Bolivia

One of the things I forgot to mention before we’d left Peru is a little detour we had to make because, well, do you remember the hat I bought in Ecuador? Remember the humungous hat box I’d been carrying around on the back of my bike?

‘One never knows when one might have an occasion for a hat’

Anyway, I’d decided to post it ahead. I didn’t foresee any such occasions where one might need a hat so to save carrying it I put it on a bus bound for Puno. In my mind, this was an exceptionally logical thing to do as in ‘normal’ cycle touring routes Puno is the last big town in Peru before crossing into Bolivia. (I couldn’t find a bus to cross the border con hat). As is always the case, plans change. We had found out in Cuzco that border controls had opened on the northern route of Lake Titicaca making the much quieter, and more beautiful northern route a much more appealing cycle than the busy southern route. Only one problem, Puno is on the southern side of the lake, along with my hat.

‘No, I can’t just leave my hat – it was your birthday present for me. (Yes literally, on Herbie’s birthday I got a hat) it’s come so far, I love it. There might be an ‘occasion’ We must go and collect the hat’

So off we pedalled to Puno.

It was one of those disappointingly gringo towns that was very unPeruvian – a place where everything is a little more expensive. You could get a good pizza, proper coffee and buy artisanal gifts until your pockets were empty. The thing is, I am a gringo and being able to get a good coffee is a little like heaven. Gringo towns are full of home comforts and big supermarkets – so actually I kind of liked it.

Having had our pizza and coffee fix, (oh and having picked up the hat) we then turned back west, away from the Bolivian border in order to lap the lake and tackle the border from the other side. I must stress that if anybody finds themselves on lake Titicaca and fancies not going to Puno, the northern side of the lake is pretty spectacular. Unfortunately it’s not possible to get a good pizza or proper coffee but its 100% more beautiful and 100% less gringo. We pedalled along the beautiful shores for three days in relative tranquility apart from one occasion where we were cycling though a tiny village. I’m not even sure if village is the proper name, it was more a cluster of mud brick houses next to a field of goats. When all of a sudden a young girl appeared over the wall clutching a smartphone in a huge Hello Kitty plastic case. She giggled and started taking photo’s of us like we were some freaks who had just happened to cycle by her house. I mean, yes we were just that. It was just one of those moments I had never quite appreciated before, the tables had turned. I can now fully appreciate why local people get annoyed when tourists come to the local market and try to sneakily take photos of them in traditional dress selling potatoes or whatever. I was not annoyed at this little girl, quite the opposite. It took all my willpower not to stop and start posing, though I just settled for a smile and a wave.

We hit the tiny town which was rumored to contain the immigration office. On entering the main square of a deserted town, we were relieved to see a big building with ‘immigration’ painted on the front of it. Ah ha, no Sherlock needed here! Considering we’d seen no other people in the entire town the immigration was a breeze. As the officers were doing the formalities we asked if they’d been any other cyclists recently.

‘Yes, one last week and two about a month ago’

Hmm, it seemed we were definitely taking the quieter route. Formalities over and passports stamped, we asked.

‘Er… which way to Bolivia?’ The map wasn’t showing us any actual roads towards where the Bolivian border town was apparently situated.

‘just over that hill’ came the reply, with a hand gesture that vaguely pointed out the other side of the village up a dirt track. ‘its about 10km, so maybe 1.5 hours’ This should have set alarm bells ringing straight away. Even if there was a hill – 10km taking one and a half hours, seriously?! And this was from a normal person who rides motorbikes and drives trucks. If non cyclists tell you something is ‘about an hour away’ you normally have to at least double the time on a bicycle. When they say the road is flat, it means it’s hilly. If they say the road is hilly, you’re in trouble.

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In search of Bolivia

Off we pedal towards Bolivia, the road quickly turns to sand but luckily not completely unridable. We both have to get off and haul a few times but nothing too dramatic. Only 45 minutes of sand, uphill, pedalling, uphill, hauling, uphill and we reach a couple of flagpoles, one engraved Peru and on the other side Bolivia.

Now looking down the other side of the hill, ‘er, so where is immigration?’ Instead of being able to look down on a little Bolivian town nestled next to the lake as I’d expected we were just greeted with more mountains and no civilisation. With none of our maps showing any sign of a road within 10km of where we were stood we just took the track which looked like it went in vaguely the right direction. There was indeed, more sand, more hauling and more uphill. Eventually after another couple of peaks and asking directions off a local shepherd we found ourselves descending into the Bolivian border town. It was one of those really long awful unenjoyable descents. The road was so rough I had difficulty maintaining a grip on my handlebars, struggling to keep my fingers poised over the brakes and could feel my ass uncontrollably jiggling like on one of those ’This Girl Can’ adverts. Seriously if I had been blessed with a more ample bosom I wouldn’t have been able to see where I was going.

Anyway, we made it, rolled up to the boarder and dismounted feeling like I had just got off one of those power plates fashionable in gyms circa 2010. The border was very closed. After some nosing around, a couple of guards appeared, told us they were taking a break and pointed us towards the nearest house telling us to go wait in there until they came to fetch us. Upon entering what looked like a living room of the nearest house we realised it was a restaurant. Well, a little old lady appeared asking if we wanted almuerzo, which we gratefully accepted. She must have recognised Herbie’s pasty skin as moments later she appeared with the biggest almuerzo’s ever, along with an enormous stack of potatoes. We were only charged £2.20 for the entire feast and it has gone down in Herbies mind as one of the ‘best lunches ever!’ I am assuming this because he ate a good 2kilos of potatoes.

So, we were collected by the immigration officers, stamped into country number 15 and started on our journey to La Paz. In La Paz, there would be wonderful things, including my family, a week off the bikes, good pizza and proper coffee.

The next couple of days was cycling the fairly main road into La Paz. Not many views of the lake, but stunning views of some rather impressive mountains to keep us entertained. As we got closer and closer towards the city the road got busier and busier. Now, here I mean Bolivia countryside busy, not London busy. The road was pretty new and there was a huge hard shoulder for us to cycle on but the cars, motorbikes and minibuses drove like absolute morons. 99% of the time I felt extremely safe but the more worrying thing was the amount of pedestrians and other cyclists who didn’t seem to acknowledge this huge new main road that was passing through their village and just walked out onto it like it was the old track which it probably used to be. It was during one snack stop, watching children and adults alike walk into the dual carriageway, oblivious that a vehicle might be hurtling towards them at 100kph that Herbie commented about the number of accidents that must occur. There was none of the obvious road safety information. I remember the road safety hedgehogs teaching me when I was 5 (whilst sat safely cross legged on a carpet) “Stop, look both ways.” and copious amounts of children’s drawings of snails and tortoises printed onto traffic signs near schools. There was none of that.

I get it, Bolivia is a cash country. Many people don’t have a regular sustainable income, let alone bank accounts. Being from a 1st world country is great, I pay tax, my bins get collected once a week, holes which appear in the road are fixed, if I am ill I get treated by the best doctors, the first 13 years of my education were completely free and we have things like pedestrian crossings.

Ok, I am going severely off point. It is because I don’t really want to type about what happened next. I feel like Herbie’s and my conversation put some utterly terrible negativity into the universe. We were back on our bikes no more than 20 minutes when I noticed some people collected on the side of the road. The smashed windscreen of a minibus and bicycle lying ominously at the side of the road. I was lucky. I have trained myself so that when I very rarely see these type of situations I am able to put on imaginary blinkers, look straight ahead and focus on the horizon. Herbie was not so lucky, he pulled alongside me a couple of hundred meters later.

‘Did you see that?’ He asked

‘What, the minibus?’

‘No, the blood, we cycled through blood, the body. It was still there, still in the road.’

We had unknowingly cycled right through the middle of a fatal accident, a crime scene. Nobody blinked an eye. I am so so lucky I was able to conjure up those imaginary blinkers, look straight ahead, Herbie wasn’t so lucky and I know he thought about not much else for the rest of the cycle into La Paz.

Upon entering La Paz, we had been advised most excellently (once again by Freddy and Sarah) to take the cable car. Cycling from El Alto down into the bowl that contains La Paz? Nobody needs that in their life! La Paz is so awful to drive in that when my parents arrived and tried to pick up their hire car the rental company insisted (for free) that they have a driver take them to the hotel. Anyway, luckily for cyclists the cable car stretches out pretty far into the outskirts of La Paz and we didn’t have to cycle through much chaos in order to reach the outermost station. We quickly figured out that it was completely fine to take bikes on the cable car, you only had to pay for a second ticket, which at about 35p we thought was fair. We also quickly figured out that with this shiny brand new cable car system the Bolivians are a complete stickler for rules. The ticket offices are on the ground floor of the building, then the cars themselves are on the first. It’s identical to any ski lift, without the snow. Apart from bikes are not allowed in the lift, the lifts are only allowed for wheelchairs. Despite the fact that while I was stood there ‘disagreeing’ with the guard at least five people walked – without wheels – in and out of the lift I was 100% not allowed to wheel my bike in. I was tired and hungry, I turned into a massive princess. It’s also funny how my Spanish exponentially improves when I’m disagreeing with somebody. The conversation went a little like this…

‘It is physically impossible to carry my bike up those stairs, it weighs 45kg. I cannot lift it’

‘You have to, the lift is only for wheelchairs.’

‘But I just saw 5 people not in wheelchairs use the lift!’

‘You cannot put your bike in the lift.’

‘Ok, YOU carry my bike up the stairs, I cannot lift it – you have to’

This poor guy was smaller, and I suspect even weedier than I am. He tried to lift my bike, with hilarious consequences. All the time this was happening, Herbie who was equally as tired and hungry was going for the ‘non princess’ option and had managed to carry his own bike up the stairs. Suddenly he reappeared, grabbed mine and was marching back up the stairs.

‘Hey, I was trying to make a point! The arse should use some common sense and let us use the lift’

‘Ok, but you weren’t getting very far were you’

He was right, but my pride was dented. We got to the turnstiles and encountered a similar issue. The gates were wheelchair access only. The bikes needed to go through the turnstiles. Seriously?! So again, much to my frustration Herbie lifted our bikes in turn up and over the stupid turnstiles. Seriously touring bikes and La Paz cable cars should be turned into a World Strongest Man event. It’s like an obstacle course with the most awkwardly heavy shaped object imaginable. Atlas stones would have been doddle. Having to take a series of cable cars turned into a bit of a sport but thankfully our luck improved. We were still not allowed to use any lifts, but most other workers seemed to accept the challenge of touring bikes and jumped at the chance to try and take turns lifting them up, down and over various stairs and turnstiles.

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Eventually we made it. Did I also mention that all the cable car stations sell empanadas? Everything turned out ok.

We took an entire week off in La Paz to spend with Team Garrod who had flown over for a visit. A slight shock to the system, in the year I had not seen my brother he had not only grown about a foot taller but his voice was also an octave lower. Who are you?! Why are you taller than me? Stop it, stop it right now! I’m not sure if it is common among oldest siblings but I get disproportionately upset when one of my younger siblings grows taller than me. Becki and Elijah are now unquestionably taller and slimmer than I am, which leaves Olivia and myself as the short, stumpy ones of the family. I’m hoping Olivia won’t let me down, unless she has a major growth spurt at the age of 18 I think I’ll be ok. However, she is 12 years younger than me and we look kind of similar, can you imagine having a sister who is 12 years younger than you? Those twelve years mean no wrinkles, beautiful skin, no cellulite and an amazing bod. Ok, maybe I have 2 inches on her in height, but my arse is definitely 2 inches saggier.

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Despite my saggy arse and tall siblings we did have an absolutely amazing week with my family! We did mostly nothing apart from drink coffee, eat pizza and threw in a couple of tourist attractions just because you’re supposed to and I loved every second.

Too soon it was time to get back on the bikes again and continue the race south. We took the cable cars (being more mentally prepared for it this time) back up to El Alto and sped towards the Salt flats. Still being on the altiplano, no lake to keep us occupied and the mountains behind us it was pretty dull riding. We ended up doing a few massive days having being refreshed from our week off and well, there was nothing else to do – just pedal. Our aim was Sabaya, taking the ‘Andes by bike’ route through the two salt flats over four days and ending up in Uyuni.

I think that’s enough for today, the Salars are going to take some explaining…

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