Moving away from both Antofagasta and the Pacific Ocean, I slowly traversed through the Atacama desert and into higher the elevations of the Bolivian Altiplano (high plains).
Although the days would stay sunny and warm, with the gradual elevation increase, the nights were rapidly getting colder.
Each night I needed to put on additional layers of clothes and I basically went from sleeping in my underwear to looking like the marshmellow man.
The layering technique worked pretty well until one particularly cold night where I had to camp, due to my own bad timing, practically at the base of a 6,000 meter volcano.
I don`t have a thermometer or an altimeter but I can guess that I was sleeping at around 4,250 meters (around 14,000 feet) and since my water bottles were frozen solid until 1pm the next day and the moisture from my breath froze on my sleeping bag – I can make a scientific guess that the temperature could be measured as `damn cold´.
After spending 2 1/2 months cycling basically the length of Chile, I can confirm that the map isn’t deceiving – Chile is in fact a long & skinny country. But it`s a nice country, and I`ll have to find an excuse to return one day.
Despite these fine sentiments regarding Chile, I was excited to move into a new country and within just week of leaving Antofagasta, I crossed into Bolivia towards the Salar de Unuyi which is the `Worlds Largest Salt Flat´.
When doing my research, riding across the Salar de Uyuni with its vast flat salt fields was definitely towards the top of my list.
Each new place seems to come brand new aspects or challenges to work with.
One of the first challenges I noticed in Bolivia was the lack of accurate maps and confusing network of small unmarked dirt roads. The quality of these roads can sometimes range from dirt washboard, to sand and rock minefields – but I guess this is just part of the deal.
Oftentimes there would be 3-way forks in the road, with absolutely no signage to give you an hint which road goes where. Most of these roads usually are deadend roads to access property or they are just old country roads rarely used anymore.
With that in mind, you would think that just picking the road that looks most traveled would be a solid strategy, however in Bolivia that road 95% of the time leads to an Industrial Mine and just another dead end.
I`m also finding that getting straight-forward directions from a Bolivian is as painful as getting wisdom teeth pulled.
This was the first time on the trip that I really relied on my compass daily and was really glad I didn’t forget it in New York.
The compass, combined with some filtering of local hear-say and an occasional coin toss, treated me pretty well with only one unplanned scenic detour through Boliva´s beautiful southwest.
After getting through some Bolivian navigation growing pains, I finally arrived at the Salar de Uyuni and I was really quite excited to ride across it as originally planned.
I woke up from this excitement with a quick slap in the face. But maybe a more accurate expression would be ´a bucket of water to the face´ because it was water covering the Salar, lots of it.
Although its now the dry season, this year`s wet season was so rough (due to the La Niña weather system I hear) that the Salar is taking a considerable longer time to dry off than normal.
Other years it would have been possible to ride at least a part of the Salar but the locals were telling me that it will be at least a month or more before it is ready to cycle across.
After initialing handling the news like a 10 year old spoiled boy, I slowly accepted that mother nature rules once again and this is yet another excuse to come back to South America.
This setback also provided the time to rest in the town of Uyuni and for the first time in more than in a month – run into other cyclists that have converged on the area. Its always nice to know that I`m not the only crazy gringo on a bike in the area.
Uyuni, besides being the main tourist jump-off point for jeep tours of the area, doesn’t really have too much going for it. The only exception being a restaurant called `Minuteman Pizza´. As the name implies, this place serves pizza and also a legendary all-you-can-eat-breakfast.
But after 4 cyclists closed out the breakfast for 3 days running , I have a feeling that the owner was rethinking his business plan. We eat a lot.
Cycling away from Uyuni, I did a stop over in the `Worlds Highest City` of Potosi.
After the `Worlds Largest Salt Flat´ and not to be confused with La Paz`s claim to be the `Worlds Highest Capital City´ you start to get the feeling that Bolivia and the Guinness Book of Records are good friends.
Alongside it`s elevation, Potosi has an interesting story dominated by the mining in the neighboring mountain Cerro Rico. As most visitors of Potosi do, I ended up taking a tour through an operational mine in Cerro Rice to meet the miners, see the work being done and learn about the history.
The miners who still cooperatively work in Cerro Rico have a ridiculously tough job with some amazing work ethic despite the low pay, terrible safety conditions and long-term effects to their health.
I haven’t seen it yet, but the highly recommended documentary ´The Devil`s Miner´ is supposed to show a accurate picture of these miners and their beliefs.
One such belief held by the miners is a daily ritual of paying their respects to the Devil by sharing their smokes, an intense 97% alcohol and coca leaves with him. This is done in the hope of keeping the Devil happy so in return the Devil would keep the miners physically safe and out of trouble. Reminds me a little bit of high school.
With some beautiful countryside that really shows some diversity of the country, I made it to my next stop of Sucre physically safe and out of trouble (maybe thanks to the devil). I used this opportunity to settle into city life for a change.
The small city seems to be a popular spot to study Spanish due to the clean accent of the people and Bolivia`s overall affordability. Joined by the other travelers I have met in town – I have spent the last week taking some classes and trying to figure out what I have been saying `Sí´and `No´ to for the past few months.
After being on a bike for weeks on desolate roads, it was nice to be social and enjoy a relaxed nightlife.
The other night at a bar we even had the opportunity to meet what we believed to be the Bolivian version of Hunter S Thompson. With a larger than life personality and stories of being a Bolivian Newspaper journalist abroad (at least that was his story), it was an entertaining time to say the least.
However in afterthought, Torstein (a Norwegian guy I met with a shared respect for the late Mr. Thompson) and I concluded the Bolivian writer is actually Dr. Gonzo with some obvious physical and personality similarities.
If you`re missing the references here, Torstein would suggest you skip the movie and go straight to reading the book `Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas`.
Although in some moments I thought I could spend months Sucre, now that I am comfortably out of shape from still eating 6 meals per day but without the cycling, it may now be time to move away from Sucre.
The next stop in a relatively short period of time will be La Paz followed by riding alongside Lake Titicaca and into Peru heading for Cuzco.
The plan in Cuzco will be to spend about two weeks hiking around the Sacred Valley of the Inca´s with Ian how is flying in from NYC. We`ll be doing our best to avoid the tourist hordes around Cuzco, but I hear that one is tough.