At first it felt weird. We had both started the trip with the intention of biking most of the distance. But when we finally after hard winds, rain and volcano eruptions arrived in Quilpue outside Santiago we realised we didn’t really want to turn back to Argentina. Both because of the money situation and because we wanted something new. We wanted adventure. So there we were. After arguing with the bus company, paying bribes and picking our bikes apart we were finally on the bus on our way up to northern Chile. The bus ride took precisely 24 hours and the only thing we could occupy ourselves with was watching movies that were both dubbed and subtitled in Spanish. Luckily enough hollywood blockbusters aren’t that hard to follow.
When the bus finally dropped us of in San Pedro de Atacama Emil had become sick and we were totally exhausted… probably more exhausted than we would have been if we biked the 1800 km we had now travelled in bus. We were received by Carlos, a great warmshowers host in the village. We spent a couple of nights in his house to wait for Emil to feel better. From the dry yard of Carlos house we could stare up at the gigantic plateau that was rising up above us. It was the southern parts of the huge altiplano that made up almost half of Bolivia, our next country on the trip. The uphill was huge. A 2500 meter climb spread out over 35 kilometres of black, steep and unforgiving asphalt. As we finally left the city Emil felt better but having been sick and not having biked in almost two weeks had made us both weak and as we pedalled the first meters of the climb we realised that it would be one of the biggest challenges of our trip. For every km we climbed higher and higher and it didn’t take long before we started feeling the altitude. The climb already started at 2300 and after the first day of biking we had reached 3500 meter. Our breathing became faster and we could feel our hearths rushing after only a few pedal strokes.
The uphill took us two and a half days to conquer and when we finally reached the top at 4600 meter above sea level we turned of the asphalt and biked down a gravel road towards the Bolivian customs. The air was thin and the landscape was outer worldly. We could as well have been traveling on one of Jupiters moons. All signs of life disappeared and around us volcanoes rose up touching the sky with their snow clad peaks. The landscape consisted of nothing but rocks and vividly coloured lakes. The gravel roads were ridiculously bad in comparison to the asphalt we had been biking on earlier but it didn’t matter much as we biked slow and enjoyed the landscape and the feeling of being far away from civilisation. We crossed a stream with ice cold water and finished our first day in Bolivia next to a old inca ruin. As the sun was setting the colours of a dying day turned the mountaintops pink and as we were preparing dinner the tall mountains threw bone shattering cold shadows over us. We learned that the boiling point of water at high altitude is closer to 80 than a 100 degrees which made pasta cooking a bigger project than before. As we had indulged our dinner we crawled into our sleeping bags with loads of clothes on and fell asleep.
The following morning we woke up to realise that a 3 litre bottle of water had turned into a solid ice block. The night had been cold but luckily we had prepared ourselves and both used our Nalgene bottles as sleeping bag heaters by filling them with boiling water. We were back on the bikes early and started biking as the sun rose above the mountains and started heating up the sandy roads and the rocky slopes of the volcanoes. We met two Spanish bikers heading in the opposite direction but except for them the rest of the traffic on the road consisted of 4×4 Jeeps carrying tourists on tours through the inaccessible landscape. The stream of jeeps sometimes became so strong that the biking became hard to enjoy. We cursed the Jeep tours but eventually meet some drivers who stopped and handed us fruits, juice and water in exchange for posing on photos with the tourists they were driving. As we travelled through the region it became very clear that the best way to enjoy it was definitely by bike. We witnessed groups of tourists jumping out of jeeps snapping pictures only to be herded back into their vehicles leaving with a cloud of dust behind all within a timespan of a minute. To us… a bit hectic. On our bikes we covered the same distance in a day that they did in an hour. Every kilometre felt earned and every mountain pass invoked a feeling of pride and happiness.
We ended one of the days by taking a bath in a thermal hot spring. As the sun went down and the temperature dropped we were sitting in a 47 degree hot pool of steaming water coming up from within the mountain. That same night we witnessed the most impressive night sky we had ever seen.
After about a week of biking we had made it to the first city: Uyuni. We treated ourselves with two nights in a hostel and filled up our bags with some more food and headed off towards the “Salar de Uyuni” the worlds biggest salt flat that rests at 3600 m.a.s.l. Bikers we had met heading south had spoken of the salt flat like one of the highlights of their journey so our expectations were quite high.
We reached the edge of the never ending plains of salt and started biking across the massive salt flat. It was a weird feeling and felt cool for about 2 hours and then it rapidly got boring. Don’t get us wrong. It’s definitely worth it… but for mountain lovers with little patience the never ending flatness gets dull. As there was nothing to crash into and almost no traffic we biked into the sunset and with our lights turned on we biked under the starts with the sound of crackling salt under our wheels. Without having to worry about steering we could stare up at the centre of our galaxy illuminating the sky with its billions of stars. We camped on the flats and were very happy to have brought a rock to hammer down our tent pegs into the solid crust of salt that made up the ground.
After two days we reached land and started biking north to reach La Paz and finally head off towards Arequipa where we would meet our friend Daniel from Sweden to bike in Peru for a month. The days towards La Paz were mostly boring and on a big highway. We spent our days biking from village to village eating lunch in simple lunch restaurants and buying fruits in local markets.
Maybe the only noteworthy thing that happened to us between Salar de Uyuni and La Paz was that we witnessed a dog go from very alive to very dead. As we were rolling along happy on a flat stretch of road a shepherd dog herding some Llamas next to the road went crazy. The beast took aim for us and looked like it planned on ripping us to pieces. As it was running over the road just meters away from us a big truck came rushing past us at high speed and without the slightest sign of trying to break we could hear the sound of the 20 ton truck sending the dog to his maker. From beneath the truck the dog came flying out behind it. Instantly dead. The truck just continued and we were chocked by the fact that everything had happened in a time span of 3 seconds. It was sad but also in a way fascinating to witness a living being turning into a dead corpse within a blink of an eye. It gave us some sort of perspective on the perishable nature of life but also acted as a reminder of the many dangers of being on a road day after day.
Finally after another week we rolled through El Alto and were struck by the most amazing view of a city we had seen so far on the trip. In El Alto (a kind of suburb to La Paz) we turned around a corner and suddenly stood with our bikes on the rim of a steep cliff. Maybe 400-500 meter below us the big capital city of La Paz stretched out at the bottom of a valley. On the other side of the city Bolivias highest mountain Illimani stretched up from the mountain range and touched the sky at 6462 m.a.s.l. We stood there for a while taking in the city’s grandness. After that a constant downhill brought us into the center of La Paz where we located the famous “Casa de Ciclista”. The “Casa de Ciclista” of La Paz is basically an apartment dedicated to bikers who pass by where you can have a shower, cook, sleep and meet other bikers. Some people stay for a few nights while others seem to stay for months. We ended up spending a week in the place and got some well deserved rest.
After fighting our way up the hillsides of La Paz through sometimes crazy traffic we were finally out on the countryside again. Both the landscape and the people changed rapidly. The altiplano was greener and as we got closer to lake Titicaca almost all visible land was used for growing crops. Along the shores of Titicaca people smiled more and we had the impression that they all seemed happier. We had one of the nicest bike days since south of Bolivia as the road brought us high up above the lake onto a 4200 meter pass from which we later swooshed down into Copacabana.
We spent our last minutes in Bolivia getting chased by a dog that bit a whole in one of Emil’s bags. With the dog attack as our last memory of Bolivia we crossed the boarder into Peru and thus celebrated reaching our 4th country on the trip.
That folks is all we will share with you for this time! Until next time we will bike through the tough but (hopefully) rewarding mountains of Peru.