And herewith lies our last Bolivia blog post.
After the wonderment of the Salar de Uyuni we took a nice long rest at the incredible Casa Ciclista in Uyuni. Like most cyclists who pass through, we spent several more days there than planned as it just felt good to be grounded for a while. We absolutely loved cycling through Bolivia but crikey does it take it out of you, and the Casa Ciclista was the perfect place to recover.
We’ve mentioned Casa Ciclistas (cyclist houses) before, and this was our fourth one of the trip. Each Casa is run slightly differently, but the basic principles are the same: while you are here, this is your home – you cook, clean and look out for others. Payment is made by donation, so everyone contributes what they can. An incredible array of cyclists pass through and many hours are spent sharing stories, tips and tricks from the road.
The Casa Ciclista in Uyuni is a special place – there’s not a huge amount to see in Uyuni itself, which makes it the perfect rest town. We just wandered around, caught up with life admin, chatted with family back home and lazed in hammocks – not a bad life! The beauty of the Casa Ciclista is that it feels like home – there’s no staff, just the kind people who own the property and check in on you every now and then. You have more responsibility than if you were in a hostel, but you have your own space and don’t feel like a guest. It was hard to leave – being on the road and searching for a new place to sleep every night is exciting, but you don’t realise how tiring it can be until you stop for a while.
But leave we eventually did. With heavy hearts we pedalled out of Uyuni and soon found ourselves in the middle of the desert, with some train tracks running alongside the road to keep us company. We were heading south for Argentina, but weren’t quite ready to leave Bolivia yet. We’d seen so much of the country, but were intrigued by one more city – Tarija – and didn’t want to pass up the chance to visit. So we decided to pedal down to Tupiza, the last key city before the border with Argentina, leave our stuff there and bus it over to Tarija with just our bikes and rucksacks, to get a glimpse into another side of Bolivian culture. It was a fun last week – here’s a whistle stop guide of what we got up to…
Our first night back on the road. We’ve stayed in some varied accommodation in Bolivia, and can now add school classroom to the list. See our Instagram post for the full story on bagging this prime real estate for the night.
We made our way through cowboy country, with eerie ghost towns signalling a bygone era. This region is said to be where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end, and you couldn’t imagine a more fitting setting.
After almost three symptom-free weeks, I started feeling the altitude again – very strange as we had been higher up with no problems, but we didn’t want to take any risks, especially as there was a big mountain pass ahead. But rather than having to take a bus, this time there was a TRAIN on hand! Trains are a rarity in South America, so really we were happy for the excuse to jump on one.
We wove our way through canyons and river valleys for a few hours before reaching Tupiza, where we spent a couple of days before jumping on a bus for a jaunt to Tarija. Tarija is a world apart from much of what we’d previously seen in Bolivia. Perhaps due to its close proximity to the border, it looks and feels like an Argentinian town, with elegant architecture and an orderly atmosphere, but it doesn’t take long for you to notice the “Bolivian-ness” of it all.
Sure enough, there was yet another parade on (our Bolivia schedule seemed to be perfectly in sync with the country’s parade schedule) – this time celebrating the beginning of spring. Quite fitting for our last Bolivian city, as our first day in the country saw us celebrate the winter solstice.
There were thousands of these guys marching through the streets, performing a rhythmic dance. For some reason I couldn’t help but be reminded of the chanting monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail…
The parade culminated in a festival on the church square. There was delicious street food being sold everywhere, while on stage a competition was taking place to see who could best play the caña – an impossibly long instrument made of cane, with an animal skin trumpet at the end. It only seemed to emit two notes, but that didn’t stop many competitors of all ages putting their own artistic spin on it.
Our main reason for visiting Tarija was to explore the wine region. Yes – there is wine in Bolivia! We headed out on our bikes to Valle de la Concepción, with just our rucksacks strapped on the back. It felt great to bike so light, but also very strange to know we weren’t self sufficient – I actually didn’t like that we had to make it to the hostel that night, even though it wasn’t very far away, or that we had to find a restaurant for lunch on our way back to Tarija the next day. I’m used to always having our house (tent), bed (sleeping bag) and kitchen (gas stove and noodles) on hand, so I felt quite vulnerable. But it was only a couple of hours’ cycling and before we knew it we’d arrived in Bolivian wine land and were sipping vino patero – foot crushed wine. An interesting taste…
Sadly, we were a little disappointed by Bolivian wine country – they’re making efforts in the main towns to attract tourists, but there’s not quite enough infrastructure there to make a cycling trip very enjoyable. The majority of the route had lots of traffic, and accommodation and food options were limited. For now, you’d be better off just going on a one-day bus tour, where they organise tastings and food at a variety of bodegas for a very reasonable price. Safe to say, I can’t see a Sideways remake being set here any time soon.
And then before we knew it, we’d bussed back to Tupiza, cycled 93km further south and had made it to Villazón – our last town in Bolivia. We enjoyed one more salteña (the Bolivian take on empanadas) before crossing the border to La Quiaca in Argentina.
And what a crazy few months in Bolivia it was. It’s been interesting looking back on everything and processing it while travelling through a new country, but we will eventually write up a bit of a summary, with tips for anyone who’d be interested in undertaking a similar trip, on our country pages. Needless to say though, for two novice cycle tourers Bolivia was a big undertaking, with lots of surprising challenges – so much so that the first week cycling in Argentina felt like a holiday it was so easy! But the feeling of achievement at making our way through has left us feeling like we are ready for anything, and can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
Numbers don’t say much about the many experiences we had, but they give an idea of the undertaking, so here are a few stats:
Distance cycled: 1,540km
Distance by bus & train: 726km
Average daily distance: 53km
Meters climbed: 25,330m
Nights in the tent: 14
Nights in a bed: 40
Nights on the floor: 25
Cycling days: 30
Rest days: 41
Sick days: 11
Casa Ciclistas: 3
Packets of cremosita biscuits eaten: 32 (Milla: 8 | Chillo: 24)
If you’re reading this on email, the map might not show, so here’s the link.
And here’s our whole route across Bolivia: