Sajama – Tambo Quemado – Quebrada Allane – Visviti – Charaña – Vichaya – Viacha – La Paz (see Andes by Bike).
As has become our habit, the route we follow to La Paz isn’t especially direct. Initially it even leads us west into Chile’s Lauca National Park, across the truckerstop border town of Tambo Quemado. There, we encircle Lago Chungara and the perfectly conical Volcán Parinacota. For the first time in over a month, we also taste pavement – cue the fat bikers amongst us to stop and furiously pump balloon tyres to bursting point.
Thankfully this blacktop stint is short lived. Escaping the eighteen wheelers that snake their way out of the Andes to coastal Arica, we soon turn back onto quiet dirt roads that wend their way through the most northerly reaches of this unusually skinny land. We burrow deep into the mineral-streaked Quebrada Allane, towards a forgotten nook where all three countries – Chile, Bolivia and Peru – converge. Skirting just a handful of kilometres from the Peruvian border, we cycle by sparse railway villages, past cars that lie in abandoned surgery, and cured llama meat hanging out to dry like washing on a line.
Although our Chilean interlude is brief, it’s enough to remind me of the divide between Bolivia and its more affluent, wordly neighbour. As we cross the border once more, litter clogs the edge of Charaña, the Bolivian border town. Stores are scantily stocked, fresh fruit and vegetables a novelty. But it feels strangely satisfying to be back, even though I’ve only been away but a few nights.
Whichever country we’re in, one thing remains the same: our fat bikes are forever the source of scrutiny and boundless fascination. The owner of our guesthouse in Charaña – a lady of Bolivian squat stature, attired in the typical bowler hat, shawl, heavy skirt and petticoat – seems particularly taken by the Pugsleys. ‘Que bonitas bicis,’ she repeats, studying their lines and squeezing their tyres, as if contemplating the pedigree of an animal at market. What beautiful bikes indeed! She asks me if they can be ridden uphill too – apparently, a fat bike could be her ideal mode of transport to the finca she owns in the hills, home to a herd of 400 llama and 300 alpaca. When I tell her that a Chilean has recently begun importing basic fat bikes from China into Santiago, she seems genuinely interested. Going on an exchange rate of $60 to a llama, she need only sell a dozen…
Tearing bikes away from lingering eyes, we follow dirt roads to the capital. Darkened clouds roll across the skies each afternoon, sprinkling us with rain and ushering in the beginnings of the wet season. With the weather breaking, seeking makeshift shelter makes more sense than camping. One night, it’s an empty church on a hill top. Another, it’s a half built building, awakening to a bemused construction crew the next morning. And finally, when we reach the capital, it’s on the floor of Christian’s Casa de Ciclistas, a haven for weary touring cyclists the world over, its walls adorned with cyclists graffiti and artwork.
Sadly, my time in Bolivia is drawing to an end, and all too soon. Next up: riding the rail trail to Cuzco, Peru, the final piece in this Americas jigsaw.
If you would like to keep up with where I am between tardy blog entries, I keep my While Out Riding Facebook page more regularly updated – along with posting extra photos and gear ponderings. You can find it here. Occasionally, I pop some pictures up on my Instagram feed too.
A Toast to Pachamama
In the village of Vichaya, a fiesta builds in momentum and drunken revelry pervades the air. Hired in from the capital, the sharp-looking band that are playing are without doubt the most in tune we’ve heard so far. Women swirl their skirts and petticoats in perfect synchronicity. The men are dressed in the Morenada costumes of the Bolivian Andes, their dance inspired by the suffering of African slaves brought to work in the silver mines of Potosí.
The mood is upbeat; luckily, full inebriation has yet to be reached. Plastic cups of beer are pressed into our hands. I make the mistake of sipping mine without first offering due thanks to Pacha Mama – Mother Earth. ‘We must respect pacha mama and give back to her,’ I’m reprimanded by an elderly campesina. ‘Pacha Mama is the earth on which we walk,’ she tells me sternly. ‘She’s the earth along which you ride your bikes,’ she adds for the sake of clarity. Her drunken husband, hair matted and eyes glassy, nods in solemn agreement. I try again, this time dutifully waving my cup skyward, sploshing beer onto the ground before taking a sip. They smile, appeased – I’m off the hook. Others are’t so lucky. Later, I spy her castigating a young lady, who has failed to remove her bowler hat while the national anthem is being sung…
The reputation of Bolivians isn’t always especially positive. Away from mainstream tourism, I’ve found them almost always warm hearted, curious, engaging, and often proud.