Escaping the Void
We just arrived in Bolivia three days ago. We forewent cycling the final few days in Northern Argentina as well as the first couple hundred kilometers in Bolivia, since it’s all a high desert area called the Puna with nighttime temperatures at -40C. We’d actually be thrilled to never lay eyes on the Puna again in our lives. There’s nothing. Nobody. No water. No shelter. And blazing UV rays. With only five weeks left in our trip, we chose to jump an overnight, more or less open air and freezing bus bound for the northern edge of the Puna in Bolivia.
We arrived in Oruro, Bolivia at 5:30am in the dark, camped out in the bus terminal, and then rode to a crossroads town (Konani), built from necessity for through-bound truckers. It was our only option for spending the night before turning north toward the Yungas. We immediately contracted baby aliens in our stomachs and had to navigate spending the night in a barren boarding house in a town with no running water and one public squat toilet off a side street.
The next morning we faced a 60km ascent to a 15,000ft pass, mustered the strength to begin, and set off toward the Cordillera Real and the promise of a saving grace beyond it. With Katie too sick to continue, we stopped roadside and ate our remaining food, two sleeves of cookies and crackers while shading our eyes to the road behind in hopes of a pickup truck.
Stay Still or Bust
A dump truck materialized 30 minutes later after hoisting our bikes 16 feet into the bed, we were bumping along toward the summit. A few minutes in, we took a look at what we were sitting on, and wouldn’t you know it was roughly 600kilos of explosives, 4 boxes of dynamite and 2 boxes of safety fuses. All said were labeled to keep away from friction and impact, in effect, do not jostle, which is exactly what we were doing to the top. Next time we’re going to ask what the cargo is before jumping aboard.
We later learned the driver was heading up to the tin mines on the other side of the pass. He dropped us with about three quarters of the descent remaining and pointed us in the direction of a side route that would take us past the mining town. We skirted the cliffside with our jaws dropped to the gravel in awe of the lushness that flanked us on all sides. Fuscia flowers! Eucalyptus Trees! Water!
We stopped at the 100-year old mine and a sweet little Bolivian man gave us a tour of the 14 floor building constructed onto the mountainside, each floor housing a different stage of the rock crushing and mineral sifting processes. The plant produces roughly 1,000 50kg bags of tin per month, each at 60% purity. That’s 110,000lbs or roughly 43 Mini Coopers a month.
Expat Recovery Room
We continued on the descent and stopped for the night in Quime, at a hostel of an expatriate from Alaska. He wasn’t in town, but we found out he moved here in the 70s and built a hacienda of sorts in the hillside on the upper reaches of town (nothing here is flat). With access to the kitchen, we boiled 45 eggs for the road, made ourselves French toast(!), and boiled seven ears of maize (quantities our little stove and lack of fuel could never handle, We even had the good fortune of watching movies, a Bob Dylan documentary called No Direction Home and Amélie, from his extensive collection, while our bellies and muscles straightened themselves out. A haven! A godsend! Did we mention French toast!
Bolivia is an utter culture shock for us, after spending 6 months in the almost European seeming Argentina and Chile. We’re no longer able to drink the water, nor can we eat street food. We’ve already gotten sick off restaurant food as well. So far we’ve found the Yungus to be more hospitable than the Puna, so our faith in the country is returning. The folks seem nicer, there’s ground water running down the mountains (although there’s the ever present scare of contamination from folks living above). After the first three days, we were almost ready to pack it in and bid Bolivia good riddance, but at this point things are looking up.