From Bicycle Times Issue #34
Word and photos: Cass Gilbert
In the dusty village of Vichaya, on the doorstep to La Paz, a fiesta builds in momentum as drunken revelry charges the air. Hired in from the capital, a sharp-looking band plays tirelessly, trumpets and tubas glinting in the midday sun. Bowler-hatted women swirl their skirts and petticoats in perfect synchronicity. Their masked husbands, dressed in the shimmering Morenada costumes of the Bolivian Andes, launch into an elaborate dance inspired by the suffering of African slaves, brought to work in the silver mines of Potosí.
The mood is generous and upbeat; luckily, full inebriation has yet to be reached. Plastic cups of beer are pressed into our hands. I make the mistake of sipping mine without first offering due thanks to Pachamama—Mother Earth. “We must respect Pachamama and give back to her,” reprimands an elderly campesina with intensity. “Pachamama is the earth on which we walk,” I’m told. She looks over at our grubby, battle-scarred fatbikes, fresh from crossing the country’s beautiful and solitary altiplano.
“She’s the earth along which you ride your bikes,” she adds for the sake of clarity. Her drunken husband, hair matted and eyes glassy, nods in solemn agreement. I try again, this time dutifully waving my cup skyward, sploshing beer onto the ground as custom dictates, before taking a generous swig. They smile, appeased.
Russian dolls and smoke signals
They’re right, of course. Pachamama has treated me better than I could have expected, for Bolivia is an incredible and extreme land. One where an intense sun beats down, cracking dry everything beneath it. Where strong winds blast restlessly across the open plateaux. Where simple, everyday living is hard.
At over 13,000 feet in altitude, breathing is often labored. Hands darken and crease. In a few short weeks, the lines around my eyes have collected, and my nose has reddened and peeled. Water stops have been few and far between.
What liquids we have found have often been ladled out of dubious, icy vats in remote, windswept settlements. And where there have been faucets to fill our water bottles, pipes are always frozen solid come morning. At night, I’ve slept in everything I own, bundled up in multicolored layers like a Russian doll, my sleeping bag pulled snug around me, my warm breath wafting out like a smoke signal into the icy, star-clustered air.
As is often the case in such fringe environments, the scenery has been without parallel. Here, volcanoes tower high, scratching the atmosphere at 20,000 feet or more. Minerals saturate and stain mountains, lending the open panoramas a definitive Mars-like hue, while bandy-legged, pink flamingos pick their way through pungent sulphur deposits. A bleached winter light instills a sense of otherworldliness, especially when crossing the salar—the country’s fabled salt flats—that scrunch under tire, handlebars free to turn in any one of the 360 surrounding degrees.
It’s an environment that’s shaped those who live here, both physically and emotionally: Bolivians are inevitably short, squat and strong. And while not always as naturally quick to engage as their effervescent Argentinian neighbors, it’s not long before a genuine warmness emerges, along with gummy and gold-toothed smiles.
Looking back on our five-week traverse of this rugged, landlocked country, it was clear that our high altitude adventures had been their toil. We’d ridden from the Chilean border all the way to the capital, on barely a stretch of pavement. We’d camped under skies crammed with constellations, shielded from the wind by ancient burial chambers. We’d dined on llama, the camelid so perfectly adapted to the region, in all its culinary forms—stewed, fried and even dried. We carbo-loaded on chuño, a traditional speciality of potatoes blackened by days of freeze-thaw, befitting frigid night time temperatures that dropped below -5 degrees.
As for the altiplano’s “roads”… Well, more often than not, the lines that look so permanent on our maps had proved little more than a series of interlocking, ever-shifting sandy tracks, shaped into brain-rattling corrugation by the jeeps that barreled across them. In fact, it was for this reason that I’d chosen to ride the bike I had—a Surly Pugsley, its meaty tires providing incredible traction, flotation and stability.
Everyone I’d talked to said that: among the volcanic landscapes of the Andes, road conditions were horrendous. I’d read countless tales of poor souls dragging juggernaut touring bikes for hours through deep sand, only to be maddened by miles of corrugation. And it was true. Fat bikes may hail from Alaska, but Bolivia is surely their surrogate home.
Mad Max and the Rio Grande
Certainly, they looked the part. Ingrained with a thick film of dust, our fat bikes blended effortlessly into the Mad Maxian, cinematic setting that encapsulates much of southwest Bolivia. The ride from San Juan de Rosario to Uyuni certainly felt post-apocalyptic in character.
First we followed an old mining company railway line built in the 19th century—when Bolivia still bordered the Pacific—its hardened strips of shiny metal scything across the plateaux. Under a cloudless expanse, we chased the faintest hint of a jeep track across sparse, crunchy salt flats. Then we balanced our way across railway sleepers to cross the frigid waters of the Rio Grande, swirling in icy slow-motion.
We weaved through powdery borax mines that painted our tire tracks a sugary white, and traced a singletrack that flanked daisy chains of stenciled railway carriages; empty, quiet and still. Our ride even skirted an abandoned train cemetery, sprawling out beyond the sandy fringes of Uyuni, where hollowed out locomotives lie dull and corroded by the restless, salty winds of the Andean altiplano.
Uyuni proved to be a dusty, unsightly town we soon warmed to, thanks to the chance to fill our boots with the best pizza this side of the Andes, and an all-you-can-eat breakfast, manned by a relocated Bostonian. There, we eeked out our time, stuffing ourselves with pancakes, maple syrup, granola, hash browns, toast, fruit and more—a blur of movement from table to buffet, a blur of shoveling, the typical actions of cycle tourists and starved men.
It was there too that I and my riding companion Miguel had arranged to meet up with Andi from Germany, who’d be joining us for the rest of the ride, his fat-tired Pugsley drawing as many admiring glances as my own.
Together, the three of us set out on a broad loop around the Sur Lípez towards Volcan Uturuncu, its reputation preceding it. We’d heard talk of a rideable jeep track that curled almost up to its summit, where an abandoned sulphur mine lay a rarefied 18,950 feet—making it among the highest roads in the world, and a temptation too strong to resist. As expected, the journey proved to be both beautiful and challenging.
A day out of town, we branched off the main road to Topiza, leaving kidney-jarring corrugation for the delights of a barely travelled jeep track. Striking deeper into the Bolivian backcountry, we forded rivers, lugged our bikes across deep gouges in the road, pedaled through sand and camped in llama pens, shielding us from a cold and biting wind.
In the dusty tracks of Butch and Sundance
The settlement of San Vincente was marked by a roadside sign—the town lays claim to being the final resting place of outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, allegedly slain in 1908 in a gun battle with the Pinkerton Agency—precursors to the FBI. True or other- wise, the surrounding hills of this bustling mountain community are now scarred with modern mining activity, probably of more importance to locals these days than American gunslinging folklore. Certainly, spirits were high.
The comedor in which we refueled was run by a jovial lady; her “llama bolognese” was the tastiest meal I’d enjoyed in Bolivia and filled a gaping hole in my stomach. When the miners we shared our table with had all returned to work, she sidled over for a chat. “How can you cycle with legs like those?” she asked Andi, with a smile. “You need ones like these,” she laughed, pointing to her own more ample thighs.
The characterful encounters continued between steep Andean passes and endless ribbons of dirt. In San Pablo, a man on a brakeless singlespeed accosted us, shepherding us towards a cheap hospedaje. The schoolgirls who ran the adjoining restaurant served us up a mean plate of cold rice and tepid, chewy llama steak for dinner.
It was the prelude to Bolivia Day—celebrating the country’s independence in August 1825—and all the village drunks were out in force. Their tipple? Coca Cola, blended with a local brew so potent we used it to light our stoves. Little surprise that when we ordered breakfast the next morning for 7 a.m., it finally appeared in the form of a plate of cold rice, greasy eggs and translucent coffee over two hours later.
Dancing the zombie shuffle
Outside, the party limped on. In the plaza, the Bolivian flag was being raised lopsidedly and anthems were being sung with suit- able pomp and circumstance. An elderly lady sold asado out of a wheelbarrow—a chunk of llama meat, dished out with her hands, served with potatoes and a tomato salad. It was delicious, and we washed it down with a refresco called linasa—more than making up for our meager first breakfast.
Thirty dusty miles down the road, we stopped in San Antonio de Lipez, home to more Bolivian flags fluttering in the afternoon wind, and another contingent of glassy-eyed drunks pirouetting from one wall to the next. When they saw us, they chased us in a slow, zombie-like shuffle, accosting us with good natured but drunken heavy-handedness.
An endless loop of dirge-like marches resonated from the village square, a small crumbly quadrangle where two rattly speakers were stacked atop one another, surrounded by a ring of empty beer cans. As ever, our Pugsleys drew enthused attention. Kids squeezed tires, pointed at disc brakes and talked in hushed tones. “Like motorbikes,” said everyone admiringly.
From here, the dirt road we’d followed morphed into far worse a state—pitted with teeth-rattling corrugation and sandy in parts, mostly due to the tourist jeeps using it as a cut through. Those within wound down their windows and screamed enthusiastically at us as they sped past, blissfully unaware of the dust they coated us in, or the havoc they wrought on the roads. I tried hard not to think dark thoughts as we jarringly bounced around in their wake.
By the time we made it to Uturuncu, sunshine was usurped by clouds and the weather took a turn for the worse. Santiago, the guard at the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, suggested we make an offering to the mountains and appease the various forces at play. Following local tradition, Andi—the only smoker among us—exhaled his German tobacco towards the seven anointed points, including Papa Uturuncu, volcanic kingpin of the Sur Lípez, purported by Incans to be a portal of communication with the metaphysical.
Due respect offered, we pedaled onwards, only to discover that our ceremony had fallen on deaf ears, as snow smothered the land the following morning. We waited out the day sipping llama soup until conditions cleared, then rode all the way to a thousand feet shy of its summit, reaching almost 19,000 feet by pedal power alone.
At the top, I crumbled one of my favorite cookies into the blustery wind: a thanks to Papa Uturuncu and an offering for safe passage back down the volcano. And Papa complied. The descent turned out to be one of the best of the trip so far, a rip roaring ride over rock, snow and sand—one that had me laughing out aloud, beaming in heady, high altitude, fat bike happiness.
Eyes wide shut
But really, it was the largest salt flats in the world that drew us like a cyclist’s pilgrimage to Bolivia, as so many others had done before us. Indeed, riding atop the salt crust of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni—and the more petite but perfectly formed Salar de Coipasa—is an undisputed highlight of many a South American odyssey, including my own ride across the continent.
My prevailing memories: squinting into the blinding, sparkly midday light. Feeling crispy skin crinkle ever so dry. Pitching camp on a bleached white canvas. Seasoning dinner with the ground I slept on. Awakening in the morning to a glow of lavender light. And above all, just closing my eyes, and riding…
It was a journey that took four beguiling days, segmented with the cacophony of a typically spirited and drunken festival in the midway settlement of Llica. Such is the dichotomy of Bolivia. Empty desert silence one night. Rambunctious partying the next. In the case of Llica, no one even seemed to know when it started, or indeed how long it might go on for. Three days, five days, even two weeks were all time frames bandied around with habitual Latin American ambiguity. “It will end tomorrow,” said one lady. “It has to. We need to sleep…”
If traveling teaches you one life lesson, it’s to embrace the changes around you, and accept them for what they are. Arriving after our surreal glide across the salt flats, we trawled through streets thick with vendors, in search of a place to stay. We dodged the brass band that circled the town discordantly. Then we settled on the best we could find: a barebones room on the main square, right beside the very heartbeat of the action. Outside, drunks supported each other, or brawled a moment later. Kids in traditional costumes danced. Elderly women gossiped, unflinching and impervious to the cold. And the music blasted on.
Come nightfall, a crescendo of thunderous beats emitted from the nearby spots. The acoustics resonated through the very fabric of the town, thanks to a sound system that would put a stadium to shame: a set of speakers stacked, literally, two stories high. Music permeated our room like it was playing next door. 3 a.m. 4 a.m. 5 a.m. It was still going strong well into the early hours, as was the emcee who showed no signs of losing either voice or enthusiasm. Come morning we pedaled on, tires scrunching over beer tops, chicaning through the last men standing—back towards the peace and inner calm that prevailed in the Salar de Coipasa.
Past Sabaya, whose deserted streets appeared to be frequented by more llama than people, we spent a night amongst the Chullpas Policromas, a set of monolithic, pre-Incan adobe burial chambers. Pocked, chipped and gnawed by the elements, these mud brick funeral towers stood over 13 feet high. Set to a backdrop of volcanoes and lakes, atop hills and amongst brush, they provided as atmospheric a campsite as anywhere—even if the wind that whipped through the valley flapped our tents relentlessly, like sails in a wild storm.
Then, grudgingly, it was time to set our sights the capital, La Paz, criss crossing the Chilean border once more. One aspect remained constant though, whichever country we were in. Our fat bikes were forever the source of scrutiny and boundless fascination, opening doors to conversations and encounters like no other bike I’ve traveled on before.
The owner of our guesthouse in Charaña—a lady of Bolivian squat stature, attired in the same typical bowler hat, shawl, heavy skirt and petticoat as those in Vichaya—seemed especially taken by the Pugsleys. “Que bonitas bicis,” she repeated, studying their lines and squeezing their tires, as if contemplating the pedigree of a particularly fine animal at market.
What beautiful bikes indeed. Bikes that had taken us over a thousand miles through the Andean altiplano. Bikes almost as perfectly suited to Bolivia… as the llama themselves.
Make sure to pick up Bicycle Times Issue #38, on newsstands next month, for another bikepacking feature from Cass Gilbert.
Touring on a fat bike
Fat bikes are all the rage right now. Whilst there’s arguments to using them for everyday mountain biking, there’s no doubt they’re especially adept in more extreme conditions. A fat tire’s flotation and ability to iron out bone-jarring corrugation has to be experienced to be appreciated. The difference between my Surly Pugsley and Miguel’s Surly Ogre, shod with the widest 29er tires he could find, was noticeable; while he fought nobly to ride each and every sandy section we encountered, the Pugsleys simply cruised through with an air of nonchalance.
If you’re considering embarking on a fat bike tour, issues to consider are tire wear, which is faster than traditional touring rubber, and the lack of spare tires and tubes (DIY tubeless works well). For touring overseas, I’d recommend keeping to 65 mm rims—such as Surly Large Marges or Marge Lites. In an emergency, these offer the possibility of running a 26-inch downhill tire, which are plenti- ful across South America. Expect to make regular changes to tire pressure, depending on terrain—Lezyne’s Micro Floor Drive HV is a lightweight, durable, high volume pump.
Be assured that the off-grid scope that fat bikes offer more than makes up for their extra weight and added rolling resistance on pavement. With this in mind, we packed as light as possible, knowing that fat tire or no fat tire, riding at altitude is always going to be a challenge.
The best time to ride is Bolivia’s winter (May-October), as it’s the dry season on the Altiplano. But be prepared for temperatures to plummet to as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit. We kept to dirt roads where possible, looping around the Sur Lipez from Uyuni, before crossing the Salar de Ayuni to Sabaya and Sajama, and detouring into Chile through its beautiful Quebrada Allane to curl back into La Paz. Winds on the Altiplano can be ferocious in the afternoon; they seemed mostly in our favor in the direction we rode in. Total distance was around a thousand miles, spread over five weeks.
As this was part of a longer trip, we crossed into Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, on the Lagunas Route. If you’re focusing your time in Bolivia, La Paz is home to Christian’s Casa de Ciclistas, which makes a good base to organize a trip. Contact me via my website if you’d like the GPX file. Andesbybike.com is an excellent source of route information for the area.
- Andi and I used Tarptent Contrails, a well priced and roomy ultralight tent—just be sure to clean zippers, as Bolivian dust destroys gear.
- When it comes to night time comfort, Therm-a-Rest’s featherweight NeoAir Xlite is hard to beat.
- Around camp, we all favored denatured alcohol stoves, like the Clickstand; fuel is cheap and readily available in the markets.
- In order to stow gear efficiently, we used a mixture of homemade, Revelate and Porcelain Rocket bikepacking gear—including the awesomely stable Mr Fusion seat pack—as well as more traditional Carradice saddlebags.
- Jones Loop bars were popular too, offering a comfortable, all day riding position, and allowing Andi to line up a variety of gizmos, like his GPS and dynamo light.
- SON dynamo hubs provided juice via a Sinewave Cycles Revolution USB charger, amply powering a Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp, an iPhone for navigation (using the excellent Gaia app), and my SteriPEN Freedom.
- All three of us ran Rohloff internally geared hubs, which performed faultlessly in every condition we threw at them.