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More mountains and then some downtime: San Pedro to Sucre, Bolivia

If you read the last blog (well done, it was a long one) you’ll know that when we got to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile the weather threw a spanner in the works and prevented us from taking our planned route through the south west of Bolivia, so we begrudgingly took a bus to Uyuni. It left at 3am which meant a long wait up in the hostel, watching movies and drinking mate but once we were on the bus we got a few hours sleep until we reached the Bolivian border. The bus route goes north in Chile to Ollague rather than East over the Andes, which meant it wasn’t affected by the wind and snow. Everything went smoothly and we were in Uyuni by lunchtime the next day.

We stayed in a really cheap (£8 a night for a private room cheap!) but lovely hostel in Uyuni and had a very social few days with lots of different people. The night we arrived we had dinner with Marion and Matthieu, a French couple we met in Salta, plus Alexis and Morgane from San Pedro, who coincidentally were staying at the hostel next door. We also heard from Lorenzo that he couldn’t get back to Salta for at least another three days and it would actually be quicker to go via Uyuni so we spent a day with him. We had lunch and went around the markets, which was really nice as we don’t know if or when we’ll cross paths again.

We were ready to be back on the bikes the next day but the seemingly unpredictable ‘dry season’ had other ideas and we woke up to snow in the town. This delayed leaving again which meant we could look around the huge outdoor street market and as the weather was being awful, we bought some warm hats. The markets are where the locals go to buy their groceries as supermarkets are few and far between, this is one of the biggest cultural differences we have noticed in Bolivia so far.

Vincent had given up waiting on the weather in San Pedro and had also decided to take the bus from San Pedro. When he arrived he told us there was a lot of snow around the mountains and the South Lopez region. His bus was actually delayed by over seven hours and it was at this point we realised that we had made the best choice in leaving three days earlier.

The weather had cleared up slightly the next day so with a week to get to Sucre, we followed the main road out of Uyuni and we stayed on this road for 360km, all the way to the capital. The ride from Uyuni to the next city, Potosí took us three days, with a good hard shoulder to ride on it was like having a bike lane and the landscapes we rode through were stunning. Every valley changed in some way, from the colours of the rocks to the vegetation growing there, it was spectacular. Potosí to Sucre took us another two days but sadly the hard shoulder was in worse condition and there was more traffic spewing out black fumes that caught in the lungs. By this point we were getting tired too, averaging 70km with over 1000m of climbing per day, riding at between 3000 and 4000 metres above sea level was hard work.

The weather on the Bolivian altiplano was fair but cold with daytime temperatures around 15 degrees but in the wind it felt more like 5. This made for lots of stops to change clothes, normally into full waterproofs, hats and buffs for a descent where the wind chilled you to the core and then to take it all off again when the next climb started. It was so difficult to know what to wear in the mornings because whatever you put on, you would end up stopping to change in a few kilometres anyway.

During the night though the temperature plummeted to around -10 and if when we could, we found somewhere to stay indoors. The first night we were lucky because the small town of Tica Tica had an alojamiento (accommodation) and we stayed in a small cabin with three beds behind someone’s house. It didn’t have running water so we were given a bucket of water to cook and wash up with, as well as the use of a compost toilet but it was perfect, it was all we needed.

The next day we were making good progress so thought we would do the same in the town of Agua de Castilla. We found a hostel, but it was expensive by Bolivian standards (£15 – no kitchen or Wi-fi) so we went in search of somewhere more like the night before (£5). After asking half a dozen people who all said “Go to Porco” we thought the 3km uphill would be worth it for a cheaper place to stay. If you are ever in this part of the world, don’t go to Porco. It is a mining town with seemingly no accommodation, none that any of the locals know about anyway, despite the sign at the bottom proclaiming it as a tourist destination.

Two out of the twenty people we asked actually sent us to places that might be accepting guests but one seemed permanently closed and the other said they had no room. It was getting cold and dark too so after over an hours wild goose chase we ended up back at the original hostel. The only hostel in a 40km radius probably! It was more like a hotel than a hostel but at least we had a warm bed and a shower.

Potosí is quite a large city at 4000m and the climb up to it was steeper than any in Yorkshire. It didn’t help that we took a direct route up the smaller backroads and some were even cobbled. We stayed at an amazing hostel, back to £10 a night and this one even had heating, the first we’ve seen for a long time! Potosí is famous for the old silver mine just outside the city. It is still operational today but the Spanish mined all of the silver so there are only lesser minerals to be found now. It is possibly to take a tour around the mine, but we arrived mid-afternoon and were leaving the next day so we didn’t visit them. Instead we explored city by foot for an hour or two (it was Sunday so the town was super quiet) and returned to the hostel to cook a big chilli.

The air started to get warmer as we descended from Potosí which meant we didn’t have to wear all of our clothes anymore, we could eat lunch outside in the sun (chilli leftovers, yum!) and we spent one night camping between Potosí and Sucre. We found the most secluded place at the edge of a dried riverbed on some cracked mud and remembered how nice it was to be able to sit outside after dark. Since leaving Salta it had become too cold to be outside as soon as the sun went down so it was such a novelty again.

May to September is the dry season in the mountains and altiplano regions and although we’ve had some bad luck with the weather, people have reassured us that the storm that closed all of the passes was a freak storm and the weather will be dry and cold for the next few months. This is really visible in the landscape that we rode through because there are lots of wide, dry riverbeds that are completely devoid of any water. The sheer size of them means that it must be so wet and lush during the summer months here (the wet season.)

The mountains that we have been riding through are really rocky and in all sorts of shapes and colours. They are surely a geologist’s dream! All we kept thinking was that off the main road it must be so wild. Maybe on the way back to Uyuni we will explore a route more off the beaten path, when we have no date to stick to, and can take our time.

We arrived in Sucre after 5 days of riding and spent two days chilling out in a hostel, getting our bearings and doing laundry. We didn’t want to go straight to the hostel that we would be volunteering at because we felt exhausted, we wanted to be lazy and do nothing if we felt like it, not the first impression we wanted to give to our new hosts!

When we did arrive at our Workaway hostel we had an evening of training, which was good Spanish practise for us and then we worked a few hours on Friday morning before having the weekend off. It wasn’t a quiet weekend though. Vincent had arrived in town but was staying with a family that picked him up in their truck on the road to Sucre and offered him a room. The first night he was here we went out for a meal, also with Alexis and Morgane again, then on to a traditional Bolivian dance show.

The dance show was a great introduction to Bolivian culture, showcasing the different regions and their dances, along with their costumes. From local routines to Amazonian and Quechua dances, it was a mix of styles and music. The highlight was when the dancers chose members of the audience to join in at the end and Ben was brought on to stage to show off his moves. He was by far the best of all the non-dancers!

We met two other cyclists at the hostel too, Cass and Andy. Cass, being a professional bikepacker, has so much knowledge and we were very envious of his bike set up. (We didn’t know how to travel by bike until we started this trip 9 months ago but we’ve had a lot of time to learn and reflect, and we’ve written another post about this which we will upload soon.)

60 million years ago this area of South America was filled with lots of massive lakes and after an earthquake in the 1940s left the area now known as Sucre in ruins, a cement factory was built on a surrounding hill, to provide materials for the rebuilding of the city. When they were excavating the hillside they discovered a massive wall of dinosaur footprints that was once the bottom of one such lake, pushed vertical by tectonic plates. It’s the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world and it was even more impressive than we had expected it to be.

We cycled out to Parque Cretácico (Cal Orck’O) to see them with Vincent and Cass, taking the steepest and busiest way possible out of town. It was well worth the cycle though as the whole place was reminiscent of Jurassic Park and the theme tune playing from Vincent’s phone just made it even more real! There were life sized models of the dinosaurs that left their footprints here and an interesting museum to look around before the actual tour started.

We were given hard hats and goggles so we looked super cool and then taken down a steep set of steps to look at the wall which was slowly getting the sun on it. Stood next to the cliff face there were bigger-than-elephant sized footprints criss-crossing the wall which would have once been a muddy lake and we were amazed just how many there were. It was an excellent few hours with so much to see. The English speaking guide was also really informative and when he was explaining how the dinosaurs moved he used his hand to show this and we all spent the next few hours trying to replicate his dinosaur!

Cass was catching a bus that evening to continue his ride from Tupiza so we all went out for dinner at the local market. We sat with the locals where we had a typical Bolivian dish called Paillita which is basically carbs, protein and more carbs. Chips, sausage, beef, a fried egg and cabbage with beetroot all piled on top of a bed of rice was a big meal and for £1.50 couldn’t be beaten for value. If 5 hungry cyclists are all full after a meal you know it’s been a good one.

Each Sunday there is large textiles market in the small village of Tarabuco, 60km from Sucre. As we had friends here and we were free, we went for the morning with Vincent and Andy.

It was an ordinary weekly market as well as being a tourist draw, with locals buying their produce for the week alongside tourists buying jumpers and rugs (Ben and Andy). Searching through the huge amounts of beautiful handicrafts and then haggling to get a good deal on what you wanted made for a fun morning. The hardest bit was trying not to buy too much stuff, it all means extra weight on the bikes!

For now though we start volunteering at the hostel, dividing the morning and night shifts between us and taking Spanish lessons in the afternoons. It’s nice to have our own room and free time again as it’s been six months since our last long break at the farm in Coyhaique, Chilean Patagonia. We are going to have a busy schedule but it should be very conducive to learning Spanish and resting up for another few months on the bikes.

We are loving Bolivia and everything new that it offers. Sucre is a really pretty city and we look forward to showing you more of it next time. If our lessons go well maybe we will write the next blog in Spanish!

Until then, Chao y nos vemos.

Steph y Ben.

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1 comment

  1. Glad to hear you’re enjoying Bolivia. We have lots of fond memories of that country too. You have lots of colourful photos here – they’re great. Did you get to see any flamingos on the antiplano? It is a shame you didn’t get to visit the mine in Potosi (a fascinating and memorable experience – where else can you take gifts of dynamite, biscuits and coca leaves?!) but good that you got to see the “city” – I remember it being an interesting place to wander the narrow streets. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Sucre too.

    We enjoyed our camping in the warm sunshine the weekend before last. We’re off camping again the weekend after next too. Laura’s phone brought up some photos of this time last year – and we were at the nursery owls leaving party….a lot has changed for you in the year since then! Hard to believe that Solana now has only a couple of weeks left in Reception class…. She should get her first school report next week!

    Hope you enjoy your volunteering,
    Julie, Laura & Solana x

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