Mud Sweat and Tears: Our New Year in Bolivia (La Paz to the Salar de Coipasa, 26 Dec to 1 Jan)

My elbow is cut up and my thigh is bruised after Silver and I fell yesterday. Paola is lying in her sleeping bag, feeling sick. It’s 9am, New Year’s Day 2015 in Bolivia. I’m looking up at the roof of the church that we found last night after a heavy gale stopped us in our tracks. Last night we showered for the first time in three days using my water bag hung from a hook in the corner of the church. Our cooking gas has run out so I made a fire to boil water for some coffee this morning. We have an abandoned village all to ourselves, and this is probably the strangest start to a new year I have ever had (and last year I was in Sudan).

Paola says she feels like Tom Hanks in Castaway and I’m her ‘Wilson’.

Sometimes it’s when things go wrong, when you get lost or when ‘the wheels fall off’ that the adventure really starts. At the time it doesn’t feel so wonderful though and you find yourself tired, dirty and hungry shouting with rage at the wind, the rain, the stones, the mud and innocent llamas watching your descent into madness.

Now that we have reached the wilderness of the Salar de Coipasa, one of Bolivia’s salt plains, nursing injury and sickness and without cooking gas, I am living off my wits, and anybody who knows me well should rightly be concerned.

The journey from La Paz to here has been extremely tough and it’s about to get even tougher.
We are travelling South across Bolivia’s “altiplano” up at about 4,000m in the rainy season, experiencing heavy hailstorms, insane wind, scorching mid-day sun, and some very tough ‘roads’.

We have chosen to get off the main roads and avoid the big cities, but the roads are mostly dirt tracks which during the rainy season turn into thick mud and the villages of Bolivia become tiny ghost towns with very few people around and very little in the way of facilities. It is definitely a very different and challenging landscape.

Leaving La Paz, we learnt the hard way that the only way to cycle out to the Altiplano is to return to the Autopista in the north and cycle 13km up the steep but manageable hill. We were trying to take a more direct route and leave via the West to reach a road called Avenida Arica but the incline was impossible. After pushing our bikes for about 3km, we gave up and took a taxi to the top.

At the top, we found that a magnet had fallen off Paola’s bike and this meant there was no connection between the control panel to her electric motor and it therefore wouldn’t work. We had to sacrifice my speedometer by removing the magnet from my wheel and glueing it to her bike. It was a pain but it worked and we were on our way, although we had lost a lot of time.

The road south from La Paz is now a double lane paved highway. In places, there is a lane to the side but it’s often in bad condition so you share the road with the drivers. And drivers in Bolivia are generally idiots.
They drive as fast as they can with no idea of how to overtake using the other lane and beep at you loudly before passing you very closely as if there was no space. Occasionally vehicles passed us using the other lane and waved or beeped encouragement. On the whole though, despite there being very little traffic, Bolivian drivers turned this experience into an ordeal.

Just after Calamarca, we camped next to a farm where we met two little boys who showed us to a place to stay in the shelter of abandoned mud farm buildings sharing a field with their cows and llamas. We gave them biscuits and let them ride our bikes. It was a good first night except we were disturbed by rocks and mud being thrown at our tent, surprisingly not by the boys, but by girls! Stupidity in Bolivia is not just a characteristic of male drivers. After talking to them it seemed they didn’t understand Spanish and they just giggled. Later they again threw stones at our tent and I had to resort to chasing them off throwing stones and shouting. One girl shouted “eres loco” (you’re crazy) so it seems they did understand Spanish after all.
In the morning a bottle had disappeared from my bike. I told the little boys that their sisters are “idiotas y ladronas” (idiots and thieves) which one of the boys at least seemed a little embarrassed about.

Back on the road we continued to fight with trucks and buses and we could see a huge ominous cloud ahead. We were hit by a hailstorm but managed to find an empty brick building to shelter before the worst of it struck.
We slept that night just before the turning towards Eucaliptus at a thermal baths which was lovely. I had a swim and we shared a huge steaming bath for just 15 bolivianos each. The best of all was the shower, which was hot and just perfect. We were also entertained by a little boy whose dad had named him “Cleaver”. Poor thing.

In the morning we left under a grey sky, forgetting to put on sun cream (later that evening I looked like a red panda) and climbed a little before we took the turning towards Eucaliptus instead of continuing towards Oruro. This road, to the west of the lake is paved all the way to Eucaliptus, and it was great fun to be able to roll along, as free as the wind, unmolested by trucks and buses.

We bought water and juice in the ‘town’ (imagine what a town might look like after a nuclear fallout and this will give you an idea of what it looked like) and ran a gauntlet of barking dogs before starting on our first dirt road towards Toledo. After another little village, the dirt road started to deteriorate and we had to avoid wet patches. A huge black cloud in the distance ahead of us was dropping hail and rain and with no shelter in sight we just kept going towards it through strong wind and rain. After crossing a bridge, we turned left past a mining camp and arrived at the village of Toma Toma. As usual, the plaza was deserted and empty except for a few dogs barking at us. A man warned us that there had been a blanket of hail earlier (the cloud we had seen) and the dirt road ahead was now just mud. We tried to continue but after 200 meters, our bikes were completely clogged up with thick clay mud. We returned to Toma Toma where a young man named Grover who was the local authority invited us to his home for the night where we played with his three kids and were given food. It was a genuine surprise to receive such hospitality and kindness from friendly lovely people (when the general population seem frankly braindead). In the morning, I eventually shook little Tatiana, Danny and Josue off my leg (we had been playing ‘airplanes’ where they had been the ones flying and I had become quite popular) and we got back on the now dry mud path towards Challavito. It wasn’t all dry though, and it took hours to push our bikes in the mud around the flooded parts of the path and each time stop to disassemble and clean our bikes just so that they would move.

In the baking sun we decided to stop at the empty town of Challavito to cook and plan the route ahead. We had two options, neither was paved. One option was to continue South West along a winding path via a village called Bella Vista and around the “rinconada del cerro” (corner of the mountain) to get closer to Sabaya and the Salar de Coipasa. We decided it was better to take the straight road Southeast to Toledo because it was a faster route to what we hoped would be some kind of civilization plus it meant we had been told we would be back on asphalt the next morning (on Route 12 heading Southwest). It was a lot faster and we had tailwind, and the pace was good despite bumping around on the rocks and stones, but then there was a patch where the path turned to mud and again my bike Silver ground to a halt. It was the afternoon and our tailwind turned into crosswind and grew into a gale as I stripped the bike down to remove the mud. Silver’s rear mudguard was just a cm or 2 away from the tyre and I knew I would just keep having the same problem, so I set about removing the mudguard completely. The rear light was built in so this wasn’t an easy task, but the eventual result was a dramatic difference as she moved with ease along the path to Toledo (and the bags on the back protected me from being sprayed with the mud anyway). On each side dark clouds loomed with a curtain of dark rain hanging below them, but we reached Toledo just as the lightning was striking behind the town. We asked at the school if we could stay there and we camped on the basketball court which had a huge roof. It sheltered us from the terrifying lightning, thunder, rain and hail which crashed down onto the town flooding the ground all around us except the raised concrete of the basketball court. At that point I had already managed to find beer to sit out the storm with so it wasn’t so bad.

Our hopes for an easy day on asphalt and to give our sore backsides a rest were dashed after just ten kilometers the next morning. We headed Southwest towards Sabaya and endured 40 km of bum-punishing rocky dirt road. Occasionally we had to push Silver and Onyx around flooded parts and shove our way through mud or up banks of earth surrounding areas being dug up by diggers and bulldozers. The muddy, Stoney road is used by big trucks, and car-carriers so it was rutted and hard-going. There were also a series of diversions so our route was a strange bendy trek before we eventually reached a junction. In a year or two it will be paved fully, bit until then, it is quite a brutal journey.
At the junction you can go on a paved road northwest or continue southwest to Sabaya. We went southwest and were delighted that it was fully paved with concrete and we had a glorious tailwind. Unfortunately we had trucks and car-carriers coming in the other direction who decided to overtake and come towards us at terrifying speeds leaving just inches between us and tons of steel. I shouted and waved at them but they just ignored us as we swerved to get out of the road. Their driving was utter stupidity considering there was almost no traffic for half an hour afterwards. Paola was exhausted from all the bumping up and down and pushing through mud earlier in the day so when it started to get dark we stopped at a village called Opoqueri where we struck gold when we found a warm room at a veterinary college to sleep in (with electricity, a water tap outside and posters with all you need to know about pigs and llama diseases). The caretaker Carlos, was very kind and just left us to rest (and drink the excellent “El Inka” dark beer I had bought from a little tienda).

We rose early to leave Opoqueri, and it was just 46km of perfect paved road to Huachacalla which we could see for a long way in the distance as we swooped down a long gradual descent and passed fields of llamas looking up at us curiously and basking in the sun under a beautiful vivid blue sky. There wasn’t much happening in Huachacalla and so we carried on to get to Sabaya just 27km away where we had been told we would find accommodation and a party on New Year’s Day.

Sabaya was a ghost town with an empty plaza. And two of the three hotels were closed and at the only one that was open, the fat old lady wanted a silly amount of money. It was more than we had paid to stay in Copacabana in quite a decent hotel in a touristy place, while this was a small ‘residencial’ in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Sadly this was another stupid Bolivian with no idea about reasonable negotiation who had made up some crazy prices to take advantage of a gringo with no options. But I did have an option which was to walk away. So that’s what I did. I don’t regret it, as I can’t stomach being ripped off, but things really went downhill after that.

Just 3km after Sabaya, there is a sign pointing left for the “Salar de Coipasa”. It’s more direct than staying on asphalt to Pisaga, and it was a flat grey dirt track which didn’t seem too bad at first. Then we very quickly started hitting very sandy patches, stones, and very bumpy rutted parts. The llamas along the route were so cute and adorable it made up for the tough, slow track. But then it got worse. We were regularly pushing our bikes through sand, and a very intense headwind started blowing us all over the place. It was extremely hard going, and we were doing more walking and pushing than cycling. Then after the crest of a hill, a quick drop took me into the path of a big rock which sent Silver and I up into the air (and we weigh a lot) and then down to the ground with a sickening thud, and I found myself over the handlebars crashing into the gravel and stones.

I jumped up quickly, gripping my right elbow and swearing loudly at the stinging pain, annoyed and angry at my bad luck, and the stupid path with a boulder in the middle of a descent.

Paola rushed to help me, and we were both relieved that both I and Silver had no major damage. I was bruised and had lost some skin, and Silver had lost a chunk of padding from her handlebar. We cleaned and bandaged my elbow as the wind got stronger and tried to blow us over.
“Seriously! What next?” I shouted at the wind, and at that exact moment, a “psssssssshhhhhhh” noise came from my front tyre.

I changed the inner tube which had a big split in it (the comedy-timing delayed deflation is still unexplained) and we tried to keep going. But the wind was blowing us sideways into sand and rocks and it was too difficult to stay on the bikes. We couldn’t go on and we needed to find shelter. We struggled to push Silver and Onyx through a field of sand against the gale, to a group of buildings, some old mud brick without roofs and some brand new red brick buildings (basically a building site). There was nobody around, and Paola started checking and found some of the newly built homes were not locked. They were still full of building materials, tiles, bricks, dirt, and rubbish. We would have shelter at least. And a tap nearby had water.

And then I pushed open the doors to the new church that had been built. A big warm room with fully tiled floors, and when Paola flicked the switch on the fusebox, we had light and electricity!

You could say Jesus had saved us!

I boiled some water and used my waterbag to improvise a shower. We were clean, and with a stomach full of pasta, and we collapsed onto our inflatable mattress and slept through the new year.

In the morning, our gas ran out and I searched for wood to build a fire. The coffee tasted good.

No alcohol, no hangover, I can remember everything that happened last night and there’s nobody around to wish happy new year. We had a few tears and a hug because we had no way to send our love and new year best wishes to our families. Paola is asleep again and I hope she will sleep off what seems to be fatigue plus a cold, and I seem to be ok but just a little bit sore. This New Year, 2015, is the strangest new year ever, but we have each other, we’re surviving, and I’m sure this will be a new year we will never forget.

La Paz to Calamarca 50km
Calamarca to thermal baths 68km
Thermal baths to Toma Toma 61 km
Toma Toma to Toledo 33km
Toledo to Opoqueri 65km ( 40km of unpaved awfulness)
Opoqueri to New Year Village 83km

360km from La Paz to the Salar de Coipasa

5,999km in South America

27,507km in Total so far!