After the madness of Machu Pichu we were very relieved to finally take a few days off and relax in Cusco. We stayed at a well known cycling hostel called Estrellita and were pleased to meet a number of other people touring South America. One of the cyclists we met while staying there was a Japanese fellow who has been touring for 8 years straight! Needless to say he had a wealth of information and was very happy to share his past experiences with us. We were also reunited with our Irish friends, Martin and Nessa, who were waiting for a friend to fly in from England so they could begin the pilgrimage to Machu Pichu.
Keen was kind enough to send us another package with all of the items that were stolen by FedEx the first time around and after another mess of paperwork and a couple forwarded addresses the package finally arrived in Urubamba. Since Urubamba is about 80km north of Cusco I spent my final day off bussing it back and retrieving my package. At this time it had been about a week or so since any of us had gotten sick so sure enough I felt a wave of nausea flood over me while on the bus back to Cusco. By the time I got back to our hostel I had a full blown fever and was preparing myself for another week of painful riding and sleepless nights. The next morning I loaded up on Aspirin and we hit the road.
The stretch from Cusco to Puno was a relatively easy riding compared to the treacherous terrain we had been battling for the past month. The only challenging part of this section was a nasty headwind that hit us the second day out of Cusco and remained until after the pass.
Once we got over the summit we were able to cruise into Puno where we were greeted by the enormous Lago Titicaca that looks more like an ocean than a lake. We found ourselves a nice hostel and since it was early in the day, Seth, Belinda and Roland decided to take a boat trip out to the famous floating islands. I decided to stay behind as I was still feeling pretty ill and was hoping to recover before getting back on the bike. The next morning I finally felt human again and was looking forward to the flat and scenic ride along the lake into Bolivia. As I hoped out of bed I realized Seth was not going anywhere as he had gotten the same fever and sickness that I had just recovered from. So we said goodbye to Belinda and Roland and planned to meet up with them again in Copacabana and took the day off so Seth could recover.
After getting our exit stamps for Peru we arrive at Bolivian immigration and fill out the necessary paperwork for our visas. Before handing everything over to the officer we have to exchange our Peruvian soles for Bolivian pesos so we can pay the extortion fees. When we return and hand everything over to the officer he informs us that they do not except Bolivian pesos, only US dollars. Take a second to think about that, the Bolivian immigration office does not accept their own currency for this ridiculous fee. So once again we have to go exchange our newly acquired Bolivianos for US dollars and get screwed double on exchange rates. When we finally have everything in order and our paperwork is being processed I see that one of the customs officers is trying on my sunglasses and attempting to look behind himself in the little rear view mirror that is mounted on the frame while another officer is playing Pirates of the Caribbean and pretending to stab him with my pocket knife. As the officer is returning my pocket knife he offers to trade me his uniform belt for my Patagonia belt. Since he was only offering the shitty belt and not the gun and handcuffs attached to the belt I had to refuse. Very professional crew there at Bolivian immigration.
From the border it was just a short 10km ride over a small mountain and we were coasting into the very much anticipated lake town of Copacabana. Roland and Belinda had already emailed us what hostal they were staying at so we checked in and headed out for some lunch at a nice restaurant on the lake. After lunch we went on a search for some cheap beer as it was Seth's birthday and the plan was to all meet up at our hostel that afternoon for drinks. Martin, Nessa and their friend Simon had also arrived so we had a very good crew to celebrate Seth's 29th! Luckily we had the next day off as everyone was nursing some pretty solid hangovers and didn't want to do anything but lounge around. You really pay the price for having a few drinks when you only drink about once a month and consume said drinks at over 12,000 feet of elevation. Good thing all the wineries in Chile and Argentina are closer to sea level.
Bodies recovered, spirits raised, and hangovers nursed, we pushed south down the peninsula toward the famous Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats). It was going to be about an 8 day push to get to the salar and we decided last minute that we were going to bypass La Paz as we had no reason to go there. Anytime we can avoid cycling through a big city the better so we got out the map and found an alternate route. Considering there is only 1 paved highway in the entire country of Bolivia one must choose alternate routes wisely and with caution. We simply chose some lines on the map that went around the city and went for it. I guess you could say we achieved our goal as we did bypass the city but the effort, navigation, and sheer luck it took to do this was far from worth the effort. As you can see the roads, if you can call them that, were less than a desirable alternative option to the paved city streets of La Paz.
Luckily, we had parted with Roland and Belinda before this stretch as they had more volunteer work to do with the Salvation Army in La Paz. I have my doubts that their previously cracked frame would have held up under such intense conditions.
When we finally met back up with the main highway heading south we found a place to camp off the side of the road and got some sleep.
In the morning we were very pleased to discover we had a strong wind building at our backs so we got mentally prepared to make full use of this rare occasion and put in some serious miles. We were able to knock out about 100 miles that day and camped just north of a town called Ororu. As you can imagine we work up quite an appetite after a 100 mile day so we wanted to treat ourselves to a large dinner. We found a little tent on a side street of a small town that was serving dinner for about 90 cents a plate. We bought 9 plates of chicken, carne asada, llama and a 3 liter of coke and called it a night (you know you are tired when you can fall asleep right after drinking 3 liters of coke). We were glad we decided to put in such a long day as the story changed the following morning. Our beautiful tailwind turned into a vicious headwind which we were forced to battle all the way to the town of Salinas at the edge of the salar.
150km north of Salinas the terrain changed and we were faced with some of the most treacherous roads we have seen thus far. I say thus far because after the salar it got about 100 times worse. I have already mentioned the headwind that was easily gusting over 60mph and in sections reduced visibility to about one foot off our front tire due to the amount of dust and sand in the air.
In addition to the wind, the washboard on the roads was so severe that every night I had a mild case of whiplash from trying to stabilize my neck all day. For one reason or another at various sections there were massive road blocks that caused us to leave the “road” and just cycle in the desert alongside the barricades. Trailblazing in the desert was actually a vast improvement over riding the 2nd major highway in Bolivia.
When we arrived in Salinas we were both exhausted, hungry and covered from head to toe in dust and sand. We had not stayed in a hostel since Copacabana and had been camping in some pretty rough conditions for the last 8 nights. Yes, that means we had not showered in 8 days! All we wanted to do was sit down and eat a meal or three then get a room and take a much much much needed shower. However, nothing is ever that easy in Bolivia. Of course we found two restaurants and a hostel but both of the restaurants had no food and the hostel was closed until 6pm. Again, the hostel, with people staying in it, was closed until 6pm. Every single day we were astounded by the backwardness of this country, not only contrasting the way things are done in the US but other South American countries. For instance there are almost NO restaurants in any of the towns we passed through. Of course in any of the tourists spots like Copacabana, Uyuni, and La Paz, there are plenty, but your average town will not have a restaurant and if they do it will not be open until after 6pm. This may not seem that strange but when you take into account that the same town will have 30 little grocery stores it becomes quite odd. We just thought that nobody could afford to eat out but when that one restaurant opens at 6pm the place is packed! However, God bless those grocery stores because for about $3 you can buy more cookies, yogurt, fruit, chocolate milk and bread than you could ever imagine.
So we were forced to sit in the town plaza snacking on every possible thing that the street vendors sold until 6pm when we could get a proper meal and be admitted into the hostel. The next morning we made the short but once again challenging trip, due to the roads which at this point had turned into deep sand, to the edge of the salar.
Approaching the salar was quite a very surreal moment. To reach the edge of the salar we had to climb over a small mountain and just as we reached the summit we were blinded by a vast sea of the brightest white we have ever seen. It looked like a huge plain covered in snow but glowed even brighter than any snow I can remember. The best thing about the salt flats is that they are flat, really flat. After traveling on some of the worst roads of our lives the relief of getting onto the this extremely flat and rock hard substance that stretched out before us farther than the human eye could see was heaven. There are no roads on the salar and we couldn't see our destination so we had to ask around in the final town of Jirira about where the hell we were going. After some debate amongst the locals and one tour guide that was clearly lost we determined that we should head for that bulgy looking thing next to the big mountain and after a few hours we would see an island appear which was Isla Incahuasi. So with the bulgy thing in our sites we head off and sure enough a few hours later we see an island.
It is hard to describe the feeling of gliding through the salt flats surrounded by absolutely nothing but endless white, free from the constraints of narrow roads and yellow lines, and not really knowing where you are going. A mountain in the horizon that seems it is no more than a few miles away is actually hundreds of kilometers away and the occasional SUV carrying tourists on their salt safaris look like black bubbles floating in the distance. While each country we have visited has had its own unique qualities we could still relate a section in Peru to a section Colombia or a beach in Costa Rica to a beach in Southern Mexico. The salar was something that was truly different and one of a kind. That afternoon we reached Isla Inchuasi, the only island on the salar to boast the inhabitation of huge coral cacti. For much of the day the island looks like an anthill with a constant stream of Toyota Land Cruisers bringing tourists to and from the overpriced restaurant and makeshift giftshop, but after sundown when the SUV's disappeared it transforms into something magical. We met a British couple that had just started their tour 40 days earlier in Chile and we decided to camp with them in the back side of the island where there was no 15 peso charge to climb up and take pictures of the sun setting over the salar.
Seth and I found a little rock fort that would make any little kid jealous and we decided to pitch our tents inside of it. While we rationalized that the rock barrier would protect us from the wind and any roaming robbers, we really just wanted to camp in an awesome fort.
The next day we had another 80km left of salar so we found a new bulge to head for an said goodbye to our British friends, Hugh and Pauline. The day before we were so mesmerized by the feeling of riding on a flat and solid surface that we didn't spend much time on taking any photos. But anyone who visits the salar knows about the unique pictures one can take due to the endless white background and lack of any objects to determine depth. This can allow for some pretty interesting and funny photos. Thankfully our small tour guide was able to point out the sights along the way.
Once off the salar we found a woman selling some llama in a small tent so we bought a few plates and headed to Uyuni. As if the salar was but a short figment of our imaginations we were back to the more common ass punishing ball crushing roads of Bolivia. We made it to Uyuni with only minor whiplash and stocked up on supplies for the following day which would be a 110km to the town of Atocha. The next 3 days would prove to be the most remote and most challenging (most crushing of the balls) in all of Bolivia.
Luckily we had asked someone in Uyuni if there were any small towns before Atocha where we could get food and they laughed. We also asked if the road was paved to which they laughed even harder. So we made sure we had enough food for the following day and camped on the south side of town trying to mentally prepare for the following day. We were not let down, the roads or lack there of, can only be described as disgusting. At any given time there may be three or four alternate paths that cars had blazed because the main road had become undrivable. The fun part was you never knew which path would guide you back to the main road and which path would end in a deep sand bog that would swallow your tires up to your chain rings. Sometimes we were forced to haul our bikes over large sand dunes that had formed right in the middle of the road.
If the strong winds and horrible roads didn't make this stretch hard enough, we were forced to put in 110km days as there was absolutely nothing between Uyuni, Atocha, and Tupiza.
Fortunately the scenery was unbelievable.
In Tupiza we took a very much needed day off to rest our very sore muscles, necks, heads, and perineums. We both slept for most of the day and still felt pretty beat up when we left the next day for the Argentinian border. To our relief the road was significantly better as they were in the process of paving the 90km stretch with only small portions still remaining dirt. From the border we were facing about 380km to Salta which we conservatively allowed 4 days to complete. It took us only 2.5 as we put in 100 miles the first day followed by an 80 then a short 50 into town. Entering Salta was like entering in a European or American city. We have found a very cool hostel and are settling down for 3 days off!
Soon my good buddy Matt McKinney will be meeting up with us somewhere between here and Mendoza and we will also be blessed with the presence of Mr. Justin Dodd when we arrive in Mendoza. Looking forward to seeing a couple good friends and familiar faces.