I arrived in sucre to be greeted by Lauren who had been a gem and organised a palace of an apartment in a whitewashed colonial building complete with flower filled courtyard, sunny roof terrace, a cat and dogs. Not to mention a washing machine. A week off hand washing clothes! We cooked up some storms and I ended up doing rolypollies at a Bolivian wedding. I met some of Lauren’s friends and we sat on benches and did a lot of nothing. Lauren was amused by my laziness and I think couldn’t quite understand how such a lazy man had cycled so far. It seemed when I found a place to rest I was more than happy to spend my time just sitting on the benches in the square watching the kids and sleeping ten hours a night. Life was comfortable and my initial plans to spend New Years in Potosi were scuppered by claims Sucre would be more lively we decided to stretch our stay for New Years. A little more time at this forgiving altitude before heading back to the altiplano would be a little present to myself.
I eventually left Sucre for Potosi a couple of days into the new year. A little caught by cold but really excited to get some kilometres under my belt again and keep exploring Bolivia. A climb to the highest city in Bolivia started with a 1000 metre descent which I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy knowing I’d be back straight up the other side and another 1200 meters to add to it. It seemed absurd I’d grown accustomed to daily changes in altitude twice the size of England’s biggest mountain. Still it was pretty and quiet so I didn’t mind. I stayed with a local family in the evening who had me involved in preparing a pig they had just slaughtered. I’m not sure why but everything I do seems to make the locals laugh. I’ll start to feel Latin and try a few local things to fit in but it doesn’t seem to work. Still I don’t mind providing entertainment and I really like the Latin sense of humour, it feels really innocent and fun.
Lauren met me in Potosi home to Cerro Rico, or rich mountain. The one mountain had pretty much bankrolled the Spanish empire and apparently supplied something like half of the worlds silver. They also reckoned something like 4 million people had died down there in the previous 500 years. Despite lots of warnings of its ugliness Potosi was a surprisingly charming town and Cerro ricos presence from all angles kept reminding one of its enormous history. Me and Lauren donned our hard hats and made our way into the mine despite the warnings the whole thing was going to fall down sometime soon, Lauren didn’t seem half as daunted as me and boy after 3 hours was I happy to see light again. Especially since it was Friday the day when the miners down their pure alcohol whilst picking away with shop bought dynamite at the fragile beast, I’d seen enough of Bolivian health and safety to know it didn’t exist.
A nice couple of days ride west out of Potosi took me across an incredibly beautiful stretch of the altiplano, isolated and atmospheric into Uyuni, a frontier town of the truest sense. I was heading off route to try and cross south west Bolivia into the Atacama desert in the north of Chile. This was a notoriously difficult route in the winter which is the dry season but hitting the summer and the rains that came with it I wasn’t sure if it would be possible. An incredibly isolated part of Bolivia half cut off by snow capped peaks bordering Chile and the famous salt flats of Uyuni. Still I wanted to give it a go as it offered a new challenge, numerous geothermal lagoons and the highest road in the world passing through to Chile.
Just 20 kilometres from a hot meal I had been needing an electrical storm stood between me and Uyuni. I have never been so close to lightening and as it struck ever closer to the left side of me I seriously hoped the rubber on the tires would add the wondrous karma I’d earned through all my good deeds! After a blinding flash that for one second turned everything to silver the storm past over me and I rode into windswept and barron town of Uyuni. It had a real wild west feel complete with fading signs and rusting trains. After trudging through its muddy streets I was surprised to find a festival buzz. The plaza filled with tents and a great number of Bolivian tourists adding to the hoards of gringo trailers who were organising personalised jeep tours across the salt flats. It turned out that the Dakar rally was passing through in the coming days and the place was buzzing. Despite being flooded I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to ride the salt flats so I kitted down and left with the minimal. A little gutted I couldn’t cross them all the experience was more than made up but the perfect reflection of the sky in the salt as I rode on what felt like an ocean of sky. I had the flats to myself as the tourists jeeps were not crossing, I’m sure the most memorable route I will ever ride.
After deciding I couldn’t make my south west route I looked to head back south east towards the Argentinian border but for news that the roads were flooded with make shift rivers and off road bikes couldn’t even make it. There was no way I was passing with my bike. The stage of the Dhakar was cancelled and this was supposed to be some super hard core rally. After scouring the options I reluctantly opted to try and bus it past to get back east into the valley. I joined kiwi bikers Mel and Mike as we crammed our bikes onto a bus meant for 40 people carrying twice as many. The overloaded bus crawled out of Uyuni in the dark as the rain pounded on its roof. I occupied the backseat with two families and a doctor, ten of us in five seats and bus was slipping and sliding all over the shop. I could see the shimmering surface of the altiplano completely flooded through the bus lights. There was no way I could have made it across this without a patch of mudless land to camp. We eventually trudged to a stop after just 40k when we hit a torrent running across the mud track. The lads in front of me sipping on their 95 percent medical grade alcohol were lambasting the driver and telling him to give it a go. I chuckled a joked with them as I liked their humour but I wasn’t too confident of our chances of survival! Fortunately the driver didn’t give into the peer pressure or should I say pure democracy which seemed to get most things done in Bolivia and the bus tried to turn around without dropping into he torrent and we headed back to Uyuni, then further north east to make the 600km detour. Over my almuerzo I watched the scenes of the news of another state of emergency in Oruro and Potosi of huge flooding. The appeal of the wilderness of south west Bolivia certainly was swept away with the rains on the wet season. Being from England I’m used to rain but at 4000 meters this is a different story. This warning of the weather reminded me of the turn of the seasons down in Patagonia. It felt so odd to be thinking about my goal of Ushuai but I started to feel the pangs of urgency as the summer would be out in 3 months.
I crossed the border with Argentina at Villazon, the four hour que giving a hint of the disparity between the countries and into a new world. Crossing the border the first sign to Ushuaia read 5121 kilometres, pretty much all on Argentinas longest and most famous road, route 40. With the perfectly paved roads, painted buildings and new cars it felt like I was almost home. Yet a little over London to Moscow and back again. The new world offered all the fancy offerings of Europe. Pay by card, designer furniture, innovative brunches with table cloths, craft beer, boutique shops and fancy design. None of which was really much use to me and I immediately missed the simple life I had been enjoying for the best part of the last year. I stopped for a fancy meal to find the rumours were true and Argentinian women really do take their own air-freshener to the toilet with them. With all these important distractions people had less time to sit on there door steps or the park bench , play cards in the square or talk. It made me realise just how much I had enjoyed Bolivia and the way of life there. The life and people’s attitude there was wonderfully humble. Bolivia was a country I really felt most of the travellers I had met didn’t give much of a chance, sticking to the must sees on the altiplano but I loved the pace of life there. I think understanding a different approach to or way of life isn’t something most people write on their travelling bucket list which to me is a little unfortunate.
My reluctance to fully get on board with the new country was quickly turned however as I made my first day across northern Argentinas highlands. The wind was down without a cloud in the sky as I made my way past Gaucho land. I stopped in the ghost town of Abra Pampa to sit in the square and Matthias bound over to me in his Rugby top. He was on a cycling trip with his wife Noelia, their daughter Arena and mother in law Sandra driving the support car. They put me in the car and we drove off to a nearby lagoon full of flamingos and a huge mountain of sand where Noelia taught me to how to prepare mate, the infamous Argentinian tea and Mattais planned out my route through Argentina. We danced round with Arena and sat out until the stars came out, staying up till the wee hours drinking wine and eating pizza. Still up at 8 we made our way together in the morning before I picked up my pace and wishes my new friends farewell until Buenos Aires at least.