Burning across Bolivia Part 1: La Paz to Sabaya

11/15/2016

 La Paz, Bolivia.

Okay. Enough of city life. Well, 2 days were truly enough for me, but errands and great new friends kept me here in La Paz a little longer than expected. Now heading for huge volcanos, enormous sand flats, high alpine sulfur lakes, and a LOT of sand. First stop: Volcan Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia, then on downward toward the famed Salar de Uyuni. 

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Climbing out of the La Paz valley again was a beast of a re-introduction to my heavy loaded bike. The 1600’ climb from the Casa Ciclista to the altiplano was unbearably steep at times, giving my already diminished climbing ego a solid punch in the gut. As my torn up bike shoes periodically gripped and slipped on the dirty, oily streets I questioned how some of the old cars were making it up these climbs. Truly impressive. 

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I elected to streamline the section of my route to get to Volcan Sajama as fast as possible. That meant 1 day of flying down the shoulder of the highway to Patacmaya before turning off. I know it’s opposite of what makes most safety sense but given how grating the sound of tires on highway asphalt is to my ears, I plugged in to some bumping beats on my headphones and plowed through. 

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Highway towns. Unfortunately the cemetery is on the other side of the highway from the funeral home. So the procession had to stop traffic and make it’s way across, coffin and all (pictured on the left).

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Once I broke off of the main highway at Patacmaya, the road was desolate. The rare car blew by, accompanied by a wave from the driver. Along the road I noticed many adobe “chullpas”, which are burial towers for indigenous Aymara communities in the area. 

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Taking rest for a night in the tiny town of Curahuara I parked my bike against the wall of a small store to resupply food. When I returned outside my bike had a neighbor. Looking at the sad seat, broken suspension and drooping handlebars gave a renewed sense of appreciation for how lucky I am to have a bike that fits me and lets me spend countless hours riding with minimal pain. Were I to be stuck with this other rig I think my experience would be quite different. 

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As the paved road finally returned to gentle bouncy dirt surface, the scenery got more volcanic, with large rock outcroppings and arches surrounding me. Beautiful deep red stone inspired deep breaths and gentle pedaling to savor the moments. 

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Volcan Sajama off in the distance. Getting closer every hour, but it still seemed so far away. 

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The lonesome and impressively straight road sliced through the barren altiplano with varying depths of sand and washboard. When it finally approached the foothills of Sajama it took a sharp turn to round the enormous volcano’s Northern flanks. There stood the remains of a beautiful old church, off by itself with only a caretaker’s shack accompanying it. I walked through the main gates and turned to see the road perfectly framed within the entry arch, appreciating that the road must have been built second, only to lead directly here. Given that little arch was the only available shade I’d seen for 50 kilometers, I leaned up against it and ate lunch with a gentle breeze to remind me how hot the standing air had been. 

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Riding around Sajama was gorgeous. Every few kilometers I’d stop and notice how the scenery would shift. I’d marked on my map that there was supposedly a hot springs just off the dirt road somewhere around here, managed by a local Aymara woman. Leading in from the other side of the volcano I decided to cut off some unnecessary distance and ride straight through the grassy valley. Not such an easy undertaking in practice. Many small streams weaved through the hillside as I climbed, making my tortuous route likely a bit longer than if I’d stayed on the road. But much more fun! 

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I eventually reached the hot springs in the late afternoon and was greeted by a portly woman and her young son. I paid my little entrance fee only to realize that the only pool in sight was luke warm and right next to her house. Not exactly the vast view of magestic solitude what I was hoping for. But moments later she emerged from her house and shared that there was another pool… about 500 meters up the hill slope, with a small structure I could camp in if I wished. I pushed up to it and found… perfection. Complete solitude, protection from the high winds and likely impending rains, perfect soaking temperature….

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… AND not a bad view. 

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I made an afternoon cup of tea, and sat naked in the pool as the evening sun painted it’s golden and magenta rays upon the Sajama’s western slopes. Bliss. Peace. Calm. Profound gratitude. 

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The following day I packed up my stuff and rolled through the bumpy valley back toward the main road. Random alpacas would occasionally wander over to explore their strange new guest. 

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The most beautiful cattle/alpaca fence I’ve ever seen. Use what you have available. 

The small dirt road passed through the tiny “tourist” town of Sajama before spitting me back onto a short stretch of highway. A few tiny motels and a general store to support the mountaineers preparing to summit Sajama’s 21,463’ peak.

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 I love country-specific street signs. I wondered if Bolivian travelers would be as impressed by a “deer crossing” sign in the US as I was by their “alpaca crossing” sign… The highway, if I’d chosen to follow it, would climb to the right of those mountains where the Chilean border laid, just 12 miles ahead! But I’d be turning before that point, to hug the Bolivian side of the border in order to access the unknown views within Salar Coipasa, a large salt flat that would be my warm-up for the enormous Salar Uyuni (largest in the world).

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My turnoff immediately alerted me to the presence of what would become my nemesis for the next 2 weeks: SAND.  LOTS of it. The road wove around and through hillsides circumventing enormous mountains, all the while varied from sandy gravel to fine powder but was consistently an enormous drag on my energy. 

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Outside the tiny village of Macaya I glanced across the large shallow lake to the grand mountain in the distance before my focus narrowed to the dots down in the lake. Closer investigation revealed pink flamingos! Evidently this would be the first sighting of many across the high lakes of Bolivia. Pretty damn cool. 

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By early the endless sand and washboard had gotten the better of me. On the one hand the endless rattling of trying to match my pedaling speed to the frequency of the washboard bumps never seemed to lead to anything other than infinite micro-whiplashes. In the rare spaces where the washboard ceased, it was replaced by deep enough sand that I had to pedal at full-bore to avoid getting stuck in it. Not the fast and flowy riding I was hoping for. The challenge in finding a night’s respite was the extreme wind gusts blowing through all afternoon. Having already broken a tent pole hub due to wind I was nervous to just set up in the open plain. Off in the distance I noticed a a few small seemingly abandoned houses just off the tiny sandy road. Each one had tons of trash and broken glass inside, except for one which seemed quite a bit nicer. I rode up to it, expecting to find someone inside, but it was unfinished. The door was slightly open and was no evidence of any recent inhabitants, so I decided to be the first. While a couple of windows were blown out (likely due to the high winds), I found a perfect corner to shelter me from the gusts and settled in for the night!

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Rolling out early the next morning to the frigid air, I rolled back out onto the sandy road for another day of washboarded fun. Random alpacas would glance down on me as I huffed my way around enormous sand dunes. 

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During a conversation with my Mom a couple of months ago back, she asked me if suffering was a part of my journey. I’d just gotten off of spending nearly 2 weeks hiking my bike through a route I’m calling the Sacred Valley Shuffle, and it was slow going. I’ve spent many hours thinking and feeling into her question, and here is some current thinking on the subject: 

It’s so hard to separate out the drives that motivate action. On the one hand there is the desire to learn about, test and eventually expand our limits. When this energy is dominant the feeling is one of discovery and adventure, fueled by curiosity. If you we don’t push beyond comfort, we will never know what we’re capable of. But there is a point in which this process loses its momentum, at least momentarily. That’s when the ego takes the helm for me, trying to maintain some sense of identity that associates itself with being “a badass”, one of “those” people who can push into the unknown and endlessly find energy to continue forward where most turn back due to the discomfort or difficulty. But it’s it’s somewhat futile, oddly trying to prove something to an unknown entity, as out here alone. Nobody is here to witness a choice to turn back when times are tough, or to push forward through the challenges. Realistically I don’t even know if anyone cares whether or not I make either choice. First and foremost I must continue to be honest with myself about what’s inside. Denying the ugly or messy parts for hope that they’ll fall away never works. Then the challenge appears to be separating the voices inside, the ones that propel me forward out of joy, love and inspiration from those of fear and inadequacy.  I’m still exploring how this applies to one current identity I hold, that of a long-term international bikepacker who’s goal is to circumnavigate the planet. Am I, after over 2 years of travel, still just trying to prove to the world that I’m enough? Even just writing that in this moment forces a huge sigh and stare out to the horizon. Clearly there’s some truth in there. But never are internal drives so simple as to be “all” out of love nor fear. Not for me at least. Nonetheless, those voices of fear both serve a purpose and likely have a need that’s not being met, else they wouldn’t be so powerful. The question now stands, “what would being enough actually feel like?” So the journey continues, both internally as I deepen my awareness and acknowledgment of what’s inside, and the exploration of the external world. The beauty is of course in finding how these two experiences weave together into this one forward passage through life. 

Anyway, I digress…

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Can you see all the camouflaged alpacas?? Took me a little while to notice how many there were!

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Especially the speckled-hair ones blend into the sand and grass so well!

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Extremely hot with no shade. Rather tired. Very windy. Late afternoon. Perfect conditions to get a flat tire. I realized these had been the conditions for the last few flats I could remember. It’s as if the tire gods specifically wait for the worst moment to strike. Even though I run my tires tubeless, eventuallly either the liquid dries up or you get a sidewall slash that’s too big to seal. Not a big deal at all, just a punch in the gut when my resources were low. Life goes on… I rolled on through the afternoon and eventually made it to the small town of Sabaya. There I found an odd little hotel to bed down…

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A variety of papers were taped on the wall behind the front desk. These seemed pretty straightforward.

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These prohibitions were surprisingly specific. Especially the needle.

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The next page got downright confusing. So I can’t: smoke a cigarette, take pictures, use a smart phone, eat a hamburger with shake, use a non-smart phone, have a thumb drive, use a video camera, take any pills, or smoke. Again. In case the first no-smoking sign wasn’t clear. 

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Then upon reaching the shared bathroom, I found this. You be the judge. 

Stay tuned for the next couple installments of my final weeks in Bolivia, including huge salt flats, more pink flamingos, enormous mountains, and, again… some sand. 

2 Responses

  1. Diane Timmons
    | Reply

    As usual, superb photos and narrative, including insightful personal queries and ponderings within the ‘digression’! Well done! A most welcome Facebook post… Thank you👍🚴🏻🙏✨!

  2. James
    | Reply

    Man, what an awesome post. I read your blog regularly but this post was especially good. I too have wondered what it is that drives us to undertake expeditions. I still don’t really know, but I think it goes beyond the ability to impress some abstract “others.” To make myself sure that my expeditions are true in their goals and objectives, I avoid talking about my adventures to anyone- at least until I get to know them. I also think if you asked yourself, “What if I didn’t have this blog, or have anyone to tell my adventures to?” you would find out that you would still go out and explore regardless, at least that was the case with me. Anyway, thanks for having this blog.

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