Peru South & Bolivia

Cycling over salt to the end

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➡️ 500km
↗️ 3800m

Juliaca -> Copacabana (ROUTE)
Salinas -> Uyuni (ROUTE)

After The Peru Divide, we couldn’t leave the country without visiting the main tourist attraction. Arriving in Cusco, we spent some time sampling the delightful cuisine before taking a 7-hour bus followed by a 3-hour hike along the train tracks to reach Machu Picchu. An iconic site, we were glad to have done it, although the hoards of people crowding the ancient city on the mountain were a shock to our system after months of solitude!

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Back in Cusco, with surprisingly tired legs, we had a late dinner in a restaurant overlooking the town square. All eyes were on the TV as the last few minutes of the semi-final between Peru and Chile played out, resulting in a spectacular win for Peru and their first entry into the Copa América final in 34 years! Out into the square ran hundreds of people, dancing, singing and hugging. Car horns blared and people hung out of car windows, shaking hands and high-fiving strangers. It was a great moment to be a part of!

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With only a week left on our visa and Lucy’s birthday fast approaching, we hopped on a bus to take us to Juliaca, one of the last big cities in Peru, not far from the Bolivian border. We opted to cycle north on the quiet, underused route around Lake Titicaca. A source of constant amusement, the Peruvians like to say that they got the ‘titi’ whilst the Bolivians were left with the ‘caca’.

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Cycling on the Altiplano – the area where the Andes are at their flattest – was bizarre after having had so many months of either up or down. The landscape is flat as far as the eye can see, making for easy but somewhat dull cycling. After getting in plenty of kilometres, we left the main road to find a campsite, cycling down a dirt track. We hit the lake and made the most of the view from the pier by camping right on it! Despite being surrounded by it, getting water was somewhat more difficult than anticipated, with Jan having to balance on his belly on a broken mooring post dipping the water bag in the lake whilst Lucy held onto his jacket to stop him toppling in! At nearly 4,000m altitude, an evening dip would have been a bit chilly.

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The next days cycling were filled with greetings to and from everyone that we passed. The land is used for farming, with many people working outdoors ready to greet and welcome crazy people living on bicycles, laughing at our interest in their working animals. Often when cycling when the only other traffic on the road consists of cars, it can feel as if you are travelling slowly. This feeling shifted when we twice leapfrogged a guy who was hitch-hiking.

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In Tilali, the village before the border, the young daughters of the owner of the room we stayed in took to rubbing Lucy’s legs whenever she got close enough, her cycling shorts presumably feeling very different to the long pleated skirts with thick woollen tights worn by all the other women. Going to get our passports stamped, we accidentally ended up in the municipal building and the manager kindly took us all the way out again and into the correct building, explaining to everyone that we had been lost. Leaving the village, we entered a long stretch of no man’s land, accompanied by a dog, before we reached the dividing line between Peru and Bolivia, clearly marked by an abrupt end in the tarmac road!

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We set off climbing up the dirt road, eventually reaching the top and sailing down into our first village of Bolivia. We had heard that the border was closed between 12.30 and 2.30pm but on reaching it at noon, it was already closed for lunch! We had lunch ourselves (along with the ubiquitous coffee flavoured water, referred to as juice, that is common here) and waited outside on the grass until the friendly border guard pulled up on his bicycle a while later. He welcomed us into his small office, showing us the photos and postcards on the wall of other cyclists and tourists before us. We thought that the level of security was high for the first time since the USA until we realised that the photos he was taking of us were not to go onto a database or to examine our irises but instead would be printed out and put on his cyclist wall!

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Our goal was to be in Copacabana for a few days off for Lucy’s birthday but, as we found with Jan’s birthday, schedules rarely go according to plan with cycle touring! Jan came down with a delayed post-Peru Divide cold and we ended up a full day cycling away, again finding ourself in less than luxurious circumstances! A brass band played ‘the animals went in two by two’ on repeat for many hours outside our window and rather than picking up their dog poop, our hostel liked to simply cover it with plastic takeaway container lids!

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After two flat tires and a gloriously simple ferry ride, we made it to Copacabana to celebrate and spent the next few days living in luxury and exploring the Isla del Sol, otherwise known as the belly button of the world!

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Well-fed and well-rested, we hopped on a bus to La Paz which held the promise of an Airbnb and the chance to meet up with old friends. Jan hadn’t seen Adrian since they were 15 and living on the same street during his exchange year. 15 years later, we all went out for pizza – Jan, Adrian, Lucy and Ana, Adrian’s girlfriend.

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Excited by the teleferico, the city’s vast partly solar-powered cable car network, we spent an afternoon taking every line. Unfortunately, on a side trip to a market, Jan had his phone stolen in a rather impressive operation which involved 5 people, a dropped hat and quite a bit of reliance on Jan being nice enough to pick it up and expose his pockets!

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In order to spend more time on the bikes off the main road, we hopped on another bus to Oruro. Gone were the days of our rare, meticulously organised bus journeys in Peru, planning days in advance to ensure that our bikes would fit. Now we would rock up at any time and just ask bus drivers to fit us on. Although hesitant at first, generally we have found that almost everyone has a can-do positive attitude and will work with us to wrestle the bikes and panniers in to get us to where we need to go! However, the buses in Bolivia, it must be said, can be ridiculously slow and inefficient. One stopped to let everyone off at their individual homes and another waited whilst one woman got off to go to the municipal building to do her paperwork!

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We woke the next morning in Oruro, packed up and were raring to go until we looked outside – it was snowing! Checking the weather on the Salt Flats we were heading for, it didn’t look good. A snowstorm had set in and would continue for the next 32 hours. Not wanting to be caught in it, we waited it out, along with another two cyclists staying in our hostel, Jochen from Germany and Raoul from Holland. A couple of days behind schedule, we set off together in a minibus bound for Salinas, the last town on the main road before the Salt Flats. On arriving, we found that both the hotels in town were booked out due to a festival happening that day. Luckily we found a good deal at an eco-hostel on the edge of town, ran by a great guy who made us tea when we arrived and regaled us with legends of how the salt flats came to be and of his own adventures on a bicycle.

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We had to head to the festival, of course, but boy, were we unprepared for what we found! At 5 pm the place was heaving, sponsored by the local beer Huari which had been flowing freely all day and would continue to do so all night. Every 5 metres or so there were piles of crates, with women in full Bolivian dress handing out free beer to anyone who had less than half a glass full in their hands. We were swiftly taken into the embrace of one woman who showed us that before taking a drink, you must pour a sip out of your glass onto the floor for Pachamama (Mother Earth). This was adhered to by everyone, even the singer of the band who would step to the edge of the stage to pour some over the side. The floor was pretty wet but it was a lovely gesture. The band started off with a cover of Big in Japan, resulting in a rather bizarre scene of lots of very drunk Bolivians periodically shouting ‘Japan’ very loudly. Many people came to greet our small group which stood out like a sore thumb – very tall Europeans being twirled and swung around by our Bolivian beer provider. Men would challenge us to see who could down beer the fastest, and our drinks would be rapidly refilled once we complied. During a break in the competitions, we made a run for it, knowing if we didn’t leave soon we would be in no fit state for the cycle the next day!

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Passing the carnage of what had been the festival the next day, we had to be careful to ensure that our bikes didn’t skid on the frozen rivers of pee from the night before, inevitable when there is limitless beer and no public bathrooms. Men that had told us they loved us the night before swiftly averted their eyes when we passed in the cold light of day. We left the town on the dirt road, glad to once again just have the mountains and llamas for company.

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We eventually reached the end of the road, the last settlement and the start of the salt. Miraculously, Jan managed to find a pair of sunglasses in the smallest restaurant (he had previously lost his) which were a lifesaver. Without them, he would have had to cycle for 200km with his eyes closed. After a slushy start, we were onto the expansive salt desert with nothing on the horizon, just blue blue sky.

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It is a disorientating feeling to cycle with nothing on the horizon. With lots of tracks from vehicles, there is what seems like a road to follow but with no need to stay between white lines, these tracks can veer off in many directions and require you to stop, examine your GPS and recorrect your course. It was so different from anything we had ever cycled, and we began to get nostalgic as we realised this was our penultimate day of cycling after 2 years on the road. Our goal for the day was Isla Incahuasi, a small island in the middle of the salt flat first inhabited by Don Alfredo more than 30 years ago and a site visited by car by many tourists. After an hour or two cycling, the island appeared in the distance and we congratulated ourselves on making it so far. It was only when we checked our map that we realised it was still another 40km away, only looking so close due to the lack of anything else on the horizon. Eventually, we made it and were greeted by the wife of Don Alfredo, who’s grandaughter quickly got us one of the six guest books filled in over the years by cyclists passing through! After hours on the salt only seeing each other and the sky, it was odd to be on an island overrun by tourists, where us on our bicycles suddenly became the tourist attraction to be photographed, rather than the vast expanse of salt or the petrified cacti.

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We found a quiet corner to camp on the northern tip of the island that received both the best of the setting and the rising sun, cooked our pasta and pesto and put on all of our clothes, getting ready for the cold night ahead of us. It was an uncomfortable night, to say the least – temperatures of –10 degrees celsius and our sleeping bags filled with things we didn’t want to freeze. We welcomed the sunrise to warm us up, but Lucy awoke with a bad stomach, terrible timing in the middle of nowhere. After a lazy start and Lucy consuming all of the medication we had, we set off again, making sure to stop for some funny pictures along the way.

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With the setting sun, we eventually made it to Uyuni, and after cycling 100km on only a packet of crackers, Lucy was ready for a rest!

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The next day we headed for the Casa de Ciclistas, seeing old friends and making new ones, giving away our food, clothes, stove and mattress. Next up was a bus to Santa Cruz, a flight back to Europe and the end of this cycling journey of a lifetime. We swapped contacts with other cyclists, planning to meet and discuss this side of our lives when we were living a whole different one back in Europe. As we had done 2 years previously when starting our journey in London, we took a photo. This time to mark the end.

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‘Til next time!

2 thoughts on “Peru South & Bolivia”

  1. Dear Jani and Lucy,
    Good to hear that you are fine.
    Wir freuen uns schon sehr darauf Euch zu sehen. Sind grade unterwegs mit dem Schiff in Dänemark.
    Schreibt mal, wann Ihr in Berlin seid.

    Lg Iris und Sven

    Like

  2. Hi Guys, we passed on the Peru divide this year. You were heading down to the central highway. Tom and I had just survived it. Loved your blog and pics. Take care. Marcus

    Like

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