20. Bolivia - Going up!

Spanish conquistadors, arriving from Cusco and Asunción took control of the region in the 16th century. During most of the Spanish colonial rule, Bolivia was known as Upper Peru and administered by the Royal Audiencia of Charcas. After the first call for independence in 1809, 16 years of war followed before the establishment of the Bolivian Republic, named for the Liberator Simón Bolívar, on August 6, 1825. Since then Bolivia has endured regular periods of political and economic instability, including the loss of various provinces to its neighbours, such as Acre, parts of the Gran Chaco and its Pacific coast, making it a land-locked country that's [now] surrounded by Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay. Their currency is the Boliviano, with 5, 10, 20, 50 100 and 200 notes and coins 1, 2, and 5 bolivianos and 10, 20 and 50 centavos (cents), the symbol is $b, currency code being 'BOB'. £1 is about 8.9 bolivianos.
Having read from many-a blogs (and also from Canadian Phil) that Bolivia was the cheapest of of countries in the Americas, soon I was surprised just how cheap it is!
Stamped in the evening before, I'd camped at the border next to some buildings that had a water supply. The following day the route continued much the same as it had ended in Paraguay on a never ending dead straight road. Halfway along passing a strange miniature castle-like military post and an hour later I arrive at the first village Ibibobo (try saying it!). Luckily the kiosk shop proprietor exchanged my Paraguayan currency for a really good rate, and even some remaining Argentinian money that I'd been carrying. 
The first main town I'd arrive at would be Villamontes. Contently cycling along on a great condition road as the morning's heat slowly intensified into the mid 20's It was only too pleasing to get a few gentle climbs, a most welcomed break. Up ahead - just in sight - I noticed a change of road condition, it looked like a dirt road so assumed the main road there took a 90' turn there and it was just a side road entry/exit point, but not seeing any precautionary signs warning drivers of the [assumed] 90' bend I started to doubt it. As I got closer it became clear. The perfectly good sealed road just ended and dirt commenced! It's like they'd said, "sod that, we can't be bothered making this road anymore, they can have dirt". I was just so surprised at such a change. In places it was ride-able, but further along lorries had churned the dirt up and made it quite rough, by no means a happy bunny I reluctantly pressed on becoming paranoid about my rear wheel again. Hearing a vehicle approaching I turn to see a Toyota pick-up weaving across the 'road' in search of the smoothest section and without thought stick my thumb out. Smiling as they approach they clearly understood what I was after and with an empty back were only too happy to give me a lift. 
After about twenty kilometres the sealed road re-commenced and the driver tooted at me (I was in the back with the bike) asking If 'd like to ride again...."na!"... I was enjoying the lazy-bum life of this easy travel so just shook my head to continue to Villamontes.

There was something rather fishy about the first town.
Any cyclist heading to or through Bolivia will ride across the epic Salar de Uyuni, the world's biggest and highest salt flat. From Villamontes it's about a 650 kilometres north-westerly route, up into the mountains. My map showed much of the route as unpaved / under-construction, contacting another cyclist who'd recently cycled that route had said the scenery was excellent, through many towering gorge-like canyons but on dirt roads with many of the work-in-progress sections blocked during construction hours. I wanted the scenery but didn't want the hassle and worry over my rear-wheel....this left only one real option of taking the sealed road firstly north to Santa Cruz - the financial capital and from there drop south west to Uyuni, well over twice the distance but half the hassle!
Staying in Villamontes for three days I soon experience how cheap the county is. A good serving of rice, chips and chicken, along with a bottle of cola was about £1.20!...I don't think I'd be using my stove very much!! 
Pre-arranging a WarmShowers host in Santa Cruz I estimated four days to reach it. Departing, the road was quiet with ample greenery and villages dotted along the way, passing over small rivers and streams I was content with my route choice. The first night I stopped at the village Boyuibe, asking about a room I'm led to a hospidaje (lodgings) and pay only 30 bolivianos (£3.35) - at that price it really wasn't worth the time in finding somewhere to camp along with the time to set camp, then pack-down in the morning.
My breakfast typically became bananas and biscuits, whilst lunch and dinners would be whatever was offered at road-side restaurants, at the road's occasional toll-booths would always be kiosk style shops selling the basics so I was never far from food.
The second day started with an early morning mist and a few climbs, edging alongside the mountains it was quite nice, slowly climbing up on occasional 2-3% gradients, again accommodation was easy to find and of similar price, as was the food. Strangely most of the villages I passed through had Coca-Cola signs welcoming visitors and a safe onward journey, maybe some kind of advertising deal?
On the third day's evening while giving the bike a quick clean I notice a broken spoke!! Deciding now to minimise the rear-wheel's load as much as possible I move the red rack-top bag (containing my tent, ground-sheet and camera stand) to the front rack,  although looking quite odd, pestering access into the front panniers and [initially] making the steering feel heavier it was the least I could do to try and help matters.
On the fourth day after a descent tail wind I reach Santa Cruz by mid-day and soon join the main road that leads to it's centre, passing this bicycle repair shack on the city's outskirts;
With my host living conveniently at the south of the city I'm soon at his house. Eric is an English teacher (seen on the host's page) and a keen cyclist, just off to work when we met he leaves me to my own. The first full day there I caught up with on-line task's and also visited the large indoor market for a few supplies, my studded pedals had worn through my trainers so I needed new ones and the market offered a good selection.
One night Eric showed me around the main city centre area and had food in a popular Irish bar that over-looked the central plaza and cathedral.
The night-before the day I'd planned to depart we attend a [relatively new] annual bicycle event aimed at promoting cycling within the city to a wider audience and families. Meeting at 7:30pm (in the dark) with hundreds of other cyclists we start to ride to the village location, soon it starts to rain...and rain.
Arriving at the village through deep puddles the DJ / band staged football field was now water-logged, 2-300 plastic garden chairs neatly laid out afront the stage were certainly not used as everyone was taking shelter under whatever they could. Stage 'sky cannon' spot lights panning back and forward clearly showing the rain. Talks and presentations from various cycling groups, shops and traders were planned but that was clearly not happening now. Grabbing a quick bight to eat Eric said he'd take a taxi back with his friend but with the taxi having only room for two bikes meant I'd have to ride it.
As I ride back I thought it strange to host a cycle event aimed at promoting the very scene, in a village, some thirty kilometres away, on a week day, in the evening (when it's dark), just at the end of the rainy season, as opposed to being in the city, on a weekend, in the day whereby more families with young children could attend..in the summer.
Awaking the next day with my clothes damp and [after having previously cleaning my bike] now covered in gritty dirty muck am welcomed to stay another day to re-prepare myself for my departure.
Heading south-west from Santa Cruz would lead me up into the mountains, the first main town being Sucre - about a week's ride away, then on to Potosi - one of the highest cities in the world! 
That evening's plan was to reach a scenic garden - waterfall area in the village Cueva that included a campsite but slowed by some of the initial climbs it was still too far to reach. Pondering where to camp I meet a Brazilian cyclist heading in the opposite direction. Fabio was actually heading back home and we both decide to head [for myself] back to the previous village and camp there. Soon there we set camp in the run-down village Plaza.
In the evening I show Fabio my map and the intended route, much to the fun and excitement of a few local kids that I'd been entertaining with my antics.
In the morning as we part company many cyclists pass by, also heading up the mountain. Eric had said there was another cycle event happening so looked like this was it! I was certainly not keeping up with this lot, not due to any fitness difference!! but due to their bike's minimal weight. Some of the passing cyclists encouraged me on as I plodded up, occasionally I'd be joined by one for a while. Taking a break at Cueva I visit the private garden / waterfall - a very scenic area with three separate small waterfalls.
My day's goal was also where the cycle event finished, in Samaipata, drawing closer the road started to become steeper and with still a good few cyclists around my tours well-honed slow-but-sure daily rhythm started to show. These were clearly not used to pacing themselves and were worn out, some of their uttered words made me chuckle as I now cycled past them! Some were even walking...their bike's weighed peanuts compared to my iron beast..I smiled contently with a smurky jubilant glee as I passed each one. 
Samiapata was bigger than what I expected and upon arrival in the central plaza I'm asked by someone where I'd camped the night before. Reaching into my pannier for my map, my map.....my maps gone!! Panic, damn, without that I'm lost as I don't have a smart phone!! Where's my map? Think! Think! The last place I used it was showing Fabio my route back at the village 'camp' NOooooooooo! My only option was to get back there, firstly finding a campsite I set the tent and put all my bags inside, then head back to the plaza and main road area. With all these cyclists being picked up I soon catch a lift back down the mountain to the village and find the farther of the children I'd been entertaining. Sitting within the fenced medical building was where I was sure I'd left my map but it was now gone. Walking with me to the doctor's house he explains the situation, we then walk back to the medical building with key in hand, moments later the doctor re-appears with my map in his hands!! Getting a lift back to Samaipata was easy enough as after a few failed attempts at thumbing a lift a taxi comes around the corner.

Samaipata sits at about 1700 metres altitude and has about twenty five different nationalities living there, a good few colonial buildings and cobbled streets. Apparently a bit of a hippy-hangout but I'm not sure why, it just resembled another town in my eyes.
It's claim-to-fame is due to the nearby extremely large rock engraving El fuerte de Samaipata - now a UNESCO world heritage site. Visiting it the following day it sits at 1900 metres and was started by the Chane' people whom pre-dated the Inca's.  
Even though it's huge in size visitors do not really get enough of a close-up view of the rock to photograph some of the finer engravings, one of them depicts a UFO like flying disc which leads some to believe it was a UFO landing site.
Riding off the next day I climb up a bit more before giving views of a wide, green valley that I'd drop down into. At the bottom I reach an unexpected town so buy a few more supplies for the day.
Sweat dripping in the afternoon as I make another never-ending climb on a relatively quiet road, finally reaching the top see a cautious descent as were many broken/missing patches of tarmac with loose stones. Staying in La Palizada that night was decision time as from here I'd depart the main westerly ruta-7 and take the south-westerly ruta-5, shown on my map as 'under construction' so inevitably a dirt road.
In the morning after an indecisive 20 kilometre ruta-7 back-track to the town I take the ruta-5. Slowly slowly as I ride across the loose, fine-dusty stones, a few road-works trucks pass by kicking up a tail of dust. Several kilometres further along were diggers and bulldozers preparing the mountainside road, many of the new sections were unopened - to vehicles - but bikes? Using a new section where the old road still climbed up was a welcomed break from the plumes of dust, a bit further along were workers laying a big drainage pipe in a trough, advising me to go back as passing was not possible - Uh?! Walk back up (as I had been), to that narrow dusty road the climbs up quite higher or detach my panniers and take just 5 minutes crossing your pipe?...it was a no-brainer..they even helped in passing bags n' bike across, what fine men!
Eventually as I close-in on the day's destination town the road levels out and the views widen into another green valley.
I can see the advantage that the newer belt driven [oil-free] hub-geared touring bikes offer. 
As the dusty trail continued the next day I passed through some really amazing scenery so it was not all bad.
 Now ya see what I'm saying? Cough cough cough!
By late afternoon due to the day's slow pace I hitch a ride on a small flat-bed van, paying, I hang on for dear life to both the van and my bike as he whizzed carelessly along the loose stone gravel route to the next village, what took him 15 minutes would have taken me about 1.5 hours. The village had a plaza area where I could camp - along with a tap - but being in full view of passers-by did not appeal to me, so asking around I'm directed to a lady whom offered me an empty concrete-floored room in here house, how kind I thought..until the morning when she had her hand opened out to be primed with some cash!
So what would today hold? After the short steep hill out of the village it continued climbing and climbing, a veil of mist lay around the peaks so was not so easy to see where I may be going although the general trend was up. As it continued I slowly slowly plodded on, dreaming of a long descent but who was I kidding? A few passing trucks got my thumb out again but they continued going, a bit more cycling and a pick-up truck approaches, giving it my best grin my thumbs out again, a second after whizzing past his brake lights illuminate and he come to a stop. With bike and bags loaded we were off, climbing, climbing and then climbing. Toward the top we entered the misty clouds and the night's rain had turned it into a mud bath. A couple of the previously passing trucks were now stuck, drivers out wedging blocks and stones behind the wheels, our pick-up truck sliding left and right through the brown goo! At times like this I feel no shame in jumping off the Brooks and hitching a ride!
Descending down from the pass the mud eventually fades away although still a dirt road. After about 15 kilometres the wonderful sight of tarmac comes into view! Dropping me off at the fist village I head for the next main town of Aiquile. Sucre was about 150 kilometres from there so providing the road stayed good I would be there in two days.

Next time, I meet an old cycling 
buddy and return back to Aiquile.

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