Following statement: do you agree?
Is it the urge, the curiosity and the possibility to experience total silence, absolute aloneness and being fully in nature that one cycles through the Andes? Cycling in the mountains is for fools. A normal being doesn’t do such thing. Everyone who cycles like I do is nonstandard. Unless it’s a holiday. It leads to nothing concrete, nothing touchable. This lifestyle I prefer is not passed on by my ancestors. And would I live a happy life in the mountains, in the desert, in the pampa, even that of a shepherd, the curiosity of what lays ahead, around the bend, the endless sameness, the openness, would always pull me. Thát is the hand that pushes me. The route I take is not possible with public transport, by foot I can’t carry this much and with a bicycle I can only just do it. The balance is on the edge, as long as I can pace myself.
I’d made some kind of plan when I was comfortably served meat dishes trice a day at the Paraguayan military cartel. Google map showed me altitudes above 3500 meters but I was optimistic. I had done way higher than that.
So, I set off from sea level and would cycle only a tiny south corner of Bolivia. It couldn’t be that hard.
Bolivia at sea level was already tough. It started with the continuation of the Chaco but Bolivia hosted all the flies, who must have fled Paraguay for some reason. Each time I stopped I would be covered in flies, but that was not such an annoyance. A bigger displeasure was the meeting with Bolivian military where I asked a place to camp. I met with about 10 officials but was denied access on their grounds.
And even that was a tiny disturbance in contrast to the route ahead. The tarmac ceased to exist and of hard mud Bolivia had never heard. Instead it became loose gravel, with stones the size of river pebbles. Flatness stopped to exist too and suave up and downs were now my job, but on river stone pebbles anything but easy.
Far beyond the border, the border officials saw it as their task to halt me and search my bags, in the middle of the route. ‘Are you alone? Why you have no partner?’ I’d learned to cooperate, opened my bags and clarified I was a kind of sportswomen who didn’t smoke and certainly didn’t do drugs. Glad I left the coca leaves I found in Paraguay behind.
I don’t know the Bolivians yet so I am in a Paraguayan spirit when the official talks to me: ‘You Dutch, Amsterdam, drogas,’ he continues. And I reply that he went to Pakistan: ‘What did you do thére, at Wagha, near to Afghanistan!?’ I asked. His cap shows a flag of Pakistan and the letters Wagha, which I immediately recognize. He seems impressed, or proud, and tries to hold back a smile. ‘Dangerous here, mal gente,’ he says while the men behind him in the car shakes their head as in ‘no, it’s not’.
The route becomes very tough. With hardly any people along it. My thirst is quenched by Paraguayan truck drivers who hand me liters of cold water. The Bolivian drivers don’t do such thing, they wouldn’t even wave. And I, I had to change my mindset at once, from a holiday to hard work. I’ll do it, I have no other choice.
Then a wall of granite appears in front of my eyes. The Andes. I can’t believe my eyes. Have to stop. It is not a cloud. It is a mountain. It’s where the earth has been shoved up, real high! I am going to climb the Andes.
I reach Villamontes and suddenly am full and well in Bolivia. I still desperately miss Paraguay but am happy with the abundance of fruit, food stalls and women dressed authentic. The Mercado Central is a kind of constant party, with happy music and loads of tiny cubicles occupied with woman preparing food. It almost seems like a parade. It suits me. People from all parts of Bolivia travel through, eat and load up with bulks of goods. I cherish the body with extra fruit before I set off to the foothills of the Andes.
I just start. Without a plan other than the next town to get food is Entre Rios, 150 kilometer away. I have no map, no altitude guideline and no clue.
I climbed the Himalaya, come on with it! Unfortunately, in Bolivia are not such things as tea stalls, food stalls nor numerous truck dhaba’s to eat.
It’s hot, dusty and the road is a sole track, leading along a river which develops deeper down below me. I’ve set myself a goal of 50 kilometer a day to reach Tarija, which is 250 kilometers away. My mind transforms the hills as a race: I need to reach 50 km a day because I need to get there in 5 days.
There’s much road work going on, which annoys me. There are constant divisions which seems to be a bit steeper than the actual road. The workmen, all with a bulging cheek full with coca leaves, water the road so it becomes too muddy for me, or the opposite happens; too sandy. It’s actual a constant battle. A battle against my own inclined need for 50 kilometer a day.
It’s hot with 45 degrees in the sun and I move at an average pace of 9 km/an hour. I move too slow to my likings.
I set the minimum limit to 30 when I completely exhausted set up camp in the dry bush of the Bolivian Chaco. I make a fire, hell with dryness. Someone in Paraguay told me I won’t set a forest on fire so easily. I’m seen by the road workers who come to chat with me, while I happily embroider on.
Most important question in Bolivia
‘Solita?’ Well, not exactly as I am with Shanti. But Shanti a bicycle is not regarded a partner really. For me it is though, my Shanti is stroked on her saddle or crossbar when I am happy with our results. These days I am not very happy. But I keep stoking Shanti because she is immaculate.
The surroundings are not especially beautiful. I kind of expected to be catapulted right onto the Alti Plano, but to get there, I guess I have to start from zero.
Besides being it about forty degrees, dusty and not incredible beautiful, I am annoyed by the flies and ticks which crawls over me in the evening when I go to bed. Yet, one positive change is the abundance of free camp spots. There are hardly any fences anymore. The estancia’s have vanished in comparison with Paraguay. Still being it the Chaco, the dryness makes it easy to make fires and I don’t bother with cows and bulls in my camp-environment anymore. I set up camp right in their field.
Upon arriving in tiny town Palos Blancos I meet with a woman who runs a shop, this is an unexpected place to stock up with food. When I grab a few extra veggies she doesn’t charge me. I find that so sweet I give her the shirt someone else has given to me. She on her turn finds that so sweet she hands me a kilo powdered milk. The package I didn’t want to buy because of its weight…
But I equally meet with people whom I try to halt in order to ask for water, and who just ignore me. I think they are influenced by coca leaves and in a state of blissful haze.
My state is less blissful with extra kilo’s to carry and a serious climb to go. But the cloudiness makes me happy as it gives a difference of 20 degrees, which makes cycling so much more pleasant. My bicycle is heavy with a load over 30 kilograms, yet I somehow do enjoy the climb. To see the dotted plains below me is feeling majestic.
Actually, I find the nature stunning by now. The climb let me quickly move higher. And soon I overlook the unspoiled Chaco, not to compare with the Chaco in Paraguay which is bulldozed by the day.
When I reach the top I am, besides exhausted, proud. I seek a beautiful place to camp and call it a day at 3 o’clock.
Actually, I am elated with the place. Its high enough to be in the clouds and utterly quiet. The only sound is a cow in my kitchen at night.
To be on a route without provisions, without certainty for water makes it much more demanding. My thoughts often go worrying whether there’s enough water or enough food. When it start raining I need to be sure of dry wood, thankfully I learned the skills to find dry wood in rain. Call me a trooper if you wish.
The dangers of the Bolivian nights
When I meet with people to ask for water their expression after their first question of ‘solita’ is fear. Now it are not expressions of ‘that’s far’ or ‘that’s insane’ like in the Chaco of Paraguay. Now it is danger of men with pistols. Because in the night they would want my camera, my money and my bicycle. To me this is complete nonsense, for how do these men know where I sleep? Besides the fact that those men sleep themselves, or would they go out at night to seek victims? That is in contradiction with reality; at night the roads are more quiet than at daytime.
So, peligroso is what I hear time upon time. I know better.
The danger is rather in the condition of the road. Sometimes trucks shave past you, would they hit you, however slightly, you might fall into the deep ravines. Many cars have gone there. If I would fall into a ravine, there are very few people who would notice me. Or suppose if I get unwell at a lonely camp spot? I rather cycle close to the side of the mountain, which confuses oncoming traffic, but at least I am far from the depths.
There are landslides I have to pass and heavy drilling to build a new road worries me for new slides.
I cycle through a village after a long downhill, but after trice the amount of climbing. I try to seek a place to camp but each person points me towards their neighbor. I can understand they can’t host me, simply because they haven’t got the space. My Spanish is not good enough to make clear what I actually want: a plot to camp, not their patio. When I see a plot with a new house on it, I ask the woman if I can set up camp. ‘No,’ she says right away, ‘my dog is dangerous,’ while her dog is watching me in admiration to play, his tail waggling, his eyes blinking with joy.
So I cycle on, tired as I am. I know I will find something, I just need patience. And there it arrives: a new road cut out by dynamite. Not yet accessible by traffic, however little there is on the main route. The huge rocks with the dynamite ignition in it are a perfect hiding spot. I couldn’t be more happy when I am placed at the fire pit, milky coffee in hand and embroidering some more. It are moments like these that my satisfaction to be alone is highlighted.
Daily I am aware of my happiness to be alone, because cycling the pace I do would irritate every other person. And I would be annoyed to keep up with the faster other.
I arrive in Entre Rios, I have climbed so much and yet I am at an altitude of 1217 meters. I feel much more grand than where I actually am. I stay in a residencial which are cheaper than hotels and enjoy Entre Rios and its authenticity. There are old-fashioned popcorn push carts, children who run their mothers shop and moms who changed their Bolivian crease skirt for regular clothes. A shame because it doesn’t suit them, or so I think. Sporty clothes are the norm now. People who passed me in their car recognize me and are in admiration, their faces in a wrinkled expression about the route ahead.
I eat well before I set off on the second leg of the journey closer to the Andes. You would think I start with renewed energy but as soon as I had breakfast of beef and eggs, my legs simple refuse. I puff and pant against the hill. A white donkey in front of me must be laughing, and he certainly shakes his ears, stamp his hind legs and runs ahead each time I move a few meter closer. I have no clue what’s wrong, other than the heat which is bothering me. I decide to stop, prepare a coffee with masala spices, write a dear friend an email with my complaints and feel the energy regenerating through me once I had a decent toilet moment.
ZOOF! Up the hill I go! I cycle 30 kilometer, to end up at a new road only 10 kilometer away from where I started. New roads are being built and the Google map doesn’t correspond with the Argentinian Michelin map I’ve got, where Bolivia is only depicted from Tarija onward.
We are our own engines
I notice I am climbing a whole day, something hard to ignore when it’s still 30 degrees and the hills around me slowly become barren. I love it when the surroundings become ochre colored, harsh and dry. Unfortunately I can’t stop where ever I want to camp. I often pass the best spots because I don’t have enough water. In Africa, in the Fouta Djalon, I carried always a lot of water for this reason and then I found out time upon time, I carried way too much and always could have had water at other opportunities. Now however the road has an unpredictable amount of villages, few passerby’s and no running streams high enough yet to drink, or fetch the water. I don’t have a detailed map, I don’t even know where the passes are and how high I am. I carry enough food for 3 days which is on the safe side as it is only 100 kilometers to Tarija.
At some point I find it incredible hard. I notice I cycle only a few meter until I am breathing so heavily I need to stop and rest. Each bend I tell myself ‘this is the top’ and each time it isn’t.
I watch my thoughts and that is quite a funny thing to do. On the climbs it goes: ‘Why I am doing this?’ I can’t say I am not motivated or lazy. ‘Why don’t I take the coastal route?’ because there is none. Whenever the route becomes slightly flatter: ‘Why did I think so negative? It’s super pleasant here!’ Both thoughts can occur within a minute. And when I reach the highest point I am proud like a monkey who just made an excellent jump.
Just before I reach the top, I notice I am over the 2000 meter boundary as vegetation stops to exist. The road is dusty and in progress. There are minimal cars passing me, and those who do are road workers with who I am amazed they don’t stop and offer me water. I need water as I haven’t enough to get through the evening and morning. I don’t want to camp in this quarry, so I drag myself further and further. It’s going abnormally slow.
Though, I am keeping a positive mood and I retain to enjoy it all. I am surprised myself.
To a point where I see only clouds! And this man.
I have reached the summit, and am 2650 meter high, something I don’t know yet. The view is incredible and I instantly know why I puffed, panted and questioned myself. It’s something like a woman who delivers a child and says ‘it was worth it’.
I have crossed passes before, one of them in the Indian Himalaya, 4551 meter was the highest. But I had a load of only 17 kilogram, although I was carrying amoeba as well. Now I am healthy but with a load over 30 kilogram. I celebrate the pass by getting off my bicycle, ask for water at a road-workers jeep and make a photo of a man who waits for the bus to arrive, his condition faded by coca leaves. I admire the view some more before I rush down to find a camp spot.
Nothing stealthy but right in view. People walk past. But Bolivians, I have noticed, are a shy folk. They even seem to distrust me. I feel safe and secure. The only one who is not shy is a dog who grabs, in the night, the pan with a tiny bit of milk in it.
The next day I fly down, slowly as the road is gravel, only after some time it becomes asphalted. I stop often to admire where I am. I still breathe heavily, but that is drowned by the barren, ochre colored mountains around me, the clouds in contrast and the far open views.
I am where I wanted to be.
And I end up somewhere even more incredible.
At the highest cactus of Bolivia: 15.5 meters high. Off the road, out of view, I am led by it because I wanted to camp before reaching Tarija. The bottle tree may have vanished, this cactus is wondrous to be with. Even a group of French tourists trod into my camp. Even though it is anything but a touristy spot nor a well-known site. It’s a hidden gem, already once, unsuccessfully, tried to cut down by locals.
17 kilometers later I reach Tarija. Where I find a place to sleep at an old man’s residencial who’s deaf and alcoholic. It seems I share the premises with a traditional Mennonite family, although I don’t get a chance to talk to them. The women of the Mennonite family look pale, with their hair in a bum, covered by a dark cloth. Their dress is dark, held together in their waist and ankle long, combined with a black vest. Like the Bolivians, she breast feeds her child on the pavement. They remind me instantly of the Dutch people in the ’40. Then there is an elderly lady who calls the old man ‘malo’ and she brings me fruit and chocolate cake.
I settle myself in a fancy café where there is free Wi-Fi, order one coffee and stay all day. If I am not there I am in the Mercado Central where I load up on huge fish and many café con leche and fried dough. To be in such a festive Mercado is a party, there is live music, played by a couple I can’t take my eyes off. They remind me of a fairy twosome, where she plays the flute and he the drums. They flutter through the Mercado as I do through the streets of Tarija, which are laden with diesel fumes.
In my favorite upmarket, antique café I meet with 6 very friendly Dutch firemen. They travel South America in 5 weeks. When I ask what they liked about Paraguay, one of them answers: ‘I don’t know, there was nothing, except that one city,’ he means Asunción.
I try to make a plan, including altitudes, passes and villages to get food. The route I am going to take seems to be one of very few opportunities, yet I have no choice then to go forward. I take food with me which will last a week. And in a most nervous state I set off, because I am not sure if I can do it?