I spent 10 days without a shower, in fact, it may have been 11. When I arrived in Uyuni I was feeling somehow below my human condition, the daily use of baby cleansing wipes proved insufficient to establish a more acceptable level of personal hygiene. We stayed in Hotel Avenida since it was there where Antonio Queiroz, a Portuguese adventurer riding the Americas on his motorbike, was. I inspected very carefully the shared showers and at a first glimpse they had seemed acceptable to me. Well, for someone who almost forgot the meaning of the word shower, a few drops of warm water spurt by the head of an electric device that invariably gave electric shocks, seemed reasonable. However, not for long, since once we get used to certain comforts we then tend to become picky. The comfortable feeling of being in a place with a roof and a bathroom soon was replaced by the annoyance of the low water pressure, the inability of the mentioned equipment to perform it’s duties efficiently (it’s to say to warm the water), added to cold strolls through the courtyard of the hotel to get to the shower.
One of the scary electric shower heads, very common throughout South America.
Dressed with my last clean clothes and feeling an atrocious hunger, Me, Nuno and Antuco (Antonio) went in search of the gastronomic specialties of Uyuni which unfortunately were little and expensive. Uyuni, located at 3670 meters, has over 15,600 inhabitants and is somewhat a strange place. It is the capital of the province and was once a mining center of great importance in the early decades of the twentieth century. There, ambitious adventurers and scavengers arrived in search of wealth and glory in the mining business. The fluctuation in the price of minerals slowed the quick growth of that dusty little town. Now is only a shadow of its past and the main entrance door for thousands of backpackers who arrive there on a daily basis to look for a tour to take them exploring the wonders of the Salares, Coloured Lagoons and other well known charms of the Bolivian Altiplano.
There are about 80 travel agencies as a result of this demand. In Uyuni’s town centre you can find the main square, a train station, and some markets. At a 20 minutes’ walk from the main square you can also find a train cemetery with old and dusty locomotives, there you can wonder through and imagine bygone times when those machines echoed through the vast and arid landscape.
In Bolivia, and in all Altiplano, the night of San Juan is celebrated on the 21st of June and is considered to be the coldest night of the year. To celebrate it, locals lit up bonfires, scattered pretty much all over town, and gather around them with their families, friends, neighbours and passersby in an attempt to overcome the cold night. There was one next to our hotel and around it many people who worked for different travel agencies, and although we were not potential customers, we were welcomed and given valuable information about the kilometres ahead of us. They also shared their bottle of Singani (Bolivian national spirit) and led us to a surreal night (from what I can remember) on a shack that served as a disco where hundreds of locals danced to the beat of cumbia and drank copious amounts of alcohol. The scene was so bizarre that the drinks came not in one bottle but in crates full of them, meaning that when someone said they were going to get a drink, they would actually get a crate full of beer. At some point we had about three crates in front of us, and nor well we started to drink a bottle our friends would stuck another one in our free hand. To overcome that alcoholic exaggeration one had to pretend to be drinking and spill most of the beer on one’s chin and not down one’s throat. We were the only gringos in that party and it was good to see the other side of a city that lives mainly of tourists. And it’s not worth describing the state of our heads on the following morning.
The days in Uyuni unfolded slow and lazy, we spent 10 days updating sites and chatting with Antuco a Portuguese from the northern part of Portugal with sweet blue eyes. Who decided to spend his retirement travelling the world on his motorbike.
I think our bodies needed to rest and, above all, we needed to prepare ourselves mentally for the hard days ahead. We said goodbye to Antuco at the end those 10 lazy days and headed to the South Western part of Bolivia.
De Uyuni a Quetena Chico – a aventura continua
From Uyuni to Quetena Chico - the adventure continues
We had, once again, difficulty in finding petrol for the MSR stove so we left Uyuni, heading to San Cristobal in the afternoon, once we had found petrol. The road, despite being paved with “wash boards”, wasn’t too hard to cycle. The landscape around us was dry, and there was a kind of stoicism of the vegetation resisting the attacks of the strong wind. We camped the first night, after 49 kilometers, in the middle of the stars, sand, cold and silence. This landscape was not made to be inhabited by humans because it is too hostile. Here there are no superfluous things, everything is scarce, less the extent and size of what you see around you. We reached the end of the second day, after cycling about 51 miles to San Cristobal, a village which was moved on its entirety including the Jesuit church of the seventeenth century. In the depths of this village was discovered a vein of silver and lead, which is supposed to be the second largest in South America and one of the largest in the world. A Canadian-Japanese multinational corporation, in exchange for exploration and creation of the mine, gave local people not only job opportunities but also a theoretical plan for the sustainable exploitation of tourism resources creating what they called "Pueblos Autenticos" (genuine villages) in a process of revitalization of the surrounding villages since it’s from them that originates much of the workforce needed to operate the mine.
It has been predicted that within 16 years resources of the mine will be depleted and the company aims to equip these villages with infrastructure enabling local to exploit the tourist potential of the region. From the human point of view this mine is the light at the end of a dark tunnel that illuminates the lives of the people of the Bolivian altiplano. And there is not much food these people can extract from the soil. The company provides them a wage and decent working conditions. However the environmental impact is great and it is difficult to calculate the contamination that this opencast mine will cause in the future, to an ecosystem that experiencing the hardships of the environment gets overexposed with human activity. I suppose time will tell.
The Jesuit church of San Cristobal that was moved and completely restored
Kulpina K, more "Pueblos Autenticos" and their houses painted with garish colours such as yellow, Bordeaux and blue...
We cycled through the "Pueblos Autenticos" which are four: Villa Villa, San Cristobal, Kulpina K and Villa Alota. Actually they do not seem very authentic to me, because the authenticity of the poor and desolate altiplano is made of adobe facades and dusty streets with rubbish everywhere. In these villages we found houses painted with colours certainly never before seen in any other altiplano village, rubbish bins, streets with names. We stayed overnight in Villa Alota, the last "Authentic Pueblo", and headed towards Villa Mar or Mallku, as it was originally known.
Across a small stream on a pedestrian bridge made of stones, outside Villa Alota
According to information we had collected, it was from there that the SW of Bolivia began to reveal its unique landscape. We cycled the first mountain slowly as a result of the sand that was in the road and the “washboards”. We then started to be overtaken by tour jeeps that had inside them surprised tourists who stared at us as if we were a bizarre formation of the landscape and leaving behind a cloud of dust that we were forced to breathe.
If riding in these landscapes is an extreme challenges for your body and your determination, to see the world passing you by through a window without being able to feel, prisoner of schedules and arrangements of the tour that you bought, is something that doesn’t interests me minimally. I do not like to feel part of the herd, always had the soul a little rebellious.
We reached up to 4117 meters at the top of the mountain where the profiles of the rock formations started to draw up and to give texture to the smooth and gentle slopes to the mountains of the altiplano. They look to me as if they were layers of lava exposed to extreme weather conditions, but actually I don’t really know the processes that have given rise to these silent giants.
We entered the valley known as "Valle de las Rocas " (valley of the rocks) and what I saw there was so striking that it was hard to believe it was real: high rocks rising to the heavens, cut into bizarre shapes, their red and brown tones contrasting with the blue of the sky and the sun that was moving to illuminate the other half of the globe. The shadows were slow-moving on the floor as if they were the souls of these stones making them to seem bigger. That night, after wandering with the cameras trying to capture the magic of that place, we camped, protected from the wind, in the middle of these ancient rocks and made a bonfire. Its heat allowed us to look at the stars and feel the magic of that place, on an otherways cold and dark night.
The wind was cold and kept our senses awake. The human being has an amazing creative ability but the language of nature, for those who have the privilege to reach the few unspoilt places where man hasn’t touched, are surprisingly more beautiful and more real than anything created by man.
We reached Villa Mar in the afternoon, there, was a stream of crystal clear waters and frozen banks. At the entrance to the village, the few houses were sheltered by a wall of rocks, continuation of the rock formations that we had seen the day before and were part of the scenario where we had cycled all day. Mallku is the original name of this village but when Bolivia lost its sea in the Pacific War they changed the name in sorrow of the lost sea.
We were housed in a small residential, off the village near the football ground, the owner was a nice cholita (local woman) with two curious daughters. The next morning I looked through the window of my bedroom and watched two children playing with a small, black puppy, unconcerned and innocent. I captured that moment of pure simplicity using my eyes and memory and was happy that in some way I was also part of it.
The night before we had met a French tourist who travelled around the world and, like many thousands of tourists, making a tour of the altiplano, she seemed unable to see the intrinsic beauty of things, the only thing that she seemed to be concerned about was the cold, the annoyance of having to wake up early to get to the places included on the package tour that she had purchased and her dislike for the way locals were in general. How different was my experience and how different was my way of feeling things, the bicycle as a way of transport got me closer to reality, allowed me to be part of it and assimilate it continuously as if it were an extension of my being.
It seemed that the rock formations were infinitely extended throughout the South-western part of Bolivia, we camped another night protected from the inclement wind, by these silent companions. The road became steeper and the nights cooler. The human presence was almost nonexistent apart from the occasional tour jeep. The effects of altitude began to be felt in the body. We were quite acclimatized but the ability to breathe was getting reduced, and with loaded bicycles often the only alternative was to push and to stop every 5 minutes.
We were crossing over a stream of frozen waters. The weight on my bike is not very well balanced because I have only my back panniers and almost no weight in the front, sometimes when the rear wheels are stuck in some rocks or irregularity of the floor it gets very difficult to hold the bike especially if I am pushing it. When I was crossing that stream the back wheel got stuck in some rocks, my arms could not hold the weight and my bike fell in the creek, the bag from the front, where I have my camera, among other things, was dangerously close to the water. I asked Nuno to help me but when I turned around he was lying on the rocky floor. He had tried to help me but he got stuck on his bike and lost his balance and hit the floor so hard that I was surprised when he got up and said he didn’t have anything broken. We were lucky because once again it would have been very difficult to find help in that desolate place; I think nature was saying once again that she was the “master in command” and that we were dependent on our luck and her wishes to succeed in this part of the world.
Arrival in Quetena Chico, or almost...
A sign announcing our arrival at the National Park Eduardo Avaroa which is characterized by extensive deserts and prairies dotted with salty lagoons of glacial origin. This protected area was established to protect some species that are endangered including the vicuña, the Andean cat, the Suri and three species of Flamingos’ who nest in its sulphurous lagoons.
We arrived to the entrance of the National Reserve of Andean Fauna Eduardo Avaroa at around four in the afternoon, we were charged 30 Bolivianos for entry (about 3 GBP) and continued in the hope of reaching Quetena Chico that day. The park guard had told us that in two hours we would reach the small village. A few miles after we had passed the entrance of the park we had to climb a steep road and that took us almost an hour to complete. The descent was equally hard since the road conditions were absolutely disgraceful with lots of stones, washboards and sand.
The difficult climb after entering the park, our training for Uturunco’s ascension
Already the sun was a half yellow circle in the horizon when we reached a frozen river deeper than we were used to. With the dilemma of moving or camping, we decided to camp. We did not know at what distance we were from Quetena Chico and, above all, what would happen to our feet after crossing those frozen waters at that late time of the day.
We woke up the following morning with the first rays of sun, but unlike the other days, there was no hurry, Quetena Chico would be close and we could afford the luxury of enjoying a lazy breakfast to the sound the flying birds and waiting for the sun to heat the waters in the river. Around two in the afternoon we made the crossing and finally reached our destination ending the first stage of our SW Bolivian adventure.
We were told by several people that Quetena Chico was a village of some importance and we hoped we could find supplies and accommodation to rest, but what we found was a sad dusty village, with roofs of silver metal; in the church above the main entrance clearly visible in black letters was written "God is Love", but if that is true than God surely loves ones more than others because this place is not the result of an act of love but the proof of the desperate human endurance and their ability to survive in environments that challenge even human life.
We scribbled the few shops that existed for some food such as milk powder, meat paste, coca leaves, pasta and biscuits but they were clearly insufficient for the next challenge - to climb to the Volcano Uturunco, which has a road that climbs to an altitude of 5800 meters, considered to be the highest road in the world. We lodged at Hostal Condor, in front of the Center for Interpretation of Parque Eduardo Avaroa. The owners, Dona Modesta and Mr Marcelino, informed us that within three days the flota (bus) came with vegetables and while we waited for it they kindly sold us some of their own potatoes, onions, carrots and llama meat. At the end of the second day of our wait, a Brazilian couple from Sao Paulo, stayed in the hostal, they were Didiana and Jeronymo.
Didinana and Jeronymo had come to the altiplano in a luxury tour to celebrate Didiana’s birthday and they had brought with them wine, pâté, cheese and a variety of other ingredients that they kindly shared with us on a cold evening, heated by a small wood burning stove and in the good company of our almost countrymen. There, we talked about the Portuguese-Brazilian history, travels and jokes. Finally the cold took the better of us and around 10 in the evening we got hot under the blankets of our beds. The next day, after a visit to the Center of Interpretation, to which we were invited by our friends, we said goodbye to our kind friends and they headed to Uyuni Salt Flats.
The ascension of Uturunco - will power wins the highest mountain road in the world
The mentioned flota was a decrepit bus with broken glasses parked in the corner of the main and only square. There we were, trying to find some fruits and vegetables but the lady who sold the fresh foods had not come in the flota. I see Nuno’s expression hardening up, I knew he was getting anxious about the climb, it was one of the highlights of his trip. He saw it as an authentic expedition, a feat never before achieved – reaching up to 5800 meters with bicycles loaded and in total autonomy. But we were in the altiplano, at our own peril, and the glamour of this ascension was clearly unexisting - we would not have cars to support us nor a journalistic team to record our Herculean climb. Our success depended above all on our adaptation to the circumstances and a lot of determination, as we found out later. After Nuno’s panic, his concerns about the food in general and our lack of preparation we headed, in the middle of the morning towards the top of Uturunco. We left everything that we didn’t need in the hostal and told the owners that we were back within four to five days, and although we had left a large part of our things behind, the bags were extremely loaded, especially those of Nuno. We had 15 liters of water and enough food for a week, but we took, above all, many doubts and many uncertainties.
The fascination of the climb, or pure masochism?
We were still in Peru when Nuno told me he wanted to climb a road in Bolivia that would rise up the 5800 meters and that this road was apparently the highest in the world. At the time I had categorically told him that I would not accompany him on this madness. But as we were advancing towards South I started to imagine myself overcoming one more challenge and to go up to 5800 meters with my Marina (Marin Muirwoods). I admit that I had no idea what that implicated and I think it was that innocence that made me want to climb the big dormant volcano.
The information about this volcano is almost nonexistent. After searching the Internet we found that some French guys had managed to bring their bikes up to 5800 meters with support vehicles and unloaded bikes. We would probably be the first mad cyclists trying to climb with loaded bicycles and in complete autonomy. We did not know how many miles were between us and the top, or the conditions of the road, and was thanks to the information given to us by Mr Marcelino, who led Nuno to a hill in Quetena Chico and showed him the way through the shadows and forms of the mountains.
It was in the "Valle de las Rocas" that we sighted for the first time the great colossus and as we followed towards Quetena Chico. We looked at different perspectives of its long slopes, the white of its two ridges from where sulphur was extracted and hence the existence of this road. By far, we could sight the lines marked on the sides and thought that they would be the road we would have to climb. I started to feel affection, respect and develop a kind of intimate relationship with that mountain, as if it was a living being.
On the first day, after we advanced about 15.3 kilometers and risen from 4150 to 4477 meters, we camped in the lowest base of one of the slopes of Uturunco. The road was very bad with stones and sand that unbalanced the loaded bycicles and the last kilometres that day were done pushing the bikes.
Nuno struggled with his load, he was taking all the food, most of the water, the stove, gasoline, clothes and the tent, and I saw that this was an excessive burden and if we were already pushing the bikes when we barely had begun to rise, certainly we would not reach the top. We kept on climbing, full of doubts and discouraged.
The stony road that we had to climb to reach the top
The next day Nuno gave me some water and some of his clothes to carry but his load was still extremely heavy. We tried to cycle our bikes but the combination of the stony path, the steep slope, the lack of air that forced us to dismount every 5 minutes, it was excruciating. After 15 minutes, which we probably moved 100 meters, Nuno asked me what we should do. I don’t know very well where my determination came from but I said we should continue and see a bit later what to do. Our bodies became accustomed to the stony path and to the stops at every 100 meters to regain breath, we were moving very slowly, but we kept moving on our way up. I was heading and Nuno was following me about 20 meters behind. Viewed from the sky we looked like coordinated dots in solitary hillside, moving and stopping as the pointers of a clock.
At the end of the second day, completely exhausted, we camped on a road that gave access to the main road, there was no alternative because in the slopes of a mountain the only relatively flat areas where you can assemble tents are precisely the roads. That night I had to force the intake of pasta with tomato sauce, although with every spoonful came a big desire to vomit. Since I was a child that I can’t stand the consistency of pasty food such as cerelac, or nestum, or foods made with flour with a soppy consistency. The pasta we managed to find, after a few minutes on the stove turned into a nasty pasty concoction. But there was no alternative; I had to feed my body after the efforts of those days.
We moved nine kilometres forward, rising to 582 meters, camping at 5138 meters above sea level, and the numbers may not mean much, but anyone who has been above 4500 meters knows that the physical effort triples. All movements are done in slow motion and breathing becomes extremely hard. We did not know if we were on the right track and felt more isolated than ever, in two days of climbing we had not seen a single soul. We went to sleep and left the decision of continuing for the next day.
A moment of happiness, when I reached for the first time in my life the 5000 meters above sea level
Woke up with the noise of a car engine. I thought I was hallucinating, what was a car doing there. I opened the tent and confirmed that it really was a car, an all-terrain with tourists inside. We had been told by our tour leader friends in Uyuni that there was a casual tour to the base of the volcano since from there people could climb to the top up to 6000 meters. I woke up Nuno, who slept like a rock, and while we ate our breakfasts, two more jeeps passed by. We stared at each other and thought that the most desolated road in Bolivia had been converted into a authentic mountain highway. We decided to move forward, our water supplies was getting shorter and we needed to confirm that we were in the right path, so we would try to get some information and some water from the tours.
The first car went by us already in its descent and confirmed that we were in the right road at a distance of 4 to 5 kilometers from the top, they also gave us some water and followed on their way down. We continued, now more motivated, but the road started to have inclinations that neither I nor Nuno believed to be logical or possible at those altitudes (some had more than 25 percent of gradient). I was pushing my bike ahead of Nuno when the other two Jeeps passed me I asked them for more water. I could see the surprised faces of the passengers, their mouths open in amazement. Suddenly I have my hands full of apples, peanuts, chocolate, biscuits and water. It was a family of Mexicans - the son, the father and the grandfather, who had finished climbing to the top of Uturunco at over 6000 meters, and when I saw the grandfather with more than 75 years old, I was the one who had my mouth opened. They left the car to greet us, to take pictures and to chat a little with us.
They were the Zambrano family,their mountain guides and a few friends from the UK and the US. The father, Oscar, I believe, told us the joke of a guy who flogged his body to feel how well he felt when he stopped. There was a general laughter. Were we also a couple of masochists in search of pleasure after pain? In part, I think that could be true, but there is a kind of feeling, somehow mystical and difficult to explain, intrinsic to the felling of overcoming physical and psycological expectations. The Zambrano and his mountain guide explained us that it would be better not to camp at the end of the road because there were many fumaroles and that their smoke, especially with the strong winds, could be toxic. We said goodbye to the Zambrano and followed, full of motivation, up the mountain.
Things didn’t improve, the gradients and the state of the road were really unbelievable, the day was spent in its entirety pushing the bicycles. At the end of the day, in the midst of a strong wind we reached 5702 meters of altitude. Between us there was a cliff and the slopes of a mountain. We had to retrocede since on that side of the mountain was too windy and there were already a lot of sulphur smokes coming out of the rocks. We camped on the main road, where we were more protected from the wind.
We cooked another creepy pasta. Nuno boiled some eggs but when he opened them a very strong smell of rotten eggs invaded our nostrils and so he threw them away. At the end of the day we realized that they weren’t rotten, it was the smell of sulphur that the wind brought with every gust.
The following morning, and able to cycle the last 500 metres, we finally reached our destination! There we were in the middle of the two hills of the mythical Uturunco, we had made it - 5800 meters on the highest road in the world!
I looked to the top and was determined to climb the two hundred meters required to achieve the 6000 meters. The Uturunco is known as the easiest 6000 meters. I had to be very persistent to convince Nuno to accompany me to the top. I was determined to reach the top, alone if need be. Reluctant and tired Nuno decided to come to the top and slowly, step by step, we reached the top of Uturunco at 6006 metres.
The bikes rest, after the hard climb
It is difficult to describe the feeling felt when you are at the top of a mountain above 6000 meters. The views are impressive but is more than that, is a joy that invades your body and spreads to all the cells, you feel as if you were part of the landscape, capable of doing everything, that there are no obstacles...
Two crazy cyclists at 5800 meters above sea level.
After so many questions and doubts, after so many times we almost given up, there we were - at the top, and we achieved our goal because of the teamwork, we supported each other, and we were as one. We were like a machine where each peace had its function and we worked out in great union together, we were the wonder team, and we felt really lucky to have each other. That day we made it back to Quetena Chico. When we got there it was already dark and the night had fallen upon us. It was an excruciating downhill, the state of the road was simply deplorable, I suppose that during the ascent, as we pushed the bikes most of the time, we had not understood the real state of that road, and how inappropriate it was for cycling.
On our return nature presented us with this amazing landscape - the full moon lighting up the Uturunco
From Quetena Chico to Laguna Verde – defeated by the altiplano
We rested for one day in Quetena Chico and we left the following day. We decided not to go via the Geysers and the Coloured Lagoon since that meant more time in the SW of Bolivia and we had had our share of suffering, sandy, rocky roads and cold. We would head straight into Laguna Verde, close to the Chilean border where we would go to look for some western comforts, obviously not available in that part of the world.
We passed through Quetena Grande, about 10 quilometres from Quetena Chico and the state of the road began to deteriorate in the already foreseeable combination of sand, stones, washboards, wind and steep climbs.
I was tired, it was difficult to ride, the wind was pushing me and my bike backwards, and the stones were unbalancing me, I felt that the bike was too heavy and suddenly the tears began to fell from my eyes down my face. I clearly understood that the landscape was claiming its power, perhaps I had been too arrogant when I reached the top of Uturunco. I felt anger and frustration and an indescribable smallness, around me there was just the silence, that hostile environment, cold, wind, the rocks and stones, and poor Nuno who didn’t know what to do with my tears of desperation. I wanted to quit, wanted to put my bike on a car and never go back there. But how? In total isolation? We pushed the bikes a little further and camped in the middle of a mountain. The next day I woke up feeling more motivated but the gradients of the road were so surreal that the two of us had to help each other pushing one bike at a time uphill.
What place was this? How could human beings live in the middle of this desert of rocks, volcanoes and salt lakes? Why was I there? What was I looking for? What did I want to prove to myself and to others?
I didn’t sleep well that night because the sound of the wind shaking the tent was really scary. In the morning the wind was still very strong and tent that had stood heroically during the night, collapsed as an inert animal fainted on the sandy floor. There ended our adventure in the altiplano. Without the tent and incapacitated to fix it, it was impossible to continue. We went a few kilometres back to Colpa Lagoon and it took us quite a while to convince the responsible for the boro extraction to take us to Laguna Verde where there was some accommodation. I understand that we were not in a good situation, but it disgusted me to see how the man that drove us, took total advantage of our situation, charging over too much for a mere 60 kilometres drive. It disgusts me ever more when I saw him eating a can of fish and giving the leftovers to two little children that waited with hungry eyes for him to finish, and he had plenty of cans at his place. It was a dog eat dog world, if they don’t even respect each other, what may be of this place? Desolation and desertification, the only future for the altiplano.
We felt sad and defeated. The landscape passed before our eyes and we could’t feel it with all our senses...but we knew that nature will always have the final say.
We went to Chile the next day. From the hostel, protected from the wind and the cold, we could see Laguna Verde in the distance, at this time of year it didn´t have the shades of emerald green for which it is known. The afternoon was sad and windy.
The next pedal strokes would take us to Chile and Argentina - soon in the next chronicle.
Read this adventure through Nuno’s eyes http://www.ontheroad.eu.com/