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Bolivia: The Land They Forgot To Pave

Quite literally, Bolivia begins where the asphalt ends. Farewell to both Paraguay and pavement at the Bolivian border.

Locked in by land, walled in by mountains, hidden both above the clouds and below the jungle canopy; simply getting to Bolivia by bicycle is an adventure. If you’ve been covering ground quickly up till now, this is where your pace will drop. Bolivia begins where the asphalt ends.

Because most cyclists are on a north-to-south route, they’ll enter Bolivia from Peru at Lake Titicaca. This is, however, the least pleasant place to enter the country. So horrendous are the effects of tourism here (aggressive begging, scams, theft, litter) that it may well ruin your opinion of Bolivians and the whole country. My advice: enter the country anywhere else.

And what a wild and beautiful country it is! As a cyclist you’ll be able to limit your exposure to those unpleasant dots on the map that constitute most travellers’ entire Bolivian experience and see the real country.

From chilly mountain passes to sweltering lowland valleys, from oxygen-robbing altitudes to oxygen-rich rainforests, Bolivia is a tough, uncompromising country to tour on a bicycle. Nothing is set up for your convenience and most of the roads are either unpaved or in disrepair.

Another unpaved masterpiece in Bolivia’s highway network. It’s possible to have the road to yourself for hours in some places. But always be ready for a truck or bus to appear suddenly around a corner.

You’ll pick your way along dirt tracks that cling to the sides of deep gorges. To your left, a rock wall; to your right, an abyss. Each curve in the road is a gamble – will you suddenly find yourself face to face with a big truck? Then, at a particularly sharp bend, you notice a lone man with a hardhat standing at the apex of the curve, holding a little green flag. He looks both ways and raises his flag, indicating that it is safe for you to pass.

You’ll traverse blinding salt flats the size of small countries, following the black rubber streaks left by the tires of tourist Jeeps. One may even pass you, packed with backpackers snapping photos of the “crazy cyclist” in the middle of nowhere. How different your experience will be from theirs! While they’re checking emails back in town, you will be pegging your tent into salt crystals while a swirling 360º sunset expands around the horizon. Then, in the middle of the night you’ll be awoken by a mysterious flood of white light. Aliens? Nervously, you’ll exit the tent and behold a sight like no other. Full moon, as viewed from the middle of a slat flat at high altitude. Below your feet and to the horizon in every direction the ground glows white making you feel like a mite on a photographer’s light table.

Lunch break in the puno.

You’ll meet Bolivians unaffected by tourism – the real Bolivians. They want nothing from you and they won’t call you gringo.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the hardship of touring in Bolivia you might find it stands out in your memory more than most places. The toughest places to ride are often the most spectacular. You’ll probably take your best photos here.

 

Official Name: República de Bolivia

Area: 1,098,580 km² (424,164 sq. mi.)

Population: 9.5 million

Capital: La Paz

National Official Languages: Aymara, Quechua, Spanish

Other Languages: Chiquitano, Guaraní, Guarayu, Yuracare

Currency: boliviano (BOB)

Highest point: Nevado Sajama 6,542 m (21,463 ft.)

Lowest point: Rio Paraguay 90 m (295 ft.)

 

Contemplating the abyss, Yungas.

 

Feature image (top of page): Riding the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s highest and largest salt flat.

 

© El Pedalero, 2012.

 

 

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