Tupiza, Bolivia

Yesterday I arrived in Tupiza, which is only 60 paved miles ride away from the Argentina border and at about “only” 2,950m (~9,700 feet). For about the past 4 weeks I’ve been above 3,000m, and for the past 3 weeks and 800 miles, never below 3,650m  (~12,000 feet), along the rather flat altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. Perhaps not a coincidence, but all this time I was also in the watershed of Lake Titicaca, Lake Poopo, and the Coipasa and Uyuni salt plains. From what I can gather, this area doesn’t drain into either the Pacific or Atlantic.

But yesterday I went over a pass and down 1,000 m into a scenery very different than the one I’ve gotten used to (and that eventually drains into the Atlantic for what it is worth), quite similar to the appearance of southwest US. Most notably is the large amount of leafy green vegetation as opposed to scrubby little plants. Trees not only taller than me, but several storeys high. Bright fragrant flowers, and crops like corn. Cows and not llamas. My supply of butter rather runny! The boiling water for my morning coffee noticeably warmer. Locals bundled up considerably less. For the most part this is a welcome change, though I must say the chilly days up at the high altitude were good cycling weather. And by the end of my time in the altiplano I was able to finally get some deep restful sleep at night and not feel out of breath all the time.

The highlight of my time in Bolivia was the Uyuni salt flat, and I’ll have to tell you more about that when I get a chance to upload pictures and videos. After the salt flat I took a day off in the town of Uyuni, where I ran into 9 cyclists, all going north except for Marcos an Italian who I had first met outside of Puno, Peru. I hung out with a Scottish couple in the afternoon as we had a bike maintenance party in the courtyard and later for some pizza as we exchanged notes on our routes ahead.

I was eager to get out of the touristy town of Uyuni, but not so eager for the 3 days to come. Other cyclists have rightly described this as the worst 130 miles of road, maybe of the whole trip, and having done it, I must agree. I don’t usually go for these kind of gimmicks, but I’d gladly make and wear a T-shirt that says “I survied Uyuni-Tupiza by bike”. Without using expletives, the washboard of the first half, and then the washboard and the hills of the second half were a constant chore, barely a moment without staring at the gravel road looking for the path least painful for the body and bike.

There is a special place in heaven reserved for Bolivian road engineers. In the morning they will be required to recite grade school trigonometry (slope is rise over run etc), and in the afternoon give backrubs to the Peruvian road engineers who somehow manage to do a much better job at switchbacks and road surfaces.

The miserable condition of the road probably accounts for the very little traffic on it, which is one good thing about the route. At about 11am yesterday, I came across a pickup with 4 satelite communication workers, and a tent set up by the side of the road. It turns out they had broken down the afternoon of the day before, and had been sitting there ever since, and since there was no cell phone coverage (the irony), had not been able to inform anyone of there whereabouts. I suggested that I might take a note along to someone in Tupiza, which they thought was a great idea. I pointed out that surely a bus or a car would come by and they could send the message along that way, but they claimed that people in the area weren’t that helpful (awesome!). So they gave me the phone number of their boss and some change to make a phone call when I got to Tupiza. I did end up seeing two of them riding in the back of a truck several hours later, so hopefully they’ve gotten a hold of a mechanic here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the truck is still stuck out there.

My first hour of walking around Tupiza I ran into Marcos again by chance, he had done the stretch in two days. Later I was eating dinner, and Dave, another cyclist showed up at the same place to eat, again, by chance. We had never actually met, but both started in Alaska just weeks apart from each other and since then our paths have just missed several times. We had corresponded for a while now so it was good to finally meet.

Last night was probably the worst night in a hotel on this whole trip. When I had arrived I noticed a very strong smell of perfume in the room, and wrote it off as being detergent. Now, having only stayed in 2 hotels in my time in the US and none in Canada, I can’t say much about the cleaning supplies used there. But since entering Mexico and south of there, I can say there is an annoying practice of using cleaners with potent aromas, as if somehow the smells will mask the other unpleasant aspects of the hotel. (When I say hotel I generally mean accomodation costing anywhere between US$3-10, which often is the most you could ever spend in most towns I go through).

So for a few hours I laid in bed trying to sleep, until I began to feel physically ill. The smell was just too much. It was past midnight but I knew I had to get a different room, so I went and woke the manager and explained the situation. She mentioned that “Oh yeah, someone broke a bottle of perfume in there this morning”, and agreed that the smell was quite overwhelming and gave me a different room. No apologies of course about this or the bed that was falling in, but this seems par for the course for hospitality in Peru and Bolivia. Yes, I may only be paying a few dollars for this room but customer service only costs a “Sorry for your inconvenience”. I woke up this morning and realized that the smell had carried over on my clothes, and I’ve had a dull headache all day. I would have moved to another hotel but am already unpacked and moving the bike down and up stairs is a hassle.

Despite the tough past 3 days on the road, it was worth the slog, and last night made me thankful for being the chances to camp in middle of nowhere, the nearest human probably at least a dozen or two miles away. Generally a few days out in the sticks and I start to romanticize “civilization”: running water, email, cable TV, restaurants. But then I get to a city and remember what it is like to be around other humans, generally, ones that like cheap perfume, loud music all night and honking their horns when there is no apparent emergency (some of the more detestable kind of humans).

And then I wish I was sleeping in my own little tent-home on a pile of llama poo with only the moon and stars as my neighbors. Yes, lately I’ve spent a couple nights on, or by, piles of llama poo, as out on the open plain and with nothing for miles around, the llama pens made out of piled up rocks were my only chance for a little protection from the wind. I can easily say I’d rather spend the night where the llama roam than where humans commune.

2 comments to Tupiza, Bolivia

  • Matt,

    very cool description of your trials and tribulations. I took the train from Villazon to Uyuni, bypassing both the terrible washboard and rainy weather in the process. Your description of the perfume gave me a slight headache just reading it, must have been awful. I agree that sleeping out in the middle of nowhere often beats a cheap hostel in a loud town. Nowhere did I feel this more clearly than out on the salt falt of the Salar de Uyuni – the silence, darkness, and solitude were surreal. Coming back into civilization makes you appreciate having been out there – and vice versa.

    anyway, keep up the great trip and the fantastic writing about it.

    Cheers, Thomas.

  • Yikes, the worst section of road of the entire trip. You’ve got me worried.
    Can’t agree more that most of the time there’s nothing better than the calm and quiet of a night in the tent.
    We try to keep nights in hotels to a minimum for the very resons you mentioned. Too much NOISE. Unbearable.
    Loved this update. Thanks, Matt.

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