Bolivian altiplano: desert in the sky

SALTA, Argentina, 12/9/19

After my month in La Paz I set off to ride 1,000km south across the altiplano (high plain) towards Argentina, which at this time of year is basically a desert. This was an experience like no other. While my months in the Peruvian Andes were mostly spent schlepping up and down remote, steep, unpaved tracks, crossing the Bolivian altiplano mostly involved being on flat, paved (but not at all busy) main roads across barely inhabited plains. Only quite close to the southern border did the terrain cease being flat as far as the eye could see.

For most of these 1,000km there was a good paved shoulder, so I was able safely to listen to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith and a series of culturally informative podcasts called Learn Argentinian Spanish. In retrospect these were two of the most relaxing weeks of my American odyssey.

For my second night on the plain I was invited to visit a teacher I’d had one lesson with in La Paz whose main job is with a non-missionary aid organisation called Plan International. She runs workshops in remote communities about gender and non violence - really interesting work. Due to a miscommunication we almost missed one another, which would have been a great pity. She’s my age and unmarried which is very unusual. She said she thinks it’s because she’s very short, but I wonder…

Oruro, like Potosí, was once very rich from mining. Its centre is quite nice still but its outskirts are dusty and litter-strewn. Honestly, most of Bolivia is shockingly, shamefully litter-strewn. Smaller settlements on the altiplano are pretty depressing really. There is however some interesting wildlife such as vicuñas and rheas in addition to herds of domesticated llamas.

The standout highlight of this section was unsurprisingly the world’s largest salt flat west of Uyuni. Approaching it from the north I rode 75kms diagonally across the Salar. I camped a night in the middle of it, and had a fun morning trying to take ‘fun with perspective’ photos while mostly naked (because I would have had about 15 minutes’ warning if any vehicle had come towards me). While riding across the salt isn’t something I need to repeat in a rush it was an extraordinary sensory experience.

Uyuni is a large dusty railway town with very little to see or do, but I rather enjoyed it. A couple of passenger trains pass through each night, which apparently are popular though they have a top-speed of 30kmph and take much longer than the bus.

I stayed inside my very own railway wagon, complete with shower and sitting room/ kitchen. Perfect for entertaining my sweet Tinder conquest. I doubt many people can claim they got laid in Uyuni!

While I was there the entire town went on strike, apparently against political corruption. Eventually the market reopened and I was able to retrieve my panniers from the cobbler and continue towards the border.

Having got rather used to flat plain and a tailwind the last couple of days in Bolivia were more of a challenge, but I did enjoy wild camping and my night in remote Tupiza even though I had to access it by pushing my bike along and across the (very low because dry season) river bed!!

Finally, to my considerable excitement I reached the border, withdrew yet more US dollars, and entered American country #15: Argentina!!