A Gringo Trail Along the Road More Travelled – Salta, Argentina to La Paz, Bolivia

A Gringo Trail Along the Road More Travelled
Salta, Argentina to La Paz, Bolivia

Si no lo sientes, no lo entiendes
(If you don’t feel it, you don’t understand it)

—motto of “The Strongest”, La Paz’s champion football team

O passi graviore revocate animos et haec olim meminisse juvabit
(Ye who have suffered great trials gather courage, perhaps one day it will be pleasant to remember them)

“It’s fricking freezing in here, Mr. Bigglesworth.”
—Dr. Evil (Austin Powers)

Tim Henman at Wimbledon required my annual futilely optimistic support
(albeit from afar) and this left me with little time to try and reach La Paz
in time to meet my friend Rob. A painful beasting awaited yet I knew that it
would be a spectacular stage, riding up into the Andes to San Pedro de
Atacama in Chile before crossing Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni and the altiplano.

I rode out of Salta past jubilant, bleary Boca Junior fans stumbling happily
homeward after celebrating the previous night’s triumph over Santos in
Brazil. The miles zipped away as I enjoyed the last flat paved road for some
time. I spent a night in Purmamarca, a warm adobe village clustered around a
shady plaza and a peaceful white chapel. 2000 metres above sea level,
Purmamarca is wrapped amongst bare mountains of seven vivid colours;
purples, reds and greens. Tomorrow night I would be cold and exhausted at
over 4000m on the road to Chile. I knew that it would hurt and nerves and
excitement turned inside me as I lay in my tent enjoying being warm for the
last time.

The wind was relentless as I launched into the unending sandy hairpin bends,
snaking up through canyons and cacti and sharp pinnacles of eroded red rock.
Because of the wind I had to walk the entire pass and it took more than a
day to reach the summit. And after the summit I kept walking for six days,
rarely managing more than 20 miles a day as I hauled the bike through soft
sand and the wind battered me. The days and nights were bitterly cold and I
heaved for breath in the thin air. And to think that I was supposedly back
in the Tropics once more! I carried food for 5 days and 18 litres of water
in the bleakest land I have ever seen.

Two months ago a German died up there from the cold and the altitude. During
the day I would uncharitably curse what I decided looked like the ‘largest
carpark on earth’ but as I calmed down in the evenings within the small
pocket of stillness inside my tent that flapped and fretted constantly in
the gale I could appreciate the austere beauty of the grey gravel plains
reaching forever towards pale yellow mountains. Dumb llamas and pretty
vicuñas grazed on the hovering, shimmering horizons. But even Charles
Darwin, that most enthusiastic of diarists, confessed to growing tired of
the adjectives ‘barren’ and ‘sterile’ in the Atacama desert. Even inside the
tiny escape of my tent the wind managed to fling sand around. All day I wore
a bandana over my nose and mouth and in the evenings my pan would fill with
sand as I cooked. (A tip for eating sandy food: when chewing keep your teeth
apart. That way you notice the sand less).

The Argentinian border guards revived me as I arrived exhausted and
demoralised, giving me a bed for the night and hot soup beside the fire. The
customs officer even presented me with a confiscated bottle of Paraguayan
liquor to take with me into Chile. I pushed on, mindful of my deadline for
La Paz yet having to pause regularly to fight for breath. I thought of a
family I had stayed with in Chile and cursed their beautiful photos of San
Pedro de Atacama that had persuaded me to embark on this windswept, sand
stinging, airless trek. A consolation was to sleep among the lonely hills in
a good old drainage pipe once more, looking onto a dark blue lake crusted
with ice and salt and stark orange-red hills slowly releasing a cold full
moon into the silent starry sky.

A tourist jeep stopped and told me that in no more than 15km I would reach
the 4600m summit and that it would all be downhill from there. Yippee! 45km
later (45km!!) I crested the last of many dispiriting false summits,
shouting with anger at the tour group and completely beaten after one of the
toughest, most beautiful weeks of my journey. I was cold, knackered and
angry. But with 50km of downhill to San Pedro de Atacama the world lay all
before me. Down past Laguna Verde and Volcano Licancabur I flew, whooping
with jubilation. I was hurtling into a mighty golden sunset and all my
exhaustion was forgotten. It was over, I had arrived!

But San Pedro was a disappointment for me. After the hundreds of hours of
solitude it was a shock to arrive in a town of Gringos and restaurants and
‘Hihg Sped Internat’ (sic) computers in low adobe huts. The restaurants and
hostels were all out of my budget so I retired to a dusty campsite to make
pancakes and pick the skin from my wind-fried nose. There were two types of
people in San Pedro – tourists and people selling stuff to tourists. It was
interesting to notice how the locals dress as much as possible in
sweatshirts, jeans and baseball caps, whilst the sartorially switched on
gringo prides himself on llama wool socks and gloves, perhaps a woolly llama
jumper, and certainly the traditional woolly hat of the Andes, complete with
ear flaps and llama motifs. Interesting also how much beer and pizza can be
consumed when you happen to bump into two school-friends you have not seen
in 8 years! It was a very pleasant surprise to meet Rob Fergus and Hugh
Griffiths ambling around San Pedro after a couple of weeks of

Radio San Pedro – the only station available on the radio – was magnificent,
dedicated to the likes of ‘Glory of Love’, ‘Danger Zone’ and ‘The Eye of the
Tiger’. I also spent an evening at the circus… A troupe of people left
England in 1997 in an old green double decker bus and have been touring the
world putting on shows as they go to fund their travels!

It has taken me 5 months to reach country number 31 and I was glad to be
returning to Bolivia, especially as I planned to ride across the Salar de
Uyuni. The Salar is a dried-up ancient sea, a vast plain of dazzling white
salt. The salt is hard and flat, a mosaic of pentagons that crunch like
crisp snow when you ride over them. It is a unique landscape with no roads
or villages for at least a hundred kilometres, just whiteness stretching out
to touch the dark blue sky. You navigate by compass or by heading for one of
the volcanoes so far away across the Salar.

Continuing the fine traditions of Queen Street, Edinburgh and the Radcliffe
Camera, Oxford, I decided that some naked cycling was in order as I whizzed
across the emptiness. In shoes, woolly gloves (it was freezing) and
sunglasses I flew by some tourist jeeps, delighting in their astonishment
and amusement. Backfiring as these things are wont to do, one of the people
I flashed past was a teacher at the school in Lima where I am due to give a
talk next week! I wonder whether they will even allow me through the door

There is total silence on the Salar. The world feels a long way away. There
are a lot of tour jeeps crawling “like ants over a giant’s eiderdown” but I
was reassured more than anything by how minimal man’s impact has been on
this environment. The sheer scale of the untouched-ness was uplifting. It
was a glum thought that in a couple of days I would have to return to roads
and people and the drabness of reality.

Many people had warned me about the plunging night-time temperatures of -20C
on the Salar, but camping in that surreal world was something I had to
experience. Besides, once people tell you that something is impossible it
suddenly becomes very appealing! With 6 shirts, 2 fleeces, a down jacket, 3
hats, 3 pairs of socks, 2 silk sleeping bags, 2 sleeping bags and the bottle
of revolting yet warming Paraguayan liquor I made it through the night. A
shower of frozen condensation fell onto my face as I unzipped the tent at
first light, but to be alone on the Salar at sunrise made it all worthwhile.
Just me and a white emptiness stretching forever towards the shimmering
horizon and the pale yellow sun. I jumped around, whooping and dancing like
an idiot to warm myself up. Perhaps that liquor was stronger than I thought.
Salar de Uyuni: definitely a world highlight.

The sturdy Bolivian women wear an extraordinary costume. Layers of frilly
skirts hang like an umbrella to their knees above thick woolly stockings.
Over layers of cardigans they carry on their back a brightly striped blanket
containing a bundle of possessions and a baby. Thick black pigtails reach
down to their waist. And then the pièce de resistance, an extraordinary
accessory whose origins I can barely imagine and possibly the least
flattering invention since the moustache: a tiny bowler hat, much too small
for the head, balances precariously on top and looks, quite frankly, daft.

Bowler hats aside, the change from Argentina and Chile to Bolivia is vast:
facially, culturally, financially and educationally. For example, a young
Aymara indian girl wondered whether with aeroplanes you put the animals on
the roof as is customary with some Bolivian buses. A man asked me to point
towards England. He appreciated that it was further than Potosí (about 200km
away) but was incredulous when I told him that my country was about 100
hours by bus and 4 weeks by boat from where we stood. I no longer tell
people I have ridden from Tierra del Fuego, rather I pick a town a few days
ride and the boundary of people’s conception away. That is sufficiently
unbelievable for people here. A lady, aged about 30, told me that she had 7
living children and that 8 others had already died. Malnutrition, poor
health and little education is still normality for most humans of the 21st


I was left with a straight dash across the altiplano to try and reach La Paz
before Rob flew in from London. The scarce villages were grey, dusty
clusters of adobe huts and the stores sold little more than stale crackers,
lurid fizzy drinks and rusting cans of sardines. Bowler-hatted ladies ambled
behind shuffling flocks of dirty sheep and llamas with red ribbons tied in
their wool. The road was terrible so for a few days I followed the railway
line towards Oruro instead, cycling cross-country across the tough, coarse
fuzz of yellow grass that is the altiplano. The altiplano is high, yellow
and plain (like airline custard) and I dreamed of asphalt and some more
varied scenery. I had my head down the white line and I chewed coca leaves
to pass the time. The days blurred but the kilometres passed.

The appearance of Mount Illimani (6400m) on the horizon showed me that I was
nearing La Paz. Arriving in La Paz you are treated to one of the world’s
great cityscapes: beneath a wall of black mountains a huge bowl suddenly
opens, a canyon filled from rim to rim with cheap red brick box houses and
black, staring windows. Illimani towers above everything, four magnificent
white peaks. The road swoops and curves for 13km down deep into the bowl and
the city centre of La Paz. It is a fun city with steep, narrow streets and
cramped markets where bowler-hatted ladies sell everything from fresh fruit
juices to sun-dried llama foetuses. Stalls sell hot, tasty salteñas (pies)
or lamb heart kebabs or icecreams and I grazed constantly as I explored.

The highlight of La Paz though is the shower in the 14th floor apartment
that I am staying in. The shower has a massive window giving you a
spectacular view of the city (and the city of you!) and Illimani as you
scrub your back and sing loudly. The best shower of the past two years! Yes,
the shower and the delicious smell coming from the kitchen right now that
suggests that Anthony (my host) is frying up my first bacon butties in an
unacceptably long time! It has been a tough but spectacular few weeks, but I
have company now and the ride to Lima should be fun. With HP sauce on the
bacon things are going pretty well right now!

NEXT MONTH I will pass the landmark of 2 years on the road. I will be
writing my thoughts on that in my next update.

CONGRATULATIONS to Lance Armstrong on winning his fifth Tour de France after
recovering from cancer, an inspirational story whether you are interested in
cycling or not. And, in case you have not yet read his story, here is a link
for you so that, like a true polka-dot mountain climber, you won’t even have
to leave your seat!

THANK YOU for all the e-mails I received after my last report when I was
considering heading for home. To give you an idea of how hard the decision
is, here are a few of the comments I received:

“Don’t you dare give up! What on earth am I, and the other several thousand
cyclists around the world who read your site, supposed to fantasise about
from behind our desks to relieve the tedium of our sad little lives if you quit?”

“Don’t tell me you are going home before you go to Australia?”

“It is obvious from your site that one of the reasons you chose to do the
ride was to rebel from the conveyer belt that rolls so many promising,
bright eyed and bushy tailed young graduates to London… But I’m now a
couple of years of work down the line, and think you will come to see that
the quality of your life is not to do with the path you choose as much as
with the way in which you execute your decisions.”

“You probably feel very adventurous, the young English explorer out there,
and when you come home to the hero’s welcome you deserve, you’ll feel this
even more. But … your greatest achievement will not turn out to be the
cycle ride. It will be stopping the cycle ride.”

Along the lines of…

“We have lost this series and people now say we’re not the greatest side to
have played the game. But I do not believe humans can aspire to being
perfect. Greatness is being able to respond to this loss in the correct
manner.” (Steve Waugh – who is, for any Americans reading, someone, like Diego Maradona, David Batty and Take That, that you folks really should familiarize yourselves with)

“You have a great opportunity. Use it while you can.”