It’s a bit surreal. We’re in a Dutch pub in Bolivia’s capital city of Sucre watching the world cup football match between The Netherlands and Mexico. I’m surrounded by orange people and having a beer with a patatje oorlog: french fries with onions, satay sauce and mayonaise. Yes, it is really good! And a touchstone of my years growing up in Holland, as we like to call it. The game was a rather uninspired contest and Holland was lucky to win. Now we will have to plan to be near a TV in a few days when Holland meets Costa Rica in the quarter finals. It’s all a bit surreal.
We arrived here a couple of days ago after a five-day, 370-kilometre ride, yo-yo-ing through the Cordillera de Chichas, a mountain range in the Cordillera Central. We love Sucre. It’s very different from what we’ve experienced in Bolivia so far.
As we cycled northwest from Uyuni, the landscape changed, as did the architecture. Gone were the adobe, mud-brick shacks and houses. Instead, we were seeing Spanish-style haciendas, especially in Sucre where there is a lot of colonial architecture, some dating back to the 16th century.
On June 24, after a few days resting and eating, we left Uyuni, on the edge of the salt flats, and began climbing almost immediately upon leaving town. The road snakes up through the desert landscape and is a joy to cycle on. After nearly two weeks riding the lumpy, bumpy and sandy tracks of the Altiplano the smooth asphalt is like a dream. The fact that we’re climbing matters not so much.
Looking back from the pass, Uyuni is a small irregular brown dot in an otherwise uniform brown landscape on the edge of the expansive white Salar de Uyuni. It’s an impressive sight.
We disappear over the ridge and the road, like a ribbon, plays out ahead of us in a sweep of brown that stretches in every direction. There is hardly any traffic, maybe six or eight cars an hour. It is lovely cycling despite the fact we are climbing 600 metres back up to 4,200.
Once over the pass, we are on a plateau studded with volcanos and the road begins to drop and change. Some colour begins to appear in the form of vegetation as well as in the rock of the mountains.
By the end of day, we are 85 KM northwest of Uyuni in the small town of Tica Tica where we find a small alojamiento offering a basic room for B$40 ($6.50) We choose to make our own food as our digestive tracts are still a bit tender and we don’t want to risk introducing a new batch of who-knows-what to our systems.
The adobe building is surprisingly warm, unlike the hotel rooms we occupied in Uyuni. We have descended back to the same elevation as Uyuni, 3,600 metres, but it is much warmer here. Perhaps Uyuni’s proximity to the Salar causes the cold temperatures. We have a good feed of pasta and dive under the covers for a long sleep.
From Tica Tica, we immediately begin to climb back up to 4,000 metres and then descend all the way back down to 3,400, only to start climbing again. The yo-yo-ing has begun. We go up and down through a dramatic landscape of mountains, canyons and wide valleys where water flows in braided riverbeds. In these valleys there are villages where agriculture seems to flourish.
We stop for lunch in the small, windswept town of Chaquilla, situated on a plateau between two mountain ranges. We buy a 2-litre bottle of mango juice and a couple of bottles of water, just in case we decide to camp somewhere down the road.
Through the course of the day we climb a total of 1,470 metres and find ourselves in Agua Castilla back at 4,000 metres. It’s cold and windy and after 75 KM of yo-yo-ing through the Cordillera we are done. I ask a woman in a store if there is any accommodation but she tells me there is, only it’s in Porco, a town a few kilometres down the road, but we don’t have the energy to even contemplate going there. Back outside on the street, a little stunned still from the day’s ride and the fatigue, we stand around wondering what to do when a woman walks up and asks if we’re looking for a place to stay.
She and her husband lead us along the main street and down a dusty side street to what looks like a brand new house, three storeys tall and one of the nicest buildings in town. We enter into the courtyard and are lead up to the second floor into a beautiful spacious room. We collapse on the beds, happy to be out of the wind and in a secure place for the night. I think we may be their first guests. We make a deal for full board with dinner and breakfast. The bathroom is huge and nicely finished. The water is scalding hot and before long we are clean, warm and sipping hot coffee accompanied by pan amasado and jam.
There is no heating in the house but Bernardino, the husband, brings us a portable electric heater which we put between the beds in our room. It will take hours to have any effect but it’s better than nothing. We keep on our down jackets and get in bed to keep warm until dinner is served. After, we dive back into bed under a layer of five or six blankets and quickly drift off to sleep.
In the morning, as we’re finishing our breakfast of egg and tomato sandwiches, Bernardino arrives home from his night shift at the nearby silver mine and hands us each a hardhat to take some photos of all of us together. He says he wants to hang photos of guests on the wall. We pose with the ill-fitting hardhats and have a good laugh as photos are taken. After saying our goodbyes, we repeat the same pattern of the previous two days but climb even higher to 4,200 metres, drop to 3,800, climb back up to 4,100, drop again to 3,700 only to begin the final climb of the day into Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world at 4,000 metres. The yo-yo is in full swing.
The final five kilometres into the centre of the city is a brutally steep ride through narrow, traffic-choked streets, barely wide enough for a car, never mind our loaded bicycles. There is lots of honking but we persevere. We find a hostel, check in and dump our stuff. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re starving, not having stopped for lunch. We don’t have to go far to find a restaurant where we have a big meal while basking in the sun beaming through the windows.
Potosí is a large city built on the silver mine in Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) which dominates the skyline. When the Spanish arrived here in 1545 they immediately began mining the silver and so financed their South American campaign. Silver was shipped out of the city by llama and mule train to the Pacific coast, shipped north to Panama City, carried by mule train across the isthmus of Panama to the Atlantic coast from where it was taken to Spain on the Spanish treasure fleets. Because of its riches, Potosí became one of the largest cities in the Americas at that time with a population exceeding 200,000, similar to today’s population. Unesco declared Potosí a world heritage site because of its significance in world history by bringing about great economic change in both South America and Spain.
That night, at Pub 4,060, we run into three fellow cyclists: Myles, a Brit, and Ellen and Elmar, a Dutch couple (www.fietsjunks.nl is El & El’s website) We learn from them that the French-Polish gang we crossed the Altiplano with is also in town and that we are all heading to Sucre the next day. We eat and drink together and arrange to meet on the road.
We leave early the next morning and climb the steep streets out of the city to the north and begin an amazing descent of 30 KM during which we hardly have to pedal as gravity pulls us down the road. Myles, El and El catch up with us later in the morning and we cycle together most of the day. There is still some yo-yo-ing, and despite climbing nearly 1,000 metres, the trend is definitely downward as we descend a total of 2,650 metres that day. At the 75-kilometre mark we arrive at the edge of a deep canyon and we have another gravity-assisted ride, dropping 700 metres on a road with many hairpin turns. It’s been very windy and the weather is unstable making the ride down not as smooth as it could have been. Still, it’s a great descent. It even rains on us a tiny bit as we near the bottom of the canyon. We haven’t had rain since mid-April.
Luckily, the climb up on the other side is only a short 150 metres before we drop down into the town of Millares where we buy some water and decide to cycle on to find a place to camp. We finally find a track into the adjacent river valley and a lovely, secluded spot to erect our nylon home. We have dropped 1,700 metres from Potosí and it is pleasantly warm. The sun sets, but it remains warm enough for us to sit out without our down jackets while we make dinner and eat. It is a lovely end to a very long day of 112 KM of yo-yo-ing in the Cordillera Central. Sleep comes easily that night.
The next day we ride the final 47 KM into Sucre, climbing back up to 2,800 metres. Sucre is warm and sunny and a buzz of activity. As we enter the city, we ride through a crazy parade of decorated cars fronted by a brass band and a group of dancers. Not sure what it’s all about – I think it’s in honour of the Virgin of Guadalupe – but we enjoy the spectacle.
We are happy to arrive in Bolivia’s capital and after checking half a dozen hostels and hotels, we settle in at Casa Verde, just on the edge of the centre. Our host, Allon, a fellow Dutchman, is a warm, hospitable man who makes us feel very much at home and attends to our every need. A great place to spend a few days and close to the centre of town.
All 10 of us cycling nomads are in the city and we get together for football games, food and drink over the course of the next several days. We are all a little burned out from the tough ride since leaving San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, three weeks ago. Every one of us has gotten sick with some kind of stomach bug at one point and I think we all just need to take a break, so, that is exactly what we’ve done. We could not imagine a better place than Sucre to do it. It’s warm and sunny. There is a myriad of restaurants available to satisfy our insatiable appetites. And there are two football matches on TVs in every café, bar and restaurant to provide some entertainment for our multi-cultural cycling assembly.
From here, our group of 10 will scatter into different directions. Some are heading to Cochabamba. Others to La Paz and we have decided we like the warmth and lower elevation so, together with El and El we are heading even lower to Santa Cruz and the promise of a different landscape on the edge of the Amazon basin. But where will we find a TV to watch the quarter finals in a few days?