Posted: 2002-12-06 02:01:00
Once upon a time, when I was a fit bastard, I decided to ride a bicycle from the world heritage listed town of Sucre to the highest city in the world, Potosi. The return journey between Sucre and Potosi totaled about 330 kilometres however it wasn’t the distance that was going to prove to be an obstacle. The road linking the two Bolivian cities cuts across the Andes mountains, passing between altitudes of 2700 metres and 4200 metres. Riding a bicycle to your local pub at that altitude is a mission whereas riding a bicycle for a few hundred kilometres across the Andes is just plain stupid. I must have been completely mad for having decided to embark on the journey however as I had nothing better to do that weekend, I thought I’d give it a shot.
As it turned out, I'd actually entered the premier bicycle race in Bolivia although I didn’t realise this until the day of the event. All eyes were on me as a fat man clasping a megaphone announced that an international guest from a faraway land called Australia had entered the race. A majority of the people who'd gathered in the plaza didn't have a clue where Australia was but that was to be expected. World geography isn't an important subject for those who live in mud huts in remote mountain villages. Despite this, they still clapped and cheered for the skinny white guy from a distant land who stood amongst the crowd of lycra-clad Bolivian cyclists. It looked as if I was representing Australia so with the weight of my country on my shoulders, I had a lot to live up to and hoped that I wouldn't disappoint everybody. I stubbed a cigarette out on the sole of my shoe and headed towards the starting line. The starter gun was soon fired, sending a barrage of cyclists and their bikes down the main street of town. I managed to hold the lead for the first few blocks of the race and was cheered along by the local folk who lined the cobblestone streets of the city to watch the event.
I knew the road between Sucre and the village of Yotala quite well as my weekends were often spent cycling between the two towns. During these leisurely rides I was often chased by rabid dogs, run off the road by herds of llamas and was once even arrested by the local military for not having my passport on me. The soldiers who locked me in a room and interrogated me that particular day were from a military camp called Lyceo Militar, which is located in the grounds of a very impressive yet dilapidated castle called La Glorieta. La Glorieta is the main point of interest on the road between Sucre and Yotala and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The castle was once home to Don Francisco Argandoña and his wife Clotilde, who were officially known as the Prince and Princess of La Glorieta. Built in a conglomeration of different architectural styles from Europe, the beautiful building with its’ magnificent gardens were once regularly visited by Spanish royalty, who described it as being the most beautiful place on Earth. La Glorieta was of particular interest to me as I lived with the Argandoña family for twelve months whilst in Bolivia and the Prince’s sword used to hang above my bed.
Yotala is a pretty little town that’s popular amongst Sureños as a weekend getaway. It’s also a magnet for hippies from all over South American who flock there to eat San Pedro cactus. San Pedro, like peyote, contains mescaline and has been religiously eaten by indigenous people of the Americas for thousands of years. The hallucinations that they experience after doing this are said to help them make contact with their tribal ancestors. After boiling the cactus for several hours to extract the poison, the dark green flesh on the inside of the plant is eaten to induce the hallucinations. The effects are said to take about an hour or so to kick-in but after you’ve experienced a high fever and have vomited several times, you’ll be completely off the planet. The cacti with seven or nine prong spikes are said to be the best to use, and a part of the plant called ‘La Entrada’ will give you the most vivid hallucinations. I wouldn’t recommend trying the drug without somebody present who’s done it before as I’ve seen it do some pretty crazy things to people in the past.
I left Yotala and headed towards a truck stop at the side of the road for a quick bite to eat and to go to the toilet. The toilet, as is typical in Bolivia, was no more than a hole in the ground surrounded by a few rocks. It’s very important to carry toilet paper with you whilst travelling in South America as it is never supplied in public toilets and saves you from having to rip the pocket off your shirt in times of sheer desperation. Pressing on, I crossed a river that was spanned by a bridge called Puente Sucre before finding myself in the department of Potosi. I’d fallen well back in the pack of riders by this stage as the steep inclines of the road were starting to take their toll on my body.
My muscles ached and the thin air was burning my lungs by this stage however I tried to ignore the pain and kept on riding along the deserted mountain road. All of a sudden I began to hyperventilate, became incredibly dizzy and fell off my bike without even attempting to break my fall. Bruised and battered, I lay in the middle of the road and sobbed. I soon felt an enormous weight on my chest, not unlike being squashed by a tonne of bricks, and thought that I was going to die there and then. I continued to gasp for breath but as the oxygen density at an altitude of 4000 metres is less than 2/3 lower than its’ value at sea level, my attempts at trying to breathe proved to be fruitless. I rose to my feet and staggered around in a delirious state but soon fell over and threw up at the side of the road. I was drowning in thin air, having been inflicted with a mild case of Acute Mountain Sickness. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a condition that affects mountaineers and idiots like myself who attempt to ride bikes across mountain ranges such as the Andes. People with AMS are supposed to seek medical attention straight away and head to lower altitudes but as I was in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a crappy mountain bike to get me to the nearest hospital, it looked as if I was completely *****ed. Fortunately a ute soon rounded a bend in the road and pulled up beside me. I was thrown in the back seat and given some coca leaves by an old shaman to help combat the altitude sickness. Coca leaves are the base ingredient for cocaine and do wonders in curing an assortment of ailments. Munching on the coca leaves for a while seemed to do the trick and as I felt a hell of a lot better after this, I decided to jump back on my bike and continue with the journey to Potosi.
The remainder of the trip to the highest city in the world went quite well. The entire village of Betanzos had gathered in the main square to welcome us to their town, marking the event with fireworks, a noisy brass band and some traditional dancing. Although I was the last rider to cycle into Potosi that evening, the spectators who were still waiting at the finish line gave me an encouraging round of applause when I arrived. The red peak of Cerro Rico towering over Potosi was a beautiful sight after such a long ride. I was stiff and sore and dying for a cold beer so found a hotel for the night, grabbed a bottle of the local brew called Potosina and flaked out until later on in the evening. Realising that my bike was pretty knackered after the first leg of the journey, I had to do a late-night dash around Potosi to try and find a bicycle repair shop that could fix some of the damage that I’d done during the ride from Sucre. The only bike shop that was still open was located in a mud-brick building in a poorly lit back street of Potosi. Despite the fact that the tools and spare parts in the bicycle repair shop were limited, the owner managed to fix some of the damage using bits of wire, rubber bands and possibly even a bit of llama spit for good measure. I returned to my hotel after this and collapsed with the knowledge that I’d be doing the same journey, in reverse, the following day.
I woke feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day on the road. I held the lead for quite a way out of Potosi however was soon overtaken by a number of other, fitter cyclists. I did manage to remain in the leaders’ pack right up until we passed back through the town of Betanzos however I dropped back in the field after this to take in some of the magnificent scenery. An old ‘campesino’ dressed in colourful attire sat by the side of the road and scratched his head as I passed. It probably wasn’t everyday that he saw a scruffy ‘gringo’ on a bicycle peddling through his neck of the woods. I sped down a large mountain on the border between the departments of Potosi and Chuquisaca, reaching an incredible speed as I did so. The road was thin and ran along the edge of a mammoth cliff so if I’d taken one wrong turn or missed a single corner, I’d have plummeted hundreds of metres to my death. Fortunately I managed to stay in the saddle during these high-speed downhill descents although I did have a few near misses with trucks laden with local Indians and smelly livestock.
After crossing into Chuquisaca my brake cable snapped and got tangled in my spokes. I was sent flying over the handlebars and although I wasn’t injured, my bike refused to go any further. I decided to climb up a hill and wait for one of one of the officials’ trucks to pass - hoping that they’d be able to patch up my pushy. My bike was pronounced dead soon after their arrival however I was able to borrow a bike from a competitor who’d pulled out of the race earlier on in the day and continue with the last leg to Sucre. I rode into the ‘Athens of America’ just before sunset with my head held high. I was expecting to be greeted by hoards of screaming fans and a ticker tape parade however this was not the case. The crowds had long since dispersed and I found myself being welcomed back to my hometown by a handful of hungry beggars instead. So, my epic bicycle trip across the Andes was over but the memories of that incredible journey would stick with me for a very long time.
"what a long strange trip it's been...."