Cycling Amigos - South America - Cycling and Exploring

[En Español] No set plans just a bicycle, a starting point & the rest we would see how it pans out. This has been our philosophy from the start & now over 10,000km later we've cycled through Ecuador -> Peru -> Chile -> Argentina -> Uruguay & Paraguay along the coastline in between exploring the Peruvian Andes & Bolivia by bus, foot and hired bike. Here you can watch our contiguous cycle journey unfold..
While Valentine's Day 2010 has come and gone we would still like to draw your attention to the great work of LOVE Trust and keep showing some love as the posts about the final stages of our journey are published here. We would also like to say a big thank you to those who have already assisted by spreading the word, making donations or offering to help in some way. Read more...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

EXPLORING: Back to Bolivia and the Death Train

Whiz stop tour through the Pantanal
Now in Porto Murtinho, Brazil we needed to get to Carumbá where we would cross into Bolivia, and the way to get there was by bus and fortunately there was a bus that evening that would take us there over night. Having the bikes with us of course added a whole new dynamic but thank heavens we had Veronica with us because with her help we managed to get the bikes on for only a minimal extra charge. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Brazil is Bonita where you can swim in crystal clear lakes surrounded by tropical fish and enjoy some beautiful hikes through the Pantanal so Veronica and Marko had decided to stop off there along the way. Andy and I had considered going to Bonita too but as we were in Brazil all the tours were pricey and as it is a regulated area you cannot do anything there unless it is with a tour operator so we decided against it. In the middle of the night we had to change buses with a 3 hour lay over but then when the bus arrived there was no space for our bicycles so Veronica quickly jumped to our rescue and informed them that they better make a plan for us to take our bikes as we had already paid. Luckily Veronica's demands worked and the bus driver returned shortly with a bigger bus that had space for a our bikes, thank heavens for Veronica's Portuguese otherwise we may still be stuck in some random town in Brazil trying to say zzz this and zzz that.

Now on the second bus it was day break before we dropped off Veronica and Marko in Bonita, then from there the drive through the Panatanal was magnificent. The road was dirt all the way so pretty painful but slow enough to enjoy the scenery, every now and again crossing a single track precarious looking wooden bridge crossing crystal clear streams. Eventually, a few wild life spottings and a lot of hours later than promised we arrived in Carumbá. Once our bicycles were off loaded we made a bee-line for the border with Bolivia which was quite far out of town and by the time we got there there was already a huge queue. Again with a strike of luck while I was trying to work out what was going on a door opened up nearby us out of which an official popped and said we start queuing there too, to the ire of the other people that were already standing in the other queue. The Brazilian border had been closed for 4 hours and was now just reopening so I was a little apprehensive about the fact had just jumped the queue but we had technically not even left Paraguay yet and were now wanting to exit Brazil so I really didn't want to stand in really long queue only be turned away at the window. However, when we got to the immigrations window the guy didn't seem to care at all, once I had explained my story he just stamped us both into Brazil and then stamped us out again. Technically though we will never have left Paraguay!

We were now finally at the border with Quajirro, Bolivia but I was even more concerned about this border as I had no money on me to pay for the visa which South African's have to pay for to get into Bolivia, and I really didn't want to have to cycle all the way back to Corumbá to withdraw it. The people at immigration were incredibly friendly and were quite amazed when they looked at their list and saw that we were required to have a visa but nonetheless we had to have one. It cost $50 but this pales in comparison to the $150 the USA tourists have to pay so we just got on with worrying about how we were going to pay for it but this too was quickly put to rest when the lady said  we could just go on 4 blocks into town where we would find an ATM. I was like hmm why am I bothering to get this stupid pricey visa if I can just wonder in and draw money and no one even bats an eyelid! I really was tempted to just get on my bike and cycle on without the visa but I didn't really want to get arrested and have to go crawling back to the very same South African embassy that had been so kind to us earlier on in our trip.

Now legally in Bolivia we made our way to the train station where we were to book tickets to Santa Cruza on the infamous 'Tren de la muerte' or Death Train. We were again in luck again and as we got there they opened up the ticket office however the train that could take our bikes too only left the next day so we would need to spend the night in Quijarro. We had seen a sign to the Hostels International hostel just back down the road so we decided to go check it out and as it turns out it is absolutely awesome! I ended up being thrilled that we had to spend a night there, it had a huge big blue swimming pool over looking the Pantanal with hammocks hanging everywhere. After checking in we went and looked for some lunch and found a road side stall selling delicious kebabs for only $1.20 each. I looked back in the guide book and it described Quijarro as no more than a 'grouping of shacks' and that one should rather stay in Carumbá. I was amazed that it could be talking about Quijarro because my experience was very much the opposite as it was a nice little town with ATMs, lots of little street vendors and at least one beautiful hostel 3 times cheaper and far more awesome than I'm sure you could find in Carumbá, what more could you ask for from a border town so again I was pleased I had ignored the stupid 'South America on a shoestring' or more aptly referred to 'South America on a golden lace' guide book.

Tren de la muerta
The next day we were off to Santa Cruz aboard the 'Tren de la muerte'. Now I was expecting a bun fight to get a seat and then even once secured it would be terribly uncomfortable but instead it was the total opposite, just before the train was due to depart just about every gringo in the region had gathered on the stairs of the train station including all our friends from the donkey boat, even Victoria and Marko who had already enjoyed a day in Bonita. The cargo guys were very professional, weighing our bikes and bags leaving us with tags and receipts while they loaded them into the cargo area for a small fee allowing us to board the train in peace of mind and luggage free. Aboard the train we found our seats quickly and with no hassle, no one was sitting in them and they were quite comfy indeed. It was going to be an over night train arriving at some hour in the morning so although the seats weren't quite lie-flat seats they were comfy enough. I was very excited for my premier train journey on the South American continent, even if it is dubbed the 'Tren de la muerte'.

Just when I thought things were perfect the man came through with the remote turning on all the tvs, hmm I thought to myself perhaps a movie. Oh no but first rather how about a local lady dancing through a field singing a really bad song with the same tune as every other song in Bolivia in the background? The last time I was in Bolivia this music had driven me mad whether it was on a bus or at a festival, yet somehow now understanding a few more of the words it just became hilarious and reminded me of the good times we had had. After the terrible music stopped a movie started and I soon dozed off to the swaying of the train. There are various reasons why the 'Tren de la muerte' got its dubious name and one of them includes that it often derailed in the 80's due to the uneven tracks causing it to sway from side to side which I can quite believe and the other because many workers died while constructing the line due to all the diseases carried by the mosquitoes which I can also believe.

Although at some hour in the middle of the night I did wake-up because I was literally being thrown from one side of my seat to the other, the guide book describes the journey as 'bone grinding to the point that you will want to throw yourself onto the track', which I find is quite an unnecessary exaggeration. The trains are on shocks and springs so if anything it is quite soothing even if you are being bounced from side to side and up and down in your seat, and then even that only lasts for 5 minutes at a time before you fall soundly back to sleep. Having had a great nights sleep and some beautiful scenery along the way we pulled into Santa Cruz. Our bags and bikes were quickly turfed out onto the platform where we could collect them but not without our trusty ticket stub! Andy and I quickly loaded up our bikes and off we headed to the Hostel International hostel we had booked in advance where we were again greeted by a beautiful blue swimming pool!

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a very green, warm and topical city with lots to do in and around it but I wanted Andy to see the incredibly unique city of La Paz and at least Salar de Uyuni which I had seen when we were in Bolivia 6 months prior so I sent him off all on his lonesome. At first he was not too excited by the idea but he soon came round to it and off he went. I wanted to stay in Santa Cruz and practice some Spanish so I went about looking for a homestay and came across an incredibly generous and well connected lady by the name of Charis. Besides her ex-pat and professional translation services which she has built, and is ever building, a fantastic website about Bolivia,, which I highly recommend a browse through.

Charis was the perfect friend to have made in Santa Cruz as not only was she able to organise for me to stay with Nena her friend but she also offered to store our bikes and our bags at her place while we gallivanted around the city and country. Charis herself is just so kind, fun and interesting to talk to, she was born in the US but had spent most of her life growing up in Bolivia, much of it in La Paz, and can thus obviously speak Spanish and English perfectly! Her adorable 6 year old son, Kristoffer, has too had the same privileged having now lived between Bolivia and the US. It is just too fascinating to watch them interact switching back and forth between Spanish and English making me just go green with envy! I ended up spending most of my time in Sant Cruza either with Nena and her family at the house and around the city or over at Charis's house having lunch, dinner and the most delicious cake ever which she home bakes herself!

Santa Cruz is made up of ring roads radiating outward with radial roads crossing them and as with all Bolivian cities it has a great, although rickety, minibus system getting you anywhere for under $0.20 and if you go exclusive and get a private taxi that will only cost you around $2! Nena's house is just outside the 4th anillo (ring road) where some of the roads turn to dust looking quite township like in parts however Nena's house was beautiful and perfectly kept, definitely one of the best houses in the neighbourhood. Laura her daughter had kindly vacated her room so I could stay there and it was perfect with a fan, a desk and everything! Nena's sister, husband, their 2 little kids and her 15 year old daughter all live at the house so there were always plenty of people to interact with and strictly no English! Edwardo and her niece, 7 and 2 respectively were just too cute to have around with Edwardo having no patience for my lack of understanding Spanish words looking at me as if to say wow this old dude really is a bit slow, always respectfully referring to me as Usted, which is the formal word for you in Spanish. Edwardo loved my laptop and even taught himself to play Chess! The previous time I was in Bolivia I had been less than enamoured with the food but this time round I have been pleasantly surprised especially by Nena's delicious dinners and lunches, and Charis' mouth watering home made cakes.

I had some great times in Santa Cruz including going to a butterfly sanctuary come water park with Nena but the most memorable of all was going to Nena's friends birthday party. The evening started off tame and early by South American standards, then at around 10pm we all sat down for a big dinner that consisted of more than just pieces of meat being handed around every half an hour as it tended to be the case in Argentina. Now in Bolivia we had rice mixed in with cheese, delicious salads and then of course there was some tasty meat that had been cooked on the open fire but in a big pan more like a stew than a grill.

After dinner the tables were hastily pushed aside and the music revved up but here people are not shy to get out onto the dance floor and no one is required to have polished off half a case of beer before joining in even with florescent lights showing up your every move. Of course the drinks too were flowing though all courtesy of the hosts which was very kind of them. I had been dragged onto the dance floor a number of times but I had not yet had my required quoter of beer to allow for that so I just sat by watching the Cumbá and Salsa dancing going before me. However, eventually the beer did get the better of me and off I was swept onto the dance floor and although everyone dances kind of in one big group everyone has partner so every now and again you can gab on and go into full on dance off! Other than Nena's boss who owned the local Irish pubs and another 2 blokes from Spain everyone was pretty much local so other than the few words I shared with Nena's boss there was no English spoken and everyone was on the dance floor. It turned out to be a great fun evening with me even receiving a few compliments about my attempted Cumbá and Salsa moves, someone queried as to whether I was sure I was not Latino and while I'm sure they were just humouring me it only inspired me to keep pulling the moves!

As the evening grew on, as with all Latino events I have attended I grew tired, but everyone else just seemed to go on and on. Eventually I sat down for a bit and a lady, probably close to twice my age, quickly came and pulled me to my feet saying no no if you do that the tiredness will get you, in a cool Spanish phrase which I now can't rememberer. So the dancing just went on, even when it started to rain on us I was like oh thanks heavens please just come pouring down then we can all have a rest but pah no this just inspired a full on water fight, bare in mind I was probably one of the youngest people there! It was all good fun and after abuelo or granddad had pulled out a few party tricks including balancing a bottle on his head while still pulling his dance moves it was finally time to go home. It was just on 4am, early by Latino standards, when 6 of us piled into a taxi and head off costing us a whopping $2 for the ride!

South American wildlife
I woke up only a couple of hours later to the sound of Linda the dog yelping at something, while I tried to turn over and ignore her it was just making my head pound so I had to go see what it was. A little fluffy white kitten had come into our yard and was being yelped at by Linda but as I walked up to it Linda began to maul it! I was horrified I was like I can't watch this dog eat a kitten so I tried shouting and smacking it but that seemed to have no effect. Linda has short hair so I could pull her off by her skin of her neck only for her to pull loose seconds later again attacking the kitten. Eventually I managed to hang onto her long enough to kick the mauled kitten into my room and close the door. With my heart now racing from the effects of adrenalin combined with alcohol I was feeling exhausted so I just collapsed back down on the bed with the poor kitten cowering underneath it.

Before I could recover and think what to do with the half eaten kitten Nena came to see what the fuss was about and took the kitten put it outside the gate only for it to return 15 minutes later. The stupid kitten had a death wish, now I was fuming because all I  wanted to do was sleep and the stupid dog wouldn't shut up so I got up again and fortunately this time found a piece of hosepipe that I could use to get Linda's attention, wham on her bum yes the sting seemed to have worked and she very quickly returned to her kennel. On closer look the poor kitten was in shock but only had a few scratches and seemed to be ok. This time, in my underwear, I walked it far down the road putting it under tree to recover from where it would hopefully not come strolling back into the yard. I doubt the poor little kitten lasted very long in that neighbourhood but at least I didn't have to watch it get eaten alive.

Tamara comes to town
Andy had been feeling a bit ill when he got to Lap Paz, partially due to the altitude and partially due to the cold we both managed to pick up either at the hostel or on the train down (another reason to stay on the bikes and live in a tent). However, Andy was feeling much better now and was loving the jaw dropping uniqueness of La Paz while getting to grips with life on the gringo trail, which is to just pitch up at a hostel all on your own only to discover you're not the only one in that boat so before you know it you've got a new best friend and your touring the town together. Andy's next stop was Salar de Uyuni where he would be meeting Nick and Tamara to do a 3 day tour together while in the meanwhile Tamara had flown into Santa Cruz to spend a little time with me before heading off to meet meet them in Uyuni. It was great seeing Tamra and so crazy to hear about the horror stories and going on in Santiago during the recent Chilean earthquake, I'm mean really I think it only hits home when you speak to someone effected by it.

Getting from Santa Cruz to Uyuni by bus turned out to be a bit more of a mission than originally thought for Tamara. Although there were direct buses to Uyuni they took more than 24hrs to get there and Tamara was not keen to do that alone so instead she decided to break it up and head to Sucre first which was Nick s living and Andy had headed to  few days prior so from there they could all travel to Uyuni together. As is common place in Bolivia the bus companies lied and Tamara's bus took way longer than promised forcing them all to miss their scheduled bus from Sucre to Uyuni, but then again what can you expect when you're only paying $6 for an all night bus ride down a really bumpy dirt road! This was just the begging of the delays so it was clear Andy was never going to make it back to Santa Cruz in time for us to make our way down to Tarija where we had planed to start our next cycle leg heading for Argentina so it was time to come up with plan B.

Plan B and Tarija
Plan B, Andy would have to give Tarija a skip and I would have to meet him in the border town of Villazón with the bikes, ready for our cycle trip down to Salta, Argetina! Nick had been raving about this section and claimed it was pretty much all down hill from Villazón so by skipping out the bit between Tarija and Villazón we would only be missing out on a very bad dirt raod and some uphill cycling. I would have loved to have done that stretch but in hind sight I don't think my ailing bike would have made it down a bad dirt road. Problem now was though how would I get all of Andy's stuff and 2 bikes to the other end of the country, well I soon discovered that there are courier buses going everywhere from Santa Cruz. It landed up only costing us $8 each to get our bikes and bags all the way to Villazón, why hadn't we done this before! Now with very little luggage to worry about I decided to treat myself to a little flight down to Tarija then go down from there by bus to meet the others in Villazón a few days later.

Tarija is a beautiful little city and I would say anyone visiting Bolivia with enough time should go there. It is cheaper than most other cities in Bolivia, is beautiful, clean and the local restaurants are great. It is pretty much at the same altitude as Johannesburg at 2100m above sea level so the climate is great and it is set in amongst beautiful mountains covered in some of the highest wine producing vineyards in the world, just the perfect place to sit back and enjoy the food and wine with a beautiful background. I decided to do what everyone should do when visiting Tarija and that is take a local wine tour. While the tour wasn't quite at as informative from a wine tasting perspective as those down in Cape Town, South Africa the scenery was beautiful and the surrounding areas packed with history. It too proved a great opportunity to practice my spoken Spanish as I was with in group of Kiwi's new to the continent and the guide knew few words of English so I had a great day playing translator translator while enjoying some rather sweet Bolivian wines.

Death Road
It was about time to meet Tamara, Nick and Andy in Villazón so off I headed to the bus station to catch my over night bus which turned out to be one of the scariest things I have done, coming a close tie to the bus trip down from the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. I had managed to select a front row seat on the top deck so I had the privilege of seeing every bit of 'scenery' along the way. As we headed out of town it was growing dark and the road almost immediately turned to dirt signaling things to come as we headed along the road which would take us up and along the mountains to Villazón. Although the bus ride was only 6hrs long it felt like a lifetime, the road was only a single track with traffic going in both directions so every time we came face to face with another truck or bus one of us had to precariously backup to a point wide enough for both of us to pass. However, the catch is that we were on a crumbling dirt road on a cliff edge with sharp hairpin bends every 500m. Just driving along the dirt road was hair raising enough as the back of the bus felt like it was going to slip off down the cliff every time we took a sharp corner. Eventually I convinced myself it was not worth worrying about unless I planned to get off and walk so I pulled my headband over my eyes and tried to go to sleep. This didn't work for long though because every now and again the bus would come to a screeching halt signaling that either we were too close to an edge or we were the ones that had lost a stare off and that we would then be reversing back up the death defying road. In either case I couldn't resist peaking out from under my head band to the sight of either a cliff face right in font of my eyes as we scraped around a corner or just an abyss of nothingness as the bus tried to edge ever closer to the edge causing my heart to start racing again readying me to grab the emergency hammer just in case I needed to make a hasty escape.

The road was beautiful though and had I been on my bike or on foot I would have loved it but in a bus that barely fitted on the road it was hell, yet an experience nonetheless. In hindsight I should have caught the bus to Tarija and then flown from there to Villazón because the road down to Tarija from Santa Cruz is actually fine and tarred most of the way however this cannot be said for the road down to Villazón! We arrived in Villazón at 3am in the morning and I had thought that it was a good idea to get on the bus in a pair of shorts and t-shirt so I was by then absolutely freezing cold, especially given that we were now almost at 4000m above sea level! Villazón is a rather desolate border town so although there are hostels there they certainly don't have a concierge waiting to great passengers at 3am in the morning so after an hour of freezing to death in the street I eventually spotted a place with a light on and got myself a bed.

The rest of the crowd arrived down from Uyuni a few hours later that morning and it was so good to be reunited with Andy, Nick and Tamara again after being 'alone' for almost 2 weeks! We decided to spend that night there together before heading our separate ways, Nick and Tamara back up to Santa Cruz and Andy and I off to Argentina. Although there isn't much to do in Villazón we had a great fun just enjoying each other's company while enjoying cheap beer and good food just across the border in Argentina. I love the way South American borders work because it really is up to you as to whether you want to stroll into the immigration office so if you are only going to cross into another country for a couple of hours there's no need to hassle with the paper work you just cross on over.

Now with just 2 weeks before we flew home I was pretty excited about heading off on our final cycle leg from the border with Bolivia to beautiful Salta, Argentina!