As we stopped to eat lunch at the top of our third and hardest pass yet we saw a few cows as well as a smiling traditionally dressed lady in her thirties coming up and over the other side. She was obviously surprised to see us “gringos” on this rarely used rocky mountainous road, and animatedly began asking us questions in Qetchwa. Once we explained that we only spoke Spanish, she smiled and then waved us over, motioning for us to bring over one of our plates to where she was opening up the large colorful blanket she carries as a bag on her back. She then scooped three huge scoops of, well, who knows what, from a steaming bucket full of white potato/quinoa/unknown grain/milk mush into our bowl before swinging her blanket back over her back in order to follow her cows back down the mountainside. Welcome to the Great Peruvian Divide; a network of small rocky roads which connect rural villages throughout the Andes where smiling toothless villagers stop to encourage you along your way as you fight for every kilometer as it’s always uphill.
We have read about cycling families. We have talked about cycling families. But finally, finally, we got to actually meet a wonderful family – meaning awesome parents who really know how to teach their kids to live – on wheels. These forty year old parents and their ten year old boy, and fourteen year old girl, set out two months ago on their first ever cycle tour. They are now headed through Bolivia, before beginning their descend down to Patagonia. We saw them camped at the side of the road and ended up spending the night right next door which was a great way to spend an evening!
Every “Casa de Cyclista” here in South America is run differently, but they all are wonderful for the very same reason; they provide a meeting place for the multitude of cyclists throughout South America who are all going in different directions to get together and stay with other like-minded two wheel travelers. This one here in La Paz is run by Christian, a Bolivian cycling fan who inherited an large multi-roomed apartment right downtown which he lets up to eight tourers stay in at a time. Unlike the other Casas which are listed on warmshowers and are therefore free, this one charges 20 bolivianos (three dollars) a night which I feel is a good idea because it allows Christian to keep this place running self-sufficiently. It’s for the cyclists, by the cyclists, so it’s up to us to clean, cook, and keep this place running as if it were our own home. Though I feel like this self-run sort of set up could easily become disastrous, in general, cycle tourists tend to be conscientious people who are willing to put in a bit of effort in order to leave the place nicer than when they found it. And as its been running for years now, it seems like this concept is working!
Sitting at the top of Huyana Potosi (6,088m/20,000ft), Kevin, John (an American cyclist we met in La Paz), our guide “Super Mario,” and I watched the world come to life. It was 6h30 and after five hours of climbing, we had made it to the top just in time to turn off our headlamps as the dark sky was beginning to glow. The clouds in the distance made the morning light appear bright orange and red before the sun finally hit our snowy cold vantage point. In front of us lay the cloud covered Yungas, and for as far as we could see behind us was the altiplano (including lake Titicaca). To our right the sprawling city lights of La Paz and El Alto shone bright, while to our left the other beautiful snow capped mountains which make up the Bolivian Cordillera Real stood majestically still. Climbing slowly up the mountain just a few hundred meters away were a few groups of other climbers who would arrive shortly and crowd this tiny summit, but for just a few more minutes, we would have it all to ourselves.
The north-eastern Bolivian region of the South Yungas is a composed of huge hills of almost-jungle-like hot and humid terrain where there are always birds a chirpin’, grasshoppers a hoppin’, and rain a fallin’. Though it’s an interesting and very friendly area full of small to medium sized villages atop various hillsides as far as the eye can see, the heat and humidity made the cycling miserable, because even though this is there “winter,” it’s still hot and sticky. Though the heat made us sweat like we haven’t since the hot summer in Georgia nearly a year ago, it did provide us with a variety of foods we weren’t able to find on the altiplano, notably the short and fat sweet bananas I call “Indian bananas” (as we ate them in India) and fresh passion fruit juice, as well as plantains which they served both raw and fried with every meal. Though some of the climbs were steep, we were able to cover ground reasonably fast as the ground was a rocky but not too bad unpaved surface, and as we were between 1,000m-2,500m most of the time, it was extremely easy to breath.
This lush green route has become a highlight because the cycling is relatively easy, the villages are picturesque and friendly as there is virtually no tourism besides cyclists, and the scenery is so different than what we have previously experienced in Bolivia. The road, which is carved out of the mountainside, looks a whole lot like the Indian/Nepali roads throughout the foothills of the Himalayas, and the rushing rivers and towering green hillsides are a welcome change after so much sandy nothingness in the altiplano. After an easy morning ride we ended up spending the day and night in a typical quaint village before heading out the next morning for ten kilometers of steep switchbacks down to the river, and then a 1,000m evaluation climb up and over our second pass. We then continued down and up again (and then down and up again… flat isn’t a word which exists out here) until we found the only flat ground around, a soccer field which belonged to a cluster of a dozen or so houses which we hadn’t even been able to see from the road.
The first Bolivian village we entered into was Quentena, which stands in the middle of nowhere at 4,200m surrounded by mines which make up its main economy. A looming nearby mountain has an old road all the way up to 5,700m (6,000m peak) where the highest mine in the world use to operate, and down in the village, women in the traditional Andean attire – stockings, a pleated skirt, and a colorful vest or shawl – watch us a bit curiously as we slowly cycle into town. Though everyone speaks castillano (Spanish) to us, they speak Quetchwa amongst themselves. We eventually find a small shop which sells crackers, cookies, and some clothes, and after buying a few snacks, we continue past a few dozen more mud brick houses until we are once again all alone in the mountains.
Some people follow their dreams, others hunt them down and beat them mercilessly into submission.”
After a thirty-six hour downpour, the sun finally came out as we finished up the Carretera Austral.
People often ask us what happens if one of us gets sick, and since both of us had some sort of stomach bug yesterday (most likely from bad food or water, though we really don’t remember eating anything bad) I figured that now would be a good time to touch on that subject.
“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”