Cycling days 202 to 208: Oruro to San Juan

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Day 202 (10/6/11): 115km

We wake at 6am to beautiful blue skies and almost zero wind – what a wonderful morning! Today, we try two tactics to make passing vehicles give us more room along the shoulder: 1) we make one of Yannick's bags stick out farther to the left and tie a red bandana to it, and 2) ride in the lane, left of the white line until a vehicle comes into view in the mirror, then move into the shoulder, but maneuver around a little as though we are dodging debris in the shoulder. We found that the bandana trick didn’t work, but the latter did. Most vehicles gave us at least half of the lane when passing and some even slowed down a little…nice! Our little experiment gave us something to entertain ourselves with as we pedal 45km to Oruro at an average of 27kph.

We arrive in the city at about 10:30am, spend an hour on the internet, go grocery shopping, have lunch, and check off a couple other things on our to-do list. As we ride through town among the traffic, we frequently get honked at. Rather than letting it get on our nerves like it usually does, we start mocking the drivers and say "beep, beep" back at them. Half of the time, we are ignored, but it is fun to get the occasional laugh from a driver or smiles from people along the street. After 4 hours in the city, we are finally ready to depart at 2:30pm. The road after Oruro isn’t as nicely paved, but the traffic is MUCH lighter – some of the traffic diverted towards Cochabamba and we hardly see any more large buses, just combis, passenger cars, and a few semi-trucks. We enjoy the riding much more now with the road more calm, finally letting us take in some of the scenery as we pedal along.

At 6pm, the clouds overhead begin to let out a light drizzle, so we figure we might as well stop now and set camp before it really begins to rain. We pull off onto a dirt road and go hide by the remains of some old, crumbled mud brick buildings. As we set up the tents, the drizzle comes and goes, allowing us to stay outside long enough to witness a beautiful, fiery sunset. Today was a good day.

Day 203 (10/7/11): 99km

We have a lazy start this morning and aren’t ready to leave camp until 8:45am. The morning is calm and warm, and the road is flat and relatively peaceful. We pass by some nice rock formations high up on some hills, making us miss rock climbing – ooh, it’s been too long since we’ve had our hands on some hard granite! Our minds wander as we pedal quickly towards Challapata; we cover the 52km to town just in time for lunch. As we ride around searching for groceries, a place to eat, and a bike shop, we run into Matt and Matt. We left La Paz 4 days after them and didn’t think we would see them this soon. We decide to leave town together, not really expecting to stay as one group for very long because we are clearly going at different paces.

As we ride along the road, chit chatting away, we notice the cars that pass by don’t honk aggressively and try to run us over anymore; instead, they slow down and wait to pass in the other lance…amazing what the difference is when adding just 2 more cyclists to the pack! (Then again, who knows…maybe the drivers passed Challapata are just more tranquillo.)

Before we know it, we make it to Huari where we stop for laundry at the gas station, then check out kids in their parade costumes for the Festival of Virgen Rosario. Just as we are exiting town, we run into a few French hippie cycling tourists who picked up some second-hand bikes in El Alto several weeks ago and threw a rig together. They already broke a chain and have been hanging out in Huari for a while, taking in the festivities. We say goodbye to them and finally make it onto the dirt road outside of town. We all joke around, saying the hard-packed dirt isn’t bad and that if the conditions stay this good, we won’t have any problems. Not even one kilometer later, we hit asphalt again…what, a paved road? We are completely thrown off by this and flag down a motorcycle to see if we are going in the right direction and they assure us we are. A few kilometers later, we still have our doubts because our written guide from 2009 says that the road is supposed to deteriorate. We wave down another truck and the driver tells us that this is a brand new road, paved all the way to Quillacas. Whoa, crazy! Guess this shaves a day or two of rough riding off our schedule! Our party of 5 happily rolls down the smooth road, watching llama grazing in the yellow plains.

At 5:30pm, the wind starts to pick up, giving Steve and Canadian Matt a hard time. By 6pm, we decide to turn off onto a dirt road towards some mud brick buildings in the near distance to use as a wind break for camp. The old woman living there is a little hesitant about letting us camp there, saying that the pueblo of Quillacas is “only 2 hours away by foot.” We explain to her that it is late, we are tired, and don’t like to ride after dark, and reassure her that we are harmless. After a bit of convincing, she says we can camp behind her wall. We thank her and set up the tents as we watch another beautiful sunset.

Day 204 (10/8/11): 66km

The temperature is a chilly -4⁰C when we wake up at 6am. As we begin to pack up our gear, the old woman comes outside and says good morning with a smile of relief that we really didn’t cause any trouble last night. When we return to the road, the asphalt ends as we approach Quillacas and we pedal the last few kilometers to the pueblo on graded dirt. In town, Yannick and Shirley have a 2nd breakfast of llama chicharron while the Matts cook up some grub.

As we exit town, we take the turnoff towards the left, following the powerlines as the guide describes. The road here is hard-packed washboard and we rattle our way along. At times, we see 4x4 vehicles and combis driving alongside us on the old trail, making us wonder if riding there would be better. We go off-road to try it out – it is nicer when the surface is hard, but there are intermixed sections with loose sand. Despite that, we stay on the sand, having a good time swerving around and trying to keep our balance. This feels more like the adventure we all were looking for…yeehaw!

The wind is gradually picking up and we start seeing twisters forming around us – one even passes over the road, missing us by a few hundred meters. When the sand on the trail becomes too deep and we get tired of pushing the bicycles, we return to the road. When we get tired of bumping along the washboard, it’s back to the sand. The area we are riding through is very arid and we are paranoid of running out of water, so we top off our bottles every chance we get: at a roadside water pump in Bengal Vinto, a well in an old man’s backyard in Villa Esperanze, and at a water spicket in Tambo Tambillo.

We are tempted to stay the night at the sheltered basketball court in Tambo Tambillo, but it is only 4:30pm and we still have a lot of daylight left. Besides, we don’t see anyone around to ask permission to stay except for 3 kids under 10 who don’t speak much Spanish. We decide to keep pedaling for a little longer and set up camp in a wash several kilometers out of town, invisible to vehicles passing on the road. Out of sight, out of mind.

Day 205 (10/9/11): 54km

We spend the morning going between the washboard road and the sandy jeep trail. At one point, the road splits and we take the left option, which turns into deep sand after only a couple kilometers. Oops, we made the wrong choice! Rather than backtracking, we push the bikes cross country and through some plowed fields to get back to the other road. We bump, bump, bump along until we need to take a lunch break and let our brains stop rattling. But right when we stop and sit down, the wind picks up…yummm…sandy sandwiches!

Soon after lunch, we come to another fork in the road. We take a look at the map and decide to follow some jeep tracks that cut across the salt flats, heading towards Chalcaya and bypassing Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Woohoo…off-trail riding! We follow the tracks for a few kilometers, which then turn to a different direction, so we keep aiming straight ahead, breaking our own trail through the salt. The hard-packed salt is fun to ride on, but the ground gradually gets softer and we slow start sinking through the crust and into the mud below. Eventually, it becomes too difficult to pedal and we have to hike the bikes several kilometers with Shirley, Yannick, and Steve taking turns breaking trail. When the salt becomes hard and thick again, we are able to glide easily over its smooth surface. We stop for a photo op and play around, riding in circles with our eyes closed as we wait for the Matts to catch up.

To bad the perfect riding surface doesn’t last forever and we end up pushing the bike again. We change our trajectory and aim for the shortest path to where the road should be. When it starts to drizzle, we start pushing as quickly as we can – we don’t want to get stuck in the mud! Shirley being the lightest weight, is able to pedal break trail through the semi-soft surface while the boys have to continue pushing most of the way. When we finally arrive at the sandy road, some jeeps full of tourists pass by – as they snap photos of us from behind their closed windows, it almost feels as though they are on a safari and we are some kind of dangerous animal they want to get a shot of.

At 5pm, we arrive at a tiny settlement and refill our water at a well. It is a little strange being here because we saw a couple of people poking their heads out of their doors to look at us, but no one comes out to say anything to us. We decide to ride a little further and set camp behind a wall at the next settlement. As we pitch the tents, the wind keeps changing directions, making it a little difficult to orient the tents in a way to minimize the effects of the gusts. Unlike the previous nights, the wind doesn’t die down after dark and we go to bed hoping that this isn’t the start of the rainy season.

Day 206 (10/10/11): 58km

We follow jeep trails full of rocks, gravel pits and loose sand until we get tired of swerving around, fishtailing, and pushing our bicycles. We decide to skip the next resupply point, figuring we would burn more calories and eat more food from the effort than if we just head to the Salar now. A large area of mud lines the edge of the salt flats, so we take a small trail through the spiky grass. We hit a dead end and have to choose between going over the mud flats, hiking cross country to the road, or going back where we came from. Steve tries the mud and slips and slides around for a few minutes until he decides, “This is stupid!” and returns to us with the bottom half of his shoes caked in mud. We try our next option: we push our bicycles through the lumpy grass that looks like a coral reef, then through some deep sand fields to the sandy road where we get to continue pushing. Ride, swerve, push…ride, swerve, push…it is really slow going.

We finally arrive in Ayque and buy only a few snacks, being told by the vendor that the food supplies on Incahuasi Island are a bit cheaper. From here, we enter the Salar. There is an elevated road leading over some pools of salt water, but we still have to push through some shallow sections – we really hope this salt doesn’t corrode the spokes and wheel rims Soon, we get out on the pure white salt that stretches out farther than the eye can see…so amazing! Steve rides with his eyes closed for over 15minutes with Shirley giving him correctional trajectory cues (a Peruvian world record? :) Yannick and Shirley lead the way to the island, being reminded of their kayaking days and being out on the water with nothing except one point in the foreground to aim for. We ride and rice over the bumpy honeycombed salf for hours, only stopping to observe some minor imperfections in the salt. At one point, we see a gaping hole through the salt’s surface, exposing the deep water underneath. What!? The salt isn’t actually a crust lying on mud, but is a thick, crystallized surface suspended above a salty, cold sea! A little weirded out that we are riding on water, we continue on a bit more wary than before.

We are still about 5km from Isla Incahuasi when the sun begins to set and we have to stop to take photos of the breathtaking views and perfect light, then layer up for the huge temperature drop. The very strong side winds that have been blasting us all afternoon becomes bone chilling without the sun and we race to the island for some protection. We arrive after dark, riding under the moonlight and set camp on the flat surface of the salt. What an amazing day.

Day 207 (10/11/11): 64km

We wake up in time to catch the sunrise over the Salar, then hike to the top of the Isla for an aerial view of our impressive surroundings. From Incahuasi, we continue South and finish crossing the salt flats rather quickly with a tailwind. Once on dirt, Yannick and Shirley shelter behind a building for a lunch break while Matt, Matt, and Steve head to Villa Candelaria 10km away because they’re low on food.

An hour later, we find the boys in town and also find a spicket to refill water and wash off the bicycles. The five of us spend the next few hours scrubbing, rinsing, and cleansing the corrosive salt out of every little corner of the bikes, racks, and panniers, then give ourselves a quick scrubbing. We haven’t showered for a week and probably need it more than the bikes! The people in town are very friendly and stop by to talk while we work away. We are finally ready to leave at 5:30pm and ride along the dirt for only 45min. Our cleaning job worked wonders – the bikes ride so smoothly now! We stop to set camp inside a giant bulldozed ditch in the ground where the wind isn’t quite as bad. Nice to be sheltered from the cold and out of view from the road nearby.

Day 208 (10/12/11): 35km

The wind kept blowing all night and is still going strong this morning. We return to the sandy jeep trail and slowly make our way to the Cholcha K junction. Shirley and Yannick keep going while the Matts and Steve stop to talk to a jeep. We keep going until we reach another junction with power lines heading South and note that there are more tire tracks going in that direction, so we turn South. After a couple kilometers, the boys still haven’t caught up to us and our path is becoming really bad. We haven’t seen any cars in a while, except in the distance, so we backtrack and make another turn that looks as though it will connect to where we saw the truck go by. We eventually reach the road and see a sign directing us towards Manica…yes, we are back on track.

We arrive at the pueblo, buy a lot of cookies and crackers at the tienda, then pay a quick visit to the quinoa museum. We spend about an hour in town, but still see no sign of the boys, so we keep going towards San Juan, where we all had talked about stopping for the day. As we continue on and pass yet another junction, we see three bicycle tracks in the sand and are sure they belong to our friends. Soon, we round the mountains and see wide open space with sand twisters all around. The wind is incredibly strong with gusts over 80k/h, stopping us dead in our tracks as whenever we get sandblasted. We see the Matts and Steve in the distance, standing there on the road with their bicycles, crunching over whenever the wind blows. We catch up to them and figure we have to average 4k/h to get to town by sunset – at the rate we are going, we’ll be cutting it close. Shirley and Yannick take the lead, with Steve in the near distance, and the Matts bringing up the rear. The road is in very poor condition, combine that with the strong winds causing us to lose control in the deep sand, we are forced to push the bicycles at least half of the time.

At 3pm, we spot a town in the distance; an hour later, we arrive at a road sign indicating that it is San Juan! The previous sign had overestimated the distance by 10km, hallelujah! We talk to some local men, then go find a store to buy some much needed provisions. The first store seems very expensive, with everything being at least double the price of what we found in Manica, so Shirley goes knocking at another tienda. This store has much more reasonable prices and the five of us buy at least half their stock of chocolate bars and about 20 bags of cheese puffs (all they had on hand). San Juan is the last stop to buy anything substantial for the next 8 or so days on the road, so Shirey continues shopping around town, stopping at about six more tiendas to buy pasta, mashed potatoes, cookies, eggs, juice, and oatmeal.

We stay at a hotel for 20Bs each, plus 10BS more if you want a hot shower in the morning. For dinner, we all decide we would rather cook our own eggs and hang out in our rooms than go find a place to eat and subject ourselves to the biting cold for longer than necessary.

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BJ on

That report sounded horrible!! Hope things get easier.

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