Chiu Chiu, Chile
As Jorge headed south on an Chilean airforce flight to help his family in the aftermath of the earthquake, I was heading northeast through the Atacama towards the Bolivian border. From sea-level in Antofagasta, the road climbed steadily but not very perceptively over the 200 km to Calama at around 2400 metres, crossing the unmarked Tropic of Capricorn along the way. The more direct route to Uyuni (in Bolivia) via the small border crossing at Ollague began to appeal more than my intended route via San Pedro de Atacama and the Abaroa national park in southern Bolivia. In Calama Rocinante groaned under the ridiculous load of supplies purchased from the Lider supermarket for the 450 km ride to Uyuni, the prospect of my last supermarket for some time sending me into a panic buying spree.
A vicuna and a volcano
I reached the fertile village of Chiu Chiu in the late afternoon, 40 km across a barren, sun-baked plateau from Calama. I hadn't realised its historical significance before arriving there. Previously an important stopover point on routes over the Andes, the village houses the oldest church in Chile. As I packed some fresh bread onto the bike a man hobbled over to me and asked where I was going to sleep. Within a few sentences Jose had invited me back to his old house, further up the main street, for the night. His family had first come to the village 150 years ago and the front rooms of the house still had the shelving and counter-tops for the grocery store that his grandparents had run. Jose was in his mid-forties and his own family had long since emmigrated south to Valparaiso, leaving him to tackle his various projects, including the tending of a large vegetable garden, restoration of the crumbling house, and finding an outlet for minerals that he digs on a small mining plot that he has in the hills.
Kids, this is what happens when you drink too much coke
Jose's pronounced hobble and occasional jerks of pain were the result of a two-story fall when he was drunk and taking cocaine a couple of years ago. With nine fractures between his two legs he said he never returned for additional treatment after the initial surgery placed pins in his legs. These days were calmer he said, just some beer and marijuana to dull the pain. During his initial period of recovery Jose said he had felt very depressed at the prospect of being disabled but he had since realised how lucky he was and found happiness. I believed him. As he cooked me up a mixture of tomato, onion and eggs and boiled the kettle, a tremor rocked the house and after staring at each other for a few seconds, we realised we'd better go outside. Later the radio announced that it had been a Magnitude 6 tremor. Jose reckoned that northern Chile is better protected from earthquakes with its natural mantle of hard rock sub-surface that absorbs much of the shock. I still pondered setting up the tent later that evening, but settled for a bed in a newer part of the house after carefully studying the thick wooden beams supporting the roof. After dinner we took a walk around the starlit village to attend to Jose's various enigmatic transactions. Across the river in the newer part of town, while we waited on another man to come out from his house, Jose whispered that cocaine smuggling forms a substantial part of the local economy. The cocaine is smuggled over the remote and porous border from Bolivia on foot, before being met by pickup trucks on the Chilean side. Jose laughed at the often presented image of Chile's police being incorruptable.
Electrifying a village on the Bolivian southern antiplano
From Chiu Chiu, it was a two-day 160 km ride to the borderpost at the windswept village of Ollague. Water was available at the old rundown stations that served the trains on the Calama-Uyuni railway that the road generally runs alongside at San Pedro, Ascotan and Cebollar. The road gradually ascended across a stony brown plain, hard salt pans and wove its way around the base of smoking volcanos. Although not asphalt, the road had quite a decent surface that compensated for the headwinds and climbing and I reached Ollague on the evening of the second day from Chiu Chiu, taking shelter from the wind and rain in the Inca Huasi hostal, next to the migration and custom's buildings. Defunct railway offices and warehouses line the still operative railway line and the town has a wild west feel to it, with stray dogs sniffing furtively at passing plastic bags. Dinner that night was cooked in the bathroom as the wind threatened to rip off the perspex strips on the roof.
Piling salt to dry on the Salar de Tunupa
The following morning there was no evidence left in the blue sky of the previous evening's dark clouds. The border opens a little later on Sunday, about 9.30am the lady in the hostal reckoned. A dusty bus from Calama had beaten me to the post and I waited while the aggressive policeman processed Bolivians who were returning home for a visit. I asked another policeman about the road ahead and he solicited the help of a Bolivian bus driver in answering my questions, admitting that he had never crossed the border and apparently had no wish to do so. The bus driver reckoned it was a one-hour drive to Uyuni, 250 km distant. Yes, I agreed, with nitrous oxide perhaps. He asked what type of vehicle I was driving and the policeman motioned over to Rociante. Hysterical laughter followed. I said goodbye to Chile and rode the 4 km across no-man's land to the Bolivian borderpost of Abaroa. There I was processed quickly by a friendly policeman. When I eventually tracked down the smiling customs man, he wasn't interested in the contents of my panniers and brought me over to a wall map of Bolivia that was possibly worse than the useless map I had picked up in Argentina. He named the towns that I would pass through, although there was no road connecting them on the map. Most cyclists passing through this region follow the railway across a flat plain to Uyuni. Even in the dry season though, this can be a muddy venture and given that it was still the rainy season in Bolivia, I decided to follow the main route that was built a few years ago across higher and dryer ground to Uyuni, via the villages of Alota, Culpina K, and San Cristobal.
On the Tunupa salt flats
As I began climbing on the rough gravel road out of Abaroa, dark clouds settled down on the surrounding peaks. Later on this materialised into a gentle hail shower as Rocinante went back up above 4000 metres. At the first settlement, a llama herder's house 40 km from the border, I stopped and went over to the mole-faced old man who squinted at me cheerfully as he gestured that I sit down beside him on the grass. He asked where I was from and if I had a spare pair of glasses with me. Or a spare pair of shoes perhaps, showing me his knarled toes that stuck out of an old sandle. When I asked about water he told me there was a stream down by the house and I went to fill up with water that looked a lot better than the tap water I had been given in Ollague earlier in the morning. After waving me off, the old man wandered off towards his llamas.
Quinoa growing on the antiplano
I wasn't sure how far Alota, the first village in Bolivia, was from the border but based on my sheet of surrealist cartography I didn't think it could be further than 100 km. Just as the sun was settling down behind the peaks I had passed earlier in the day, a sign indicated Alota was 10 km ahead, so only just over 80 km from the borderpost. As I neared the town an old woman was walking along the roadside dressed in traditional weavings and the bowler-type hat worn by women, with a basket over her back. She smiled a good evening at me and then I followed a boy with a bundle of grass on the back of his bike into town, as he constantly checked behind to see that I wasn't going to beat him. I found a hostal with a Landcruiser parked outside, bringing six tourists on a tour of the salar and the Abaroa national park. The smiling owner initially asked for 50 Bolivianos but when I asked for a better rate, he immediately dropped to 30 (about 3.30 euro). Bargaining for everything from a bed to a toothbrush is back as a daily task.
Cerro Rico mountain overlooking the old centre of Potosi
The next day I continued on towards Uyuni, passing through the village of Culpina K and past the silver mine at San Cristobal. Around 6pm I stopped to fill up on water at Ramadita. As I entered the village two young snotty-faced boys ran in front of the bike demanding caramellos. Dogs jumped out of their stupor and joined in the excitement. I sought refuge in a shop and after chatting with the friendly lady and her husband who ran the place, I asked for somewhere to pitch my tent and was shown around to the backyard, the now angelic faced little boys looking on serenely. I gave the lady the kilo of lentils that I had been carting up from Calama, relieved to be able to give a small token of appreciation and even more delighted to lighten Rocinante's load on these rough roads. In return the lady brought me back to the table inside the shop and served me rice, eggs and bread for dinner with apple tea. This region of the southern antiplano is predominantly Quechua speaking but Spanish is also used universally.
Tio, the devil, in a Potosi mine
Various people I had met along the way had told me that the Tunupa salt flats near Uyuni were submerged with rainwater at the moment, so I wouldn't be able to cycle on them. Disappointed that I wouldn't be able to cycle on the salar, I settled for a day trip in a four-wheel drive with six girls. Uyuni and the salt flats are firmly established landmarks on the gringo trail and backpackers abounded in the centre of town. Ironically, the prospect of meeting other travelers and sustaining conversations of more than five minutes and five words often lures me along the solitary road with great expectations and yet when I arrive in these mecca points I often feel like I don't belong there and almost immediately long for the open road again. I soon met other cyclists though, as well as other travelers, and enjoyed the time there.
Fiesta in Potosi
Two and half days hard riding brought me from Uyuni to the at once spectacular and tragic city of Potosi. Overlooked by the Cerro Rico, the city that often incorrectly assumes the title of the highest city in the world, was once the biggest in the Americas. The rich veins of pure silver financing Spanish crusades in the New World and the Old and condemning untold millions to suffering and dying from the inhuman working conditions that persist to this day in the mines. Known as "the mountain that eats men", tours through the maze of tunnels that snake through the mountain now draw lots of travelers to the city. The Spanish invaders fostered a belief in the power of the devil amongst mineworkers and this has resulted in a faith in "Tio", as the devil has come to be called, whilst working underground. Statues of Tio are found in all of the mines, with offerings scattered around them. Gifts of coca leaves, alcohol, fizzy drinks and dynamite are brought and distributed randomly among miners who are met during the tour. Sticks of dynamite are blown up outside the mine at the end of the tour and like many others who have visited the mines, I was left wondering whether the value of experiencing the conditions inside the mines outweighs the reality of turning these putrid tunnels and silicosis riddled miners into another tourist attraction.
Pimp my ride, Bolivian-style
The advantage of leaving a city that is perched over 4 km high is that there is most likely only one way to go - down. The first 50 km on the tarred road to Sucre descended to the small town of Betanzos. Later the road ran across a plateau before descending 600 metres to a valley floor and then climbing out the other side. A storm appeared to be about to overtake me but then the rain clouds dispersed. Bolivia has a landscape that you have to be careful not to fall off, a Latin American version of Lesotho. The lady at the toll booth in Millares waved to stop me and shouted out that it was 2 pesos for the bicycle. I laughed and cruised through with a policeman looking on dozily. I camped by a dry river bed, leaving just over 40 km to Sucre the following morning.
On the road from Potosi to Sucre
Sucre, The Plurinational State of Bolivia
Distance pedalled: 30,833 km