21st till 27th of July 2019.
Are you competitive on holiday? Or when travelling for a longer time? Can you relax and go with the flow, not pre-plan anything?
Sunday morning shows that the storm has draped the mountains with a thin layer of snow as if silver angel-hair covers a giant head.
It is fun to ride together with Nils, our French engineer who is biking from Colombia to Brazil. Lives in Germany. Studied in the USA. Fun to share stories, listen to plans, dreams for the future without forgetting to live in the now. So relaxed with no fixed goal, only that he will meet friends in Brazil. We cover more miles than we have done in a very long time!
Entering Ororu we meet German cyclists Annett and Raimund, heading the other way. As it is already late afternoon they choose to hitchhike instead of biking against the wind.
We find a decent hostal (iOverlander 😊) where we can also cook. Searching for vegetables on the market together. Food stalls located on the train tracks. When a train needs to pass they are gone in a few minutes. Nils and I cook a lovely pasta and when we are almost at our second serving Jochen enters the kitchen. Never expected to see him again as we met him at the beginning of our Peru adventure. What a coincidence he is also staying here. And even more funny is that they have put him in Nils’ room without asking. Sharing bike and life stories is a inspiring.
How strange it is to say goodbye when you only have met 3 days ago but shared miles, food and memories. Most fun is to have learned from each other and enjoyed wonderful -non-competitive biking time together. We love it that Nils really goes where the wind is taking him, there is a final goal and a plane to catch but no pressure on where a day will bring him.
Sunday is a late start as we enjoy having breakfast with Nils & Jochen. Finding a working ATM and some bread adds more time to the late start. We cover almost 10 km before we have left the dusty, industrial city of Oruro.
Passing a beautiful lake with flamingos brings us to the real altiplano. Flat on +3,700 meters. Almost no vegetation. Yellows and reds which compete to catch your eye. At a real small village we stop to have the street food. Chicken soup with a bit of rice and a small piece of chicken. A bit further down the straight road we stop again to eat our bread.
I don’t understand.
After a meager 47 km but as it is already 15:00, we decide we need to have a look if the village of Toledo can offer us any shelter. We are both tired of the fierce headwind. Lucky us they opened a hostal only a few months ago. 4 walls and a matrimonial is all we need. No windows but at least shelter from the wind and the cold. We have time to walk through the village (the square), chat a bit with people, find some cheese and bread for tomorrow and eat street food: lama with baked potatoes. Not bad. An old lady tries to teach us Quechua, but a big quantity of coca leaves in her mouth and her limited command of Spanish make it hard to understand her. People in Bolivia are more closed than in Peru but once you start a conversation they are very open and welcoming.
As there is no place to sit inside and it starts to get very cold we return to our heaven and Frank edits photo’s while I read a book on my iPhone. When we have longer, quiet evenings we miss having two laptops.
Under a stormy sky.
Early night as we leave very early next morning . Just when the sun is peaking over the horizon we are ready to take off. Getting up at 5:30 gets rewarded with a windless start of the day. Plains make place for the foothills of mountains. Wind is in our favor today and when the sky turns grey we are happy to ride to the only blue spot in the distance.
We find this cute roadside stop in the middle of nowhere.
When everything turns grey and yellow and you see it is raining in the distance we know we need to put on our rain gear. We make it to Opoqueri in dust clouds, wind is picking up fiercely. By the way, the nice push we had in the morning turned into a 70% head wind during the afternoon.
We ask at the health center if there is a hostal and when they say there is none, we ask if we can sleep at the construction site of the health center. They refuse but direct us to the “main square”, to ask at the church. The church is small and closed but we see the only fancy building in the village, a community hall (sports hall) and try our luck.
As this morning also now we are lucky. The two military guys that guard the place (from what?) offer us a spare room where we can put up our tent. After an uneventful cold evening, a chilly night (we need to start sleeping with more cloths on!) and a morning where Frank makes breakfast with the Primus multi fuel burner in the room, we look outside and see bright blue sky, sun reflecting on a frosty layer of snow and ice. Broom the room and leaving it cleaner as it was is always the aim when people let you sleep for free. As a thank you we also give a pack of cookies to our two guards.
The blue sky only lasted for an hour. What lasted much longer were our cold feet. Luckily our hands are reasonable warm, two pair of gloves, one I crocheted myself as we could not find mittens. When the dark sky is not only a treat but also starts to shed it’s snow-load, the headwind is so fierce we almost don’t move forward, we decide to hitchhike for the final 35 km of the 80 km we want to cover today (next village and shelter). We find a spot where cars can stop but this time our luck is not with us. Several empty pickups pass-by, leaving us standing in the howling wind. Finally Simeon stops and is glad to take us to Sabaya. Did he stop because he knows German and English, because he studied and worked in Berlin? Because he traveled in Europe? Happy we put our pride aside and asked for help. It becomes a real sand storm with less than 50 meters of visibility. Wind blowing from the right, wondering how we would have been able to keep the bikes upright. He leaves us in the center of town where we can’t persuade him to share lunch. Simeon, thank you again for saving us from the storm!
Starving, we first wolf down dried Lama meat with a boiled egg and potatoes, the specialty of this region.
In from the storm.
We check all the possibilities to find a sturdy place to sleep while the storm is getting stronger and stronger and the roof is lifted off a house nearby. Finally we opt for the hotel just outside town. Film on Instagram from just outside of the hotel. The storm caused a power cut in the whole village. Cozy evening with candle light. Just you know they don’t have any heating anywhere, even when it is freezing.
As it was clouded there is also no warm water, no solar heating. We stay an extra day as we need to stock-up and prepare the bikes for crossing the salt flats of Coipasa and Uyuni. I don’t mind as there is more storm predicted. The hotel has a solar system on top of the roof but it freezes so hard during the night that the pipes burst. Wind is not as strong as yesterday.
The hotel rooftop space gives us the possibility to hand wash with cold water and cook :).
Early chilly morning (where we waited to crawl out of our bed until the sun peaked above the horizon) has a bad surprise, Frank has again a flat and needs to repair before we can leave. Stupid as he changed the inner tube yesterday (was slowly loosing air).
Fun to be on gravel within 5 minutes after leaving the village of Sabaya. Lama traffic jam, beautiful sandy road, desolated villages built from earth. Sand slowly being covered by the first thin layer of salt. Impressed by the vastness of the space.
Trying to orientate but still confused by the different tracks going in different directions. Happy with MapOut which saves us a detour. To be sure we are following the right track we start to record what we bike. Battery is charged by our Son SL Dynamo and on board USB charger. Arriving at the village of Coipasa we find an empty square, no signs of accommodation but we ask around and an older man on a bicycle takes us to a little tienda (shop) that offers one room.
Just in time to follow our landlady to where she is backing her quinoa bread and where the small breads of the village are baked. The oven needs to be heated for 30 min by wood (almost no wood in the whole area!) hereafter they can bake 250 small pita look-a-like breads. They sell 8 pieces of bread for 10 BOB (1.20 Euro). Best ever bread I have had, still warm from the oven! Dinner we cook in the room (on our gasoline stove).
In the morning everything is frozen. Gobbling turkeys welcome a cold blue sky. This macho male turkey reminds me of our turkey at home, Kalkie. I must have been around 14, my sister 4 and my brother 16. We raised Kalkie during the summer to become nice and fat. He was like a pet with a beautiful red head which would turn bright blue when he was shaking his feathers (he was a grey turkey). We knew we would have him as Christmas dinner but even when we were used to seeing chickens and rabbits killed we were a bit weak hearted for Kalkie and insisted that he would be sedated with chloroform before the axe would chop his head off. It worked and the beautiful 9 kg weighting animal found a not too stressful death. De-feathered and cleaned he was stored in the freezer until Christmas. The oven was just big enough to give him a shiny crispy skin. And when dad had carved him we thanked Kalkie for giving us such nice meat. How awful when we discovered that the chloroform had entered the meat and each bite tasted of chloroform. Everything was wasted. Hope this will not happen to this Kalkie. Ps it did not change us to vegetarians but it was the last time we raised a turkey for Christmas dinner.
Salt flat epic.
Next day we are really entering the great white nothing of the Salar de Coipasa. In most of the directions we still see volcano cones peaking out of the white flat pancake. As Coipasa is the wetter and smaller sibling of Salar de Uyuni we start on an elevated road.
Still doubting which route to take. We know we will not bike to Mendoza as this is where all the tours go. I wanted to bike through part of the lake but the more kilometers we cover the more we discover we won’t be able to set a speed record. Each kilometer the surface changes and most of it is very rocky and slow. On the Salar there are “roads”, tracks which are used by cars and buses, which are also marked on Google Maps or MapOut, little did we know there was a reason for those roads…
We decide to not bike through the “lake” and decide to create a shortcut over a stretch of more than 30 kilometers. Beautiful structures of the salt. Magical white without any tracks. Aiming for the distant horizon where we should hit the road again.
Had we known that the outskirts of the lake, the direction where we were heading, had only a very thin layer of salt on top of a ticker layer of loose muddy sand. Even Frank had to push.
Some stretches of the salar look like an old skinny woman’s cheek.
As always at 16:00 we discuss what our plan for the night should be. We see we will never make it to the road and decide this should be the area to spend a night on the Salar. Frank finds a perfect spot between ancient moss. As we know they are very slow growing ancient plants we take care not to trample them. They look like corals and seem to grow as slow as those. If you would walk over them you have the same negative impact as if you would touch corals. Although they are hard as rock and cars drive over them, we find it best to leave them alone.
Easy setting up the tent as it is not rock solid salt but rather loose sand. Just before sundown (18:00) we have cooked dinner (onion, garlic, bell peper, carrot and noodles) and are ready to hide in the tent. Taking a bottle of water with us in the tent as it will be -10 C tonight.
Will we be warm enough during the night? Will we have water tomorrow to make breakfast? Do you want to know what we were wearing during the night and if we were warm enough? Keep tuned for next week’s story.