The one universal rule of bicycle touring: No matter how well you plan nothing will ever end up the way you thought it would. And maybe… that’s the biggest reason we do it.
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.
We were stronger. Finally. We had been fighting against uphills, gravel and rain not to speak about the adventures on the Pampa in the south. And when we finally biked out of the village Futaleufú to make it towards the boarder with Argentina we felt good, strong and ready. Our plan was to bike on the Argentinian side, switch back to Chile and then make it to our friend Paula in Quilpué (a city close to Santiago). In our heads we were already there. The real challenge was over. Now we had a lot of asphalt in front of us and imagined that we would be flying north. As you may already guess it didn’t really work out that way. Stay with us to read yet another adventurous post about our weird life on a bike.
The boarder between Chile and Argentina was as usual a piece of cake. Stamp out and stamp in. We made some small talk with the people working at both sides of the boarder. Telling them where we had biked from and where we were going. They liked our Swedish flag that was hanging from a tired bamboo stick on Emil’s bike.
Although we have already crossed the boarder between the two countries several times it always feels exciting to make the switch. The feeling of something different. How the Argentinians talk a little bit slower and pronounce some of the words a bit different. How the moisty and jungly Chile ended and the drier and rocky Argentina began. The only thing that didn’t excite us as we entered Argentina this time was the fact that we were running out of dollars. We really don’t feel like telling you the whole backstory about the money situation in Argentina but basically the official exchange rate you get if you use your credit card in Argentina is so bad that you might as well travel in Norway if you want to travel cheaper. Hence the recommended thing to do is to bring dollars and change them on the “blackmarket”. If you are going to Argentina and want to know more about this money thing read this.
We were finally there. The Carretera Austral. We had made it! But at what costs? When we finally reached the gravel road that would take us north for more than 1000 km we realised that the effort we put into getting there had seriously drained us of all our remaining energy.
After our night in the shelter at the border we immediately had to tackle our first uphill. We soon learned that the uphills on the Carretera Austral would all have one thing in common. They would, almost without exception, all be very very steep. Lacking the strong winds from the Pampa to cool us down sweating felt like a totally new sensation and our thoughts went to the people who had one day decided to build the many uphills we were now struggling to conquer. Why? Why on earth did they have to build them so f*#?ng steep? To save explosives? To raise the sales for 4×4 Jeeps? Or simply just to make life hard on people who are stupid enough to travel on a bike?
We rapidly became more and more tired and were by the time we reached Villa O’Higgins, the small and southernmost village on the Carretera Austral, closer to death than we had ever been earlier on the trip. We decided to stay at a small modest campsite in the outskirts of the village. The owner, Mauricio, gave us a warm welcome and greeted us with these words: “Congratulations, you are now a part of the small exclusive group of people who have managed to pass trough Rio Mayer”. We immediately felt quite good about ourselves and soon learned that Mauricio was living a very inspiring life in his homemade Patagonian adobe house. He turned his own and all visitors poop into compost, used things others would call trash to build his house and picked up dead wood from the ground to heat his house and kitchen. We ended up staying for two nights in the campsite and left it convinced there was still hope in humanity. Valentine and Gary who we had biked with from El Chalten were eager to get going and left before us. We wished each other good luck and said goodbye.
Unfortunately our high spirits didn’t last long before the steep uphills were joined by heavy rainfall…days in a row. Emil hated himself for weeks before having said: “I’ll take pouring rain instead of headwind any day!”. The huge glaciers that covered the mountains around us were now lurking behind thick rainclouds. From every little crack in the rock wall next to the road water came shooting out. Clear, ice cold and fresh. The difference between the Pampa and the Carretera Austral could not have been any bigger. The barren land of the Pampa with its dry bushes and endless kilometres of sand and stone had turned into lush valleys where the sound of a waterfall would always be within in an earshot.
We had made it to El Chalten! We were happy and eager to reach the Carretera Austral we had heard so much about. The Paradise on the other side of the mountains where everything was lush and green, where the sun was always shining and chocolate came running down the mountains in huge rivers… or…maybe it was water… we don’t really remember. The stories were so many.
Anyway… we were readier than ever. Prepared to make the passing over the mountains and take an expensive boat across a huge glacier lake to reach Villa O’Higgins, the most southern village of the Carretera Austral. But when we woke up on the day of departure the wind was howling and rain came down from above. We had heard about the boat not leaving on windy days and decided to check out the forecast with the tourist agency. When asking them if the ferry to Villa O’Higgins would leave or not the answer we got was simply: “We don’t know”
Bare in mind that we would have to bike for 30 km, take a 40 dollar ferry over a small lake and then push our bikes over a hill for about 20 km before we would be able to know if the ferry over the big lake would leave or not. The idea of turning up at the dock without the ferry leaving was not very tempting and all in all the ferries would cost us 200 dollar. After some quick thinking we decided together with Valentin and Gary, two guys we had met earlier on the road, that we would forget the ferry all together and just go back out on the Pampa and take a detour to another border that also crossed into Villa O’Higgins. This boarder did not cost anything or include a ferry. You might ask yourself: “Oh there is a second boarder that costs nothing and where you don’t need to take a ferry? Why doesn’t everyone take that one?” To answer that question please read the whole blog post.
You have probably wondered what happened to the two cyclist who left Sweden to explore the world. We are still alive.. but the Internet connection has not been in our favour!
Since our last update we reached the main land of South America but we realised we had problems. Knee problems! Starting out on a world trip in such a harsh climate like this in a bad physical shape had taken its toll on our bodies. Our knees were screaming for some rest and we decided to listen. We spent two weeks in Punta Arenas. Mostly eating and waiting! The waiting was hard and we felt a bit helpless as we couldn’t do anything to speed up the healing process. The only thing we could do was wait, wait and wait. During this time we had a lot of time for reflection and we realised that no matter how eager we are to continue or what kind of grand plans we have in mind our bodies always have the final say in every decision. To travel like this for a longer time you need to start living more sustainable. Not necessarily in the environmental way. We are talking about how to make your body last. You need to follow the rhythm of your body and mind. Eat when you feel hunger and rest when you are tired. If you don’t the whole point of using your body as a mean of transportation fails.
When we finally left Punta Arenas behind we had a huge smile on our faces. It felt good to be back on the road and we were eager to explore new places but it didn’t take long before we felt the change of atmosphere. The ”island-feeling” on the back roads of Tierra del Fuego had vanished. Long gone were the days when we had to knock doors for water or a place to pitch our tent which turned into interesting meeting with people. Instead we did our kilometers and when it was time to stop for the day we asked the local policemen for water and were pointed in a direction where we could sleep without disturbing the order.
We finished our last post in Argentina. By a little stream of water that had been explained to us as a huge river by a worried farmer in a pickup a couple of kilometers before the border. When we arrived it turned out to be nothing more then a small stretch of 15 cm deep water. Nothing remarkable.
One quickly learns to always take everything people say with a grain of salt. When you turn up with a bike and huge amounts of luggage and are aiming to do the same things the locals do in their 4×4 pickups you can expect to get some raised eyebrows or shaking heads. But there is one thing that you actually can be 100% sure about no matter how sceptical the locals look at you. You will always get more help than you ask for.
Our first week in Chile was filled by as much wind and misfortune as our days in Argentina but all of this was weighed up by the constant, daily and unexpected encounters with people. Our first meeting contained a couple of funny border policemen who after a quick bureaucratic process took the chance to try our bikes. After having exchanged a couple of confused sentences in Spanish we were offered to sleep in a barack that seemed to double purpose as a party cabin and kitchen for the border police judging by the fast cleanup they made of beer cans and dirty dished before we could move in our stuff.
We were bone tired when we crawled into our sleeping bags but already then we had a feeling our days in Chile would be nice.
Getting sick in the beginning of a trip can feel a bit like the end of the world! Expectations are high and you are longing to hit the road but instead you need to rest, rest and rest… Anticlimax!
We managed to keep up the spirit thanks to all the stories the other cyclists that we met at the bakery in Tolhuin told us. We fed our urge to get going on the experiences and memories that came to live in front of us when we shared some fresh bread with our new friends.
These stories intrigued us at the same time as they added to the restlessnes that already had started to grow inside us. When the sickness had been defeated and Johanna was up and running again we felt readier than ever to get going.
We left Tolhuin behind and finally we were on the road! Unknowing of what was to come…