Climbing up to Bolivia

Vivid colours in the Quebrada de Humahuaca

In order to reach Bolivia and leave Argentina I had to climb up to 3,800 meters above sea level. The Bolivian plateau, or Altiplano, sits between 3,500 meters and 4,500 meters. Though this is only one of the stark differences between Argentina and its landlocked neighbor. I experienced a dramatic change in the landscapes, people, food, culture and customs. This border crossing must be one of only a few in the world where you cross directly from a first world country into a third world country (based on UN statistics for the human development index). In Bolivia 64% of the population live below the poverty line surviving on just a few USD per day.

As I slowly ascended the Andes into Bolivia I met a South African cyclist who had ridden down from Mexico. Rich and I spent a while trading adventurous stories. He told me about walking through Ecuador with a donkey and breaking down in the Salar de Coipasa. I described and Asian winter and being caught up in a landslide whilst trekking in Patagonia. It was a powerful reminder once again how much I miss good company and someone to share a laugh with. Rich was the third cyclist I had crossed paths with since southern Patagonia, five months earlier.

Cycling north through the Quebrada de Humauaca I passed the Tropic of Capricorn and spent an hour gawping at a canyon where the rocks were emblazoned with seven different colours. I am privileged to often see dramatic and stunning natural landscapes but this region stands out as exceptionally beautiful. The colours there are vivid and kaleidoscopic.

Quebrada de Humahuaca
The people here are markedly different too. Since leaving San Salvador de Jujuy the locals began to look more indigenous. They much more closely resemble their neighbours in Bolivia with their darker skin and native features than their Argentinian compatriots. Their clothes are also very different. Argentinians dress typically in European fashion but here close to the border the women wear large sombrero style hats, long bright skirts and socks while slung over their shoulders are brightly coloured nap sacks.

It felt like I had already entered Bolivia and yet the border was still 100 miles away. The small towns built down the sides of the mountains and in the valleys had cobbled streets. Women sat in shaded doorways tending babies while men worked stalls, drove carts or greeted old friends.

Always keen to embrace local customs I began to chew coca leaf. Amongst its numerous benefits are: helping the body to cope with the thinner air at altitude and supressing the appetite. I was already out of breath at 3,000 meters and still needed to work my way up to 3,800 meters. The rapid change in altitude had not helped my body acclimatise but thankfully the coca leaf did.

As I rolled into La Quiaca, the border town on the Argentinian side, it occurred to me I had spent six months in Argentina. This is considerably longer than in any other country on my journey. I enjoyed my time there very much. I arrived with few expectations only anticipating getting a hard time about the Falklands. Yet I found the people warm, kind and friendly. They are passionate and expressive and I take with me many fond memories. That said I was extremely excited to be entering the developing world again. These are the countries that stay with me and I find most interesting. Perhaps simply because they are so different to the world that I know back home.

Welcome to Bolovia
Despite the changes I had seen prior to the border, crossing that invisible yet very tangible line the difference was unmistakable. Everything seemed a little more frayed at the edges: the buildings were aged, the roads potholed and littered. The streets were lined with stalls selling all manner of goods. The battered cars constantly sounded their horns while the smell of food hung in the air. It felt like I had entered a different world and yet if I turned around I could still see Argentina.

In Tupiza I suffered a serious bout of food poisoning and spent three days sharing my time evenly between my bed and the toilet. The owners of the hostel I was staying in kindly went out to buy me water and crackers. Having not left the hostel or eaten in a meal in three days and with a friend flying out to see me I had no choice but to take a bus to Potosi. There I would leave my bike and make my way by bus to Sucre to meet my old friend.

I arrived in Potosi feeling decidedly nauseous. Amongst other things the altitude hitting me badly. At 4,100 meters above sea level Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. My head was throbbing and pushing my heavy bike up the seemingly endless hill from the bus station left me breathless. My condition was not helped by the relentless traffic, the interminable use of the horn or the black fumes pouring from almost every vehicle. Eventually I found quiet sanctuary in a modest hostel close to the city centre.

Cerro Rico casting a shadow over Potosi
Potosi has a dark past. A very long shadow is cast over the city by the mountain Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). For four hundred years silver has been extracted from this mountain. For over two hundred years the wealth generated from it propped up the Spanish economy. Since mining began over 8,000,000 people are estimated to have died in the mountain working in dangerous and often inhumane conditions. I use the word work but for most of those years it was forced slave labour. In every photo or painting I saw of the city Cerro Rico was there sitting silently in the background both imposing and menacing. Most of the silver has been extracted now but co-operatives of local miners still work there in archaic conditions. For these brave souls the risks are high but so are the potential rewards.

I left my bike in Potosi at a friend’s house and set off for Sucre the judicial capital of Bolivia, a stunningly beautiful white washed colonial city. A very old friend, Mark, flew out from England to meet me there. After spending a few days in Sucre we took a bus down to the Bolivian jungle for some trekking. Initially it was strange to see Mark but it didn’t take long until we were chattering away like a sewing circle. For the first time in almost a year I enjoyed talking to someone who knew me before I set off on this journey, about things other than travel and cycling. It is very odd to go so long without seeing anyone you really know and I can’t understate how good it was to talk freely about mutual friends and life back in England.

Two weeks passed in a whirlwind of fun and Mark was soon on a plane back home. I was sad to say goodbye but my time with him had rejuvenated me and I felt excited about what lay ahead. I took a bus back to Potosi and spent a few days staying with my friends there eating Marmite and HP Sauce. My kind hosts Louis and Maribel took me out for a traditional local soup called Khalaporca. A thick aromatic sauce is supplemented with meat, potato and vegetables. A red hot stone is placed at the bottom of the bowl which keeps the soup bubbling hot. It felt like I was eating something from an Indiana Jones film.

Khalaporca - traditional Potosi soup
The following day, full of anticipation, I set off for the Salar de Uyuni. I had dreamt of riding the world’s largest salt flat for years. In the photo’s I had seen it looked like a dream like landscape; white and blue as far as the eyes can see. I was not to be disappointed with what I saw the only problem was losing my eye sight.

3 Responses to “Climbing up to Bolivia”

  1. Alex says:

    Hi Dud,

    thank you for the good times…..

    Merry X-Mas and a Happy New Year

    Keep on rocking


  2. […] of coloured lakes and volcanoes. I missed out on cycling this route as I was short on time to meet my friend Mark in Sucre, Boliva. However I was determined to see these otherworldly landscapes and on arrival in […]

Leave a Reply