Wed, July 28: Foz do Iguazu, Brazil
Besides walking in on my driver with an underage hooker, my ride with a trucker up to Argentina's Misiones province was pretty uneventful.
Started riding again slowly, and although the roads through Misiones are crazy hilly, my knees seem to be holding up fine. Along the way I stopped by two sites of Jesuit ruins, which were pretty cool but surely would have been more interesting had I actually known anything about the Jesuits and their work with the Guaraní people.
One day during a lunch break I met a friendly couple, Carlos and Frena, who invited me to stay at their place in Ruiz de Montoya, a small town that was originally founded by Swiss immigrants and therefore has a lot of Swiss influence. Carlos was keen to show me around town, where he seems to be quite popular with the locals, the highlight of which was an impromptu tour of the local yerba mate processing plant. (Yerba mate is a tea that's drinken thorughout Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern brazil.) The place was straight out of the industrialrevolution, with all sorts of loud machinery with belts turning big wheels moving conveyer belts of yerba up and down and around, being dried, cut, sorted, dried again, cut again, all the way until it's ready to be packaged and shipped to a supermarket near you. I went into the room where the mate has to be dried at more than 100 degrees for two hours, which has to be cleaned out manually by some guy every half hour. I had no idea how many people had to suffer for me to enjoy my mate!
Misiones is quite beautiful, lots of thick green forest contrasting nicely with the deep terracotta coloured earth that the region is famous for. Eventually I made it up to Puerto Iguazu, where I was reunited with Gwendal, and where I got to visit the awesome Iguazu Falls.
Usually when a place is hyped up over and over it can't possibly live up to expectations, but Iguazu delivered. It's possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. The park is well-developed with lots of trails and catwalks cutting through the jungle around the falls, and just when you think you've seen them all you turn a corner and there's another spectacular fall right ahead of you. Words can't possibly describe the place, and most pictures (especially mine!) don't do it justice either. This morning I crossed the border to the Brazil and checked out the Brazilian side of the falls, which offers more of a panorama of Iguazu, just as spectacular, if not more.
Since arriving, we've since hooked up with a Brazilian cyclist named Christian who's cycled from Florianapolis, Brazil to here, and he's going to ride with us to Asunción. It's going to be nice to have a couple partners for a while, although he generally speaks in Portuguese and I rarely understand anything. It will be interesting to say the least.
Tues, Aug. 3: Asunción, Paraguay
After crossing a congested bridge from Brazil to Ciudad del Este, a chaotic town renowned for its bargain deals and underworld-run dangers, we entered Paraguay, the fifth country of my trip. I´d been warned profusely about Paraguay, that it should be avoided at all costs, that my life would have to value to the soul-less crooks of this country. I´m glad I decided to stick to my guns, because all the Paraguayans we´ve met have been nothing but friendly, and the countryside has been much more tranquilo than I´d expected.
One annoying thing about the country though, is that they like their cumbia and they like it loud. Throughout Argentina, and especially Uruguay, I´ve grown to despise cumbia, and I cringe every time I hear the dreaded triple beat that makes every cumbia song sound the same and resonate in my head like a jackhammer. In Paraguay, every time we pass through a village, we´re assaulted with cumbia, blasted as loud as possible from seemingly every home, shop and passing pickup truck. Aggghhh!!
There´s a noticeable upgrade of security in Paraguay as well, as every bank is surrounded by at least two soldiers or police officers armed to the teeth with guns half as big as the soldiers themselves, and likely older by the look of them. I asked one soldier if there were many problems and he said no. "But you´re here just in case, eh?" I asked. He just grinned.
One evening as we were cycling we were flagged down by a passing pickup truck, which turned out to be piloted by a friendly Paraguayan named Daniel who owns a bike shop in San Lorenzo, a suburb of Asunción. Daniel arranged for a friend of his to meet us in the next city (who led us to the local fire hall where we had a restless night´s sleep because everyone was partying, celebrating "Friendship Day"), and several days later hosted us at his humble home behind a sprawling roadside market for dinner.
Several months ago I met a guy from Asuncion named Lorenzo, who is letting us crash at his apartment while we´re in town. It was when I called him from just outside the city that I learned the tragic news. The day that we arrived in Asunción, a horrific supermarket fire had already claimed the lives of more than 300 people, and the death toll was rising. What´s even more horrific is that, according to several surviors, the manager ordered the building´s doors closed to prevent theft, thus sealing the fate of many of the hundreds of shoppers inside.
All around Asunción flags are at half mast, grisly photos of charred corpses stare back at us from the city´s newsstands, and there´s a palpable sense of grief in the air. The tragedy hit a bit closer to home when Lorenzo told me about his friend who´d lost both his parents and his only sibling in the blaze. I couldn´t even imagine the chaos and carnage that went one inside that supermarket. Another friend of Lorenzo´s who was inside but managed to escape commented that he won´t be able to eat meat for at least a year.
Although I was considering leaving Asunción tomorrow morning by boat with Gwendal, I´ve decided instead to take a bus through the Paraguayn Chaco, the vast desert-like region in the northern part of the country, to Bolivia, where I´ll continue cycling toward La Paz.
Tues, Aug. 10: Potosí, Bolivia
Because of time constraints (and because it sounded like more fun to cycle down the Andes rather than up them) I took a series of four buses from Asunción, Paraguay to Potosí, Bolivia via Argentina. The lowlight was the trip from the Bolivian border to Potosí, on a bus that rattled like it would fall apart at any second, in a seat that was permanently reclined and tilted. Although there is a paved road that I thought we were going to follow, we instead took 12 hours of rough roads barely more than trails at times. Twice we had to stop for repairs, and the journey was a great reminder of why I choose to travel by bike. The scenery was great however, rocky mountainous terrain the colour of sand in all directions. I couldn´t imagine anything growing in such a place, but the whole region is studded with cacti, some quite large.
Potosí is a beautiful little city with narrow, congested streets that sits at a lofty altitude of 4000 metres. I need some time to acclimatize, as even climbing a single flight of stairs leaves me breathless, and each morning I awake with a headache. Checked out the Iglesia de San Fransisco which offers a wicked aerial view of the city´s clay tiled rooves from its top, and today I went on a mine tour, probably Potosí´s biggest tourist draw.
Potosí was once the wealthiest city in South America, due to the massive deposits of silver in nearby Cerro Rico, a nearly perfectly conical mountian towering over the city. When the silver production started to lag, mining of tin saved the city from desolation. Today, about 500 independent mines operate in Cerro Rico, mostly for silver, tin and lead.
The mine itself was cramped, dark and stuffy. I was feeling claustrophobic after only two hours down below, but somehow these miners are in there for at least eight hours a day, six days a week, many starting as young as 11 years old. I met one 16 year old miner who looked at least 25. I guess the hard work has a way of making you look beyond your years. Indeed, everyone in Bolivia seems to look much older than they are. After a long day of dark, hard work, most of the miners earn only about three to six dollars (Canadian) per day.
I also tried chewing coca leaves for the first time today. The plant from which cocaine is derived is chewed regularly by Bolivians, especially the miners, who can have a wad of up to 50 leaves in their cheek at any given time. It is supposed to help you adjust to the altitude, probably by increasing your breathing rate, and it also increases energy and acts as an appetite suppresant, among other things. All I noticed was a numb mouth and throat, and a nasty taste from the catalyst that you mix with the leaves, which I think is a concentration of vegetable ashes that burned my gums and made me want to retch. The coca leaves themselves weren´t so bad, but bitter.
My plan is to leave Potosí by bike tomorrow and head towad Uyuni, gateway to the largest and highest salt flat in the world, which I want to cross by bike. The bad news is the weather forecast, which predicts rain for the next three days. As well as making the rough road ahead, already scary enough with its steep hills and stupid high altitude, even scarier, if the salt flat is wet when I get there I may not be able to cross it by bike.
Sun, Aug. 15: Uyuni, Bolivia
Four days of tough riding have brought me to Uyuni, on the doorstep of the world´s largest (and highest) salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, which I´m keen to cycle across.
I left Potosí under a clear blue sky and cycled through some absolutely stunning scenery. All around was rock, with mountains rising in all directions. A couple of climbs on that first day just about killed me, and I had to stop several times to rest. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat and I felt like I couldn´t ever fill my lungs with air. Thus is the joy of cycling at over 4,000 metres.
Made it to the tiny mining town of Agua Castillo, where I slept in an elementary school classroom and was the entertainment of several young children who keenly watched my every move. Day two was generally flatter, and saw me cycle through the tinier town of Chaquilla, which I figure must be a great place to do laundry since it´s surrounded by miles of washboard. I´m referring to the road of course, which at times wasn´t much fun. Cycled through a sort of plain, with small streams, some greenery, and herds of llamas, sheep and the occasional cow. Camped for the night near the top of a high pass, in the middle of an S-curve in the road. Unfortunately my camp stove stopped working after ten minutes or so, hopefully due to a lack of fuel rather than an inability to work at altitude, and I had to eat crunchy pasta with a semi-satisfying, luke warm satay sauce.
Day three started with a long descent to the town of Tica Tica, where three creepy children chased after me yelling, almost in unison, "Gringo, Plata, Gringo, Plata..." ("Gringo, Money"). The road was flat nearly the whole day, but unfortunately it was the worst road surface I´ve cycled yet. The road was covered in the two most efficient momentum-suckers known to cyclists, washboard and sand. Nonetheless, I managed to ride more than 70 km, and finished the day with a gruelling climb to Pulacayo, situated beautifully amidst green mountains (due to a covering of small, hardy shrubs) and bare, rust coloured rock.
In its hayday, Pulacayo was home to about 50,000 people. It was home to Bolivia´s first mine, first trains, and several other firsts that it´s residents are happy to tell you about. In the late 1800s however, the town nearly died, I think due to the closure of the government-run mine. Today, only about 800 people remain, although the town retains the old buildings that once housed many more, and so the town has an eerie, deserted feel. It´s front plaza is filled with the rusting engines of Bolivia´s first trains, including one that was held up by the infamous Butch Cassidy in 1908. Mining for silver, lead and zinc is still done around Pulacayo.
Today was an easy descent into Uyuni, which sits right on the edge of the Salar. Strange coming down from a mountain and seeing an endless plain of dirty white stretching toward the horizon in front of you. The road into Uyuni is strewn with garbage, and the better part of the town itself resembles a deserted dust bowl. It´s not until you get to the far end of town that you find the pretty plaza, lined with restaurants and tour agencies, and full of gringos soaking in the strong Andean sun.
Tomorrow I begin my adventure through the salar itself.
Wed, Aug. 25: La Paz, Bolivia
From Uyuni I cycled north about 20 km to the village of Colchani, where about 2,000 kilos of salt are harvested each year from the Salar de Uyuni for consumption across Bolivia and elsewhere. I guess the salt business isn`t as lucrative as it once was, for Colchani`s dusty streets are dominated by crumbling ruins of abandoned homes, earning Colchani the title of the ugliest town I`ve ever seen.
I was so excited to enter the Salar, as for a couple of days I`d seen it beckoning on the horizon. I passed the "montañas de sal" just outside of Colchani, small conical mounds of salt that have been scraped off the Salar to be collected later for refinement. From there it was about 15 km across the salt to the Salt Hotel (I stayed at a similar salt hotel right in Colchani, a fraction of the price with the same chilly ambience.) The Salar de Uyuni is certainly one of the most unique places I`ve ever seen. The largest and, at 3,650 metres, highest salt flat in the world, the Salar is 12,000 square km. of blindingly white salt naturally arangd into roughly hexagonal shapes. It truly looks like another world. It was easy to follow the track s made by the myriad 4 x 4 vehicles as well, and smooth like pavement. The downside was that cycling across such an unchanging landscape, the purple mountains hovering in the distance not moving an inch, became a bit boring. Luckily, in the middle of the Salar I was flagged down by a group of overlanders, mostly Brits, who shared with me their lunch and, more importantly, their company. Very nice.
I camped for the night on the cactus-studded Isla Incahuasi, which means home of the Inca, an "island" formed by lava rock that rises defiantly from the sea of white. Absolutely surreal. I spent the night with a super friendly German couple (okay, Michael was Dutch) who have been travelling by truck all through Canada, the Us and Central and South America. Very interesting couple, and very good company (they`re pesto pasta was great too!)
Cycled the following day to the tiny village of Jirira, through an even more deserted section of the Salar, free from vehicles, where I felt truly alone, adrift on a sea of white. Very cool experience, but my lower lip got severly sunburned, which I`m still recovering from.
I tried cycling to the next village, but the road was all rocks and sand (apparently I took the old one rather than the better new road) and so I turned back to Jirira. Good thing too, because there I stayed with a super friendly Bolivian family, some of who accompanied me three days later by bus to Oruro, where I stayed at the home of their children. What a bus ride though! First, we were supposed to leave at 5:00 am, but when the bus didn`t sho, Carlos, the fatehr of the family I was with, had to go bang on the sleepy bus driver`s window to wake him up. Eventually he rolled up, laying on his horn, which seems to be the Bolivian bus signal, and my first clue that this vehicle may not have been the most reliable vessel should have been that the driver was already wearing mechanic`s coveralls. We broke down four times in all, and what I thought would take 3 or 4 hours to the town of Challapata took 10. What`s more, the bus had seats for 28 people, but after everyone was loaded on from their respective villages, we carried 37, plus several dead and skinned pigs (thankfully on the roof) a dog and a baby lamb in a llama wool sweater. Bags of seeds were covering every inch of floor space, and a tape deck mounted below the rear view mirror pumped out god awful cumbia, which slowed down and sped up, making it all the more unbearable.
From Challapata, my next two bus rides to Oruro and La Paz were much more comfortable. (I had to take busses to meet my friend Kris in La Paz on the 22nd.)
In La Paz, I met Kris at the Radisson, where he`s reserved two nights. Wow, what luxury! I`m usually happy if there`s hot water, but here we had hot water, coconut scented body lotion and a bath robe to put on afterward. Plus cable TV, a wicked buffet breakfast included, and a great view from our 11th floor suite.
Now we`r staying in a more modest, but still comfortable hostel. We`ve explored a bit of the city, mainly just the touristy part with the witchcraftmarket and several other touristy shops. The witchcraft market was a bit underwhelming, mainly just a regular market, although with llama fetuses, bloated frogs and the like, and many figuringes to bring luck with various aspects of your life. Nonetheless, we had a good time shopping around.
We were going to leave today, but decided to spend another day chilling, and the plan is to cycle out tomorrow towards Lago Titicaca and beyond to Peru. I`m excited to have
a new cycling partner.
Wed, Sept. 1: Copacabana, Bolivia
After catching a ride to El Alto, which is 500 metres above La Paz, Kris and I cycled west despite several roadblocks that were put up by truck and bus drivers to protest rising ghas prices. We crossed four small roadblocks our first day out, just a line of rocks places across the road manned by a few bored-looking guys who didn´t mind a couple cyclists passing through. We thought that one of them might pose a problem though. As we approached, a trucker approached from the other side, wanting to pass through. We watched him stop and get out, shake hands with one of the guys manning the roadblock, and then he was surrounded by about 12 guys, picked up so that he was being held in mid-air, horizontally and face-down. Then one of the men pulled out a long rubber whip and began to whip him in the ass while everyone lese cheered him on. Kris said later that he´d seen on the news that this was the standard fare for passing a roadblock. When I approached, while the mob was still all over the road, I did my best to yell my encouragement at the protesters, and instead of getting whipped I instead got a bunch of high-fives, and Kris as well when he crossed behind me. Whew!
We ended up riding too far on Kris´first day out, and he hurt his knee and had to rest for a couple days. We found a comfortable, if a bit expensive, hotel called Hotel Titikaka on the lake near the village of Hurani and spent two nights there playing cards, playing fooseball and hanging out in the sauna. Nice.
nother short day took us to the next village, Huatajata, where we stayed at a hostel owned by an interesting man named Maximo who builds traditioal totora reed boats, and was even invited to Chicago eight years ago to build one at a museum there and sail it in lake Michigan.
The road was reasonably flat to Huatajata, but started to undulate a bit as we approached the Strait of Tiquina, which we crossed and spent the night in a hostel owned by a confused fat woman. Our last day to Copacabana began with a steep climb which gradually lessened in grade, and culminated with a screaming dscent in to town. Copacabana looked great from the descent, perched on the edge of the massive Lake Titicaca. This day also marked my first bona fide pucture flat in over 6,000 km, when a tiny sliver of metal pierced my front tire. I swear by my Michelin City Slick tires, alhtough rumour has it they´re being discontinued. If you can find a pair though, there the best thing going for touring in my humble opinion.
After a night in Copacabana, a real touristy town lined with stalls selling all sorts of touristy stuff, we hopped on a boat and crossed to the Isla del Sol, which is like the top of a mountain range rising out of the deep blue lake. The island is terraces all over, a legacy of the Incas who grooved its steep sides for their crops. We spent a night there, and did some short hikes to check out some rather underwhelming Inca ruins, then returned to Copacabana, where we´ll sleep tonight before setting out for Peru.