La Paz and Oruro, Bolivia and Region XV, Chile – 1/8-2/9/10

Since 2002 La Paz had been one of our favourite world cities, so we were both glad to find that in 2010 we were still enchanted by its charms. We spent a week sorting out a bike and some kit for Peter, and resting. Resting, that is, apart from an unforgettable day of cycling from town at 3,700m to the old ski station at Chacaltaya – at 5,260m probably the highest road in the Americas that is transitable by normal car. The glacier has melted and there’s no longer any snow or skiing to be done, but cycling up the incredible switchback road, to the cheers of French tourists, was about as much fun as we’ve ever had in a day on the bikes.

To our surprise and delight Peter arrived in one piece, and then acclimatized to the altitude faster than we’d dreamed of. Apart from the odd nose bleed (most of which seemed to end up in the book he read during his stay and then gave to us on departure) he seemed totally unaffected by suddenly being deposited at 4,000m. We hadn’t really expected this and had assumed he’d be at the back when we were climbing hills, not waiting for us at the top!

After a trip to Cholita wrestling (think WWE featuring Bolivian ladies in traditional costume) we left for Viacha, and then the quiet road to Charaña and Chile. With a third person, we were hoping not to have to camp much (three people in a ‘three man’ tent generally doesn’t work), so aimed for a village every night. With little tourist traffic on this route however there was, accordingly, little supply of accommodation. This meant we were put up in some interesting places. In Viacha we managed to persuade the Padre to let us sleep in the old nunnery; in Achiri we slept in some council buildings; in Tacora the village hall. In Caquiaviri we only just avoided a night in the police station cells when the hospedaje owner returned home from her fields late in the day.

As we neared Chile the scenery improved and the climbs and days became harder. After an exhausting day we arrived in the border town of Charaña after dark as a result of Neil’s rear tyre blowing up a few kilometers out of town.

Our two days in Chile took in a couple of high passes and some of the steepest road gradients we’ve come across all trip. But also some gorgeous scenery in the Parque Nacional Lauca. We didn’t meet many people, but all we did meet were super-friendly – a nice change from the reserved folk (the ‘British of South America’ as we’d been told a few times) we’d encountered in the south of the country. I suppose this is understandable however as in the south, on the Carretera Austral, a cycle tourist passes every few hours, whereas up here on the altiplano it had been quite a while since any locals had seen a cyclist rattling past.

Crossing back to Bolivia through a landscape of deep blue lakes and 6,000m volcanoes was truly memorable, and we descended to Sajama National Park, put away our bikes for a while and pulled on our trekking boots. With Peter we climbed Parinacota (6,351m), and then we attempted Pomerape (6,282m) with a guide, leaving a tired Peter at high camp. The icy conditions however made this mountain too technical for us and we didn’t make it to the summit.

Peter’s enjoyable but brief visit was over all too soon and as he made his way back to La Paz (from where it was only about 15 different flights back to England), we rested a couple of days then headed for the big one – Sajama. At 6,554m this is Bolivia’s highest mountain, and it turned out to be a great 3 days, on the last of which we made it in nice weather to the summit before returning to Sajama village.

By now we’d spent over a week in the small village of Sajama, and though we loved the setting and the cheery people, the food was so boring that even Neil tired of it. So we rested only a day before setting off with the bikes for the fourth 6,000er in the park – Acotango. Getting to base camp at over 5,000m with 3 days of food and water plus our normal gear really took it out of us so we had a rest day before attempting the summit. Haz wasn’t feeling too well, so Neil spent this morning cycling (well, mostly pushing) alone up the mine road to a height of 5,509m – probably the highest either of our bikes will see this trip! In the night Haz was sick and we gave up on ideas of going for the summit, but then at about 07:00 she began to feel better and, deciding it would be a shame not to give it a try having expended so much effort to get to base camp, we set off to climb the mountain. It was a bit of a struggle for Haz, but after 4 hours we made it to the top and the best summit views of all the mountains in the park.

That was enough of mountains for a while, so we headed east across the altiplano. The quiet dirt road to Eucaliptus and the main Oruro-La Paz highway had little scenery of interest apart from a small pass we crossed in a snow shower (which, interestingly, was the first precipitation we’d seen in more than 3 months). Here we left our bikes and jumped on a bus to La Paz to fix one of Neil’s rims which had cracked – the first bike trouble we’ve had in nearly a year on the road.

Cycling stats:

Days getting from La Paz to Eucaliptus – 33
Distance – 813km
Time cycling – 77hr
Cycle days – 16
Rainy cycle days – 2
Maximum speeds – 81.3kph (H), 60.7kph (N)
Unpaved roads – 644km
Longest day – 86.51km
Punctures – 0H(9), 1N(8)

Total amount climbed – 9,861m
Maximum altitude reached – 5,509m (unloaded high point with bikes on Acotango); 5,061m (loaded high point with bikes on Acotango)
Most climbed in one day – 1,758m (unloaded – La Paz to Chacaltaya); 1,325m (loaded)
1000m+ climb days – 3
4,000m passes crossed – 6
Steepest climb – 19%

Number of cycle tourists we met – 1 (German)
Accommodation – 22 beds, 0 camps, 11 wild camps
Coldest temperature cycled in: -5C (leaving Tacora, Chile)
New Bolivian beers drunk – Paceña

Hiking Stats:
Distance hiked – 52km
Days of hiking – 8
Ascent/Descent – 6,220m

Peaks we climbed – Sajama (6,554m), Parinacota N summit (6,351m), Acotango (6,071m).


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