Farewell Hotel Rosario, our home for the past 4 days, and hello dust, sand and freezing nights. The hotel has been pretty empty (Covid, Bolivian unrest…?) and I’d like to think the staff are shedding tears of sorrow at our departure rather than laughter. But I suspect it is the latter, as we fill the hotel foyer with bottles, bags and, er, more bags, piling them one on top of the other until the bikes groan under the weight.
The hotel manager looks at us quizzically as if to say, “Why leave a perfectly good aircraft with a parachute strapped to your back, Señor?”, which is a fair question as the route we have chosen, covering the 180 miles or so from La Paz to Sajama, is largely unpaved and, as far as we know, beyond the reach of both Amazon Prime and Ocado. While people have scaled the highest mountains, plumbed the depths of the oceans and, apparently, found good places to eat in Watford, there are still adventures to be had on the paths less trodden.
The first challenge is getting out of La Paz, a city of around 800,000 that appears to have been washed, tidally, against the ramparts of the Bolivian altiplano. From La Paz it’s a 400m climb to El Alto, home to the airport and another million people, and gateway to hairy armadillos, mountain caracaras and the occasional pueblo selling Coka Quina.
Fortunately for cycle tourists, La Paz is now served by a network of cable-car lines whose names (red and yellow and blue and green) sound like a tribute to “The Sound of Music” but allow people to descend daily from El Alto to La Paz to work, without adding to already impressive levels of congestion. Our only complaint about an otherwise excellent system is the lack of lifts for bikes (yes, I mean really!). This means unpacking the bikes and lugging bikes, panniers and bottled water up a flight of stairs while wearing a mask, not an easy task at sea level, but at 3,600m rather like expelling a lung through a nostril (and about as pleasant). Having handed over the princely fare of 30p, we are soon gliding above streets and houses clinging to the side of the valley before cresting the ridge and being deposited on the far side of El Alto.
We fill up our fuel bottles with 2 litres of Bolivia’s finest and, with a following wind and the heady mixture of dust and diesel fumes in our noses, wave goodbye to last place of any size we will see for the next 5 weeks.
The road descends gently for 20 miles to Viacha where we stop for a lunch of soup, rice and chicken. This seems to be the only thing on the menu in many places, but does make ordering food a bit easier. This is a good thing, as we are not fussy eaters, and the translation app we were intending to use to order food, when our store of 11 Spanish words runs out, has started to produce some peculiar results.
As this is South America, famous for “el viento”, this may be a good time to mention winds. According to the charts, the winds typically blow from the west (or the northwest) in this part of the world. This is a bit of a concern on this section for a couple of reasons. First, the journey to Sajama is largely west (and south). Second, no matter which direction we’re cycling in, the compass on my handlebars resolutely points northwest. To the first point, we have been reasonably lucky so far as the winds have not been, er, prevailing very much. To the second point, various items in my bar-bag appear to be magnetic – very useful if I want to know where my bar-bag is, less useful for navigation.
The surface remains paved as we branch off the main road southwards. According to Garmin Explore (our bible for route-finding), our first stop is near a place called La Comanche. A good place to circle the wagons around a campfire you would think. But the village itself is a dusty mining town offering very little in terms of adventure apart from, um, soup, chicken and rice. Duly fortified, we find a secluded spot, beyond arrow-shot, a kilometre up the road where we pitch the tent, down a cup of coffee and retreat to our tent at around 7.30pm. When the sun goes down, the best place is inside.
The following day the paving disappears, not to be seen again this side of Sajama. Note to self: not all “brown” roads on Garmin Explore are paved. We have just been through a village called General Ballivian and are wondering how far down the pecking order he must have been when they were looking for places to name him after. We stop at Coro Coro to enjoy cheese and crackers in front of a pack of drooling dogs, only to discover the road out of town is a steep, stony and lung-busting slog, requiring several stops to recover our “composure” before settling into an afternoon of ups and downs, with the occasional unplanned beaching as the wheels get stuck in the sand.
On the subject of roads, it’s rumoured that the Bolivians have 50 words for different road surfaces, 49 of which include expletives. It’s also said that reducing tyre pressure gives better traction, although the jury is still out on that one as we are already down to 1 bar and counting. For sure a 4×4 is the best way of navigating the roads around here, but for comedy value it’s hard to beat two guys on overloaded bikes hitting sand and veering into spiky bushes.
One benefit of a bike over other forms of transport (with the possible exception of the pogo stick), is the quality of the reception in villages of any size. In Calacoto we stop for ice-cream and coke only to be met by a welcoming committee comprising the mayor and half the town council. There are many words and much gesticulating and, while we do not have much idea what is being said, it’s agreed that it’s a most auspicious occasion. Later a small group of women in local costume come up and ask me if I’d trade my friend for a couple of goats, but that could be the translation app playing tricks again.
We leave Calacoto following directions for the bridge over the river which turns out to be a rickety footbridge barely wide enough for the bikes. Safely on the other side, a man with a wheelbarrow asks if he can take a picture which, as our agent was not present, we gladly agree to. It turns out he owns the land on that side of the river and is happy for us to camp on a nice flat spot nearby. With the tent up, Andy cooks and Derek gets some footage with his drone – a fair division of labour!
South of Calacoto, the road becomes sandier and increasingly we turn to tracks and other paths that run beside or near the road which offer a better surface. We’re aiming to get to Audiencia or beyond that day, but the side road doesn’t look promising and we elect to stick with the “main road”. This takes us, by turns, to an increasingly arid area where the streams flows through beds of salt and the landscape is pretty inhospitable. Needless to say, we shortly come to a village where we buy coke and oranges and have lunch in a deserted village square in the shelter of a bandstand. Most of these places seem to exist for mining, in this case for salt which is either heaped into tidy piles or moulded into blocks like giant bars of soap.
The next day we have a tough 250m climb up to a pass at 4,200m, the highest so far. It’s my birthday and Andy produces, from the depths of a pannier, a snickers bar, fruit pastilles and a birthday card from Cathy – items he has cunningly hidden from the start, the sneaky so-and-so! After that the road is undulating and the tailwind helps but there are no villages, the haciendas are deserted and we do not see anyone on the road all day. Water is becoming an issue and we are about to draw lots on who’s for the pot when we find a stream where we filter and treat water and wash the bikes (well they do it with horses in the Westerns, so why not?).
Heading south, we come across a few villages with wells and pumps – possibly we’ve been past these before and not recognised them. Pitching up finally at Calicanto, we find a perfect little spot down by the river where we wash and watch as storm clouds pass by to the north. For us it has been sunshine all the way with daytime temperatures up to around 17C and night-time temperatures as low as -5C. No complaints as the wind has not been as strong as we feared.
The following day I try to take some footage of Andy, using my drone in “track” mode. This works very well until later when I discover I hit the stop-recording button by accident just as he sets off. Epic fail. Will try again later. Meanwhile, we stop for water and a snack in Pichaca. Another deserted settlement although, as we see many llamas and are pursued by many dogs, it’s a fair assumption there are people living here who are out and about when we are passing.
About dogs. Annoying little mutts that can spy a cyclist a kilometre away. Fleet of foot and seemingly willing to run vast distances to snarl and bark at you from close range. Andy is more tolerant than I am, then again I am more often at the back surrounded by a lot of angry hair and gnashing teeth. I do accept the dogs are doing the job they are trained for (killing cyclists and protecting llamas 10km away) but I reserve the right to pick up rocks, sticks, grenade launchers and any other weapons that happen to be available to rebuff their advances. While often small in stature, the little gremlins are quite perky when hunting in packs. On these occasions it helps to send the first volley of rocks at the leader.
Sajama (the mountain) is 6,542m high making it the tallest mountain in Bolivia. It has dominated the skyline for most of the last 4 days, getting imperceptibly larger as the hours pass. A quick right turn onto the “main” (ha ha, pull the other one) road sees us climbing a long, slow 300m rise to Tomerapi, into a 3/4 headwind. Tomerapi might be the Bolivian translation for Shangri-La as it has hot showers, comfy beds, washing facilities, loos and various other things we have not experienced lately. A nice man at the Sajama National Park HQ relieves us of 100 Bolivianos each and invites us to sign the visitors book. We note that the only other crazy cyclists who have been through here recently are a French couple in late August.
Final day, and a short climb to the pass at 4,400m, followed by corrugated and sandy roads down towards Sajama. We stop at the hot springs a few kilometres out of town and enjoy a warm bath in relatively shallow water. Apparently there are nicer baths nearby, but it’s early in the day and we don’t spend a lot of time looking around. Having forded the stream (again) we make our way into Sajama, the biggest town since Viacha but ultimately made up of a few hostels, a health centre and a lot of tumbleweed. Whoever has been scaring away the tourists in La Paz has been at work here too.
Still, this becomes a home from home, with most of the gringos congregating at Hostal Parinacota (which has WiFi and endless cups of coffee).
The plan is for Derek to climb Acotango and Parinacota over the next couple of days before heading south towards Uyuni. We’ll have to see what Derek’s lungs and Pachamama have to say about that.