Tag Archive for 'tours'

Our ride through no man’s land: Clear blue waters, blinding white salt, and preparing for home

Kilometers this post: 779 biking, 823 on a bus, to save time


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We had reached our “goal” and scaled the Inca steps of Macchu Pichu. What followed has felt like a mix between lost and aimless wandering and a huge bonus: more time on the bikes, another country and culture, the wildest landscapes of our trip. Our ride out of Cusco to the border was full of good biking times, as ever, and Bolivia has offered us a final breath of newness that was welcome after 3 months in good ol’ Peru. We took our time biking away from the Sacred Valley, enjoying some warm nights in our new tent, which was cozy even on the 4,000 meter altiplano, through rainy nights and clear ones. The railroad tracks were our constant companion all the way down from Cusco, up over Abra de la Raya (a pass at 4,318m), and across the high plains to the city of Puno on Lake Titicaca. This meant that the road was never too steep, guiding us up to the pass gently over several days, in true Peruvian fashion. We wish that the drivers were as kind as the climbs. Suffice it to say, our final week of biking in Peru had us really looking forward to the milder traffic of Bolivia. Still, the high, bare landscapes and small Andean towns offered us a fond send-off from a country we’d gotten to know well. Following, the photos march through a day in the life of bike touring. Of course, no two are the same, but some things are quite routine…

And here are some additional shots of our days on the altiplano.

We arrived in Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca just in time for Thanksgiving, and we spent the day running around town trying to secure visas to enter Bolivia, which we finally did after several hours that went something like this: To the consulate, to the photo store, to the internet cafe, to the copy shop, back to the photo store, to the ATM, back to the consulate, to lunch, to the consulate, to the bank, to the consulate, to the copy shop, back to the consulate. Then, ice cream. You see, for a Bolivian to enter the US, they need to pony up $135 and an insane amount of paperwork including proof of a solid bank account, copies of plane tickets and hotel reservations, passport photos, etc. In 2007ish, the Bolivian president decided U.S. citizens should have to do the same. We suppose fair is fair. But it made for kind of a pain in the butt. We spent one more day in Puno, in which we took a boat out to the floating islands, 5km from shore. As a use of human and natural resources, these islands are impressive. They use the reeds that grow on the shores and in the shallows of the lake to build the things, and they anchor them to the lake floor. However, they are maintained entirely for the tourists these days, and we were less than thrilled at the way they shuttled us in herds from one spot to the next, past spreads of kitschy kitsch and overpriced restaurants. There is no longer anything traditional or authentic-feeling in the Uros. But we like seeing new and different things, and did our best to tune out the touristy-ness.

From Puno, on we went to the Bolivian border, and to another lakeside town of Copacabana. From there, we went to the Isla del Sol, another touristy destination, but with SPECTACULAR views of the sunrises and sunsets. We spent the night so as to enjoy one of each. And the island was big enough that escaping the tourist traps wasn’t impossible.

Bolivia is home to the world’s largest salt flat, and biking across it is an otherworldly experience that is the highlight of many a bike tourist’s tour. We didn’t want to miss it, but were faced with more kilometers than time would allow. No stranger to bikes on buses by now, we decided to high-tail it to the town of Uyuni so that we could be sure not to miss biking on the salt. Uyuni is not just a tourist town, but one with crappy, over-priced hotels, little to no internet, and folks whose interactions with groups of backpackers has soured them on extranjeros in general. We arrived after spending the night on the bus, and didn’t quite have it in us to bike out of town the same day, so we spent the night. We’d decided that after biking on the salt, we would take a jeep tour of the southwest corner of the country through some amazing landscapes including volcanoes, deserts, and lakes of many colors. A woman from a tour agency approached us as we were getting off the bus and offered that we could bike to the middle of the salt flat where lies an island, and her driver would pick us up to continue the tour from there, while another driver brought our bikes and the bulk of our gear back to Uyuni, where we could collect everything several days later.

As we biked out of town, we realized we’d left ourselves far too much time before we were to meet up with the tour, but we’re also no strangers to taking our time, so we spent one entire lazy day biking 25km to the next town north where there was an entrance to the flat. We spent the night camping at an abandoned hotel made of bricks of salt, and all of the next day biking on the great white salty flat. There were jeep tracks we could have followed directly to the island forged by the now myriad tours that cross the Salar daily, but with time and our GPS, we figured we had the freedom to weave around as we pleased. We spent the night in our tent on the salt with nothing in view except salt, mountains, and sky. The sunset was perhaps the most amazing we’ve seen because you could turn around 360 degrees and watch the entire sky change colors. When it got dark, the wind died, the silence was the most enormous and thorough that either of us had ever experienced. The following day, we finished our leg to the Isla Incahuasi, where we recovered in the small restaurant there, with beers and a good meal. We camped directly outside the registration office, and woke before the first tour jeeps arrived to watch the sunrise, enjoying a last hour or two of peace before joining the crowds of backpackers and 4×4’s.

Our driver and four traveling companions arrived mid-afternoon, and what followed were two days of incredible sight after incredible sight. Sometimes we wished we were still on our bikes, but only when the roads weren’t some combination of deep sand, gravel, and washboard. Which was most of the time. We’ll just let the pictures tell:

We decided that the Salar de Uyuni was an excellent place to lay down our bike touring days for the time being. We could have taken a few more days to bike a stretch in Bolivia, but at the price of feeling rushed at the end of our trip and missing a few sights we were very interested in seeing. So from Uyuni, it was another bus to the city of Potosí, where for some crazy reason, you can take a tour of the still-working mine there. This is an amazing place. The mine is owned by the government, but they rent it to the cooperative of miners that works in the mountain. Miners become full members after working for 3 years, at which point they are granted health insurance for them and their families, and the opportunity to retire with a small pension after they lose half of their lung function. The thing is, it only takes about 10 years for them to develop lung disease. Life expectancy for a miner is 42. Miners do not get a salary, but make whatever they can selling what they pull out of the mountain, minus %14 for the coop.

Our tour began in the miners’ market, where we were told that while the mine is a cooperative, the miners still need to buy all their own gear and supplies. At the market we were encouraged to buy as gifts things that the workers need in the mines, including dynamite, which you can buy freesale only in Potosi for about 75 cents per stick. Other necessities include water, coca leaves for chewing, cigarettes, and 96% alcohol. For drinking.

Down in the mines, we got to crawl around frighteningly disorganized, dark, narrow passageways. We visited a shrine to the character the miners worship named Tío, who receives offerings of none other than coca leaves, cigarettes, and pure alcohol. He is said to bring the miners luck: fewer accidents and rocks rich in silver, zinc, tin, lead, and all things mine-able. There is no organization of when and where blasts will happen in the mine, which makes the tour kinda unnerving. But we lived to tell the tale. And how else is word supposed to get around, we guess.

Tonight, we take one last bus to La Paz, from where we fly home in less than a week. Yes, we will bike tour more one day. But the truth is that right now, we are ready for home. Surely there will be some startling readjustment, but we will welcome our own bed, not packing and unpacking our bags every 24 hours, and most of all our families and friends. We’ve missed you. Thanks for all of the encouragement.