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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

The Stranger

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

Leaving the Salar De Uyuni in my dustcloud I pedalled a quiet track around the Salars Northern edge. Small farming communities dotted the roadside and I still had views over the vast salt plane. Children waved shyly and a few dogs gave chase.

With the twilight I reached the small town of Salinas De Garci Mendoza. It was an unusual town, situated at the edge of the salar and sandwiched between two large peaks, the cobbled streets thronged with life.

Old men perched on benches in the plaza watching the world go by, food vendors shouted over one another competing for the evening crowds, children kicked a football around the street and were shooed away by a policeman, young men sat around on motocross bikes chewing coca and smoking cigarettes.

I was served a hearty breakfast by Enzo, a grinning, talkative man wearing a cap and sunglasses. We spoke about all manner of things, but what I found most interesting were stories of his friends and him cycling across the Salar as a yearly tradition. Eventually I tore myself away and after washing the salt from my bicycle I was on the road again.

For an afternoon I shared the road with Louise, Gulliuame and Clement - three Frenchies I had met a week previously at the Casa De Ciclista in Uyuni. It was fun to ride as part of a group. It didn’t last long however and I soon found myself splitting off from the main road they would take, and onto a sandy farm trail.

That evening I pitched up just outside the village of Guadalupe. My tranquility was suddenly shattered by aggressive barking right outside my tent. Two dogs circled continually growling, every time I shifted or made the most minute noise they would redouble the intensity of their barking. I laid still, frozen solid in the hopes they would soon get bored and leave. To my surprise and relief this tactic worked and shortly all was quiet again.

I discovered a thermal stream, throwing off my clothes and enjoying a warm bath in the gently flowing water.

Half way up a long valley I realised I'd misread my map and had to backtrack. This brought me to the start of a climb. I rode the first section but the gradient soon steepened and my resolve broke, I hopped off and pushed. At the top of the twisty ascent I was joined by a herd of curious llamas as I ate lunch.

Passing through some tiny settlements people seemed shocked to see me, some even going so far as to hide from me. A young boy on a bicycle raced me for a while. I stopped and talked with a friendly couple walking on the road, offering them coca leaves that they happily accepted. In return the man wanted me to try some of his coca. I have no idea what special blend he was chewing on, but for the next half an hour I motored along! Camped on a hilltop I watched shepherds bring their flocks of llamas in for the night and could see the main road I’d be joining for a stretch the next day.

In Tolapalca I got speaking to several groups of people, firstly Iva and her son waiting for the school bus who kindly pointed me in the direction of a tap. Outside a small tienda I met a group of electricians from Cochabamba working in the area, James and his friends were stoked on my trip and to my amusement even went so far as to compliment my Spanish.

The next 20km were smooth tarmac. On a hilltop some roadworkers cheered me and insisted I stay on this nicely paved road towards Sucre and not my intended route through the mountains. Laughing off their protests, I explained I enjoyed the mountains more; they didn’t understand, but wished me luck anyway. Further on a car pulled up and a couple of drunk guys greeted me, standing around talking and eyeing up my gear. For some reason they gave me a bad feeling, so trusting my instincts I made my excuses and rode on.

In the larger town of Cruce Culta it was lunchtime. The theme of the day continued with more friendly folks interested in my journey. A lady gave me free cake and jelly from her shop. Two young girls were examining my bicycle and I shared some cookies with them whilst I ate. After a little more tarmac I pulled off the main road and returned to the dirt. A maze of gravel roads took me to a wide riverbed.

My arrival coincided with the end of a large cattle market. A weird scene, hundreds of people milling about, presumably from every village in the vicinity, obviously a lot of drinking had been going on, groups of young men stood around staring at me, some begun to shout. I didn't want to hang around, simply smiling, offering a “Buenas tardes” and pedalling right on. Elderly people gawped at me like I was an alien.

I was utterly exhausted after a long day cycling. However, I didn’t want to camp near so many drunk people. I pushed on for another 10km. The fatigue was really setting in and eventually I resorted to pushing. A car coming downhill skidded to a halt in a plume of dust. An excitable American expat bombarded me with rapid Spanish; he was working on a drinkable water project in the area, warned me of many climbs in the direction I was heading and gave me chocolate before disappearing down the road. To camp I sneaked off the road, taking more care than normal to find a hidden spot. It wasn’t long before I had passed out.

The Americans warnings proved true and my next day was full of climbing - over 2000M elevation gain in a day. Higher and higher I winched, sweat dripped and my knees groaned. Views in each and every valley were gorgeous, occasionally a short downhill would punctuate my rise, but I was soon pointing uphill again.

Tiny huts and settlements clung to the mountainsides and the people who dwelt here greeted me warmly. Communication was often difficult, with my limited Spanish and the fact that many people I met - especially the older generation - mostly spoke Quecha. Cries of “Hola Yankee!” followed me, I gave out cookies or coca leaves to those I met.

I slowly spun my way to the top of a 4600M pass. I was low on water so didn't drink much, wanting to conserve the little I had. On the descent I got lost and almost took the wrong track. Fortunately my GPS put me right and after kilometres of perfect isolated doubletrack I joined a road to end the day, finding freshwater here too. I found a very average campspot at the roadside, cooked dinner and waited till darkness fell to setup my tent as the spot was a little visible.

Billowing gusts of wind woke me early, and I couldn’t get back to sleep so got cycling. In Ocuri I replenished supplies and devoured breakfast. A bubbly old woman warned me not to take the mountain roads to Sucre, saying they were very rocky and dangerous - just what I was looking for! Outside the town I turned onto dirt. I charged a few hundred brake burning meters to a riverbed.

The road completely disappeared. I travelled along the riverbed, alternating between riding and pushing, sometimes crossing the small river. I was grateful it was the dry season because I could only imagine the ferocious torrent that would churn down the canyon in wet season.

Quite suddenly the road reappeared again and meandered through a network of canyons. It was a phenomenal ride and I was pleased to have come this way. The locals here clearly didn’t see outsiders much and people were very shy and cautious towards me. The canyon spat me out into the lowlands, things were hot and more populated. Hillsides were peppered with farming communities, noises of cockerels and cows filled the warm air. I bumped along the gravel road towards Sucre.

In the town of Potolo I bought a beer and some fruit from the only shop. It was a bit of a slog to find a place to camp, the hillsides were a tangle of undergrowth or too steep. I spied a patch of grass through the weeds, whacked my way through to a perfect spot. I savoured my beer whilst lounging on the grass before bed.

My bike was almost more dust than bike, so I cleaned the drive chain in the morning. It was early but already the air buzzed with heat, I ripped some singletrack down to a river, it was broad and tranquil, wading through it offered some relief from the now scorching temperature.

After finding a road again on the other side I climbed. A beautiful view awaited me atop the climb; a gigantic, ancient crater, and inside this crater a patchwork of fields and farmsteads, in the centre was the village of Maragua. Here I hunted for a shop, finding only cookies and fizzy drinks.

A sweaty climb on cobbles took me to the next valley. Up and down the road went, in overbearing heat but stunning landscapes. In the village of Quilla Quilla I was flagged down by a man with a beaming smile holding a chango (local instrument like a shrunken guitar), his name was Ramon, he quizzed me about my route and played some tunes.

It was a lively village and I waved to all the locals on my way out. There was a steep climb, I felt lazy so just pushed it all, at the top I sighted Sucre in the distance; the city sprawling over the hillsides.

On the way downhill I passed and got overtook by the same truck several times, each time the twenty or so people in the back of the truck would cheer, shout and wave enthusiastically at me.

I was tired, and found a grassy hillside, opting to sleep out under the stars. Enjoying a beer and dinner on my grassy mattress before bed. In the distance I saw the lights of Sucre turn from a twinkle to a throbbing glow. I would reach the city in the morning.


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