After my nine-day break in Cuzco, I continued my journey on June 25, heading south towards the Bolivian Altiplano.
I joined Alex and Claudia who were biking into the same direction. The first day was quite relaxed with a lot of downhill cruising following a long valley. In Quiquijana, we decided to call it a day settling in at a basic guesthouse. By the time I stood under the ice cold shower, I was aware that I had left “civilization” once again. At this point, I also realized that the world-famous Cuzco is actually just an oasis in an otherwise very simple region full of unfeigned mountain life. Nevertheless, I was happy to be on the road again.
The next morning, I decided to follow a slightly different route and continued alone. The further I got away from Cuzco, the lighter traffic became making the ride even more enjoyable. Within an hour, I met two biker couples, one from France and another one from Germany, who were both heading north. As always, both encounters led to interesting conversations, exchanging details about upcoming routes, destinations, and other highlights.
The ride became more and more scenic, which made the last mountain pass before entering the Altiplano almost feel like a piece of cake. Abra Raya (4,375 m) was, in fact, a long gradual climb followed by a great downhill into long and wide valleys. This is the place to be if you are into spotting herds of Alpacas, lonely cemeteries, and friendly people along the road.
I wasn’t quite sure yet how far I would bike on the following day. There was a sizeable city named Juliaca, but everything I had heard about this place was all but promising. The idyllic scenery of the previous day was gone once I approached Juliaca. Lonely Planet calls it “a brash, unfinished eyesore on an otherwise beautiful big-sky landscape.” I would rather call it a “war-zone-like settlement full of construction, dust, noise, and impatient drivers lacking anything that would give you the slightest feeling of comfort.” Well, that’s at least how I perceived this place while cycling through it. There was no way I would have stayed in this dump, so I didn’t mind the extra 40 km to Puno.
Almost immediately, I felt great when I managed to pass the last hill and rolled down into Puno with its so much different vibes than Juliaca. The guest house named Inca’s Rest was amazing. The super friendly owner promptly offered me to park my bike right in the middle of the living room. 🙂 I decided to stay two days because this was the perfect place to soothe my annoying bronchial cough. Cold and dry air scratches your throat a lot in this geography.
I was excited to continue further along Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America (by volume of water and surface area) shared by Peru and Bolivia. From Puno’s hills, I was already able to take a glimpse of the waters but my next stop was supposed to be an even better Titicaca experience: the town of Copacabana.
But before that, I still had to cope with some insane drivers and the border crossing from Peru to Bolivia. One guy in particular really got my blood boiling. He was going slowly, and as usual, I was at the outer edge of the tarmac, yet he honked like an idiot when I decided to move around a big puddle of water. I waved at him to pass me and clearly showed him that he pissed me off since he had plenty of space. I guess I hurt his ego so badly that he deliberately cut me, slowed down and yelled at me. This wasn’t the first time I saw people becoming moronic behind the steering wheel. Rural Peru is notorious for lousy and reckless driving. I still don’t get it since people are normally so nice once the vehicle is parked.
I arrived at the tiny border crossing and was soon facing an issue. The immigration officer informed me that I had overstayed by 22 days. My jaw dropped because I was 100% certain that EU citizens normally get 90 days as a default. How stupid of me that I had not checked the max number of days in my passport. But apparently, the number of days granted depends on the point of entry or whether you specifically request it.
Unlike in the U.S. where they would immediately handcuff you, in countries like Peru a situation like this results to more or less just an administrative process. Each day you overstay costs you 6 Soles (approx. EUR 1.60). So my bill totalled at 132 Soles. Normally, you have to make a deposit at a local bank. However, it was Sunday and no bank was open. I asked if there’s an alternative way to pay which was reciprocated with a smile. Eventually, 150 Soles settled my issue, allowed me to leave Peru, enter Bolivia and bike the remaining 8 km to Copacabana.
Nestled between two hills on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is a small, lively and enchanting town. Long regarded a religious Mecca, local and international pilgrims still visit its temples and fiestas. At times, it felt as if there were more Gringo backpackers and Argentinian hippies in town than locals though. Despite that, Copacabana is a pleasant place for a stopover on your way between Puno and La Paz.
Copacabana was also the place where it started to feel much colder than before. Houses typically don’t have any heating systems, so a down jacket becomes a must when you are not directly under the sun. Generally, life in Bolivia is not easy. It’s in fact really tough for most Bolivians. Many people live without running water, heat or electricity, which makes Bolivia the poorest country in South America, with an estimated 59% of the population living in poverty.
On July 4, when I left Copacabana, I was spoilt with some amazing scenery while riding along the shores of Lake Titicaca. From the ridges of the hills, I could see snow-capped mountains in the distance and various shades of blues in the sky and the water. Another observation was the change in traffic. It seemed to be a lot more relaxed than expected. Many people in Peru told me that Bolivian drivers are one of the worst. I do not support that statement at all. Unlike in Peru, you hardly hear any honking. Drivers rather cruise and don’t push which is so pleasant when you travel on a bike.
In the afternoon, however, my good mood faded for a while because I was not able to find any accommodation in Huarani, the town I initially planned to spend the night in. I continued to the next village but despite asking around I had no success either. After cycling another 30 km on bumpy dirt roads, I eventually arrived in Pucarani. At the beginning, luck was still not on my side, since the guest house indicated in Google Maps was no longer in business. It was almost 6 pm and got dark. At the central plaza, I asked four different people until the last one mentioned an old guy who supposedly rents out a room. I found him in his little hat-making workshop, and he didn’t seem to be interested in hosting me at all. Every single question of mine was only answered with the least necessary. Then he asked for my passport and copied every possible detail onto his notepad. That took him 10 mins, before he finally walked me over to his house. The room was basic, the toilet was very unsanitized, and the shower didn’t let out a single drop of water. I could not have cared less since this was still better than camping at -3 deg C.
Coming back to this man’s behavior, I read that in Bolivia, attitude depends on climate and altitude. Lowlanders (from the Amazon region of Bolivia) are said to be warmer, more casual and more generous to strangers; highlanders (from the Altiplano) are supposedly hard working but less open-minded. The latter somewhat explains the reserved and quiet behavior I witnessed in remote areas in Peru and now again in the Bolivian Altiplano.
I continued cycling on the same dirt road I used on the previous day. It was again a dusty affair every time a vehicle passed me, but I could see that the drivers really cared and slowed down. I never experienced such a gentleman’s gesture on Peruvian roads. Eventually, I found a decent guest house in Viacha – only 25 km away from La Paz.
Many people believe that La Paz is Bolivia’s capital, which is incorrect. La Paz is home to some government institutions and the residence of the president, but, in fact, the city of Sucre holds the official seat of the government.
Together with its neighboring city of El Alto, La Paz, however, forms the largest metropolitan area in the country (approx. 2.5 Mill). With an average elevation of around 4,150 m, El Alto is the highest major city in the world.
Even though I didn’t have the slightest intention to ride my bike there, I still wanted to get a taste of it for a day. I left my bike in Viacha and took one of the many early morning commuter vans. El Alto traffic at 7 am was insane. It took 2.5 hours for the 25 km into downtown La Paz. But it was worth the experience. Both cities look a bit run down but there are definitely a lot of lively vibes. As you can imagine, besides walking around, this day was full of indulging in good meals, coffee, and cakes. Compared to all the other small towns in Bolivia, you can easily see that people in the city enjoy the comforts of cosmopolitan conveniences living very modern lifestyles. In the evening, I returned to Viacha from where I continued again on my bike on the next day.
For the next five days, I followed the main highway going south, to get to my next highlight, the Salar de Uyuni, which is the world’s largest salt flat. These 500+ km weren’t particularly exciting but all flat and easy-going. Luckily, there were small villages en route, so I was again able to avoid camping before I finally arrived in Uyuni on July 13.