We flew from Buenos Aires to Uyuni, Bolivia. Three flights, three security protocols, and all three times Greengo, my Brompton, was allowed on the plane.
Uyuni, the starting point of our “vacation”, is a dusty, dull and depressing town. Landing at 3700m asl gave a jolt to our system. We both got a classic case of altitude sickness: out of breath, severe headache, nausea, insomnia, swollen hands and faces.
We left dusty Uyuni in a sturdy 4WD with Valerio, our driver. We visited the nearby train cemetery, a good match to the vibe of the city, then entered the Salar de Uyuni. It’s a lot of salt, more than 10000 sq km of it. We had a lunch in the middle of it – we only needed to reach down to add salt to our food. There are a few islands on the salt flats, we headed to Isla Incawasi. It took us (Julie) a while to get to the top because of frequent stops to catch our breath. The view was amazing: salt stretching out for dozens of kilometers, surrounded by mountains. When we came down I got my bike out and rode for some 20km. I could’ve done more but the flats became too bumpy for my small wheels. I got back in the car and headed off to San Juan de Rosario, where we spent the night. The walls of the hostel were made of salt bricks.
We got up early, not that it mattered since we couldn’t sleep anyway. First, we went to a nearby Necropolis of pre-Incas civilization. At the small museum, we learned that they would put the heads of their newborns in a wooden cone, effectively disfiguring them. Thus, Dan Ackroyd wasn’t the first conehead.
Then we made stops at Salar de Chiguana and close to an active volcano that had white smoke coming out of it, like fumata bianca from the Sistine Chapel, indicating that a new pope was elected.
That was just a start. We were driving further and further away. The road was getting bumpier and bumpier. We were getting higher and higher. Strangely, we felt OK.
Then came several lagunas. The first one, Laguna Cañapa , had pink flamingos with a backdrop of snowy mountains. Julie loved it. At one of lagunas we met Swiss cyclists, a crazy couple touring these rugged places where even off-road vehicles struggle.
Next was Siloli Desert. I have yet to go to Mars, but it looked like it.
The last laguna was Laguna Colorada, another coup de cœur for Julie. We stopped for the night in a village close by. The altitude was 4277m, with the ensuing altitude issues.
The day started at 5am. We were actually glad to start so early: we weren’t sleeping anyway. We headed off to Sol de Mañana geyser field. The road was rugged and I was trying not to puke. When we got there, we barely got out of the car: the windchill temperature was way below 0°C. This was the story of the day: cold, wind, and dust. It was also the highest place on our itinerary – 4915m above sea level.
We passed on the opportunity to dip into hot springs at our next destination, Laguna Blanca.
The last stop was Laguna Verde. At this point, we had traveled over 300km south of Salar de Uyuni and there were more than 400km ahead of us to get back to Uyuni. On our way, we stopped at Valle de Roca, a quaint rock formation.
We finally reached Uyuni at the end of the day. Although we saw unbelievable natural beauty, we were happy the tour was over: the high altitude had taken its toll on us. We landed in La Paz later that night.
Because we were tired, we canceled our trip to Lake Titicaca and stayed in La Paz. It doesn’t offer much to see but the cityscape itself is quite something. Hilly San Francisco has nothing on La Paz. With a difference of 900 meters in altitude, you can probably get altitude sickness just going from the lowest to the highest point of the city. I did not dare to ride those hills and confront the chaotic traffic.
One of the reasons I came to Bolivia was to ride on the “world’s most dangerous road”. The so-called Death Road is a very narrow mountain road with many dangerous turns and steep slopes, where hundreds of people used to die every year falling off the cliffs in their vehicles. Now it used mostly by cyclists. It starts at 4470m asl and finishes 60 something km further down at 1233m.
Of course, I wanted to do it on my Brompton.
Early morning, at this altitude, the temperature was below freezing. So for the first half hour, I was trembling. As I was descending, I was peeling off layers of clothes, until I only had a t-shirt and I was still sweating.
It is an unpaved and rocky road with a few pools of water created by waterfalls. Because it’s so bumpy and all downhill, I spent almost the entire time standing and vigorously squeezing the breaks. Once I got to the bottom, my legs and hands were shaking. The views along the way were to die for. Over the years a few fellow cyclists did just that – found their death at the bottom of the ravine. Because of Greengo’s small wheels, lack of suspension and heavy front bag, I couldn’t ride very fast, thus I avoided the temptation to do so. According to the rule, vehicles or cyclists riding down have to stay on the left, meaning close to the edge. I stayed on the left as close to the edge as I comfortably could, glimpsing down the cliffs. That was my thrill. A few cycling groups passed me by. They were surprised to see a foldable bike taking on the same road; some even took pictures with it.
Greengo and I came down last but we did it! Greengo will require some cleanup/tuneup and I will have sore muscles for a few days. But, one less thing on my bucket list!
Our short Bolivian adventure, with its elements of masochism, came to a close.
Bolivia in numbers:
86Km – distance covered on the bike
700km+ – distance driven on our south Bolivian tour
4915m – highest point we drove to, above sea level
3237m – altitude difference between start and end points of the Death Road
Countless – Advil pills we took to alleviate our headaches