This is where true cultural and physical shock begins. Bolivia. What an experience!
We were not totally prepared for Bolivia and did not fully know what to expect. We were not even aligned between ourselves! For instance, I had long decided we would go via Uyuni and the Andes. But it was a shock to David to discover this meant we were going to spend almost a week well over 3500m altitude. And surprises would be many more to come.
The trip to La Paz itself was a discovery. There is no direct flight from Miami and we had to change at Viru Viru airport. Having been in South America before I had warned David it was safer to have a long layover as things tend to take more time there. And I was right. In Miami already the queue with Boliviana de Aviacion was of at least 2 hours. Then in Viru Viru we somehow had to go again through the checkin counter and we discovered that in Bolivia the concept of waiting in line is foreign. You push through: that was very difficult for a man as British as David but he soon got the hang of it and in Rome we did like the Romans!
Arriving in La Paz, new shock: we could not breath. For a second I thought: “shortness of breath, maybe it’s covid”. Then of course I realised we were at 3900m altitude. This was just the lack of acclimatation which would lead me to wake up with headaches three days in a row. Out of breath, we carried our bikes to the line of taxis outside and right away a driver came and took our bike boxes in a car way too tiny for them. He told me to go in the front and David to sort of crouch onto the bike boxes at the back. There we got confirmed what we had already realised when passing the border with a very relaxed custom officer: Bolivians are really chill! Nothing is a problem and there is a solution for everything. Yes, things take a bit of time and none of them seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere, but if you ask they will find a way to help you and will always be kind.
When I say “really chill” this does not necessarily translate to quiet and slow moving: La Paz looked absolutely crazy to us Europeans, especially after spending so long in the us where a double line road still seems to be too narrow for some drivers. Bolivians are born rally drivers: they can pass with their cars anywhere. But the best thing, true to their character, there is no rush or anger, at least from what we witnessed. They just accept that a pedestrian, a bike, a dog, another car, a truck, might just turn up in front of them. They honk a bit, they keep their eyes wide open, and they make it work. Organised chaos is their jam.
Once we left La Paz, we had the pleasure to find that although in the city roads have quite a bit of potholes and mud, the tarmac on the main roads is excellent and a wide shoulder allowed us to ride our bikes safely. In any case, even without the shoulder, drivers were always nice to us, and between them and the shepherd saying hi we received as many cheers as would have some pro cyclists on a race! Sometime cars would come on the shoulder in the reverse direction of traffic but always gave us space: most were communal taxis and buses which is how people seem to get around here. The vehicles just stop when they see a pedestrian waving. Sometimes they stop and just yell the direction they go to so people can hop in.
Another great thing about Bolivia was that we never had to worry about food. We managed to have an excellent balanced diet there for very little money, better than in the US where food was expensive and often all we could find on the road was fast food. In tiny back streets restaurants and markets, the food was always homemade. We could not speak well enough Spanish so we just asked for “deliciosa comida boliviana” and just like that we had a three course meal for the equivalent of £1-3. The meal was generally a broth full of veggies, meat and pasta, followed by a main of meat, vegetable, rice and potato, and a tiny dessert (mostly sweet corn jelly) or sweet tea.
In terms of accommodation, all places were very basic but always clean and so cheap they made camping unnecessary. This was good because sleeping at altitude was quite challenging: David kept waking up out of breath. Well, sometimes sleeping was also made hard from all the wild and feral dogs fighting on the streets!
The only real issues we had in Bolivia, besides some extremely challenging riding, were the PCR tests and the weather.
When you don’t speak the language, sorting out PCR tests can be a nightmare. In Oruro, we had to go to three difference places to get our tests done. The second place, a hospital, could not do it because their printer did not work and they could not send an email. Even worse, the time (and money) we wasted there was for nothing, as the border point with Argentina we had planned to go to was in fact closed and we had to go to another one, more than 72 hours later, meaning we had to find yet another lab to do our test. That one turned out even more stressful as it was a Saturday afternoon and all was closed. Only the kindness of a local doctor made it possible for us to get our tests done!
We got caught in some bad storms. In Bolivia, in the rain season and at altitude, the weather can change in seconds: one second you are riding in the sun at 35C with a tailwind, the next it’s 8C and heavy rain and hail with a headwind. This had sometimes bad consequences for us. In Colchani we took a wrong turn towards the salt flat as we tried to escape a sand and thunder storm and ended up into what could be described as a mud swamp. The bikes were ruined and we got really worried they would be damaged. Kind people let us use their hose but it was salt water, so hardly beneficial for bikes. In Uyuni, we had to delay our departure to the Atocha mountain pass till the next day because everything was flooded; even when we made it up there the day after, part of the road had been covered by mud slides and we had to walk our bikes. Another day, the storm got so bad we had to wait it out under a bridge hoping not to be struck by lightning. Another time, 20km before our final destination, we had to ask people for help to shelter us from the storm and take us to the finish in a very crowded communal taxi!
Nevertheless the scale of the Bolivian plateau bad weather did also offer absolutely spectacular scenes. We enjoyed sunset to the right, glowing orange hills to the left, and in front of us a master thunderstorm with lightning striking every minute and curtain of rain that looked like liquid gold in the setting sun. We saw the biggest rainbow we’d ever seen, and it seemed to rise up in the horizon. We saw snow storms from afar and marvelled as peaks found themselves suddenly white.
Interestingly, the storms brought us further surprises. On one of the ride a lamb came stumbling on the road, clearly disoriented. We tried to look for his mum but no luck and the poor thing just hid under David’s bike refusing to move. It seemed to beg us to help him. I took him in my arms and placed it in my gilet and slowly cycled to the next village where I left it in the care of an old lady. In such a tiny community I expect the shepherd would be looking for it!
Certainly, Bolivia has been one of the most spectacular places we visited. The Andes just blew my mind away: immaculate salt flats, golden and pink deserts, rocky red mountains, running lamas and cattle… On the third day, as I was riding, I felt very emotional and I cried. I just could not believe we were there, on top of the world, in a country I had never thought I’d visit, let riding a bike! Seven years ago, if you had told me one day I tried and ride a bike as far as I could around the world, ride over 160km daily, sleep rough at times, and just live and eat like local people, I would have never believed you. I came such a long way! And yet here I was, and I never felt more alive.
Bolivia was one of my favourite experiences ever. I cannot fully explain how and why I loved it so much. Of course there were bad moments there, and we saw poverty and littering in some beautiful wild places. Yet, I felt on a cloud the whole time. I did not want to leave it and I hope I can come back. I want to explore more of it and more of the Andes. I regret I could not speak better Spanish to hold conversations with people: something for my next visit!