Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The laguna Route to Bolivia

Ja´s departure resulted a liberating, if rather alarming, need for real self sufficiency for the first time since we started cycling. Liberating, as there is something very satisfying about knowing that you are carrying everything that you need to get by alone, and alarming as it means I am no longer able to rely on someone else to keep in mind the little things I tend to forget (eating reguarly, drinking enough, which direction I´m supposed to be going in... etc). Actually, given my almost complete lack of navigation ability coupled with my near disability level lack of sense of direction, alarming is probably something of an understatement.

Disappointingly, carrying the extra weight of all the kit Ja used to be in charge of (tent, kitchen, fuel etc.) has also meant I´ve finally had to take really seriously the need to only be carrying the essentials. This means I´ve had to say goodbye to the last remaining luxuries I had hidden away and now have now have virtually no toiletries, no make up, and no clothes that aren´t entirely practical (to be fair, inspite of what Ja would have people believe I was never carrying that much anyway). I´ve also had to take a crash course in bike mechanics after the rough terrain took it´s toll on the bike resulting in a further snapped gear cable, a sheared rack bolt, a snapped handle bar bag cable and the need for new brake pads. The two year old son of the owner of the hostal we were staying in turned out to be far less helpful than Ja usually is in these circumstances.

There is only really one route from northern Argentina into Bolivia, via La Quiaca, however there is a higher and more challenging pass known as Paso de Jama (4200m) into Chile, which has a small turn off just before the Chilean border, from where you can enter Bolivia. We had decided this route would offer a more interesting ride as it goes via a region of the Bolivian alti-plana known as the Sud Lipez, where there are a whole series of high altitude lagunas and also the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats. The drawbacks of taking this route include; the lack of official border crossing between Argentina and Bolivia (although in the event the guy in the hut that passes as the official entry point into Bolivia took pity on us as we were on bikes, and didn´t insist we made the very arduous descent and re- ascent into Chile in order to get the official entry and exit stamps); the altitude (the pass itself is at 4200m, but going via the laguna route means cycling to peak of 4960m (which is higher than Mont Blanc) and staying at an altitude above 4000m for over 10 days); the cold (temperatures at this time of year can go as low as minus 25degrees, so we were pretty relieved to only have temperatures of minus 16 at night); the lack of access to food and water which means we had to carry 10 days worth of food (Ja would have been delighted to know that I not only had to do a calorie calculation to work out how much to carry, but that it also weighed almost exactly a kilo for everyday!!) and 12litres (12kg) of water each, and finally; the lack of any real roads meaning you have to guess directions from old jeep tracks in the sand much of the time.

In a last minute change of heart Dom and Michele decided (inexplicably) that the cumulative effect of these factors meant they would rather see the route from the comfort of a 4x4 jeep, and so Carl and I set off from Salta alone.

The route was inredible; we first passed through the Salinas Grande salt flats (which provided the most surreal campground I´ve ever had) to reach Argentina´s most northerly and remote towns - very noticibly less European and more Bolivian in culture - the first time we have really seen the women (Cholitas) in the traditional dress of wollens, smocks and bowler hats (almost universal once we got into Bolivia). Once we got over Paso de Jama (made even more of a challenge by my losing of a 5 litre bag of water at the border but not realising it until we had cycled on for 6kms and reached the highest point of the pass, which meant I had to go back down to find it and then make the climb again - this wasn´t a stretch I really wanted to cycle 3 times!!) we faced unbelievable winds and temperatures of -16 which made progress almost impossible until we finally reached the Bolivan border. Luckily a sympathetic border gaurd let us pass into the country inspite of our lack of official Chilean stamps (I think had he insisted we go back down into Chile I would have probably given up at this point!), and from here we set off accross the alti-plana via the stunning laguna´s Verde and Colorada. In between the laguna´s there are a series of astonishing hot springs and geisers, where we camped and were able to wash in pools of 38degrees! Although the volcanic waters left us smelling rather sulphorous I think this was probably still preferable to the alternative odour of unwashed cyclist! Getting to the high point of the route at the geisers (4960m) was probably the hardest thing I have ever done, with the lack of oxygen resulting from the high altitude making every turn of the pedals feel like one of those nightmares where no matter how hard you try to run your legs feel like they are stuck in treacle!. This already surreal experience was compounded by cycling through a landscape which entirely resembled a surrealist painting - no suprises one of the Valleys is actually named Valle de Dali.

After the geisers we took a route to the East of the sud lipez, via the tiny peublos of Alota and San Augustin. Our visit to San Augustin coincided with a fiesta celebrating the creation of the region, and although I´m fairly sure we are the only tourists the town had ever seen, we were shown enormous hospitality and invited to join the drinking and dancing as if we were locals! This was quite some introduction into rural Bolivian culture, as it seemed the entire town had already been drinking for 2 days when we got there, and whilst the tradition of offering the first part of every drink to ´pachamama´(mother earth) meant that there was at least as much alcohol on the floor as in anyones bottle or glass, it seemed that there was more than enough alcohol for all, pachamama included! The celebrations were being soundtracked by the local band, who may have been playing some traditional Bolivian ballads at the start of the festivities, but by the time we arrived were barely able to hold their instruments. This accompanied by the traditional line dancing (which should have been the perfect dance for me as it entailed standing opposite your partner whilst shuffling your feet to any rhythm you liked however, ironically my complete inability to dance shone through even in these extreme circumstamces and someone actually reprimanded me for shuffling too enthusiastically!!!!), made the whole experience one of the most surreal I have ever had. When we left at 9am the following morning the party was still going on! What a welcome to Bolivia!!

The final section of the route involved crossing the Salar de Uyuni - the worlds largest salt flats, where the appearing endless desert of white salts dry into cracked hexaganols, and result in the loss of all sense of perspective (maybe the last thing you need at the end of a journey which has already seemed endless!!)

I think it´s safe to say that I have never been as glad to arrive anywhere as when we finally made it into the small Bolivian town of Uyuni, after a route that entailed the most´longests´of my life - the longest time without a shower (10 days), the longest time without a clean change of clothes (2.5 weeks), the longest time without access to running water, the longest time above 4000m (around 10 days), and probably the longest I have ever gone without access to communications with the outside world. Thats not to mention being consistently the tiredest, highest and coldest I´ve ever been. With hindsight, from the comfort of a hostal with a real bed, running water, access to food (and an unlimited supply of pancakes) and with the ability to communicate with the outside world again, I think I can say that whilst being the most challenging thing I have ever done this incredible route was absolutely worth the effort. Probably. I should also note that I owe Carl an enormous debt of gratitude, as without his determination to get us through I think I would have turned back when I lost the bag of water! or potentially, and more likely, ended up completely lost in the wilderness, never to be seen again! A number of the photo´s I´ve posted here are taken by him, and a greater selection can be seen on his website (along with his version of events) at http://www.southamericabybike.com . Also, as he is considerably more organised than I, he has already posted an update on our most recent escapade; the climbing of Bolivia´s highest (6542m) peak Sajama!