Bolivia: Salt of the Earth

Posted by James Anderton on September 8th, 2019


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Bolivia in South America is an undoubted highlight of a continent full of highlights. There are stunning volcanoes, salt plains, high altitude plateaus, lagunas and the world's most dangerous road. No matter where you are in Bolivia the cycling will be a constant challenge. The roads can be terrible. The navigation difficult. There can be long distances between food and water. The weather can be extreme and all at a dizzyingly high altitude. It is always worth it though. The incredible landscapes, remote cycling and varied scenery make it a cycling experience impossible to forget.

Salt Flat Bolivia

Salt plains in the south west of Bolivia

The South West

The most challenging part of Bolivia is in the south west of the country. I entered at a remote border post from Ollague in Chile. The roads are so bad in this part of the country that there's no real need to stick to them. Within 30 minutes of being in Bolivia I had left the dirt road and was cycling across the bed of a dried up salt lake. Sometimes skipping along on the hardened salt. Sometimes pushing through sand. I had little idea where I was exactly but this was in no way alarming. I had food and water enough for a few days. I simply needed to head east and eventually I should get to Uyuni.The first sizeable town cycling up through Bolivia. The lack of actual roads wasn't troubling. There are mountains all around but they are spread out. You can navigate between them without having to worry about dragging your bike up and over. After a day I stumbled across a disused rail-track. I assumed it would lead somewhere so I kept it within view. Turns out it was the track to nowhere. Clearly it had been disused for a while. It passed through a couple of ghost towns. Little more than a cluster of ramshackle huts. No sign of life other than a few mangy dogs. I couldn't help but think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they first arrived in Bolvia.

Jeesh, all Bolivia can't look like this.

How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know.

The scenery was always stunning. A lunar landscape. A real sense of being off the beaten path in a far flung corner of a remote country. Eventually I saw a path leading away from the train track. My GPS suggested that it was heading off in the direction of Uyuni. I followed it until I stumbled across 3 French cyclists at a path junction. They were also trying to work out which to go. Safety in numbers I went with them. We ended cycling all the way to La Paz together. Two were on Recumbent bicycles. They made them look very comfortable. We made it to Uyuni a day later.

Train track in the south west of Bolivia

Following a disused rail-track in the south-west of Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni

I only have one regret in my cycle through South America. That was arriving at the Salar de Uyuni at the wrong time of year. It is the world's largest salt flat and is one of the big draws for cycling in Bolivia. For 11 months of the year the bed of the salt lake is firm enough that you can head off on your bike and out into the middle. From the middle all you can see is a sea of white in all directions out to the horizon. Just google Salar de Uyuni for some incredible images. For one month of the year the Salar turns into the world's biggest puddle. This was when I arrived. My site will have to make do with me ruefully standing with my bike next to the Salar thinking what might have been. You can put a positive spin on everything though. Gives me a reason to return one day.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mierda! Wrong time of year to visit the Salar de Uyuni. This is what it can look like.

Altiplano

Myself and the French dudes headed north along the Altiplano towards La Paz. The road never dips below 3,500m. Despite that it is straight forward cycling. There are long spells of pavement. Climbs are few and far between as the road weaves between the mountains. Never boring but not overly exciting either. The cycle into La Paz was interesting. The traffic increased and the road narrowed. Not a good combination. Everywhere I go people tell me to be careful when cycling in their country. The drivers here are crazy. This rarely turns out to be the case. I find that drivers are pretty much the same in all parts of the world. Japan is an exception. Everyone there is incredibly polite. Bolivia is an exception. Everyone is nuts. Vehicles would come flying up behind honking on the horn expecting you to get out of the way. The only way to go was off the road. The arrival in La Paz was spectacular. By the time you hit La Paz you reach an altitude of 4,000m. The suburbs eventually give way and all of a sudden the city lies sprawled out across the valley below you. It is an astonishing sight. We then descended into the heart of the city to find the Casa de Ciclista that had come recommended from other cyclists.

La Paz Bolivia

La Paz

Casa de Ciclista, La Paz

The Casa is a spare apartment owned by Christian, a La Paz local, and his charming girlfriend Christina. When we arrived there were already two German guys who go by the collective name of Tapinambur. A day later we were joined by 3 Chileans on their way south. There was also a massive Barcelona fan from Spain. All taking the opportunity to enjoy some timeout from cycling continents and hangout with like minded people. One evening we all went to Christian's house on the outskirts of La Paz to celebrate his birthday. There was singing. There was dancing. The beers flowed. I might have had a few as I tripped up over a stray cable and brought the laptop crashing to the floor. End of music. Apparently the laptop has been on the blink ever since. Sorry Christian! I earned the nickname 'Punk' as I'm English and I break stuff.

Casa de Ciclists, La Paz

The Casa de Ciclista, La Paz

Death Road

It was from the Casa de Ciclista that Daniel, myself and the Barcelona fan went off on a day excursion to cycle Death Road. It is only 40km from the heart of La Paz. The dirt road has earned the reputation as the most dangerous road in the world and not without reason. There are some incredible sheer drops throughout. Cars have regularly disappeared over the edge. So much so that the authorities finally decided enough was enough and have closed the road to vehicles. All the better for us cyclists as we get the road to ourselves and don't have to worry about avoiding oncoming traffic. It's a good idea to check your brakes before you take it on and keep an inside line. I would not do it in the rain either. With a little care though it is safe to cycle and an incredible experience. The views are stunning. The sheer drops make for some excellent photo opportunities. You also get to descend 3,000m over 60km. We then took the bus back.

Death Road Bolivia

With Daniel of Tapinambur fame at the beginning of the 'Way of Death!'

Death Road Bolivia

Steep drops along Death Road

Death Road Bolivia

Death Road

Eventually I dragged myself away from the Casa de Ciclista. Headed north to the Peruvian border at Lake Titicaca. After a month spent at altitude in Bolivia I was well prepared for the climbing that lay ahead in Peru.

Capital:

La Paz. At an altitude of 3,640m it is the highest capital city in the world. They have oxygen tents at the airport in case people get sick when flying in. I loved La Paz. Millions of rustic houses cover the mountain side making for a spectacular view when you first enter the city.

Time to Go:

Not February! The Salar de Uyuni is covered with a thin layer of water. It is the only time of year you can't cycle off into the heart of the lake. The so-called Bolivian winter (January-March) is not the ideal time to be on the altiplano. Occasional snowstorms can be dangerous. For the Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama it is best to go in June or later. The later you go, the lower the chance of snow.

Roads:

All sorts. Entering from either Ollague or the B243 above San Pedro de Atacama in Chile you will have days of dirt roads, washboard and sand. Sometimes there are no roads whatsoever until you get to Uyuni where there is a mostly paved road all the way to La Paz. Any exploring off the main road will be on dirt roads but rideable and makes for some great cycling. In Bolivia any road you can ride is a good road.

Wild camping:

Finding a spot is incredibly easy and in good weather the camping is wonderful. You are always high up in Bolivia so it can get chilly. Beware of the strong south westerly winds in the south of the country. Try not to pitch on sand if you can help it. If you do be sure to place stones on the pegs as well. Try and get behind a wind break. You can get camping gas in La Paz and Uyuni.

Water

The longest distances you will go without water is in the south west of the country. Even here though you should never go more than 2 days without finding a water source. It is always a good idea to carry a little more than you need and some form of purifying or filtering system is essential.

Visa's:

Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders don’t need a visa for a stay up to 30 days. South American and most European citizens don’t need a visa for a stay up to 90 days. You get an entry stamp at the border or airport. US citizens have to pay 135 USD for a visa on arrival. Situation is changeable so check the latest before you arrive.

Bicycle Shops:

La Paz offers up a couple of decent bicycle shops. There's a shop in Santa Cruz with Shimano parts. You will struggle to find any panniers, racks, touring rims or touring tyres anywhere in Bolivia.

Casa de Ciclista

There is an excellent Casa de Ciclista in La Paz. Run by Christian. Don't mention me as he will get upset about his laptop.

Casa de Ciclists La Paz Bolivia

Cycling amigos in La Paz from Chile, Spain and Germany

Food:

Try the Salteñas. The quintessential Bolivian breakfast, salteñas are a tasty, oven-baked pastry filled with peas, carrots, potatoes and meat, drowning in copious amounts of sweet and spicy gravy.

Costs:

Everywhere and everything is incredibly cheap in Bolivia

Tips:

In the south of the country you can expect dust storms especially in the afternoon. The occasional tourist jeep will whip dust into your eyes. I recommend a good pair of wrap around sunglasses. Also you need high factor sunscreen and lip chap.

In the south west of the country it is possible to coordinate food and water drop offs from jeep tours at particular points/refugios along the way.

You can go to the tiny town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their final showdown. It is in San Vicente in the far south of the country.

Interesting Fact:

Bolivia is one of a handful of countries in the world with no McDonalds!

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Officially on the right but in the south of the country whichever is smoothest.

Drinking in La Paz

Drinking in La Paz with the French dudes