the little villages scattered across the countryside were beautiful. Llama strolled everywhere and a highlight was having a young llama running alongside my bike - hilarious given its funny gangly gait!

The final night before arriving in Potosi, we stayed in a little mining village called Castilla. Nestling in the hills with the mine in the background, you couldn´t find a more authentic place to stay. Sleeping in a miner´s "hostel" that stank of cat´s urine, was I suppose, an experience, but on balance, I think that camping in the countryside is more my thing!

Uyuni and the salar de Uyuni

Uyuni, as well as providing us with the chance to recuperate (best done by sampling the local pizzas and beers as frequently as possible!), is home to a train cementary.

It was very bizarre seeing the wrecks of decades of trains piled up in the middle of nowhere!

The highlight was a trip to the nearby Salar de Uyuni though. The plan had been to cycle across it, but since it was totally flooded, we made do with the luxury of a day trip in a 4x4.

Seeing it completely covered in water was really quite special.

The salt sparkled in the sun and the surrounding mountains just seemed to float in the air.

Southern Bolivia Photos...

Crossing into Bolivia from Chile, once I´d worked out how to stay upright on sandy roads and could look around me, the views of Laguna Blanca were pretty special!

Hard to capture on camera, the flamingoes were beautiful, especially in flight.
And waiting around the corner, Laguna Verde (very green...), with a massive volcano in the background.
The views were stupendous!

The roads, less so...

And quite desolate at times!

Laguna Colorada, so beautiful in the books, wasn´t particularly red when we saw it, but beautiful nonetheless. Although the memory of this particular lake is tied inexorably in my mind with hours of pain, negotiating the unridable "roads" around its perimeter!

The roads and climbs that followed as we made our way across country to Uyuni were tough... I blame the altitude, but the exertion required frequent stops to collapse and inhale as much oxygen as possible!!!

My cycling-clothing fashion aside, the front left pannier went on the back and I did my best to make the most of my useless (and broken) front rack.

Descending into (slightly) more hospitable territory, we still got fantastic views of the high surrounding mountains.

The roads didn´t improve much though...

Wierd and funky rock formations. Tempting to try and climb... but cycling shoes don´t make the best climbing shoes and it was a bit too remote to risk an accident!

So beautiful, if it didn´t also happen to be the road! I think I´ve still got bits of pondweed in my cassette...

My cycling companions, Lisa and Tom.

The view from the windswept road into Uyuni. We followed these pylons all the way to Potosi - they were great for seeing where the route went, although a bit soul-destroying when you saw them scale the highest ridges in the area!

Friday, 19 January 2007

South-West Bolivia

So the last week... where to begin?! After leaving (the bankrupting) San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile and crossing the border into Bolivia on Jan 12th, we have spent the last seven days traversing one of the, if not the, most beautiful region of Bolivia. The destination of numerous guided tours, we started by working our way north from the volcano ringed Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (you can work out the colour of each lake... Blanca being White, Verde, Green...), through high mountain passes, past geysers and hot springs (so good after a day´s riding...) to the famous Laguna Colorada (this one is red) stuffed full of thousands of flamingoes (stunning, especially in flight, but they don´t half smell bad!). The first couple of days weren´t too bad, once I got the hang of riding on rutted gravel, the effects of the altitude aside.

The day to Laguna Colarado deserves special mention, however, as the hardest day so far... and completely unanticipated (see comments about maps and roads below...). After a terrible night´s sleep on the floor of a smelly room at a hostel at a place called Polques (ok, it might deserve a name, but there was just one building there...), the bread for breakfast was mould-infested, and then Lisa and Tom had their battery charger stolen. So we started riding uphill in good spirits... and I with a horrible headache from the altitude. Why does it take me so long to acclimitise?!

Its currently rainy season in Bolivia, and I suppose anyone with a brain might realise that rain at 4,800 metres is usually, er, snow. So as we climbed, we entered a blizzard, and got colder and colder as we climbed higher and higher. Especially as my expensive gloves proved unable to tolerate more than 5 minutes of snow before being soaked through. Unperturbed, we layered up and hunkered down, riding on one pedal stroke at a time. The worst was, with the poor weather, we couldn´t even admire the views which I´m sure were stupendous.

Then the tour groups started passing us... 4x4s driven at speed through the muddy puddles metres away, covering us from head to foot in mud and grime. I won´t bother to share my words for the drivers...

As we approached 5,000 metres, the highest point on our route, we were pretty tired and cold but still in reasonable spirits, happy in the thought that the weather was improving and that Laguna Colorado would be stunning, and most importantly, a lot lower at just 4,350 metres... Then Tom´s front gear cable snapped leaving him just the smallest gear. Seeing him spinning his pedals just to stay still would have been hilarious at any other time... In fact, it was hilarious. And we were very proud of our patch job, forcing his front mech into the position we wanted using an old inner tube (don´t ask!). We made a few metres of progess, and then Lisa punctured. Colder still and now covered in grease as well as mud and water, we slowly picked our way down towards the lake.

And the sun came out. We could see the red-tinged water and flamingoes and happily wondered about the location of the hostel we´d heard about... Assured that there was just "one" road leading to it, we negotiated about 53 junctions, heading in what we assumed was the right way (guaranteed by the fact that it was directly into the gale-force wind...) to find that the road petered out, leaving us in the middle of a sandy windswept plain. With no option but to get off and push (it was completely unridable), we staggered into the hostel an hour later, utterly exhausted. Described hilariously by a tourist we met there as "like death row without the 3 meals a day", for us it didn´t matter. It was heaven to be inside and out of the elements. And someone even kindly cooked our dinner for us!

From this point on, the sun shone, and things were much easier. Although I am now very wary of any route that goes close to a lake - they are usually unridable sandy bogs with no discernable roads as the drivers tend to go in whichever direction they feel like!

It took us two days, on "challenging" roads, but amidst amazing scenery to reach the metropolis of Villa Mar (did we really expect to be able to buy bread?!) where we enjoyed a beer looking over the remains of a crashed aeroplane, before the last leg to Uyuni via the strange mining town of San Christobal. The weather has held really well, and the roads got better and better as we approached Uyuni, the tourist hub for trips onto the salt flats. Unfortunately our plans to cycle onto the salt flats themselves have been foiled by the fact that they are deep in water, so we´ll have to go by car, but regardless, the trip hasn´t disappointed. It may have been hard at times, and I "may" have dwelt on a particularly hard day, but it has been fun and rewarding.

I will endeavour to share some photos to give a flavour of the scenery that we´ve been battling through, but suffice it to say, it has been phenominal, and there is no better way to cross it than by bike. The hard bits have just made it all the more enjoyable (over a pizza and beer afterwards...).

Next stop? Potosi. 8 hours by bus, although apparently the roads aren´t in great condition, so the bus journey is currently taking anything up to 15 hours...

Some thoughts...

We are now in Uyuni, southern Bolivia, near the famous salt flats. Before trying to upload some more photos, or attempting to put into words my experiences of the last seven days, cycling across some quite crazy terrain, I thought I would share some brief thoughts regarding


An interesting concept. Bad in Argentina (distances, altitudes and the like never corresponded between maps, let alone with reality), they are terrible in Bolivia. At least for the part of the country we´ve covered so far. Roads in practice bear zero relation to those on the map - those shown just don´t exist. And let´s not talk about the "real" position of mountains, lakes, passes... The best bet to find out about the route is to ask the guides who drive it all the time. Unfortunately a typical conversation with one person can tell you that the road is totally flat and yet also incorporates a 5,000 metre pass. Within the space of a few minutes. And without the purveyor of information realising the contradiction...


Well at least I knew these would be bad... Having only ever ridden a mountain bike with suspension on anything similar, the amount of sand and gravel and the extent of the ruts came as a bit of a shock initially... Riding a rigid bike, fully laden, through deep sand, mud and gravel and up and down what would usually be described as technical rocky sections has proven frustrating, exhilirating, fun and painful in turn. And it got even more interesting when half of my front rack broke, forcing me to put most of the weight on the back rack, and to use just one front pannier... negotiating the never-ending gravel with my bike so unbalanced just must have improved my bike-handling ability. Surely!


Ratio of tailwinds to headwinds experienced so far: 0.00000000135.


Surly frames are fantastic. The bike is holding up brilliantly, despite the ineptitude of the builder/rider and the difficulty of the terrain. Not true for a couple of other things which I just have to name and shame.

Sealskin gloves - waterproof and breathable. Not. Soaked through within minutes. Never buy them.

Dawes barbag - rubbish. Is it really impossible to make a barbag that doesn´t let in water, and attaches to the handlebars without sagging and interfering with the brake cabling?

Blackburn lowrider rack - looks great, but the frame attachment is horribly weak. Break it at your peril. There is no work-around...

Since these, and many other similar thoughts, have filled far too many of my waking hours, I thought I just had to share them...

More photos from Argentina!

Finally a computer to upload some more photos...

Adobe houses and multi-coloured rocks in Purmamarca.

The road up to my first pass at 4,170 metres... it went on a bit!
The top! (For now...)
The amazing scenery greeting us as we descended the other side... into the sun!
And the sky that night! The massive electrical storms of earlier having finally finished.
The (exciting) road across the salt flats... usually accompanied by a nice headwind.
One of my favourite signs.
Headwind or not, the views were incredible!
My pictures just don´t do them justice unfortunately.
Camping in a smelly, dirty, wet, oily and noisy generator shed at the Pasa de Jama, 4,200 metres.
Dinner was revolting - cheap, stale pasta with tomato puree (not sauce, as that might have had some flavour...). Perfect food after a long day on the road...
The views the next day made dinner and our (lack of) sleep a distant memory. Stunning.
Our next campsite was a bit more like it... We thought we were in the middle of nowhere until, on arrival in San Pedro de Atacama the next day, we saw postcards everywhere of exactly these rock formations... metres from where we pitched our tents!
Awe-inspiringly beautiful!

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Across the Andes to Chile

Wow. Where to begin, and what to say... We are now in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile, a very fun, but horribly pricey place where we are recuperating from the last few days of cycling across the Andes.

The maps here being terrible, we didn´t really know how much climbing was in store for us, or at least I didn´t! And maybe that was a good thing in hindsight. Our first climb out of Purmamarca took us to 4,170 metres and was a slog, but a great sense of achievement - especially as I was carrying 11 litres of water in addition to my small library of books, tent, hiking stuff, and the like. Travelling light?! Er, no... but we made it and the views as we descended were breathtaking. I didn´t realise that rocks could come in so many different colours, and catch the light in so many ways. And shimmering in the distance as the sun caught them were the salt flats next to which we camped, watching the violent electrical storms on the other side, hoping they didn´t come any closer...

The next day we traversed the salt flats (why did we always have a headwind?!), to overnight in a dustbowl called Susques which promptly turned into a mudbath as the heavens opened on us. Too tired to really eat, we stocked up on supplies at their one "shop", and prepared for the last leg to Chile - over the Pasa de Jamas, what we thought was the highest point...

The three days it took us were very hard, but extremely rewarding. The scenery as we reached the tops of passes and descended into valleys of red and pink sand dunes with funky rock formations, traversed areas of high altiplano and puna with grazing vecunas and huge salt flats shimmering in the sun with their resident flamingos, the whole lot ringed with massive snow-capped mountains and monstrous volcanoes was just undescribably beautiful. We´d suffer up the numerous climbs, but then turn the corner to see a view so stunning that I didn´t know whether to cry or shout with joy at having the opportunity to see it. The pain and deprivation (intense headaches from the altitude, camping in a wet, oily generator shed next to the Argentinian border, and living off stale, tasteless bread and pasta with tomato paste for three days, to name just a few...), so all-enconsuming just minutes before, would vanish instantly as the views unfolded. I just wish I had the words to convey what I saw, nothing seems adequate!

San Pedro is like a dream for a tired cyclist - a lovely, relaxed hostel, great food, and nothing much to do except wash everything, eat steak, drink wine and relax! The headaches, headwinds and endless 4,800 metre passes are quickly fading into hazy memories. Tomorrow we head North into Bolivia and up to Uyuni across the famous salt flats. Back up to over 4,000 metres, and this time, none of the roads will be paved... hopefully the headaches won´t be so intense this time!

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Some photos from the previous blog...

Arriving in Salta, northern Argentina on Dec 30th after a 35 hour journey... We put my bike together at the airport and cycled it into town!

The countryside around Salta - we went for a short ride, returning down the (disused) railway line. Some locals thought we were crazy!

Somewhere on the route north from Salta.
I just had to get an Argentinian cycling jersey... especially as I totally forgot to pack one!

Our lunch spot - rather reminiscent of Wales...

... but not for very long! One day later and we were surrounded by cacti!

And very odd rock formations. I´ve never been anywhere like it!