The Riches of South America’s Poorest Nation

Salt Flats Bolivia
Riding across the vast sea of white.

Photo courtesy of TDA Global Cycling

I woke up to a mouth full of dust. The notorious Altiplano winds had picked up force and changed direction, whipping incredible amounts of sand and dust in under the tent fly. Burying my head deeper inside the sleeping bag was not an option, so I reluctantly threw on my puffy coat, grabbed my shoes, and crawled out of my tent to re-stake it in a different direction. After struggling for 30 minutes under a cold, full-moon night sky, I climbed back into my bag and attempted to fall asleep. I checked my phone — 2:30 am. In only a few hours, I would have to get up and tear down camp, ready to hop back on my bike for the day.

The previous day, we had left the near vertical streets of La Paz, Bolivia behind, turning our two wheels south towards the salt flats some 325 miles away. The world’s highest capital city, La Paz sits at a suffocating 3,640 meters or 11,492 feet above sea level. During this 12-day riding section that would end with a couple of well-earned rest days in Salta, Argentina, we would remain between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, traversing the high altitude desert sandwiched between the eastern and western chain of the Andes. Wind, dust (so much dust), cracked dry skin, labored breathing, cold, heat, and restless nights would be our companions the next couple weeks, but all that came with some of the greatest visual delights Bolivia has to offer — big sky vistas, llamas, vicuñas, flamingos, surrealistic rock formations, craters, geysers, starry nights, snow-capped volcanoes, and the blindingly white salt flats.

For this adventure, I joined a group of 10 full tour riders on the TDA Global Cycling South American Epic. They began their journey in Cartagena, Colombia at the beginning of the summer and will finish in Ushuaia just before Christmas. While they were cycle touring machines at this point, I still needed awhile in terms of both altitude and routine to catch up.

What was once the glory of the Spanish empire, Bolivia now ranks as the poorest nation in South America. But the country’s luck has slowly been changing thanks to a staggering boom in natural resource exports and some fiscal prudence by current president, Evo Morales. He is so popular that Bolivians considered changing the constitution to enable Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019. For days heading south from La Paz, we rode past mural after mural that read in Spanish, “Tell Bolivia Yes,” in favor of the referendum — it failed to pass. Signs of hope and prosperity dotted our entire route to Argentina, pockets of economic development peaking up through the decay like flowering cacti in an otherwise desolate landscape.

With not much to see in between, most tourists fly straight from La Paz to Uyuni to experience the salt flats. The first few days of our ride therefore resembled a commute of sorts — long, straight roads filled with close passing trucks and repetitive desert scenery but still interesting for its view into Bolivian daily life. For me, those days helped flip the switch from the daily routine, comforts, and modernity of home to creating a new routine on the road. Those are some of the days I look back on and feel I earned the right to ride across the salt flats.

The remoteness of this area of southwest Bolivia meant we spent each night camped on the side of the road, in a farmer’s field, at the local elementary school, or on the town soccer field–there is always a soccer field. In terms of regional prosperity, perhaps more telling than the lack of infrastructure was the lack of bakeries and Coke stops that the other riders raved about in places like Colombia — a sign that those of more modest means don’t have extra cash to spend.

Because they were so few and far between, the appearance of Coke stops on the whiteboard directions at our rider meeting each night always brought about excitement. When we did find Coke, however, it was always warm but tasted good nonetheless. I’m not sure what it is about drinking a Coke during a really long ride but it’s hard to beat, especially when traveling in a foreign country. On one occasion, we hit the jackpot in the tiny town of Challapata, where we found cold beer, potato chips, fresh bread, and hand cream for our cracked and bleeding skin. Altitude and long days in the saddle had rendered us lightweights, however, and we laughed as we could barely finish half our beer.

Volcanic crater
Camped on the edge of a large volcanic crater.

As we grew closer to the salt flats, the landscape changed from high desert to more of a steppe, with llama grazing in the tufts of brown grass and volcanic mountains peeking through the horizon. We spent one night perched on the edge of a large volcanic crater near the tiny town of Jayu Quta. We setup our tents amongst the stone sheep pens scattered around an old church where the villagers supposedly still celebrate the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception each December with music, folk dances, and rituals to summon the rain.

The highlight of this first 6-day section was of course riding across the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Between 40,000 to 25,000 years ago, a lake once covered all of southwestern Bolivia. With no outlet to the sea, salt deposits from the surrounding mountains settled in the lake, the lowest point on the Altiplano. As the lake dried up, it left behind the salt flats. At over 4,500 square miles, it would take us a full day of pedaling just to experience a small slice of it.

After a rough ride of deep sand and steep, rocky hills, we spent the night in Coqueza on the edge of the salt flats before setting out across them the next morning. Flanked on one side by the rainbow colored Tunupa volcano, with flamingos and llama grazing on the other, I’ll never forget the sunset that night with its crazy colors of purple, pink, and orange casting a 360-degree glow. I felt like I was in the middle of some crazy snow globe scene.

cycling salt flats
With nothing on the horizon, navigation can be tricky.

Photo courtesy of TDA Global Cycling

I don’t know what I had expected before arriving, but the salt flats are anything but smooth. The raised honeycomb pattern peppered with potholes and bumps made you wish you had a full suspension mountain bike at times, or at least a suspension stem which a few of the full tour riders had finally mounted on their bikes. Regardless, it was hard to escape the sheer novelty of cycling across the salt flats wrapped in the soft morning light. I remember thinking it felt like Burning Man and the Paris-Roubaix got together to create an even more surreal experience.

Before setting out, we were warned to cycle in groups and stick to the well worn driving tracks, black from the constant stream of Jeep traffic. With no reference on the horizon and the possibility of heat mirages to throw you off, navigation can be notoriously tricky.

We rode first to Incahuasi island, a small, fuzzy cactus-covered, rocky outcrop in the middle of the Salar. We watched as tourists took selfies and forced perspective photos, something we would do ourselves further out. After all, you can’t visit the salt flats without taking those forced perspective photos, right?

From Incahuasi, it was a long, bumpy ride to Colchani at the southeastern edge of the Salar. We passed the Dakar rally monument and the hotel made entirely from salt blocks before finally hitting pavement again for the final few kilometers into Uyuni.

The Salar de Uyuni contain 50% to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves — the main ingredient in batteries used to power everything from cell phones and gameboys to electric cars. Mining the lithium will bring huge monetary gains to the people of Bolivia but potentially destroy the natural ecosystem in the process. Already along the lake’s southern rim, industrial machines roar and miles of chemically-treated brine bake in the sun. I fear for what the Salar de Uyuni will look like in five years’ time.

We spent a rest day in Uyuni — a dust bowl of a town filled with pizza and pasta shops catering to all the foreign tourists heading out on one of the many Jeep trips on offer. Despite good intentions to explore all the tourist spots, rest days quickly descended into focusing on the basics — shower, sleep, eat, laundry, internet, and eat some more, fortifying ourselves for the rough 6-day stretch ahead.

Down here, the dichotomy of the economic transformation was more widely visible. The thriving urban markets and solar farms further north gave way to small towns supported by agriculture, livestock, or small scale mining. Bolivia has more than 60,000 kilometers of roads, of which only 4,000 kilometers are paved. For the second half of our ride through no man’s land to the Argentine border, we hit the limitations of the country’s road network. Lots of dirt, dust, deep sand, endless washboard, mud, river crossings, and rocks dominated our days. Oh, and lots of climbing on roads not known for their forgiving grades.

We were pleasantly surprised in some sections, however, to find newly paved roads thanks to the 189-mile Tupiza-Atocha-Uyuni highway project that began in 2015. Even if not fully open to cars, the roads were open to the errant crazy cyclist willing to see how far they could ride. As one of the TDA team put it, “I love Bolivia. You ask if you can do something and they say no. But you ask if that REALLY means you can’t do something and they simply shrug their shoulders.” As work is projected to finish sometime in 2018, I expect by the time the next South American Epic rolls through they will find pavement all the way from La Paz to the Argentine border.

By this time, I had finally settled into the adventure and was able to stop worrying about navigation, flat tires, and all the other anxiety producing thoughts and instead just focus on enjoying the present moment. Like everyone else, I fell into a familiar and comforting routine — tear down camp, morning cathole digs, eat, ride, eat, ride, set up camp, relax, eat, wash dishes, go to sleep at 6 (or “organize my tent” as one rider joked) because it’s too cold to do anything else (although we did have one fun night of charades), repeat.

That first dust filled night I had tossed and turned listening to the dogs bark and trucks rumble by. By the end of the trip, I slept straight through the roaming dog packs that peed on our bikes and tents, marching bands, and all night DJ dance parties that every small town in South America seems to produce. What was once completely foreign at the beginning of our trip now seemed normal. Camping in a park full of goats? Totally not phased.

Finally a drop in altitude after being above 12,000 feet for weeks.

As we crossed into Argentina, the thoughts of Malbec and asado filled our heads. We had waited weeks for a drop in elevation so all of our spirits were a bit deflated when a crazy headwind greeted us on the 100-mile major downhill day. I laughed at the prospect of having to pedal really hard downhill and resigned myself to another 7-hour day in the saddle.

Small roadside memorials and women in bright colors with bowler hats gave way to large Gauchito Gil shrines and modern gas stations. We joked that in Bolivia, dust covered and unshowered for days, we fit right in, while in Argentina we just looked homeless. For the first time in weeks, the smell of vegetation filled my nostrils — like when you step off the plane for the first time after a long glacier expedition. Huge finger-shaped cacti peppered the semi-arid landscape with a backdrop of rainbow colored mountains.

My trip ended in Salta, Argentina, while the rest of the group still had over two months of riding and thousands of miles yet to go. I was conflicted and sad when I waved goodbye to my new family of 10 the last morning. They had welcomed me into their already cohesive group with open arms, and now it felt like I was being left behind.

Bolivians enjoying a beer or two.

Maybe’s it’s the simplicity of cycling tours that keep drawing me back, whether it be Sri Lanka, Japan, or even the California coast — your main responsibility for the better part of the day is to simply ride your bike. But I also believe they offer a great way to gain perspective on a place, rolling through the everyday lives of those that call it home.

That’s why I was surprised to read that Bolivia ranked as the least friendly place for visitors by the World Economic Forum. We received nothing but hearty waves and shouts of “bon dia!” as we pedaled through villages. Heck, even the llamas were friendly. Any time we camped on a local soccer pitch, like clockwork the kids would show up with a ball and challenge us to a friendly game of “let’s embarrass the gringos.” Bolivians are an extremely welcoming people, proving once again that you can’t always believe what you read in the headlines.

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