Left Puno and the beautiful Titikaka Lake to head to Bolivia. I stayed in Puno for 8 days being mainly focused on writing the post about Peru. I think Puno was the cheapest place I ´ve been so far in South America, liked it 😉
I wanted Copacabana to be the first place I would visit in Bolivia. A beautiful, by the lake, touristic destination. But then a rain came and somehow I lost the turn to Copacabana. There were no signs and I didn’t have in mind at all I need to turn at some point. So my plans changed and the goal of the day was just one: enter Bolivia.
An awkward note. In this ride I realised that after almost 5 hours I had done no stop whatsoever. After 100.6 km I stopped to take a picture and put the second battery and I had the following thought:
It is amazing how our body works and how our body is in contact, in communication with us… In this ride I did 145 km and I consumed ONLY 350 ml of water and 3 little breads. It was flat, it was cloudy and I didn´t feel like eating or drinking, so I had no stop. I was not tired either. And I remembered my rides in the Peruvian coast or in the jungle. I was drinking 5 litres of liquids per day but I was peeing only for 5 seconds during the whole day!!! (because I was sweating) I don’t know, you may think “ok, it’s natural”, but I find it fascinating – we are machines…
I went to the borders. I was illegal for 41 days (131 in total) (wow). When I was entering Peru, I was asked at the borders “how many days do you want, 180 or 90?”. I said 90 in order to push myself not to stay for so long. Well, I stayed. 41 days = 41 us dollars. Not so many, but I tried to avoid them. I had a quarrel with the customs guys because I asked them what are my options if I am late and I don´t have money, and they didn’t mention that there is an option to deport me. Of course… they want the money. I paid after 3 hours of bureaucratic mess and spent the night in a hostel at the borders. I paid 15 bolivianos, and this was… 2 euros… I charged my batteries and next day I left to La Paz..
As I told you, I was cycling in approximately 4000 meters altitude. That’s OK for your body, but only if you are very calm. If you force yourself for something (for example, for climbing the stairs) you will have dyspnea. This holds true for cycling too, if you keep your heart pulse below a certain level you will have no issues, if you push yourself though, (something necessary if you have an uphill or if you go a bit faster) you will have the following issues:
Apart from shortness of breath, your lungs will be in light pain (this also may be caused because of the cold air), then you have stomach ache (σουβλιές), your head will feel like a raisin (σταφίδα) because of the lack of oxygen and headache at the back of your head will begin. I also had some strange sensation in my leg muscles (tingling).
I was eating some coca leaves that alleviate some of the symptoms and then I turned my electric assistance on, and I was way better. Hehe.
I met Franklin on my way to La Paz. Crazy guy from Colombia who goes to Argentina to seek a better life. He had no passport so we needed to split just before a police control. He was also travelling by bicycle. Extremely lightweight. Without sleeping bag, without tent, without cooking equipment… I asked him where do you sleep, and his answer was “wherever, I am looking for a shelter if I see rain coming, but in general, in nature”.. These are truly crazy people.
I reached La Paz. Bolivia is the poorest country of South America and this is very obvious in the roads condition which is terrible… The minimum wage in Bolivia is 1800 Bolivianos, and this is 250 euros… In countries like this sometimes we think that everything is very cheap. Well, this is not true. It depends on what do you want… For example I wanted a professional bike maintenance because I had my bicycle in a very bad condition and just for maintenance I paid 200 Bolivianos (27 euros)!! Obviously a place that only reach Bolivians go..
In La Paz I met Roy from
Spain, I mean, from Galicia (part of Spain).
Now if you ask me why I wrote it like this, it is because in Nasca, Peru, I met Alicia and Eulalia from
Spain, I mean, from Barcelona (part of Spain).
I was talking with A. and E. in Nasca and they were telling me that they would have no problem watching the Spanish flag being burnt.. I was like
I would be certainly offended if someone was putting the Greek flag on fire. I asked them “you are not proud of being Spanish?”, and the answer was “Of course not, look at all the murders of the conquistadores/ colonialists. We almost vanish the local culture here..” It´s true… but I didn´t expect that. Roy added another point. He told me that during the Franco dictatorship in Spain (1936-1975!!!), Franco was trying to unite lots of different regions under the umbrella of the “Spanish nation”. So lots of people in Spain they still don´t like this unity as it oppressed their local identity, which, as they say, and as I ‘ve personally experienced it for 4 months in Bilbao (“capital” of the Basque region) it’s very distinct. Examples. The Basque country in the North, Galicia, and Cataluña. What is amazing is that these 3 regions had their own language which differs significantly (or totally as is the case with Euskera, the basque language) from Spanish. This is the reason why we see so many independence movements in Spain today. Roy was also pessimist in regard to the future of Europe and the Europian Union.. He is sure it will dissolve. Let´s see…
I had a relaxing time in La Paz, doing stuff online mainly and spending some time with Roy. We went to the largest market of Bolivia, in an area called El Alto, which is the place with the highest percentage of indigenous people in all South America! Indeed, we found very few white people. The market was surprising in its variety (especially the section with the car parts – every part of a car could be found there).
Another thing I enjoyed in La Paz has to do with another change that takes place in my life and has to do with cooking. I had always in my life been very bored to cook. And when it comes to washing the dishes, I prefer to dig a 2 m hole in the ground instead. However, interestingly, during the trip I am in the mood of cooking. I had spent thousand of hours watching my friend George cooking, and all this knowledge is somewhere inside me. This combined with an intrinsic tendency to improvise and experiment results in… if not delicious, very tasty stuff! I am cooking 😀 I ‘d also like to mention here, that after lots of encounters with VEGeteriANS during the trip, my eating habits have changed dramatically. Avoiding meat where/when possible and being thoughtful of my food choices in general.
On my way out of the city of La Paz, I tackled a huge uphill. Maybe the worst of my life. For 8 km I had to climb 400 m and although the average inclination would give something like 5%, there were many parts with ridiculous steepness. I had to push. I thought twice of quitting but I didn´t. I needed almost 2 hours for the first 8 km and 11 more for the rest 197 km of that day… 205 km in total… can you imagine..
It’s part of my routine at this point.. Not the first, nor the last time I hit 200 km… However this doesn’t mean that I don’t find it equally impressive every time… two hundred thousand meters, with 30 kg of load… I ask myself every time, literally, every single time, I ask myself: How are you doing it? The answer comes almost without thinking: I just keep cycling. You just continue. The Keyword here, and in life I suppose, is perseverance.
My desire in Bolivia was to cross the famous and largest salt flat in the world. The Salar de Uyuni. I spent some time zooming in and out in Google Maps and, having in mind to reach the salar as soon as possible, I plotted my route. I feel life sometimes is like plotting your route on a map. You know where you are, you know where you want to go and you pick a direction, a series of actions, a route. However, like life, maps cannot tell you a great lot in regard to the road condition, is it uphill/downhill, are they busy roads or not, and of course, whether weather will be in favor or against. I picked the shortest route to take me to the Salar, but heck I didn’t know I am gonna spend the vast majority of my time in bombarded, isolated, village-ish dirt roads, where mini markets (for food and water) were absolutely non existent for 60+ km or where there were no signs whatsoever and there was nobody to ask. For hours. I spent almost 2 weeks on a very tight budget (no ATMs), eating mainly bread and bananas (or tomatoes, or carrots), pushing my bicycle a lot, facing daily rain, hail, muddy roads, salty terrains, extreme sunshine, cold in the absence of light, mechanical failures of all kinds, water deprivation, and taking-shower limitation.
But daemn’t, I was so paid off by the incredible, the magnificent, the surreal, the otherworldly beauty of this place: Salar de Uyuni. Its insane appeal touched my heart and triggered my thinking. You know what was crazy? The absence of the horizon (o χωρίζων)… Because I went there during the wet season, there was a lot of water. Difficult to ride at points, and annoying, but it created the effect of reflection. The land and the sky became one and you had the feeling of floating in the sky. The view was so broad that everything felt like being present and at the same time incredibly distant. You could watch many realities take place in different parts of your view-field – you could enjoy them all.. Example: at night. I had numerous very bright stars on top of me, above the tent. I had the moon, very bright too, coming out of the land, being reflected on the salty and watery surface at the East, and all around, at points, there were storms where you could see the lightnings every 20-30 seconds. All this parallel, but unparalleled, optical input – a spectacle – was being contrasted by the absolute auditory nothingness – Silence. There was no wind, no animals, no trees.. just my breath and my heartbeat.The apogee came as I put the Apodeipno on my cellphone, looking at the sky. The stars losing the battle of being-brightness as the moon was on its way to the top of its arch. Needless to say, how peaceful I felt, how all the hardship of the previous days were
instantly forgotten. No no… not forgotten. On the contrary! It was reminded, it was put in its place – in juxtaposition to the amazement of the moment. All the past discomfort was related to my present which would be a present if I had put no effort. But I had put a lot. My place there was deserved, it was conquered. The sense of achievement, the subtle ever-present principle of “no pain, no gain” was intensified. But at that moment I was on the “gain” part – it felt great.
Now, on the “pain” part, I have to move back in time for a bit and describe 7 incidents:
When I started going uphill on my way out of La Paz, what was killing me psychology-wise was not that I was tired, that muscularly I couldn’t handle the moment. What was extremely difficult to handle was the future. The next moment. I couldn’t help but look in front of me and the view of the mountain, of the hill, of that steepness, was discouraging to the level of desperation.
For a week there was rain each and every day. Wet shoes and feet for 6 days. One afternoon I got caught in the rai when pitching the tent. In a matter of seconds I was wet, but I managed to keep the interior of my tent dry. The rain turned to fierce hail. I put my helmet on and started walking and jumping around the tent to keep myself warm. I am at 3800 m and when there is no sun, no matter what time of the year, it’s very cold. My tent is for one person and it’s very tight. I can’t get inside as I am, so wet. The rain doesn’t stop and I am contemplating hard. What should I do? Strong winds too, and I am a bit worried. This is the problem: when problems are combined. Cold and rain and wind. I need a way out of it. I take off all of my clothes and I stay nude outside the tent with heavy hail-fall, I through a towel in the tent and after a moment I get myself inside. I am shivering for 10-20 minutes and then I am getting warmer inside my amazing sleeping bad. All good.
My biggest trouble though came after the salar. I wanted so bad to enjoy the landscape while being at the salar that I didn’t wear glasses… That wasn’t a wise decision. The high altitude make the sun rays very strong and this, combined with the white terrain that reflects the sun, make the sunshine almost unbearable. I felt nothing during my presence in the salar. Nothing but a small tiredness at my eyes, which I thought was normal. In total I had done approx. 100 km in there. I get out of the salar, I do 30 km more, I pitch my tent, at 1930 I am in my sleeping bag, at 2030 I am sleeping. At 2300 I woke up with very intense pain inside my eyes. I can hardly keep them open for 15 seconds, because keeping them open make me produce a continuous flow of tears and the pain is worse as I receive more light. Even the light from the moon was painful. I have to keep my eyes closed. But even so, my eyes are full of tears from the inside. It was crazy. In a matter of 5 seconds my eyes were producing 2-3 tears each and when I was opening my eyelashes tears were running down to my air mattress.. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know we can produce so many tears, so fast and for so long. 8 hours I was doing more or less the same thing. Wiping my tears, trying to breathe rhythmically, and relax. I was angry and I was afraid. I remember opening my eyes to check if I can still see. My view was like being in a swimming pool for 20 hours. Everything was very white-ish. I was aftaid. I got up at 6 to pack my stuff before the sun comes out. It was pretty hard and I used my touching a lot. I went to the street and sat down keeping my head looking at the ground having my eyes closed, with sunglasses on, and my hands on top. The sun was unbearable!! 4 cars pass by in a matter of one and a half hour. I explained them without even looking at them. They were all going to the opposite direction. There was a health center close by. I was very lucky!! Unbeknownst to me, one of the 4 cars called the Municipality and a vehicle came for taking me into the health center. They ask “and what will we do with the bicycle?” – It’s a folding one, I say, and I show them the mechanism. They put everything in the car and in a matter of 10 minutes we are there. The doctor gives me anti-inflammatory pills and antibiotic drops to put in my eyes. She says the cost is 14 bolivianos, and I am like “oops, I have no money at all”. I had to be in Chile for some days now but the roads are terrible and the salar had water, it was very difficult to advance. She says ” I am sorry about that, it’s 14 bolivianos”. I have 10 dollars in case of emergency. They accept that. I spent all day and night in a room with my eyes closed. Next morning felt a lot better, but still I couldn’t ride my bike. They gave me the change in Bolivianos so I spent one more day-night in that village, in a hostel that didn’t even have shower. I didn’t care. I was significantly better next morning and I left to enter Chile.
One thing more that was a bit scary was that I got lost into the salar. The advice was, “after the island” reach the coast and follow the dirt road. Ok, seems simple. I enter the salar, and right away I saw one big island at some distance. “That’s it”, I said… Well, it wasn’t. My friends, that was an optical illusion.. It wasn’t an island, it was the top of a mountain, but at that distance only the top was seen as it is, the bottom part was reflected, in a way united with the rest of the reflection.. I couldn’t tell but as I was approaching, the parts close to the upper part of the hill were revealed, and when I got really close (after hours) I realised that all of this mass of land is connected with the rest! Daemn’t and where is the island. Well, I’d passed it 2 hours ago…. and now the land here is almost non-bicycl-able. And I have no water left – and… Now what??
Something else that took place was that because of the terrain being so harsh and in such a bad condition the bike was heavily challenged. The folding mechanism broke. Hopefully, I was going very slowly (even if I wanted, I couldn’t go fast), so I just stopped the bike and looked at my spare parts. I had bought in the States what was necessary because I knew that at some point I’ll face this issue. Honestly I am glad that it made it so far. I know hat the bike was not made for heavy loaded touring – in dirt roads! I repaired it and continued.
Another thing that didn’t go very well was that at some point my yellow jacket fell off the bike. I didn’t realise it but 2 hours later. And I know it was 2 hours because I saw my photos and in one of them that the bike was depicted, the jacket was not where I ‘d put it. I got sad because I liked it a lot, but continued my way into the Salar because I had just got in and I didn’t want to cycle for 2 hours in the opposite direction… But then again, after some time, it comes in my mind the fact that I had my pump into the jacket and I have a flat tire!!!! Oh!!! There are no gas stations within a radius of… I don’t know, days of cycling, and during the night my tire will be totally flat. (every morning I was inflating. There was a very small hole somewhere that I couldn’t trace. I patched 2 holes but still it loses air) The point is I have to go back, I have to find my jacket! I got mad. It was already 1800. The sun was on a sunset course and I was cycling like a crazy man to get out of the salar and into the road again. On my way out, right before I get into the road I saw a vehicle. I throw the bike down, and I start running full speed to them shouting desperately. I reached them and my pants where almost off. I was in panic. I explain, they let me put the bike and stuff in the car, we go back, but they go from another road (through the salar, while I had been going from the coastal road).. I am desperate. I can’t tell them, you know something, can you go from the other way… I am already obliged to them. It’s a couple of 70 years old. At some point he leaves the salar and gets into the coastal way and after less than a minute we see my jacket on the street and the pump was inside. I was so relieved and happy that I shouted really loud!! That seemed very awkward to them. They didn’t really understand that this was a sign of happiness. I gave my hand to the lady while goodbying and thanking them and I asked her name. She almost didn’t give her hand back and responding to me asking her name. She was looking at me like I am mentally unstable.
Carlos and Esmeralda, I think, were their names. All good.
On my way out of Bolivia, I chose to get out of the salar for the last part because it had rained the previous night and it was impossible to ride on the muddy parts of it. My phone gps was indicating another route through the mountains – 36 km. I said ok, I am heading that way.. Oh my God. What a wrong decision. Not only I had to go uphill but also the road was for 4×4 and at parts, I am sure even 4×4 couldn’t go. I was pushing the bike for hours… for 1 day actually…
and when I made it to the other side of the hills, instead of heading to the Chile-Bolivia borders I went to the other way!!!!!!!! Yes it’s true, I don’t know why, how, what exactly, but I did it. And I was like “yes, let’s go, you can do it, it’s all is in your mind” (I was very tired, hungry, thirsty) and I didn’t want to check the gps. I wanted to see the borders in front of me. I did 25 km or something like this, and almost two hours later, I am like, ok what’s going on, where are the borders, are you kidding me??? I am thirsty, I can’t handle this any more. I stop, I eat some bread and my last carrots, I check the gps and OHMYSWEETGOD, instead of seeing the borders in the next 1-2 km, (which was what I expected), the gps says it’s 45 km far…. I can’t believe my eyes, but it’s true…. i was going the wrong way! I am shocked, but I have no option but to turn around and go back. There was road maintenance works, so on my way back, I meet a truck driver and I am on the verge of crying for some water. He gave me his last bottle and also his snacks. His name was Felix. Some time after our separation, I see another truck driver and he is moving his hands, making a gesture, I don’t get it – he gives me two bottle of waters. Felix had told to all the truck drivers and every one was giving me one. After 1 hour I had six bottles. Hehe. In a bit, I ‘ll be in the borders. One more awesome country is past right now. My memories and this post will keep it alive in my heart.
It’s Bolivia, baby, not Oblivia.