Bike touring in Bolivia: Part 1

Santa Cruz ➳ Lago Titicaca

We flew from Madrid, Spain to Santa Cruz, Bolivia on the 12th October 2016. After spending over 8 hours of an 11 and a half hour flight sleeping we were thrilled to have finally made it to South America. After fitting the bikes together for the second time we said to ourselves that we never wanted to fly again and from now on, everywhere will be travelled to as sustainably as possible.

airport luggage bike touring bike boxes
Chris showing off Katie’s packing skills

Once we arrived in Santa Cruz we had to get another 30 visa days stamped onto our passports, the airports border control was having none of it when we asked if we could have 90 instead of only just 30. The traffic in Santa Cruz was absolutely insane and a really big difference to the roads we had been only recently been riding on in Europe. We managed to find the immigration centre in good time and got the hell out of there. Our first welcomes were lovely as so many people beeped, smiled and waved at us as we made our way out of the crazy city. We met a gentleman called Rudi at the airport, he was saying goodbye to his son who was on his way to work in Switzerland. We were surprised to meet an English speaking person so soon and we stayed on his land that night, him and his wife showed us around their agricultural home and it was amazing to see so much growing! We walked under avocado and mango trees and when we told us he had recently seen some sloths in his trees I never wanted to leave. The fact that we were at low altitude and reasonably close to jungle territory introduced a humid climate which allows Rudi and his wife to grow all the amazing things they do.

boliva dog cuddly friendly happy
We were told the dogs in Bolivia were to be feared

Onwards and Upwards

After saying goodbye to Rudi and his wife we made our way to the mountains…

google maps santa cruz to cochabamba
Our route on the 7 road to Cochabamba

When we first got away from the business of the city and into more country terrain we got the same feeling of excitement as we had when we first touched down in Croatia. “Where are we, and what are doing!” we said. The first thing that we fell in love with was the sounds of the birds and the rest of the wildlife around, it is such much more colourful on this side of the world too and it was great to suddenly be surrounded by it. But the climbs? Now they were vicious…

We were given Soya powder on our second day and found it was GREAT to put in our mornings oats, cheap too!

When we climb began, (from 500 metres to 3,000) we couldn’t wait to get higher, the heat and humidity from the low altitude was very difficult to bike in and we were sweating out more than we could possibly drink.

NOT ENOUGH WATER FOR EVERYONE

One of the biggest problems in Bolivia today is the sheer lack of water available for everybody, in fact it has been labelled a National emergency as Bolivia is facing it’s worst drought in 25 years. One third of people living in La Paz have had two weeks of water restrictions and it’s not getting any better, schools have been closed down to prevent the spread of disease. If you’d like to read more about Bolivia’s water crisis please click here.

The price of bottled water almost matched the price of Coca Cola and at times we struggled to receive tap water from houses. We are grateful to have had the Sawyer Mini Water Filter with us and so were able to collect water from road side streams and nearby lakes.

bolivia water shortage cattle grazing
Even the cattle struggle to find a watering hole

 

bolivia water shortage katie doing laundry
Katie doing the washing

You take the high road, I’ll take the low

We had a choice of two different roads to Cochabamba, the #5, the newer road (and therefore we predicted to be the much busier road) or the 7, the older road, less busy but possibly more rugged, and boy was it.

The tarmac vanished, the winds force grew and the sand took to it, whipping and swirling around tight switchbacks and slashing against our faces. I was blown off the bike on a number of occasions and cursed the sky as I lay in a crumpled heap on the road. Chris would find a safe spot and make his way (almost flying) back to me and we pushed my bike against the wind up, and around the corners. As the afternoon continued we had not made it far at all and the winds seemed even stronger, we were both of the bikes powering through the windy sand storm and things looked bleak for our Bolivian adventures. I thought to myself “Will it all be like this”, we had only really just started and this is by far the hardest thing we had faced.

We found a break in the road to the side and decided to stop for the day. The sun began to fall in the sky and the wind felt colder, we wrapped ourselves in the warm clothes we had and started pitching the tent…

GUUUUUSH

A huge gust of winds comes along and completely collapses the tent. We just stood there, looked at each other and started losing it. We lost it at each other we lost it at the wind and we lost it at our helpless tent on the floor, shaking in the wind. Turns out the poles were not snapped, PHEW, just incredibly bent.

We made our way further down the dusty cliff side and found shelter behind a few trees, violently swishing in the wind. No tent for us that night but we snuggled together in the sleeping  bag and watched the sun leave the day, behind the mountains ahead. Needless to say it was a very cold night and one that included little sleeping.

We learnt a very big lesson that night; Bolivian mountain winds are not to be trusted!

msr exliter 2 poles bent in bolivian winds
I didn’t do it, the wind did!

 

msr tent view tent life bike touring
Fortunately the tent was still pitch-able after that night

Bolivia Is Brutal

Aside from the extreme water shortage and high poverty in this country, the countries terrain and difficult mountain climbs make bike touring anything but a walk in the park. Now don’t get us wrong, we were craving some serious adventure and we got it, I can’t truly explain to you the feeling of biking through clouds at over 3,500 metres, but I will say what a truly magical experience it was, everything becomes foggy and a bit damp, like a dull English Sunday afternoon, but if you look around, you see a mountainside of greenery were the forestation has just flourished by its dampness, the birds still call and as you make your way out of the cloud you can faintly see what is ahead of you, just more misty rings and mountain roads and I have honestly never felt more exited for the road ahead.

However, these old roads we were on were unforgiving and I spent most descents out of the saddle! The bumps you get with the speed you go are incredibly forceful but I won’t lie to you, it’s extremely fun.

Basil XXL panniers broken but fixed with cable ties
Chris’s panniers were having none of it

Almost at Cochabamba

We were on the outskirts of our first city goal when we decided to camp for the night. We planned to get up early in the morning and bike past the city, in the hope of missing the majority of traffic. BUT NO, the bicycle touring gods had other plans as we decided to camp in the THORNIEST place on earth. 2 inch thorns pierced through my front and back tyre and we were done for, no safe way out. Chris started shouting and yelling about my poor direction, I started screaming back. The worst had happened, we had completely ripped one of our (basically new) tyres because of a foolish camping spot choice. We detached my wheels and carried my bike to a safer spot, we weren’t going to find anywhere else to camp that night and the sun was going down so we had to stay put. Just when we thought we were safe, I notice something poking out of Chris’s back wheel, I pull it out and hear the most disheartening sound a bike-tourer could ever hear, his tyre had breathed it’s last breath and just sagged on the ground. We were SO pissed, like seriously, we have never been more mad with ours. 6 punctures in one go and two ripped tyres. So we went into Cochabamba the next day in search of replacements.

sunset in bolivia forest camping spot full of thorny bushes
The thorniest place in the world

Cochabamba

When we arrived in Cochabamba we made a few friends out of bike shop owners when in search for replacement tyres and tubes. Two of which offered up their homes for us to stay the night in, which we kindly accepted. However, on the first evening of the search Chris suddenly became very sick and when waiting for one of the bike shop owners to show us to his house he was violently sick. We were immediately rescued by a lovely Bolivian family, the son was sent to the hospital to collect medicine and the husband and wife made us drinks and made me food, Chris was out for a whole week with a tummy upset (we suspected a water parasite) and we moved into three different houses during this time, these being the houses of the bike shop owners who had previously offered up their hospitality. When Chris was able to eat properly again one couple called Claudia and Bernardo made us feel like family, they showed us all around Cochabamba and told us lots of history. We were taking out for dinner including a trip to Bernardo’s brothers family who welcomed us like their own brothers and sisters. What began as a truly awful introduction to the city ended with lifelong friends and a great experience.

On one of the last days before leaving Bernardo and Claudia we took part in the cities critical mass, which is a really great way to promote sustainable travel and get together with lots of like-minded people.

Cochabamba's critical mass bike touring get together
Cochabamba’s critical mass

 

north of cochabamba bolivia
Mini night road trip with Claudia and Bernardo

More blood, sweat and climbing

After leaving Cochabamba we climbed another 1,600 metres to reach the Altiplano, It was a gruelling 6 days but we made it and we were welcomed by none other than flat, gorgeously amazingly FLAT roads, and boy did we pedal. 80km NO PROBLEM, 20km/h EASY BREEZY. We didn’t appreciate flat roads enough before we came here.

relaxing in bolivia rocky landscape
Chris enjoying the only bit of shade for miles

 

steep hill road sign bike touring bolivia
Signs full of nothing but motivation

BUT THEN WE MADE IT!

the altiplano flat roads of bolivia south america bike touring
The Altiplano!

La Paz, but not really 

We were chuffed to have made it as far as La Paz and as we looked over the hustling bustling city we gave ourselves two big pats on the backs. We didn’t actually venture into the main centre of La Paz but stayed on the outskirts and visited the satellite city’s Sunday market, which we thought was probably just as fun. We treated ourselves to a plate of a market stalls menu and gathered together some vegetables and biscuits for the road. There was no response from any WarmShowers in La Paz so we decided to camp just on the outskirts, a storm rolled over that night and we looked on the map at just how close Lake Titicaca was.

msr tent elixer 2 bolivia wild camping bike touring
A night of adventure reflection

 

bolivian market food stall vegan travelling bike touring
Katie enjoying her first Bolivian market food

A few days later we had made it to the start of Lago Titicaca, it was an amazing feeling to know we had biked all the way to one of the wonders of the world, and we were suddenly especially excited to be rolling into our second South American country, PERU! 

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