Vast Salar Experiences


My two-week lag behind schedule became useful on Salar de Chiguana (3700m); it had just dried up. The clayish mud still remained damp at the bottom of several deep tire trenches. It felt good to zip along for a change, on this ultrasmooth surface with mottled brown and white patterns. Chiguana is a train station, five dwellings and a military base with five semispherical buildings. I stopped for a "Doble Cola"—even Coke and Pepsi had not made it here. While I ate peanut squares, children looked at me enviously until I handed some out. At the checkpoint, I asked about other cyclists: the Frenchman had passed a month ago, but Nigel with the racing bike had not. The track to San Juán had even less traffic than in Sud Lipez—a single local motorcycle and one lone truck today. Now lined up in a single vista were four giants, which had each in turn filled my panorama a few days ago. I had tickled the feet of Caquella, Tomasamil, Cañapa, and Ollagüe. At 2:00 p.m., the sky over them was clear whereas a few days ago, it was almost snowing on my head by that time; this was the start of the dry season. At camp time, I spotted a hill of jagged sharp rocks near the first agricultural plots I'd seen in Bolivia. Quinoa fields were colored green, yellow or red depending on the maturity of the crop. It is native of high andean plateaus, and tastes somewhat like rice and wheat combined.

I ferried loads to spare the tires from the thorny bushes. After the chores were done, I went exploring among the rocks. I was only a few paces from the tent when I stumbled upon the skeleton of a child!

Quechua child's grave


An old thick blanket was lumped beside it. The skull was in pieces because it had been too young to have its joints calcified. The bones rested by a meter-deep natural cave. Was it a sacrifice? I found other smaller holes in the rocks nearby, but no other grim surprises.

April 1: I spoke to a couple heading to their plot of quinoa and asked about father Mario, a Belgian missionary I read about in the 1983 French Bolivia 3 book, but he had died in 1988. "He was a good man." It was funny to backtrack the footprints of the lady; she had automobile tire shoe soles. In San Juán, a seven-year-old girl guided me to a store. They had next to nothing for sale; I could only get digestive cookies, potatoes, and vegetable oil. They had more coca leaves than food. The storekeeper tried to sell me a large bag (a half kilo) for eight bolivianos ($2), but I only wanted a baggie full so he asked a puny one boliviano (25¢). I tipped my little guide, and headed to Villa Martin for more supplies. The Salar de Uyuni started coming into view beyond the pampas. What an ocean! I was glad to arrive at Villa Martin, until I realized it was a military base. The arch over the track was marked "Antofagasta." The big mouth of the base greeted me in almost undecipherable bla-bla, telling me he knew nothing of Villa Martin, and they couldn't sell any food. He took pleasure in making up senseless information.

I backtracked to a small village on a hillside, desperate to get supplies for the crossing of the salt flat plus a few extra days; I did not want to rely on Llica, the first town I would pass on the other side, because I heard that there "food is difficult." To my disappointment, absolutely nobody remained in the village, but a few chickens roamed around. I could only get water from a trickle in the tiny rocky canal. When I returned to the military base, dozens of soldiers, each with a load of firewood bushes heaped on his back, were also coming in. At the gate, 50 young men in formation cheered me on as I passed by, but I was relieved to be out of there. Stately cacti, three to six meters tall, grew on the hillsides along the "shore" of the salt flat. I asked a woman, who was walking on the sandy track, about nearby towns. She replied, with her mouth full of chewed coca leaves, that Villa Martin had changed to Colcha "K" and the next town was Puerto Chuvica, which was not on the map.

I was especially careful to have the tent hidden from the road view, not to be bothered by soldiers. A low dry stream bed did the trick. When in Bolivia, do as the Bolivians do, so I tried coca leaves again. I chewed 10-15 bitter leaves at a time, repeating with five sets. I tirelessly caught up on log writing by candlelight, and began to feel a bit joyous. Although it was snack time and chilly, I was neither cold nor hungry. I had some pisco with pineapple flavor crystals, then felt twice as good. I significantly passed my bed time, not feeling tired.

April 2: The mountains are covered with strange patterns of corrals (stone walls) built by ancient peoples. I first supposed they were to segregate agricultural plots, but some of them formed various polygons, and open curves. I arrived at the causeway to the salar. The welded-pipe gate was closed, and a few shacks stood facing it. I did not find any of the items that I needed at the small store, so I had to go beyond the causeway for supplies. In Puerto Chuvica, they had the exact same things as the gate shacks despite this being a town of at least 40 houses. What poor people! Am I ever rich compared with them. They were husking quinoa on the road. My last hope was Atulcha. The track rounds every hill to avoid the salar—and with good reason. I tried riding on it to cut across a "bay," but much friction was generated since the salty clay was not dry. I found Atulcha and it looks as if they never saw a gringo. As I approached the pretty little church, all the children ran after me like dogs. I asked a woman for a "tienda." (shop)

"No hay." (There is none.)

"¿Comida?" (Food?)

"No hay." (There is none.)

"¿Avena, azucar?" (Oats, sugar?)

"Oh, si," (Oh, yes.) and she leads me to a tiny shop. I wonder why I had so much trouble making myself understood. Maybe "tienda" means general store and "comida" means restaurant. All that running around was just for oats, sugar, rice, sardine cans and writing paper.

April 3: "Why does my hot chocolate taste so sour this morning?," I wondered. "Oh, I see. One plastic Nalgene bottle has water and the other has pineapple beverage—both colorless. Oops!" Drank it anyway. Certainly unrelated, I couldn't finish breakfast and felt weak packing up. Then stomach pains, diarrhoea, and I had to sit still not to get nausea. There goes another day.

I read about Chile's Easter Island in Chile Ecologico magazine, with the help of a pocket Spanish-French dictionary. I repitched the tent in the same place. Later I felt better and replaced the tire tube with the slow leak. It took an exhausting 500 strokes to inflate the tire, because the pump adapter tube was also leaky.

April 4: Feeling much better, I filled up on nine liters of water at Puerto Chuvica's only faucet. It was on the side of the street and looked pitifully worn and welded together.

Back at the causeway, I climbed the cactus slope to take photos. The lithium battery refused to give another joule even with tender warming between my legs. How ironic that the world's most plentiful and concentrated but untapped lithium deposit lay a few kilometers away, where the Río Grande stream flows onto the salar. I had AA alkaline batteries, but they didn't fit, so I tried to hold them and the lithium cell in series dangling from the bottom of the camera. It took a while to figure out that the battery microswitch was not happy until I taped the cursed thing shut. In this place you have to be resourceful.

Before me lay the most vast salt deposit in the world. The Salar de Uyuni is over 10,000 square kilometers of dried residue of what was once believed to be from a sea that was trapped inland as the Andes rose. But geochemist François Risacher came to the surprising conclusion that it comes from the leeching of ancient salt diapirs which "floated" up through the South American tectonic plate as the Nazca plate subducted under it. The salar has since been periodically flooded. The last lake, Tauca, evaporated 10,000 years ago and has left its salts up to 11 meters deep. Under it lies lake deposits, and below that is another salt crust, and so on to the limit of Risacher's drilling rig at 121 meters deep, which stopped in the middle of the twelfth salt crust!

Of the billions of tons of salt reserves in this salar, only a scant few tons were reportedly being extracted—by hand—near Colchani on the eastern edge.

The salar is absolutely flat except for the curvature of the planet. The other side could only be seen where substantial mountains towered above the horizon.

I lifted the gate, thrilled to be off on a bike experience of my dreams: a 121-kilometer crossing of the Salar de Uyuni. The causeway was six kilometers of large gravel. The surface of the salar, a meter below, was salty brown silt for first three kilometers, then became more white and covered with about 10 centimeters of water. Lucky for me, this was down from about 70 centimeters in February. Several low passes (for lack of tubing) presumably equalize water levels. The Bolivian driver of a United Nations jeep stopped to say hello. At the end of the causeway, the water had not yet evaporated to dry-season level. A truck had attempted to traverse it only to get stuck in the silt. I took out my map, compass and pencil to plot my own course. I was proud that the bearing to Cerro Tunupa (5300m), calculated with the magnetic declination value that I had measured, was exactly the same as observed. I would head toward that mountain, for 39 kilometers then turn toward Llica for 82 kilometers. The two men waiting for a tractor looked admirably my work. Tunupa is not simply named after the Aymara weather god, it is the god itself.

To spare my boots from the water seven times saltier than in oceans, I removed them and walked barefoot, but wondering how the aluminum alloy rims would hold out. After 300 meters of painful walking on the hard and rough salt, the water level dropped off. The whiteness became as brilliant as snow, so I strapped on my glacier goggles to protect from serious ultraviolet rays at this altitude of 3653 meters, although this is the lowest point of the entire Altiplano closed basin. Riding on, the surface was still damp for a few kilometers, and splashed salt all over the bike. It is precisely because of the annual soaking that the salt stays so white; any dust or debris settles underneath. When I reached dry salt, one-centimeter-high ridges defined bizarre desiccation polygons, about a meter across, and with five to seven sides of unequal length. These generated a random beat on the tires. Distant "islands" were floating above the surface and hazy mountains had bases like dinner plates.

Floating islands illusion


These mirages are thermal refraction effects of just a few meters of warmer air on the surface, which bend light rays when they pass though from the colder air above.

Now I was in totally exotic land and I was so happy. What an adventure! What a life! What at first seemed empty, featureless terrain was scrutinized by my brain desperately seeking some stimulation. The texture of the surface changed every one or two kilometers. Sometimes the polygon ridges changed to grooves, with the smooth transition pausing the tire beat. Sometimes millions of bumps, two to five centimeters high, were a pain on the back and numbed the hands. You can see such a region coming when the salar gets a little darker from the shadows. I discerned rings, 5 to 30 meters in diameter, which formed where water has been ejected from a hole; "U" shaped ridges one to three centimeters high and one or two meters across all oriented the same way; and occasional brownish patches. Remembering warnings about the sharp sodium chloride crystals slashing up tires, I stopped to inspect them: no damage—another danger dismissed as uninformed. A tiny floating dot on the horizon became a jeep of Israeli tourists who stopped by and asked me if I needed anything. Only after they disappeared into oblivion did I remember I should have requested fruits. I may have been inhibited by a subconscious desire for self-reliance. I crossed faint vehicle tracks, but they were not on a direct bearing to Llica, so I would not follow them.

When the odometer indicated I was exactly in the middle of the salar with closest shores 40 kilometers away, I put up the tent just like in my fantasy.

Salar de Uyuni


The bicycle became an anchor for some of the tent poles, because it was impossible to plant the stakes into the hard surface. Good thing the sky was clear. I wouldn't fancy sleeping in ultrasalty water with lightning around, but I was reassured by the presence of an island six kilometers away—just in case. If the Aymara have performed the proper rituals, Tunupa is appeased and there will be no trouble. I soaked coca leaves in iodine water for three hours to sterilize them, but it probably neutralized the cocaine as well, since I never got a buzz. I started jabbing the salt with a screwdriver to dig the latrine, but two centimeters below the soft white salt is a brownish base, hard as cement. This was an extraordinary opportunity to replenish my comestible salt supply. I cooked some white salt to sterilize it, but it browned, revealing a trace of impurities. I fried potatoes and sprinkled some on. Those helped me survive this chip-deficient region.

April 5: It was utterly silent when I woke up. I perceived ordinary sounds, like shuffling plastic bags, to be peculiarly distinct and loud. I had the most sublime sensation when I unzipped the tent door to be greeted with a dazzling white brilliance extending to infinity. Refusing to dirty the salar, I crapped in a Ziploc and packed it out.

This vast expanse of whiteness did bizarre things to my mind. I kept hearing motors as if a jeep was coming when in fact there was none. In my mind, music played more than ever, and consisted mostly of synthesizer tune fragments from my memory, which is frustratingly poor at musical recall. I closed my eyes while still pedaling full speed to experience this exceptional case where vision is not required to cycle. Orientation was by the sun's direction, which is visible as a radiance through closed eyelids. I could only go about a minute before a primordial fear like falling off the edge of the Earth swung the eyes open. I occasionally rode wide circles making a shocking change from the stationary panorama of the dead-straight bearing. I passed several islands. The one directly on my course first appeared as a tiny floating dot and grew very slowly to a half-kilometer. The salt was cracked near its shore rocks, making intricate designs. I buried the latrine bag by some tall cacti.

Back to "sea," a tail wind pushed me at a fast clip, but a bumpy area started making my stomach queasy. I stopped, but the pain got worse, and I dared not move. After one and a half hours of lying on hard salt, I attempted to get the Therm-a-Rest inflatable cushion, but the movement triggered puking. Shortly after, it was the turn of the other end. I was making a mess of this pristine white salar after I had taken such care that morning! In torturing pain, I managed to walk the bike to cleaner ground, and put up the tent. I felt better after every massive gas release. I suspected that this and the illness two days ago was all the coca leaves' fault. One is not supposed to swallow the paste, but I had not been able to suppress the swallowing. Maybe the crop been sprayed with a cocaine-dissuasive toxin.

April 6: I was the turn of my right eye to produce pain, and degrading my vision since I had to remove a contact lens. It became so sensitive to light that even the glacier goggles were not dark enough, so I had to stuff tissue behind one lens.

As I approached "land," the salt became silty, resulting in friction, until it got so bad that I had to walk the last one or two kilometers. The five-kilometer ride north along the shore track to Llica was course error correction and not very flattering to my navigational precision—blame it on magnetic anomalies, which frequently induce four-degree declination errors. I was quite worried about Llica. In 1982, the French were greeted with a cold and hostile "reception committee." I passed by a military post without anyone even noticing me, then found several shops full of goodies in the civil section. Most of the packaged items were imports, testifying to this country's scant production. I requested 300 grams of peanuts that were in a cloth sac, but I had much trouble understanding the old lady trying to explain to me that her ancient scale only measures in pounds, and that the peanuts are raw. A Bolivian man came in and greeted me in English. He insistently asked me to stay the night at his place so he could practice his English, which was quite good. I didn't trust him, but I took the time to talk while sipping soda at a table in a little shop.

Well the story of food being "difficult" in Llica is long gone or does not apply to solitary cyclists. On the outskirts of town, I sat against a corral while enjoying pastry rings dipped in marmalade. Off to Salar de Coipasa. The snowy mountains in nearby Chile came into full splendor while the closer mountains were covered with colorful quinoa patches within Inca stone partitions of assorted shapes.

Quinoa fields


I traversed villages where the straw roof was missing from half the adobe huts, and the children looked quite bored. The peanuts were a disaster; I overheated them until they tasted like charcoal, and the oil made a mess on the nylon tent floor.

April 7: The eye infection had already cleared, allowing me to replace the contact lens. I dug a latrine and was just about to use it when a man in rags surprised me. He came out of nowhere to visit my camp despite it being some distance from the track in a sandy field with bushes. I gave him the cursed coca leaves. He hung around while I burned garbage in the latrine hole and oiled the parched chain. I gave him some candies after I saw he didn't have many teeth left anyway, then he resumed his 17-kilometer walk to Llica.

The track to Tres Cruces was terribly sandy demanding frequent bike pushing. This village had a water system complete with a wind-powered pump and tank. The water tasted slightly salty—not surprising for a village by a sea of salt. I chatted with a couple in the small shop while having a Fruiti-Cola (all their soft drinks are called colas) and puffed-rice disks. The walls featured electoral posters. They told me why the local villages were almost deserted: the people had relocated to Chile and Argentina for work. The couple had seen Jim pass here three days ago.

I prepared a 55-kilometer crossing of Salar de Coipasa (3656m), impressive despite being only half the length and a quarter of the area of its big brother. I aimed for the right side of Co. Villa Pucarani, an island 1200 meters above the salar. I rode five kilometers between bushes and over bumpy moss and rocks, then walked two kilometers on soft wet salt, until it became rideable. Droplets of trapped water exploded under the tires, squirting their contents in random directions. At snack time, I sat on a plastic bag to keep my bum dry while savoring canned peaches. When I picked up the bike to leave, a brownish stain was exposed on the salt. I was puzzled, then realized that the entire can of "Halt" hot pepper dog repellant had sprayed inside a cycle bag, including over clothes, contact lens solution bottles, and my toothbrush! Something had been pressing on the button while the bike was set down. When all the items were laid out on the salt for cleaning, I heard a strange noise in the distance. I saw nothing, but this ghostly entity was getting closer and closer... suddenly a wall of wind lashed out! I snatched the loose items, tucked them under anything and sprinted after plastic bottles that were blowing away. One was transparent and disappeared forever in the white void.

Luckily, I found a dry area raised five centimeters over damp surroundings. With the tent stakes useless again on this cement-hard surface, two guy lines had to be anchored to the bike wheels, and heavy objects had to be placed in the tent corners to stop the poles from shaking off their fittings. Brushing my teeth tasted as if I had used straight Tabasco sauce for toothpaste.

April 8: I wondered how far out the dry area would start. As it turned out, wet salt splashed for almost the entire crossing, sticking in clumps like frozen slush on the bike and my legs.

Salt encrusted bike


The optical oddities of floating islands were even more pronounced than on Uyuni. Another effect was a wall of jumbled white blocks that I could never attain, no matter how many kilometers I approached it. I found about five large eggs each abandoned in the middle of nowhere. Some were hollow from drying out, but others were still liquid inside. Approaching Pucarani island, I rode through patches of clay and 10-centimeter-deep water.

I encountered two small islands with interesting salt formations. I landed on one, leaned the bike on rocks, and began to walk around it. A family of ducks was startled and ran out from the rocks. The duckling ran onto the open salar, tweeting away. I went running after it, and once I caught it I returned to the island with the little one in my hands, looking for the rocks where it had been. I walked a complete revolution and... my bike was missing! There was not a soul around to be seen. Coming to my senses, I realized I had been disoriented in the chase and I had returned to the wrong island!

After dropping off the duckling home, I went to explore magnificent cacti.



To remove a 10-centimeter needle-sharp spine for souvenir, I pulled repeatedly until the whole cactus was swinging. It suddenly occurred to me that if it toppled, I could be nailed to death, so I swiftly changed to other strategies. In Coipasa village, thirty children followed me to a store. By rows of drying adobe bricks, they crowded around me and observed my every move as I transferred beer from glass to plastic bottles. All the adults were away working outside the village.

I spent my last night in this exquisite salar region by an ancient Inca stone corral along the shore. I would be seeking motor transport 400 kilometers to La Paz tomorrow to compensate my underestimate of travel time.

April 9: I encountered several small natural holes, filled with brine, in the salt crust. I anxiously wondered if it was possible for the crust to cave in and send me plummeting into the dark abyss. My concern never materialized, and it was a smooth short crossing to Villa Vitalina, where salt is mined extensively. They lay it in rows to dry, then haul it away in large trucks.

Back on land, navigation was reduced to stopping at every fork to decide which is the right track. I observed peculiar ancient towers in the fields; apparently, they were used to store crops. When I spotted Sabaya, it spelled the end of this segment of the expedition.

Sabaya is a real town with cement buildings, not just dried mud. I asked around for the driver of the large open-top truck and I was directed to a bar. I was a bit surprised when a young woman presented herself as the driver. That waitress's joke dragged on until the real driver informed me he was going to Oruro with a load of comestible salt and I could ride... on top. His assistant, a younger guy, was working on his third large beer. We heaved the bike up the ladder and I saw that the canvas covering the salt was a good half-meter from the top of the walls; my concern of falling off subsided.

I had a splendid view of rocky pinnacles on Co. Inca Camachu as the truck heaved up the pass and carefully descended just as slowly, implying the driver was the owner. In Huachacalla, they stopped for police registration. We traveled only 40 kilometers per hour on the bumpy track and stopped occasionally to check tires and springs. Too bad we came no closer than 100 kilometers to Bolivia's highest peak, Nevado Sajama (6542m). We passed a few small towns, wetland, llama and sheep herds, and winded through a cactus canyon. A woman got on with many packages, probably to sell in Oruro markets, and sat at the other end of the truck. When cold darkness fell, she wrapped up in a blanket while I bundled up with all my clothes. The stars were so magnificent that I declined the offer to ride in the cabin, despite the cold. The only problem was the occasional blast of dust from oncoming trucks. The moon reflected on Lago Uru Uru then city lights of Oruro suddenly appeared.


City Life


They lowered the bike with a rope and asked $2.50—for 180 kilometers! I felt great riding down the illuminated urban street. I asked a woman where I could find a hotel so she walked me Alojamiento Victoria. She rang the bell several times and banged on the door to wake up the attendant at 11:00 p.m. The rate was an unbelievable $2 a night. I dragged the bike up the steep and uneven stairs and into the small room, where I felt startled of the contrast with my vast salar experiences.

April 10: The attendant played a radio full blast at 6:00 a.m. presumably to get back at me. I stuffed wet toilet paper in my ears and got up when I was good and ready. I handed him my passport to complete the registration. He asked me which was the "passport No." although that is exactly what was marked—he could not read!

The street was bustling and vehicles honked continually. I got a bonanza of goodies from street vendors, shops and outdoor markets. My lean body was relishing everything after the relatively bland diet and heavy energy expenditure of the last month.

Back at the lodge court, I washed clothes in a metal tub while the attendant guy just sat and watched the entire process as if he never saw a gringo washing clothes before! I could hardly understand his Spanish and I didn't feel like concentrating, so after a while, I just ignored his utterances. When I brought the salt-encrusted bike down for a wash he was so excited that he stayed over an hour to watch that too. When I told him I wanted to take a shower, he had to connect a hose to the faucet in the court, climb the ladder above the shower stall to put the hose in the tank to fill it, and he placed a metal can to catch the used water from the drain! I was quite happy to take only a cold shower because the water heater that was built directly into the shower head had frayed 220-volt wires connected to a rusty switch box inside the shower stall. The water heater had "malfunctioned" so they had disconnected it. I didn't ask for the gruesome details. I'm lucky there was a curtain or he would have no doubt examined me showering too! My Altiplano-tanned skin peeled off in large patches, like a lizard molting. Welcome to Bolivia.

I took the bike downtown and finally found replacements for the dying bicycle pump adapter tube and the lithium camera battery. Thousands of stalls lined the streets, which channeled a dense flow of people and vehicles. It was a joyride with a little help from delicious San Pedro Oporto wine. At dusk, I decided to bike up the hill overlooking the city, an easy task without the heavy gear, except for the children running after me and hanging onto the bike. The way to deal with them is to stop and ask for a volunteer to sit on the baggage rack—funny how then they all keep their distance! What a view of the bright city from high on the hill. The track to the crest was too rough and dark, so I headed down toward 15-story buildings, and found the elegant part of town. It was pampered with indoor shops, a plaza with trees, and nice churches. I found my way back to my lodge easily. I just followed the street with the shitty mud and pissy puddles—very slowly not to splash any.

April 11: I had to cut my beard with scissors before the razor could find the skin, while the wind in the open court kept blowing away my small plastic mirror.

At the modern bus terminus, I thought the doorman was pulling my leg when he asked a fee just to get in the building, until I saw the official looking receipts. A lady yelled "La Paz a la dos!" ("La Paz at two o'clock!") repeatedly, and I lined up for that bus. The woman in front of me told me to be careful not to roll the bike wheel onto her cotton bag on the ground—it was wiggling with tweeting chicks. As we rode the Altiplano on Bolivia's only highway, the assistant sold soft drinks, and snack vendors boarded briefly at every stop. We had a maniac driver dashing through villages at full speed blasting the horn continually and slamming the brakes when honking didn't clear the way fast enough. He speeded through a pothole bashing the shocks on this new bus and startling the nervous man beside me, who shouted out numerous complaints. When another bus tried to pass, our driver sped up and we were side by side for a minute or more on this two-way-traffic road. He admitted more people although the bus was completely packed.

Grandiose folded mountains of the Cordillera Real (royal range) appeared including Mururata, Illimani and Huayna Potosí. They receive more snow than mountains further south. An exceptional view of the capital city of La Paz appeared as we descended into its large canyon. The early Spanish had settled down there because they found some relief from the wind and altitude of the Altiplano. Today social classes are divided by the relative elevation of people's homes; the most impoverished shacks cling near the top of the canyon (4100m).

From the large terminus, I cycled down the busy main street, el Prado (the promenade) in the world's loftiest metropolis. Even here at the bottom of the canyon (3600m), the altitude is virtually identical to that of Lhassa, Tibet. The cross streets on both sides run steeply upward. A policeman on foot flagged me over for interrogation—the curious and friendly type.

The tires squeaked as I rolled the bike on the waxed floor in Residencial Sucre. The place was neat but old, including the ancient room key. The owner proudly showed me his good German mountain bike and his friend offered US$300 to buy mine, even after the next expedition through the Yungas rainforest. I thought about it since I only paid CAN$300 for it and would be back to nearby El Alto in two weeks, but I declined because it would spoil the fun of my independence for cycling to or from three airports and more joyriding in Santiago. Besides; those great rims were discontinued.

April 12: In modern high-rise offices, a world away from most of the rest of the country, I had my flights confirmed. The post office is largest and most elegant that I have ever seen. I bought envelopes from a blind man on the front stairs and finally sent out the remaining postcards, only one per address for the whole journey. There I ran into Werner and Mätz again and we arranged to meet later. I stopped for the services of a street money changer. She walked around with fat wads of money, which says good things about street safety. She made a big fuss about a tiny tear in my US$20 bill so I discounted it slightly, and she shut up. After much searching and questioning, I located the map office, which did not display the slightest sign. They didn't have anything better than 1:1,000,000 of the Yungas rainforest region, which I already had from McGill. Refusing to believe them, I searched through a disorganized pile of 1:250,000 maps until I understood that one I was looking for had never been mapped!

I had an urge to personalize the bike with labels on the tubes spelling "ANDES MACHINE" and "CANADA." I drafted the letters with a marker on red masking tape.

In the evening, I walked through street markets to rendezvous with the German gang at Hotel Alem. I met Jim again for the fifth time, and Oscar, author of a German guide to climbing in Peru. We had El Inca black beer as I tried to initiate conversation as often as possible, otherwise it would be completely in German. Jim had crossed the two vast salars, but his motorcycle wheel had sunk to the axle in Coipasa's silt. His friends had rescued the machine.

April 13: All packed up for more adventures, I proceeded through downtown and admired skyscrapers, especially the cylindrical one. After cycling up and out of the wrinkled canyon, I passed patches of eucalyptus trees that have tolerated the difficult climate, but even they did not endure the even higher ground at the dams holding the La Paz water reservoirs. These formed pretty lakes in the valley with green and yellow grasses, making a splendid view from my camp.

April 14: It was deep breathing up to La Cumbre de Yungas (4650m), where a fantastic scene of jagged snow-crested mountains opened up. The Yungas is the cloud forest zone between icy peaks of Bolivia and the drenched Amazon lowlands. In the time it took to get the camera, the vista became hopelessly shrouded behind fog. A statue of Christ on a tall stone pedestal stood by a high-voltage electric pylon as monuments to two powerful forces to humanity, religion and technology.

La Cumbre de Yungas


The shrine at the base of the pedestal was adorned with candles and miniature US$100 notes from people pleading the spirits for wealth. The portrait on the notes was replaced with a picture of Ekhekho, a god of abundance, holding in his arms everything from sugar to trucks.