Posts Tagged ‘Bolivia’

Sun and death in the lands of the Inca

Dodging The Drop  
Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

A waft of frigid mist drifts across the splintered wooden crosses, cloaking their detail, and a shiver ripples through my arms and down my back as I watch their shapes fade threateningly back to life. They were erected as memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death, and the abyss lies just a few feet from where I’m standing.

On first consideration it might seem surprising that people still die whilst cycling the North Yungas Road in Bolivia, a road eagerly referred to by its more popular and dread-inducing monikor – El Camino de la Muerte, Spanish for ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be a little more careful than usual, I reason, surely it would be at a location in which ‘Death’ was half the title. But, teeth chattering in the sub zero bite of 4700 metres above sea level at the very start of this now infamous freewheel, I change my mind.

The name it seems is just an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This truth emerges as I catch glimpses of the fired up faces of the bikers, creased and flushed with surging adrenaline, as they rocket down the unsealed track next to a chiasmic drop which flanks the Death Road for most of its course, the reason behind all the crosses and the well-deserved reputation.

I’m here on my loaded touring bike, cleats detached for this ride, and in the midst of a throng of bikers who have opted instead to join an organised tour. In all seventeen companies now sprinkle the Death Road with bikes and riders and the setting is as staggering as the premise of riding it. Cut into the jungle-clad mountains of the Yungas, just one hour from Bolivia’s most populous city of La Paz, the foreboding rock-strewn track twists an almost continuous descent for over forty miles. Whilst rallying down over three and a half thousand vertical metres, riders travel not only from altitude to lowland but from cloud filled cold to humid tropical heat and from unsullied fear to, fingers crossed, celebration and relief.

After peering tentatively over the unguarded road’s edge and briefly marveling at the sheer cliff face and remote tree tops beneath, I wonder whether the Paraguayan prisoners of war who constructed this road in the 1930s had any inkling at the time of its eventual fate. Over the years the Death Road has claimed thousands of lives and is now a feared and notorious but popular attraction along the deeply rutted Gringo Trail of South America.

Inside the hostels of La Paz myths concerning the Death Road abound. A car flying over the edge only one week ago was the current star of the rumour mill, batted around mostly by a bunch of Israelis just back from a tour, one nursing a broken wrist after he had thrown himself from his wayward bike before it had thrown him into the jungle. To find out some hard facts, I decide to ask the experts. ‘The risks are very real. And this road is not the place to cut corners.’ Proclaims Derren Patterson of Gravity, the company home to the original posse of guides who dreamt up the ride back in 1998 and who still boast an unrivalled safety record. ‘The interest for most companies is to sell the tour as cheaply as possible because cheap backpackers often only look at the price tag without thinking that in Bolivia there are no standards for activities like this.’ Cut corners, it emerges, come in the shape of re-welded frames, underpaid guides, cheap parts and even fake brake pads.

Researching the road’s murky past only led me to further question my decision to join these thrill junkies. The Death Road was the site of Bolivia’s biggest road accident when, in 1983, a bus carrying over one hundred passengers hurtled over the precipice and tumbled into oblivion. By the mid-90s it was official once it was christened The World’s Most Dangerous Road following a review by the Inter-American Development Bank who estimated that 200 to 300 people careered off its edge every year and that, per mile, there were more fatalities here than on any other road on earth. Not long after this unsavory honour was bestowed on the North Yungas Road guides and backpackers arrived in force, keen for a slap of adrenaline and a photo on Facebook, complete with a boastful caption. By 2006 the riders had it almost all to themselves once the construction of a new thoroughfare to the jungle was completed, taking with it most of the traffic. Amongst the cyclists who have dared not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last twelve years eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.

A view from the upper reaches of the Death Road

It’s near the top of the descent that resides the most hair-raising section. At this altitude clouds frequently invade the forest, obscuring both the three metre wide sliver of rugged terrain ahead and the vertiginous drop immediately beside it. I watch as the wind drives dense whirls of cloud into the foliage to reveal an exaggerated and menacing vista, tempting and deterring the gathered riders about to take the plunge. Rows of impossibly deep Vs made up of converging mountainsides stretch away, becoming ever more blurred by a distant and sullen murk. Jungle hugs every bulge and whim of the mountains; beneath the cliffs it hides the twisted and rusting metal carcasses of hundreds of trucks and cars. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature.

As I begin the descent an internal monologue kicks up, a perhaps predictable “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. But soon another voice takes over, going something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!” My enthusiasm though is soon subdued as I begin wobbling wildly in the aftermath of a collision between my front tyre and a fist sized chunk of rock. I pull swiftly over to the right as a fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, each sensibly screaming “Coming left!” as they go. As a one day aspiring father I start to wish that I too had suspension. Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocky road surface from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet; I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another huge curl of terror-inducing trail reveals itself along with one very clear impression – roads do not belong here.

The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t seem to fit with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to the richness of life that lurks in the nearby greenery. Underneath and barely discernible there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of hidden jungle streams. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the scenery, to glance behind, to search for the source of that strange jungle sound, and then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’ and I reign in my curiosity and refocus my attention on my juddering bicycle and the ever present peril to my left. Today, I remind myself, I’m careful. Every so often someone is going to do their best impression of ET going home and I have promised my mum I will not be the next abyss-bound silhouette.

At one of the viewing points en route I skid to a halt and begin chatting to a gaggle of hyperventilating but for now stationary bikers and as I discover, The Death Road draws all sorts. ‘My son challenged me to give it a go!’ a pudgy middle aged man confides with a nervous grin, now bathed in perspiration and perhaps questioning the wisdom of accepting a dare from a sixteen year old. Roughly twenty five thousand riders enjoy the buzz and bragging rights every year, from masters of downhill to slack fast food junkies and from multinational gangs of backpackers to honeymooning couples, competing for glory. The tour groups issue their riders with elbow pads and helmets, as we clamber back onto bikes I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred metre free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing, but to avoid an embarrassing panic attack, I try hard not to. Behind a van trails our group of riders so that the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if one of their clients flies a short cut to the finishing altitude.

Towards the lower reaches I relax a little more and gravity spins my wheels ever faster. The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations fill my peripheral vision. Then all of a sudden I’m coasting through a village and towards a rumbling river, above birds of prey glide languorously in low loops and Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with beaming children and ogling women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink. I spot the father of the teenager, his face now as iridescent as the skirts but also alight with jubilation. I exhale my relief knowing that I too have made it, although I’m concerned for my brake pads, they are now at death’s door. The bikers swiftly pile into town and just as rapidly into bars where they high five and down celebratory beers. Others pull wheelies but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.

There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for the freewheeling with fear and there’s now no doubt in my mind – it’s more than a fair price.

But of course for the vast majority the Death Road will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, in fact for me the opposite was true and I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the title, somehow though, I don’t think it would have quite the same draw.

An island of sun and a lake in the sky 
Visiting Sun Island in Lake Titicaca

After escaping the action of La Paz I headed west to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest lake of it’s size in the world at a lofty 3812 metres above sea level. The road around the lake holds me tight to it’s shore, often just a few faded green fields melting into the lake water lie between us. Further out, amongst the passive blue ripples, rise the giant mounds of islands that from a distance resemble the humps of huge sea monsters frozen in time. Beyond the islands, and the invisible opposing shore, hover snowy mountain tops, their bases lost in a grey-blue blur which hangs mysteriously over the lake.

Copacabana is another popular stop on the Gringo Trail, a ‘path’ that I swore to abandon once I had made it as far as Cusco in Peru. A wave of drug dealers, gangs of Israelis revelling in their post army exodus, overly assertive restaurant touts and chocolate selling hippies surge through the cobbled streets. I sniff out the cheapest hostel in town and set about trying to repair my only boots which have a jagged gash which now reveals half the sole. South Americans have much smaller feet and finding replacements my size has been impossible. Tomorrow I want to escape the masses and trek across Sun Island.

The tree scattered hills behind Copacabana slowly deflate behind the frothy, parabolic wake of our boat and the expanding blue of Lake Titicaca. I sit hunched up, hugging my knees to my chest and shivering on the open top deck of a boat heading for Sun Island, one of the lake’s largest and famed for the array of Inca ruins pockmarking the rocky terrain. I am engulfed in different languages, I recognise German, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Amongst the assembled tourists is a German chewing coca leaf and a couple of French tourists who have embraced Bolivian culture to the extent that they are adorned in the loud colours of the traditional knit-wear. I smile secretly to myself as I imagine them wondering into the arrivals terminal at some major European airport, still festooned in the traditional garbs, perhaps also with alpaca fleece coats and pan pipes.

We chug along beside the southern end of the island. The choppy, tight undulations of the terrain have a wave-like quality, the land seems like an elevated, drab version of the lake itself. Spiky succulents sprout out of the rocky slopes and shore side wooden fishing boats break into a wobbly dance as they meet the churning wake of our craft.

We walk from the beaches up the rocky path with a guide who has a crooked toothless grin and a cow boy style hat, as large black and white birds of prey patrol the sky above. He takes us to an alter, the original sacrificial table used by the Incas when they killed virgins on special ceremonies. He talks us through the presumed details of the brutal process, the murder and subsequent removal of the heart. To demonstrate he raises a clawed hand enclosing the imaginary heart fresh from the virgin’s chest, the circle of gasping tourists fix excited and appalled eyes on the hand.

Afterwards I set off with Coni, a Swizz girl I met on the boat. For three hours we walk the path as it arcs and dips over the rolling spine of the island, the dark blue view of the lake never escapes my eye line. As I amble past terraced fields and watch the gulls gliding from lake to shore, I admire the tranquillity of the setting, impressed that it’s now a world away from the violent and dramatic distant past we have been privy to. 

City of the Incas
Visiting the ruins at Machu Picchu

The train seemed the most time-conservative way to reach Machu Picchu. I take a seat opposite an American couple from Colorado who chat away in that relaxed and familiar way that Americans have when they strike up conversation with strangers. A little later an older American lady sits down next to me, a conversational non-sequitur who rambles through topics, from the people she has met with very large feet to what happens to horses when they get a cold. The train tracks coddle the bank of the Urubamba river, frothy and eye-catching. With the passing minutes the forest grows thicker, trees overhang the far river bank, their creepers and vines dangling into the water like a congregation of still and pensive fishermen. The train finally stops at Agua Calientes and I step onto a platform full of jostling, confused tourists and hotel porters.

Crowded buses make runs up the hill to Machu Picchu but I feel a little guilty about taking the train instead of the trekking option so decide to redeem myself by hiking for an hour uphill to reach it. In the morning heat it’s a sweaty battle up, but when I emerge from the jungle foliage and Machu Picchu shouts it’s presence, I stop dead and appreciate the enormous landscape which is swimming in sunlight and throngs of sightseers. The feeling is akin to walking onto a stage and the curtain being drawn to reveal the audience because surrounding the ruins runs a huge circle of the blunt, verdant cones of even grander mountains.

After joining the shuffling hoards, and trying to covertly listen to knowledgeable tour guides, I make it back to Agua Calientes where I am chuffed to catch up with Tom, a good friend from my time in Liverpool, along with his wife Thea and her parents. That night the town is alive with outlandish costumes, noisy drunks and dancing backpackers. The occasion is a saint’s day, although as I have learnt of late, the Peruvians will take any excuse for a fiesta.

So in contrast to my usual type of blog piece, this month I decided to write three short pieces about popular tourist activities in Bolivia and Peru. For the next post expect my more usual tales of adventure from a remote part of Peru as I cycle one of the toughest routes so far, taking in over five passes each in excess of 5000 metres altitude and hitting some notoriously bad roads on which I will climb higher in one week than from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest. Once through the central highlands I’ll join the coast and scoot along to Lima where I plan to visit projects looking at TB control in the shanty towns around the capital as well as a project which is focused on the eradication of tapeworm infection. I will report back next month.

Fear and loathing on the Altiplano

Pedalling across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
My breath was a fog, wafting through the roseate light of morning. The temperature on my thermometer had slumped to minus 15° C (5° F) in the early hours and was stubbornly refusing to get much higher whilst my mind was violently and reluctantly dragged backwards to the European winter of 2010 when I set off from the UK amongst similar climes. I had crossed the border into Bolivia and every night I wore my wardrobe to ease the chill, every night the cold created a struggle to find sleep and every morning began with the task of melting solid ice to make coffee. I’ve spent weeks climbing above and dipping away from the 4000 metre mark but at 4500 metres up in Bolivia, by some mystery of meteorology, the temperature had taken another dive and I have returned to the snow zone. But now at least, I have company. 

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” 
 Jack Keruoac – On The Road

A new character enters my story – Nicky Gooch, a solo cyclist, a professional bike mechanic, a Brummie and a roman candle. We had met before in Patagonia and rode together for a few days in a gaggle of other bikers. After my time-consuming mini-disaster in San Pedro I had been over-taken by many of the cyclists I had passed further south. Nicky was a tall, straggly-haired biker with ginger stubble and a thick midlands accent. We decided to tackle the Lagunas route through Bolivia together and we made a good team. Nicky helped when I freaked out about the state of my bicycle, offering his mechanical skills or doling out reassuring advice. Equally when Nicky, a hypochondriac, developed chest pain I would remind him about all the beer, cigarettes and coffee he consumes and offer him an antacid. 

On our second afternoon in Bolivia a frigid wind gathered momentum until it’s howl was all-pervasive and it’s thrust marred our progress towards the 5000 metre high Paso de Sol de Manana (pass of the morning sun). By evening all we could do was push our bikes up the sandy track, unable to ride in the gale. Decisions were now shared and some of the usual burden of choice off my shoulders, that night our options were to backtrack fifteen laborious kilometres to shelter or just rough camp where we were, we agreed on the latter.

I shouted to Nicky: “it’s going to be a tough night!”. 
 “Good job we’re f***ing hard then!” Nicky yelled back.

I hoped he was right. The wind was firing across the wilds with the force of a water cannon. With no natural shelter around I began to fear my tent wouldn’t hold up to the punishment and as we built a small wall as a protective windbreak using some of the surrounding rocks, all I could think of was sheering tent poles and a crumpled mass of polyester encasing two shivering bodies. Finally, inside my tent I imagined I should be penning my final words to relatives like Captain Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…”. Instead, at almost 5000 metres above sea level, in freezing, storm force gales, on the slopes of a remote Bolivian mountain, Nicky pulled out his laptop and we watched ‘Only fools and horses’, a dated British sitcom set in Peckham, South London.

In the freezing Bolivian mornings I started my day by yelling temperature updates to Nicky in the neighbouring tent. “Time to get up dude, it’s only minus ten”. And then a little later “Nicky, it’s minus nine, time to get moving!” During the day the temperature often remained below freezing and the frozen ice inside our water bottles never had the chance to thaw. Instead of flagging down one of the tourist-filled jeeps travelling through the region we decided to use Nicky’s stove to melt snow so that we could drink. For most of the day my face remained concealed by an ice encrusted Buff. The apples I had saved for lunch were frozen solid and my coca cola had become a Slush Puppy. On the day we passed a thermal pool I plunged into the welcome warmth in my boxer shorts, a day later my damp underwear had transformed into a solid, crumpled ball of ice and fabric.

Nicky on the Salar
Cooking up snow for a drink
Nicky pushing up another climb, a salt lake in the backdrop
Bolivia was a collection of rumours and I had only a few, nebulous expectations. I had seen some photos of the traditional garbs – women wearing bowler hats, adopted from the British and a traditional skirt called the pollera, a symbol of pride in being indigenous. I’d also heard enough to be worried about the bad roads and bad drivers though I knew that compared to Chile and Argentina, the price of almost everything would be lower.

Occasionally Bolivia rekindled memories of Africa, although on the surface it was a world away, there were some subtle reminders. Whilst there were plenty of shops, business had moved to the street, African-style. The smell of grilled goat’s meat from the roadside vendors drifted through the cities. Bolivia had the typical South American ratio of stray dogs to people (roughly 20000000 : 1) and the outskirts of every sizable town were guarded by the ugly twin bouncers of a litter-strewn wasteland and stinking sewage. The dogs nosed through both. Tragically Bolivia joins the ranks of one of the dirtiest countries on my route so far, alongside the other unfortunates of Syria and Albania. Rubbish has become a feature of the landscape and is as prevalent as the speeding lunatics in unroadworthy vehicles plying Bolivia’s main highways. But Bolivia is also full of the things I love most when I travel somewhere new – Bolivia is full of questions.  I tried to decipher strange scents on the street, the contents of the weird drinks brewed by the road and when I felt the eyes of locals taking me in, what they might be wondering. I’m enjoying Bolivia, because it keeps me guessing.

I hadn’t done much research on southern Bolivia before we set off so when we rolled over the apex of another hill and a surreal cherry-red lake revealed itself beneath mountains I had no idea I was looking at the famous Laguna Colorada, the Red Lagoon, but I was impressed nonetheless. The sanguine stain of the waters is derived from a type of algae which thrives there. Flamingos waded and dipped their crooked beaks into the red, one or two began their run up to flight, dead ones were scattered over the salt-stained banks. White islands of Borax dissected the red ripples and when jeeps circled the far shore, a vaporous haze kicked up and I felt I had entered a severe, nightmarish netherworld.

The surreal orange/red of Laguna Colorada
A flamingo takes off
And so another character arrives on the scene: Marta – Polish, a solo cyclist and another roman candle. She was also only the second lady I have seen riding solo over the last two and a half years. When we met in a tiny Bolivian highland village she was explaining to a local man that she was starving after cycling all day and that she needed meat… “so do you have a machine gun so I can hunt some llamas?” she asked him with a wink. I liked her immediately. That night Myself, Nicky and Marta all binged on wine, chocolate, rice and chips in the village before setting off in opposite directions, hardy Marta was travelling to the increasingly chilly South.

Next was the small town of Uyuni and Nicky and I decided on a day off. The night before our rest day we went out in search of fun and happened upon the aptly named Extreme Fun Pub, a place in which the cocktail menu consisted of…

Hasta la vista, llama
The sexy llama bitch
Orgasmo multiple de la llama
The llama’s sensual naval
Llama sperm (vodka, chocolate liquor de cafe and ???)
Llama Sutra

The drinks were served in ceramic model of a llama vagina. It was an alcoholic orgy and I think this particular photo of Nicky well illustrates just how obliterated we got…

I admit it, I was worried about cycling the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. My expectations, like the geography of the Salar itself, were high. Ever since I had first glimpsed photos of cycle tourers, beaming and, I imagined, effortlessly gliding across the perfect white sea of salt, I had yearned to ride there, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth. Cyclists talked of “an unforgettable experience”, what if the riding the Salar didn’t live up to my mental version? What if it was disappointing? What if it was forgettable?

“Look, over there!” shouts Nicky, motioning to a thin belt of white to the West, wedged between the horizon and a featureless expanse of brown earth. My pulse quickens as I think about the fact that where the white begins, it doesn’t end for almost 170 km, the Salar has an area roughly the same as the island of Jamaica. Soon we reach a memorial plaque for the victims of an accident in 2008 in which two tourist jeeps collided. The most probable scenario is that both drivers were playing the “Iron Man,” travelling head to head and trying to be the last vehicle to deviate from the collision path. Both jeeps were travelling at over 100 km/hr and gasoline containers were attached to the vehicle’s fronts. Thirteen died in the crash and ensuing blaze. After finding out these gruesome details, my faith in Bolivian drivers plummeted yet again, and it had been already cruising towards rock bottom, fuelled by my experience on Bolivian roads so far.

Ten minutes later we reach the edge of a mirror – a shallow but vast pool of water perfectly reflecting the azure sky above, a couple of clouds are in a listless drift across the ground and sky. Within the water, snake-shaped mounds of white salt protrude and I guess we can pedal across without getting knee deep in brine. On the other side lies the reason for all the water here, conical piles of salt stretch out in rows, this is where they mine lithium, the Salar holds up to 60% of the world’s reserves. We set off, splashing through the salt water and meandering between the shimmering islands, occasionally stopping to heave our entrenched back tyres out of the sodden gunk beneath the water. A minute later blue gives way to an unending honeycomb of bright white salt and we ride along, unconfined, free, ignoring jeep trails and heading just ‘across’.

The endless, gleaming jigsaw of wonky hexagons (salt tiles) has to be one of the most impressive sites in the natural world, it’s a privilege to ride it and we can’t resist camping out on the Salar that night as well. Our timing is perfect, tonight a full moon rides the eastern horizon, illuminating the string of tourist jeeps returning to town, and with only a light breeze I can just detect the faint thrum of their working engines. Fiery and towering tropical cumulus bunch up in the northern sky, alight with the dregs of sunlight and the occasional flash of lightning. For a while we frame photos as the final beams of light are replaced by the white glow of the moon and night claims the Salar. Coldness ends our photography session and we set up camp.

The next day we ride west, our spirited zigzag leaving faint trails and branding the crust of salt as we try to avoid the small holes which penetrate the Salar, linking the surface to an underlying pool of brine. As we travel, a light crunch of the salt beneath our wheels and the soft whistle of the wind travel with us. In recent years a sport, you could say, a tradition, has grown amongst cyclists on the Salar – The Naked Ride-By. Crazy Guy On A Bike, the largest online community of cycle tourers in the world, is full of photos of naked bodies on bicycles on the famous white backdrop. Nicky and I weren’t about to let the opportunity pass. We shed our clothes and pedal along, tourist trucks in the distance may spot us but I was relying on the weird, hallucinogenic nature of the terrain to diffuse their fears.

“George, George… is that… a, a cyclist?”
“No darling, you’re seeing things.”
“It is George! And he’s naked!”
“Yes darling, whatever you say. Driver! My wife isn’t feeling well, can we go back now please?”

Here’s a short video, thanks to Nicky, and some stills…

Bolivia is tough. Travellers regularly suffer the country’s many challenges and extremes, they complain of cold, of altitude sickness, of diarrhoea. For me though, it was infertility that was starting to look like the most likely outcome, courtesy of Bolivia’s notoriously bad roads. The sandy, washboard-type road surface amounts to back to back speed bumps and it was a painful bounce through sweeping sandy-coloured plains of sun-torched grass on the Altiplano. Nicky’s theory went that “if you don’t have lumpy balls in Bolivia, you’re not riding hard enough”. It was on these roads that I inadvertently invented ‘The Bolivian Omelette”. Here’s the recipe –

Put four uncooked eggs into front pannier
Add eggs to a bag of grapes, hoping the grapes will act as mini shock absorbers
Cycle down any unpaved Bolivian road
Collect mix of grapes, runny egg and egg shell
Add llama meat
Fry it all up
Voilà – The Bolivian Omelette

Bolivians living up on the Altiplano have a reputation for being reserved and shy. I don’t have any photos of the colourful people we met en route, nobody would consent to their photos being taken. I try not to generalise and stereotype people, I’m sure there are plenty of gregarious Bolivians, but after travelling though so many countries it becomes difficult not to, and I reckon Bolivians do the same. I’ve cycled through at least three Bolivian villages, the inhabitants of which probably now believe that the majority of British men have matted facial hair, mayonnaise-stained clothes and own an overwhelmingly aroma of onion and feet.

Riding through the Bolivian villages we ran a gauntlet of barking, chasing dogs whilst locals looked on, inanimate, silent and so I figured, complicit in the chase. We sometimes sang “Ghost Town” by The Specials on the way in to these deserted villages, even those locals who own shops or hostels need to supplement their income by working in the fields so it was often impossible to buy basic supplies or find a bed until the evening.

Gradually the terrain flattened out, women worked the fields, brightly coloured shawls tight across their back supporting mystery loads. A few returned my waves, but not many. By six pm I had another companion, a dark shadow-cyclist, pushed into the rough to my right by the low sun. At breaks Nick and I shared tales from the road, we sang bad eighties rock ballads and sang badly to better eighties rock ballads, we did impressions of some of the frightfully posh and endearingly naive Gap Year students called Rupert or Tarquin we’ve met along the way. And then we made it to Ururo.

Social protest is the traditional way of gaining government attention in Bolivia and the day we entered Ururo coincided with a 72 hour strike by The Workers’ Union of Bolivia (COB) whilst the physicians and other health professionals were continuing their indefinite strike and daily demonstrations against changes in working conditions. The UK foreign office site stated:

“There are currently several ongoing social conflicts in Bolivia and blockades may occur along the main roads without notice. Due to the risk of violence, you should never try to cross a blockade.”

As we cycled out of Ururo we hit a sequence of these blockades but brazenly pushed past them, hoping that, as cyclists, we’d be immune to any violent outbursts. The banner clutching crowds had used upturned bicycles, rocks and pieces of wood to close the roads, on some routes they had even drilled up the tarmac and piled up the fractured asphalt and soil to stop traffic. People jeered. I asked a woman what it was all about and she launched into a tirade.

“We are doctors and nurses! We work eight hours a day for nothing! No money! No money! Nothing!”

I wished the protester “mucho suerte” and continued on. On Highway One, the main artery to La Paz, instead of the usual heavy traffic there was a swarm of jostling pedestrians. Grim, downtrodden faces watched us ride past and the scene made me think of an exodus of refugees departing a war torn city. The burnt metal remains of something scarred the tarmac, maybe a motorbike. Up ahead there was a larger mob and I became nervous, but as we wheeled our bikes through the hoard a ripple of applause built and cheering began, we sheepishly said thank you and smiled our appreciation. A few kilometres later a group of young soldiers, wearing even bleaker expressions than the protesters, stood vigil, rifles in hand. I gave them the same enthusiastic and over the top smile and wave I reserve for all men with guns and kept cycling. We had been warned that Highway One was busy and potentially a bit dangerous for cyclists but with the blockades in place we had the road almost all to ourselves.

Finally – La Paz, which can boast perhaps the most dramatic entrance to any city in the world. As we cycled through the slum district of El Alto, suddenly to our right, La Paz jumped out of the trees. Loose folds of city were awkwardly sprawled over the sides of several mountains. The shiny tin roofs of the houses glinted in the midday sun and we freewheeled into the mayhem of another enticing and animated South American city.

La Paz
After a 17 day ride with only one day off, La Paz was a welcome break, and because one day it would be nice to father children, I decided to take a whole week off Bolivia’s bumpy roads. Next I ride past Lake Titicaca and to Cusco in Peru to catch up with Tom, an old friend from my time in Liverpool, before visiting the famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and then rattling through the rest of Peru.

Finally here’s a couple of links… an article I wrote about a border crossing from Argentina to Chile in an online magazine called Sidetracked and an interview with a US based magazine called Sierra.