Buff3y the Hard Core Adventure Cycling rolled into Ushuaia yesterday, thus completing the bicycle trip through the Americas.
Now as I stand by the water of the Strait of Magellan and turn my gaze to the north, there is not one latitude between this point (54 degrees 48′ 47″ South) and Dead Horse Alaska (70 degrees 12′ 20″ North) that has not been troubled by the pedaling fury that is Buff3y atop his trusty bicycle.
Every ocean to ocean, every sea to sea has been 100% Buff3y-Powered; no dotted lines; no motorized land transport: Pure Buff3y.
It has (just today) become something of a truism that there are essentially only two types of people in this world; those who have bicycled the Pan-American Highway, and the rest.
I’m elated to finish. This is a destination that I have earned! By the Great Lord Harry I have! In coming days it might sink in that it’s actually all over and there is no more pedaling to be done but am not quite there yet. People say you have mixed feelings when you finish a big trip and its true. I’ve been scared to think too much about the last days of riding for fear that ‘the last mile could be the hardest mile’. Right now I don’t want to jump up and down and say things like ‘Woo!’ or ‘Yeah!’ or even ‘Right On’. I’m just completely chuffed (dare I say, to the very core).
There is, however, a certain troubling feeling that this body may never again be the lean, mile-devouring, buffaldium-infused strike weapon that it is this day. I certainly intend to work on reinstating the flab over Christmas in Australia, preferably to the accompaniment of the gentle tonk of willow on leather that signals the time-honoured Australian tradition of the Boxing-Day test match (that’s cricket for the heathens out there).
I’ll miss the rhythm of riding eight, ten sometimes twelve hours a day just chuggin’ down the road. I’ll miss imbibing (and exuding) X litres of water every day, all of the body operating at a level that is difficult if not impossible to replicate elsewhere. In time I might even miss my own pasta concoctions but that’s a way off yet. Perhaps most of all I’ll miss the purity of the task of riding down the road, experiencing this wondrous planet and seeing what comes next over the horizon. Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant put it best over a hundred years ago:
Oh those rides across the river, but a shallow stream runs wide, and a sunset’s beams were glossing strips of sand on either side
We would cross that sparkling river, on a brown horse and a bay; watch the willows sway and shiver and the trembling shadows play.
These are memories to be hoarded of a foolish tale and fond, ‘Til another creek be forded, and we reach the Great Beyond.
How utterly great the beyond of these Americas has been.
Am loath to take the bike apart and pack it up for the plane but sadly it must be done tomorrow.
OK, admittedly the solo cyclist can go a little bit nuts out there on the long road but I think I’ve managed to bring myself back from the brink a few times and stay at least partially sane.
So what have we learned out there kids? These Americas are amazingly beautiful and biking is a beautiful way to see them.
The world is also a far safer place than many would have you believe (unless you pass through Colon in Panama [refer song]).
Biking is hard, some days so hard but ultimately a hugely rewarding way to see the world and even learn something of yourself along the way.
On bike traveling methodology, I had one of those significant ‘moments’ in Mexico when I turned left off the main highway and headed up the ‘Devil’s Spine’, a road that zig-zagged up into the hills towards Durango. In doing so, I (re)learned the importance of an oft-quoted cliché about traveling; that it’s not about the destination but the getting there. At that point I stopped just trying to pedal south to get to Ushuaia and started to take more interesting options, spending time to enjoy a more circuitous road. Without this turn I don’t think I would have then taken another left turn and taken the mountain route through Peru, never ridden down into the Valley of Instant Death near Celendin or conquered the River of Instant Death with Eric and Lydie in Peru. I would definitely never have done the ride from Sajama to San Pedro de Atacama in South West Bolivia, a biking experience that will stay with me till I shuffle off this particular mortal coil.
To all of the bikers I’ve shared the road with, my heartfelt thanks. Touring cyclists are a great bunch of people and those I met on the road south have repeatedly bolstered my sometimes wavering faith in humanity. I have huge respect for those who have the fortitude and imagination to ride out onto the long road and endure all of the hardships to see what the world has to offer from this unique perspective. Special thanks to Rob the Mystical Spider Whisperer and Ian The-Scruffy who both showed me that it is possible to tour on a bike when at least a few cards have slipped between the cushions of the couch.
There are some awards to give out:
‘Nicest People’ award is shared by the Colombians and Argentinians. It was a pleasure to bike through these countries and be greeted with nothing but kindness and respect.
‘Coolest People’ Award goes to the bicycle and craft-beer loving people of North West USA, especially the bike loving people of Oregon. Thanks for showing me a truly groovy part of the USA.
‘Greatest Natural Beauty’ award goes to Bolivia (salt lakes and volcanoes) and special mention to Peru for the high Andes. All must see these places before they die.
‘Best Road Users’ award goes to all of the truck drivers of North and South America. They get a big thank you for being so considerate when passing by almost always leaving loads of space. The drivers of cars, RVs and the bus drivers of Canada get the raspberry here. (Oh, that truck driver who knocked me off into a ditch and the bus driver who got gobbed on in Mexico for side swiping me is excluded from this group – bastidos!)
‘Best Song’ goes to Bag-Stuffin’ Woman (Buff3aldo Records)
‘Most Beautiful Athletic Achievement’ goes to Buff3y for his non-synchronised swimming in Sajama, Bolivia.
‘Worst Pun’ goes to “We don’t need no stinkin’ bad cheese” (Mexico post)
“Most popular blog entry’ award goes to ‘In defense of the Pant‘ (Vancouver, Canada)
My sincere thanks go to the guys at Co-Motion bikes in Eugene Oregon who put together a truly fantastic bike for me. I also thank http://www.ribbonofroad.com; two guys whose Americas trip blog that I came across in 2011 inspired me to head for Dead Horse Alaska with a bike.
Today I do feel a certain sense of responsibility to my army of readers who, in the absence of regular tales of daring-do from Buff3ysbicyclingblog will not have anything to liven up their drab wretched lives. Stay strong during the withdrawal period folks and talk out any issues you might have with friends and family. Don’t contact me unless it is to praise me as brilliant.
It’s been a lot of fun writing this blog over the last year and a half. I hope that you have enjoyed it. It’s been very therapeutic. Not sure who all of the 50 to 100 clickers per day have been but there is quite obviously something wrong with you all, so seek help, now.
After the obligatory book, DVD and movie discussions, I’m off to the UK next year to study Shakespeare and early modern literature. It just came to me as I pedaled through Ecuador that this was something important and would be enjoyable in my post-pedaling period. [Buff3y went on to graduate with Master of Shakespeare from the Shakespeare Institute University of Birmingham in 2013]
If there are any bikers or prospective bikers out there who need the wise counsel or mentoring from Buff3y then please do email me on email@example.com.
It’s been a challenge, a joy, but perhaps over and above anything else it has been … well…..….hardcore.
Buff3y The Hard Core Solo Adventure Cyclist
[Buff3y will return in ‘Buff3y and the Rockies of Instant Death’]
Buff3y The Hardcore Adventure Cyclist, having just conquered all of the South American mainland is now forging his way across Tierra Del Fuego towards this ride’s end point at the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia.
Now with only a few days until I arrive in Ushuaia it is curious how the notion that the ride will very shortly be finished is simply not computing. Two days and then no more riding!? How can this be? I’ve been packing pannier bags in the morning and heading out onto the long road for so long now that it just seems silly that this will soon end.
What does one do when there is no more road south? How do you wake up and then go about a beige life without the wind blasting in your face? Without the need to curse or praise Stribog? Well I suppose I’m about the find out.
Two days from now I will go from being the hardcore solo adventure cyclist to merely being just another passenger; a passive beige automaton in the boring flow of commuting towards a grave.
I will be (reluctantly) transformed from one who has enjoyed all the freedom to go, to stop whenever I felt like it. From someone who has suffered every mood of the weather and enjoyed all of the road’s joys, pains and fears, to one who sees the world flash past a window frame, ignorant of gradient, wind, rain, surface, aching muscles etc etc.
I won’t be earning destinations – I’ll just arrive. I’ll be informed when I’m allowed to board. I’ll be offered tea or coffee. I’ll be told when I can and cannot use the toilet. When all I wish to do is ‘disembark’ like a civilised human being some idiot will no doubt gratingly inform me to “de-plane”, as if one can seriously “de-car” or “de-bike”. Great galloping gods! In essence, I will go from being free to no longer being so. Bugger it.
Somewhat incongruously set against that sobering thought, I’m really looking forward to finishing. I’ve cycled every kilometre of land between Deadhorse Alaska to this point and, quite frankly, I’m a bit tired. Theatrical writing theory tells us that you need to tell the audience anything that really matters at least three times …so let me reiterate: I have cycled every kilometre south from Deadhorse Alaska to this point that is about 220km from the southern most point of the Pan-American Highway. So, just to be clear, I have cycled every kilometre south from Deadhorse Alaska through Canada, USA, Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Haven’t added all of those kilometres up as yet but will do so soon. Suffice to say here that its a lot! […it is 27,000km]
Anyway. On-on and twice more unto the bike I go dear friends to reach the end point. Will communicate again from Ushuaia in a few days.
Just south of the tiny hamlet of Bajo Caracoles in central Patagonia there is a 50km stretch of road, that, for want of a better name, we will here call, ‘That-stinking-bastard-piece-of-frickin-crap’ road. It’s paved and runs straight as the proverbial arrow and flat as the equally proverbial pancake in a west-sou-westerly direction.
If you should find yourself on a bicycle and on this road (and not the lovely curly one opposite), on an afternoon when the prevailing wind is doing its thing raging away from the West, then please ensure that you have come equipped. That means 1 x core constituted of Diamond and Kryptonite infused Einsteinium, Nobelium and Buffaldium. If not, you are far better off just sitting at home, having a lovely scone with marmalade, some tea and a nice lie down.
Your long suffering (and ever-humble) correspondent spent six hours chugging away into this bastard wind and I am not ashamed to admit that on more than a few occasions I felt the above-constituted core softening a tad.
Late in the afternoon I made the blissful turn sweeping gloriously away from the teeth of the wind to the southeast and could then blast over the next 60km in less than two hours, chasing down the startled road-runners until, squawking out a defeated ‘beep-beep’ they opt for jamming their crest-fallen selves through a fence to escape rather than get rounded up by an elated bicyclist.
Such is an average day riding Patagonia. Distances start to diminish in importance where 1km can take anything between two or 10 minutes depending on the wind.
Bajo Caracoles had been the venue for the consumption of much cheap red wine just two nights before. My Spanglish becoming oddly fluent as the night progressed.
I now find myself being blown across to the Atlantic coast where I offer another prayer to Stribog then turn south for the last couple of day’s ride to Tierra Del Fuego.
The Carretera Austral or Route 7 [formerly Carretera General Augusto Pinochet], is the road/highway running north/south through Chilean Patagonia. It is part dirt and part sealed but all beauty. Being the well-traveled and weller-experienced adventure cyclist that I am, of course, I have always considered the Karakorum Highway running from far western China south into northern Pakistan to be the ultimate bicycle touring road. After a few more days on the Austral I may have to reassess this.
I made the left turn onto the Carratera Austral at Villa St Lucia having crossed from Argentina near Esquela/Trevelin. Still holding tight to the notion of pedaling every kilometre southwards from the top of Alaska to bottom of Argentina had declined the opportunity to cross to Chile further north and endure a ferry ride for part of the way where Route 7 is cut for a while.
As it turned out, staying in Argentina and cycling through the southern Lakes District was a bonus as just north of Travelin, the National Park was a very pretty couple of days of winding dirt road surrounded by a lovely collection of lakes and snow-peaks. The road across the border laid on the alpine vistas as well. Getting difficult to find an ugly spot in this part of the world.
Today finds your correspondent in Coihaique a mostly unpronounceable and unspellable provincial town full of gauchos. There were echoes of Australia this morning as I was awakened to the dulcet groans of a lawn mower churning through a ‘nature-strip’ outside the tired but comfy Hotel Austral (the owner of which turned out to be a prize-prick!). The women are intent on sporting the latest butt-lift jeans which cause all manner of odd contortions to the buttocks and abdomen.
The ride just north of here turned into a bit of a chore in that the derailleur decided to fall off and had to be wired into place and therefore I had one gear with which to ride the last 75km. Quite hard-core I have to say.
Dear Readers, know that your long-suffering correspondent is still on the long road heading south and has made it to the charming provincial city of San Carlos de Bariloche in Patagonia. Nestled on the banks of the Lago de something-or-other this is a heavily touristed resting spot before one heads towards the Chilean border to ride some of the Carratera Austral highway in a few day’s time. It’s now about a month before I will be in Ushuaia and I can now feel the end of the journey approaching. Only a couple of thousand kilometres to go between now and then.
The country has been just beautiful coming through the Lakes District of Patagonia with clear water streams, lush green fields, forests surrounded by snow peaks and clear skies. The ski-lodge towns have lashings of chocolate shops and over-priced accommodation, which is lovely. The Argentinians continue to make it a pleasure to pedal through this part of the world and thankfully I have hit the much anticipated and dreaded patagonian winds on only a couple of days so far. Grasping for loads of wood right now as I still expect to have some hard days riding in the weeks ahead. I was ever so thankful to the Gods of bicycle touring providence when I saw the little shed photographed as the winds were absolutely howling across the barren slopes and a tent would simply not have held up against that at all that night.
‘Part Fifty’ eh?! I must really be doin’ some hard travelin’. Either that or I just keep on writing. When the copy is just this good it is very difficult to stop!
Am in the lovely lovely city of Mendoza. Tree lined wide avenues, coffee shops a-plenty (with delicious mini-chocolate-cakes), top quality BBQ grills and lashing upon lashing of tasty red wine. Couldn’t really ask for more. I’m no wine expert but a few months here and you couldn’t help but develop an educated taste (and associated nauseating vocabulary) for the stuff. My own four days here is merely enough time to quaff some “very passable” Malbec to wash down the grilled cow innards and then fall about the place a bit – but there it is.
The Argentinians themselves continue to delight with their cool calm friendly demeanors and sophistication. (Not as sophisticated as your humble bicycle touring correspondent of course but getting right up there).
It is raining. This would not, in and of itself, seem that strange. It is just that there have been so few rainy days on this trip that seeing the rain fall is indeed most strange. I have passed some sort of climactic divide between the arid north and the not-so arid central part of Argentina, and I’m pretty happy about that. I might now be able to somehow rid myself of all of the desert sand and dust from the altiplato of Bolivia and desert of northern Chile that has ingrained itself so in my very being and infused itself in every orifice to such an extent that it is difficult to know where it stops and I start.
Being in this part of Argentina affords one the opportunity to engage in one of the great pleasures of traveling. That is, checking out the wondrous beauties of the local cities. I refer, here, of course, to the vast numbers of majestic Renault 12s that populate the streets here.
The Argentinians in this part of the country have a great love for aging European cars (something to do with wanting to be European according to the guide book). The rare and wondrous Fiat 1500 (late 1960s) wagon even made a fleeting appearance. I was not quick enough to get a snap shot of this illusive beastie. The Hillman Imp even made a showing in Mendoza (a car for which only my elder brother could ever have any love or see the scantest slither of merit in). So what of all of the car critics who wrote the hapless Renault 12 off? Well they are now dribbling their yogurt down their bibs or were a chilled worm meal long ago. All the while the mighty Renault 12 powers on to ever more miraculous feats of person transport and mediocre performance. “Has the power to weight ratio of a schlummocking elephant seal” was most unkind. “Is really shit” seemed a bit harsh. Regardless, I am unreliably informed that Argentina has one of the largest Renault 12 car clubs in the world.
I have been sampling a good few of the Parrillas (BBQ grills) from Salta through San Juan and now here in Mendoza and I am rapidly coming to a conscious conclusion that I have somehow understood innately for some time but have just never formulated into a clear succinct academic thesis, but here goes: ‘Vegetarians are idiots’.
Why would anyone willingly go through life without experiencing the absolute pleasure of eating a really good English pork pie (with loads of jelly). How could you forgo the joys of being served up a sizzling grill of various bit of cow (some usually hidden away in sausages). They can have their mung bean munching for many thousands of years of omnivoric behaviour can’t be wrong. While I’ve got the teeth in my head, (teeth that have been painstakingly developed over the millennia specifically to gnaw away on a tasty parrilla and such tasty morsels as cow intestine) I’ll be doing just that.
[Any veggies reading this who are now taking umbrage can gum me].
In Mendoza however, the gastronomic delight continues well beyond the BBQ grill. In honour of my bicycle trip the local owners of Kingo Burgers have in-launched The ‘Buffy’ Burger. It has all the flavour that people the world over have come to expect of the original Buffy Burger. Now, however, it’s ‘New’ and has an extra layer of Grade E – ‘fit for human consumption’ meat and a bigger egg! Lovely!
Fired up on Buffy Burgers, I now head towards Patagonia and the last stages of the Pan-American ride.
I have finally made it to Argentina, 14 months after setting out for Alaska.
I travel South East from San Pedro de Atacama into the Atacama Desert and cruise along the edge of the salt plain. The road then peels Eastwards up from the desert floor into the Andes again.
The pass from Chile to Argentina (‘Paso Sico’) took me up and over the spine of the Andes once more and down through a very long valley towards the city of Salta. There awaits the most succulent cuts of steak and Syd-Harbs of red wine to revitalise a weary peddler. The pass became a bit of an adventure in itself. After promising myself that I would stick to the asphalt roads, I found myself doing it tough yet again and also making life even more difficult for myself.
Surprisingly the places close to the Chilean border do not have the slightest knowledge of or interest in changing Chilean pesos into Argentine Pesos. Was therefore again out of money. Having made it over the pass and through the remote customs port, I head for the closest little town of Catua only to find that my money is no good here. Damn it! Will have to get to Salta to have any worthwhile currency again.
Just before the last Chilean military check point a guy at a mining settlement gives me some water, a cup of coffee and some biscuits with caramel stuff on them. He has little idea just how important this infusion of calories is as I was starting to wane a bit and could see no real way to recharge in the immediately foreseeable future.
A local restauranteur takes pity on the plight of the poor traveling bicyclist and offers up a plate of empanadas which are dispatched post-haste.
A few miles further south Aussie guy passing in a car who gives water. I have been a true charity case this day
The next day out of Catua is one of the more incredible day’s riding of the trip. All is well until hitting the salt plain and then the wind takes over and turns toe day into a sand storm.
Having the wind in my favour should have been a good thing and it mostly was. I would have hated to be traveling in the other direction. However, especially over the top of the pass, the wind is literally propelling bike and me along and off the road. I kid you not, dear reader, that it is blowing 50 knots at least along this road. I screw u pa front brake trying to stop being propelled into the abyss beyond more than a few
In San Antonio de los Cobres thank The Great Lord Harry that a guy is willing to change $50 to Argentinian pesos otherwise I was on for another few days of deprivation, most unwelcome.
The next day I anticipate a nice trundle down the hill into Salta. I keep that thought as I enter a frickin’ wind tunnel with strong wind blowing up the valley for 100km into the face of your long-suffering correspondent.
At last in Salta and it is a great pleasure to be amongst people who appreciate the value of a good chunk of cow flesh and eat copious quantities of it while quaffing down Syd-Harbs of local red wine. Salta in northern Argentina has class and style and a population which seems to prize eating and living well. No longer surrounded by chicken & Chip outlets of their north-western almost-neighbours, these guys know how to cook a chip!
The trick here is to find the busy restaurants that have old guys serving on tables; the kind of people who have been munching exclusively on tenderloins all of their lives. This is the perfect place to celebrate my birthday.
Three weeks from La Paz riding south to the Chilean border through some very inhospitable terrain but also some absolutely breathtakingly beautiful country. The Lonely Planet has it right, Bolivia is:
“…the hemisphere’s highest, most isolated and most rugged nation, it’s also among the earth’s coldest, warmest and windiest spots with some of the driest, saltiest and swampiest natural landscapes in the world.” (Lonely Planet, South America, 2009).
It was very difficult to leave the comfortable cable TV, hot shower and Wi-Fi of the US$15 a night Hostal Colonial, and the good food (especially the steaks), wine and general good feel of La Paz. I am fed, rested and supplied with a brand new water bladder for the desert tracks of the south west (which soon turns out to be leaky rubbish). The initial road south-west is paved so after the 500 alti-metres/12km grind up and out of La Paz to El Alto I turn southward then right off the main highway along another 88km of good un-trafficked tarmac and on to the depressing little mining town of Corocoro and a basic bunk bed.
I then turn south once more onto isolated dirt road and tracks then back on the asphalt SW to Curahuara and the run to Sajama, just before the western Chilean border crossing. Sajama is a very basic village in the shadow of the huge volcano from which it get’s its name. On the dirt road near Corocoro I had the treat of witnessing the enthralling spectacle of a bolting donkey dragging a cart-wheeling and rapidly disintegrating mountain bike across the plain. Two young boys, one of whom had benn inspired enough to tether his wayward donkey to a bicycle, were chasing it as it made its break for freedom, dragging the bicycle with it. The donkey was winning very easily so beast and machine passed me at a rate of knots with the bike at the end of the rope taking an utter pounding, spinning into the air and crashed back to earth again and again. Finally the rope snapped and the poor bicycle lay broken and twisted on the ground. Finally I had the chance to play ‘Bicycle Repair Man’ and miraculously, we managed to put the poor bike back into some sort of working order. A good advertisement for the strength of the ‘Datsun’ bike frame as it somehow held together through this punishment. Perhaps all bike frames should be given the donkey strength test. The repair got the boys another 5km home anyway.
Six km north of the village of Sajama there is a hot spring pool which is a wonderful treat. A great opportunity to soak the legs, gaze at the volcanoes and tighten up one’s ‘individual non-synchronized water ballet’ maneuvers (refer video). South of Sajama the next morning the clear weather reveals the surrounding peaks in all of their collective splendor. These volcanoes form a semi-circle around Sajama village with Sajama itself, the most formidable peak. Across the way are twin peaks (refer photos) and closer to the Chilean border, a huge exploded remnant cone.
It’s a three day ride south from Sajama to Sabaya and then out onto the first of the huge salt plains, TheSalar de Coipasa. The track deteriorates into un-pedalable sand in quite a few places but is generally average dirt. Some tracts have protruding baby heads (small hard lumps), a few normal heads and a number of giant heads but was able to make steady progress; a fore-taste of some of the reportedly very ugly sand, rock and washboard tracks to come on the track south of the salt plains. I have 11km of asphalt on the road westward up towards the Chilean border crossing but blasting head wind means that it is 2 hours later that I turn southwards away from the teeth of it onto the good dirt. The plateau is at about 3,800 metres altitude and you can generally see the next village way off in the distance which aids navigation over the sometimes multiple tracks across the arid landscape. The wind (prevailing from the South-West) later becomes a bit of an issue again as does the glare and reflection from the powerful sun. It’s mild in the day but the temperature plummets at dusk and in the tent I have trouble sleeping both from the thin air and the cold. The drink bottles are frozen and about three or four hour’s sleep is about all I can muster.
In the village of Mayocc on the end of day one south of Sajama there are only four people stirring (lively by comparison to some of the seemingly abandoned villages along this track); two soldiers (the track will run close to the Chilean border all the way now), a shop-keeper and a tour guide. The guide quickly goes into his patter about the local lake etc and appoints himself my guide out of town showing me a ‘short-cut’ track across the flat scrub plain to the next village, about two hour’s ride away, I’m told. After parrying his attempt to garner money, am off up the track only to soon come (yet again) to the belated realization that non-cyclists do not have the foggiest as to the effect of sand on bicycle tyres. I soon come to a more imposing impediment; a wide yet seemingly shallow river. Prior to the river there is a large sand mound which is a useful wind-break in an otherwise barren plain so I decide to camp the night there and cross the river early the next morning. Interesting decision.
Eric and Lydie, my biking companions in the last river-crossing episode in Peru, will no doubt smile at this latest attempt at river-crossing. During the night a one-centimeter crust of ice has formed over much of the river (as it did on me inside the tent). Yet the slow water flow beneath appears gentle enough to make a crossing possible with a loaded bike. I am axle deep so there is about a foot of water I guess and also a sand bank to offer some respite mid-stream. So, ever the optimist, off I go, crunching through the ice for 30 metres to the far bank. I’m in sandals and am soon up to my knees in ice and sludge learning to my chagrin that the river-bed beneath my tread is soft mud. It is also becoming belatedly and troublingly apparent just how frickin’ cold the ice water actually is. Half way across and am losing sensation in my feet and breathing hard. Not good. Compounding the quite troubling predicament mid-stream is that I can now see that the flow of water in the final three metres is deeper and faster than it appeared at the outset. The bank is also a tad steeper just to add another 0.5 to the level of difficulty. My legs are really bloody cold now so am faced with that old dilemma; go on or turn back. Turn back – then what? On I go. Junk deep now and the bike is seriously in very real danger of floating off down-stream. Most of the gear would be recoverable but please God not the wonderful Sony Alfa77 SLT camera and the truly brilliant 135mm F1.8 Carl Zeiss lens in the drink!! The Ortleib bag may not hold out submerged. God no!! Am therefore summoning hitherto untapped reserves of emergency adrenaline and energy from The Great Lord Harry knows where to get to the far bank and shove the rig up onto the bank onto dry land – all the while losing more feeling in feet (and junk). Gasping hard – really sucking back the air – from cold and exertion, I step into the middle of the deep and hurl the bike up onto the far bank and scramble up behind. I spend the next 30 minutes massaging some feeling back into the feet and toes, baking them in the sun and pondering my gullibility at believing dodgy advice from village idiots. I summon the scene from ‘Titanic’ where Leonardo De Caprio describes the stabbing pain of the frigid water of the North Atlantic to a suicidal Kate Winslet. Sitting here I can almost begin to imagine. No matter. On I go. The moral? Never take track advice from pushy dodgy ‘tourism officials’ in remote villages. Note to self: Avoid all future river crossings if at all possible.
There is pretty well no traffic on the three-day track to Sabaya. In the whole time I saw four cars, an old woman walking along the road and one guy on a motor cycle, That’s it. Lost the use of the Garmin bike computer. For some reason it doesn’t want to boot up properly. It’s like touring prior to such technology when I first did this sort of thing; just iffy maps, iffy signs and people with often iffy advice. In Sabaya there is a good hostal, basic supply shops and three restaurants.
Can stock up on milk powder, Milo, canned tuna and crackers etc for the next leg across the salt plains of Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni. Beyond, in San Juan, will stock up again for the final Bolivian leg along the lagoon track to the National Park and Bolivia’s southern border with Chile and the Atacama Desert (about two very interesting weeks away). The Garmin is back up – quite a relief. While it was interesting to get a blast from the past in not having access to all of the data, it certainly is better to have it.
The 14km first ride across the Salar de Coipasa to the central island was truly remarkable. About three km from the central island the water from Coipasa Lagoon to the East appears and I ride through an inch, then three inches, then six inches of water across the salt. This experience was a truly wondrous thing, riding across a massive infinity pool to the far horizon. I understand that some believe I can ride on water and it appeared to be true for a little while at least. The going across the salt was rougher than the smooth spin that I had expected but it was well worth it just for the pure surreal land-water-scape. The additional bonus was that there was absolutely no one else there to interrupt my Zen-like moments of clarity. Bolivians continue to be a very pleasant and relaxed people. Resplendent in their delicately balanced bowler hats, the ladies seem to always have a smile, a laugh and a greeting. In Coipasa village on the island in the middle of the Salar, a lady that runs a tiny shop, on seeing my wet salty feet, decides to give me a bowl of warm water and then washed my feet! Didn’t expect that one. She took my only pair of soggy shoes somewhere to dry them and offers a room for the night. She’s 55 but I swear she could have said she was 70 and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Next day is an epic day’s ride of 82km started with taking a ‘short cut’ across the north of the island. The reported one foot of lagoon waters on the eastern side of the ‘island’ means that there was no choice but to take this circuitous route back across the north of the island and then cut south. My ‘short cut’ quickly turns to nightmarish scramble through scrub and rocks for four km and managed to knock and scratch the legs around a bit; all unnecessarily.
On the southern part of salar the going is still not smooth. There are few if any 4WD tracks to smooth out the roughness of the salt meaning a speed of only 10-15km/hour. The feeling, however, out in the central void was well worth it and there was absolutely zero traffic for the whole passage across the salar. Getting off the edge of the salar turned out to be a bit of a challenge as there was about three km of sand and then some ambiguous navigation along various Alpaca tracks to get onto the southward track towards Llica (a town just prior to the Salar de Ayuni). The tracks deteriorate periodically into large sand traps and through the afternoon there was a lot more pushing than riding. I was to rue the time wasted in the morning’s ‘short cut’ as the afternoon drifts on with me in the drifts and the prospect of making Llica diminishing. Battled on and cursed my way through the long sand breaks and made it to Llica by 6:45pm still with four degrees on the thermometer and a slither of light remaining to get me in. Llica has an internet café, a chicken shop and a crappy government run hostel in the municipal building with a caretaker who tries to over-charge me 5B ($0.70) on a 20B room. The gall of the woman!
After the warm welcome in Coipasa, the feel is less so here. Young people wander around with their prized transistor radios or phones blurting out the banal Peruvian/Bolivian pop/cowboy dross. Tomorrow I will ride on to the Salar de Uyuni and 81km to The Isla Incahuasi, an island in the centre of the plain. The ride across Salar de Uyuni was not as smooth as anticipated. Gaps between the plates of salt meant that the going, particularly close to Isla de Pescado was very difficult going. The island kept receding into the distance as I approached so the 50km took on a proportion psychologically not really warranted by the ride. Time and distance seem to somehow warp out in this void. The fierce sun beating down might have also had something to do with the altered state of mind, the sense of isolation out in the middle of nowhere, again, quite an impressive experience. It was at Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) that I encountered Silvano and Paula, fully kitted out cyclists from Italy who were right in the midst of making wedding vows to each other; exactly what you expect to see out in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. I, of course, crashed their intimate ceremony to say hello. Lovely people both, we later meet for dinner on the next island, Isla Incahuasi, the hostel/restaurant and jeep stop in the middle of the salar. They are also intending to travel south past the string of lagoons and bad lands to the Chilean border so we might meet again along the way. Yes, the decision has been made here to take the southward option of at least seven days of horrid sand and washboard roads and high winds past the lagoons along the border with Chile rather than the soggy ease and pedestrian beige-ness of heading east to the highway then on to northern Argentina. This route will put me at the northern most point of the Atacama desert (San Pedro de Atacama) in about seven or eight days. In between, however, there is going to be some horrible tracks to traverse.
Day One: San Juan to top of Pass: Morning is spent cruising across the ‘pampas’ mud/sand flats and then up a pass that proves rocky and steep in places so some pushing involved for 10km in the afternoon. Found a wind-break two km beyond the top of the pass so camped there for a surprisingly mild night with thankfully no wind.
Day Two: Top of Pass to Laguna Hedionda: Some fairly tricky rocky and sandy tracks for seven km to start the day off then down a lovely eight km of excellent maintained hard packed dirt road. Back onto the rough stuff for the afternoon and multiple 4WD tracks fan out across the way making navigation interesting in places. Am getting used to the idea of just picking tracks that head in the right general direction and feeling the way around the largest of the volcanoes, of which there are many dotting the region. There are many flamingos in Hedionda Lagoon before dusk as I arrive (refer photos). I’m already sun burned from the reflection of the harsh light and dry wind on the Salars.
Day Three: Laguna Hedionda to Hotel de Desierto
The morning takes me SW past Honda Lagoon on pretty good dirt tracks and then the path turns due South up the long gentle apron of the pass. All good until near the where I got completely blasted by crosswinds over the shallow dome summit for about 6km making it impossible to ride straight. It is very energy sapping just trying to make any progress. Much cursing at wind gods (Strobog included) and more pushing. Then a nasty sandy track down to the hotel with a lot of pushing the bike in the eight km. The Hotel de Desierto is a very friendly place that gets three stars for cycling tourist assistance. They allow camping next to their building for free and really go out of their way to help out with filtered water and coffee for tired cyclists. Excellent. The camping is very cold though and feet froze during the night. Here I camp with Jons and Martina who are traveling the same way and Jons makes tea. Lovely. It’s freezing cold camping here but bearable. The ride through the stark landscape of barren valleys between dozens of magnificent volcanic peaks is really impressive along this part of the ride.
Day Four: Hotel de Desierto to Laguna Colorado A great ride that took a full day off the expected time for the complete ride. You are completely at the mercy of the machinations of the wind gods (Stribog included) to determine how the day goes and this one turns out to be a cracker with a nice consistent breeze at my back. The track becomes a good dirt road about three km after starting and keeps it up for most of the way to Colorado Lagoon, only deteriorating on the down hill run to the lagoon. The famous Arbol de Piedra (‘Tree of Stone’ – refer photos) is the lunch stop so I press on the 18 km to Lagoon Colorado in the afternoon– which really is indeed a deep red colour. The Just before the little settlement next to Colorado Lagoon I cross into the National Park and pay up the 150B ($22) entrance fee. I have no money left after brilliantly misjudging the funding needs for the ride from La Paz so have to survive on a remaining three or four days with 80b ($11). Accommodation in the basic ‘Refugios’is a dorm bed but thankfully there is no one else there. 30B ($4.30) for a bed is a bargain and 10B ($1.40) buys the greatest spaghetti and tomato sauce and vegetable soup in existence, so am carb-loaded and charged up for the next day.
Day Five: Laguna Colorado to Laguna Chalviri: Great wind at my back again today so the biggest pass of the ride is not the nightmare it could easily have been. At the top of the pass the thermal geysers (‘Sol de Manana’) stink strongly of sulphur but the boiling mud pits are impressive. The 22 km down to Chalviri Lagoon is on good dirt but needs some attention and I almost come to grief a couple of times by getting too excited about the road when sand suddenly appears again there is a restaurant. The owners allow bikers to sleep on the floor. A real bonus is a thermal Pool with crystal clear hot water (drinkable by reports) across the road next to the Lagoon. Bliss soaking the weary bones and muscles in the soothing water at sun down looking out over the salt and the flamingos. Some 4WD drivers show up in the middle of the night and one snores like a drunken contented rhinoceros. Little sleep. A cycling shoe has blown out from all of the pushing through sand. Great. Pack buckle has broken. After a year on the road the equipment is now starting to fail. The Rohlofff gear hub is skipping on two gears 5 and 6, gears that would be really useful right now!). Am delighted about that one.
Day Six: Laguna Chalviri to Laguna Verde (Park Hut): Took another dip in the hot spring pool, with my bike (refer photo). The restaurant owner has pity on my financial plight so gives me a 5B ($0.80) discount. How has it come to this? How embarrassing! On starting the day’s ride I have a big energy drain going up the shallow pass. Sulphur poisoning? It’s been 18 days since La Paz so I might be starting to fray at the edges. I decide to ride straight at 4WDs coming too fast in the other direction to slow them and then accost them in an increasing vocabulary of Spanish abuse for flicking stones. Usually the wind kicks in around noon but today there is an early arrival of a very strong wind, and its right in my face. No energy, no money, blasting head wind. Oh Bliss. The road is not too bad dirt with only some patches where the sand grabs and stops you. There is a grader near the road and actual evidence of recent grading so the road could get even better soon. By 5pm I am absolutely shattered and the wind is literally howling across the final plain just south of Laguna Verde. The last 2km up to the Park Hut and Refugios is just about time to lay down and have a good cry. I walk the bike up to the refugios and empty out the final 30B ($4.50) in my bag, thankfully securing a room.
Day Seven: Laguna Verde to San Pedro de Atacama: There’s only 7km slightly up hill on good dirt road to the Bolivian immigration post then another 5km to the top of the rise and the westerly turn towards San Pedro de Atacama. I fear the, “do you have the little slip of paper ploy from the official but he mentions it and then gives up. I must still look like a mercy case. I understood from some that the immigration would charge you 21B to leave but this guy doesn’t bother. I have to ask him and he says that it sometimes applies but for you, no. Mercy be! I do look that bad! Just beyond the Bolivian frontier, bike, Buff3y and the new-found lovely asphalt enjoy a touching group hug moment (refer photo).
The magnificent roll of 41km down 2,000 alti-metres into the Atacama valley is pure unbridled joy so I let the pony have its head and we hurtle down hill at 50-60km/hour. I have ‘Whiskey in a Jar’ stuck in my head on the long plunge for some unknown reason. The heavily touristed oasis town (3,000 locals and 4,000 North Faced gringos) of San Pedro de Atacama awaits along with its beer, pizza, cappuccinos and lovely hostels. On arrival I discover that during the three weeks that I have been out of radio comms on the track in Bolivia, there have been fraudulent attacks on all three of my credit/debt cards so all are blocked or cancelled. Am in SP de Atacama and can’t afford an ice cream! Bliss! Brother to the rescue with a Western Union funds transfer from Australia. Cheers! I spurge on a North Face Polartec beanie (for $30!) which is ‘Asphalt grey’; a good indicator me thinks of the make up of the roads that I will be sticking to for a little while to come. Thank you Bolivia, for one of the most amazing rides and scenery displays that this boy will probably ever encounter.
The ride through the mountains of Peru is finally at an end. That was a mere 3,471km of cycling laterally and 53,000 metres of cycling vertically that I will not forget in a hurry. There could not have been a happier nor more relieved cyclist than your correspondent as he crossed the border into Bolivia. It has been a wonderful challenge to ride border to border through the glorious mountain scenery of Peru but I’m so glad to have a final final blast across the plateau at 4,000 metres from Cuzco to the border and Lake Titikaka to bid adios to Peru.
Yes, riding Peru took endurance both physical and psychological, particularly enduring the ever-present chorus of roadside “Eer Gggrrringo!” (Non-cyclists will be blissfully unaware of this) and the near constant bleating of car horns.
I could return to Peru one day, under a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances. Perhaps if an enlightened Peruvian transport bureaucrat instigated a national “Let’s all jam our vehicle klaxons in our collective bottom-holes” Day.
The Peruvian battle between the decent and the irritating can, however, now go on without me. From the vantage point of Bolivia, where the horn and the “Grrringo!” have mostly been silenced, I can happily leave Peru to grapple with its inner moron.
Mural in Isle Del Sol
Copacabana, eight kilometres inside Bolivia is on the shore of Lake Titikaka and is the stepping off point for a boat ride to the Isle del Sol (Isle of the Sun). It is a tourist ‘cappuccino town’; one of those places where the tourist buses stop to disgorge backpackers who don’t seem to turn up anywhere between the bus stops and cappuccino cafes and pizza places. These folk simply don’t exist in the flea bitten truck stop towns sporting one restaurant serving chicken and chips, frequented by this traveling bicyclist,
I therefore spent a day after trekking across the island just stuffing down pizza and lattes. It proved difficult to leave so an extra day is spent wiling away an afternoon WI-FI-ing and carb-loading in a cafe.
From Copacabana (which in reality proved less enticing than it’s name sake in Brazil) it was a lovely ride across to the north shore of the lake towards La Paz. Was lucky enough to happen upon a large fiesta on the road, the women all decked out in their finest bowler hats and multi-layered skirts twirling away merrily and the men-folk spinning (truck-shaped) clackers while shuffling from side to side in a cleverly synchronized dance motion that almost concealed the fact that they were all tanked to the eye-balls. Three brass band’s blurted away with gusto the sound melding into a vast cacophony of trumpet, euphonium and sousaphone (of no particular tune). One band had six sousaphones, no less! Great stuff! The atmosphere has certainly changed from a few km back up the road and your correspondent had the opportunity to dust off his trumpet skills, adding yet another layer of dissonance to the enthusiastic noise.
A lake-side hotel is the last stop before La Paz and the last chance to look out over Lake Titikaka (refer photos).
The ride into La Paz is a dramatic plunge off the plateau down into the city centre. The atmosphere is relaxed an friendly and it will be a good base for a couple of days where I can stock up for the ride through the remote south-east.
La Paz is also a kind of marker where the Pan-American Highway, which has been tracking south-east from Quenca in Ecuador now turns due south towards the final destination of Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina The road from La Paz to the Chilean border promises to be great fun. Crappy dirt rutted roads and the famous salt plains some horrible sand tracks, volcanoes, lakes and then across to The Atacama Desert of Chile.