Sunday, February 17, 2008

on the trail of butch and sundance ...

5.15am on Monday morning and I found myself queuing in the freezing cold, dying for the toilet, stood on a bridge in no-mans-land, waiting for the Bolivian immigration office to open.

As I idly checked the UK time I realised that people back home would be just arriving at their warm desks to a fresh cup of coffee, ready for a chat about their weekend exploits. And getting paid for it. I was having one of those "why the hell are we doing this?" moments.

No sooner than the immigration office opened and the mood lightened as I read the incredibly ardous list of immigration requirements for US citizens. Bolivia might be South America's poorest country, but I found it heartening to see that at least they seem to be making some kind of statement about their pretty despicable treatment at the hands of US foreign policy.
They didn't even appear to check the photo page in our passports before stamping us in.

It makes me wonder how destroying the agricultural livelihood of some of the poorest people in South America can possibly be a justifiable solution to the problem of US citizens wanting to shove increasing amounts of white powder up their hooters. Decide for yourself, but if you want to read more then you could do worse than starting here.

The bus station in Villazon on the Bolivian side of the border couldn't have been more different from their more prosperous neighbours to the South as I was greeted by a toilet experience that reminded me so much of the opening scenes to Trainspotting. True our tickets for the 3 hour journey to Tupiza may have only cost 95p each, but one look at the queuing buses outside the station told us that we may well end up paying in other ways.

The ride along unsealed roads to Tupiza was dusty and uncomfortable beyond belief - as we progressed the rear axle complained in unnatural tones that seemed to increase in volume with every bump in the road. Still, it didn't appear to bother the traditionally attired lady absently breastfeeding in the seat next to me, so why should it bother us? And where else in the world will you find a bus conductor who sings you as song before departure?

Welcome to Bolivia.

Ask anyone to conjour up an image of the wild west and I bet you'd come up with something close to the area around Tupiza. Villages of mud-brick houses set amid spectacular canyons, locals on horseback and a cactus every couple of yards. It was no suprise to learn that this is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally ended their days as their luck ran out after one final payroll robbery nearby.

The 3000m altitude of the altiplano left us gasping for breath on arrival as we spent 2 nights aclimitising here before moving on to greater heights. It left us time for an excellent day discovering the local area on horseback, 4WD but most significantly mountain bikes.
The day concluded with us driving to 3700m and stunning views of Camino El Sillar (above) before letting gravity take over as we biked the return course involving 17km of precipitous hairpin bends (below).

One of our group put it perfectly when he said "This is like a mountain bikers wet dream".

Personally I managed to avoid getting quite that excited as we spent an hour hurtling back to town - in fact the actual sensation was rather closer to pain than pleasure as it felt at times that the vibrations were trying to shake the very flesh from my bones.

The main challenge in our descent lay in the continual application of brakes to moderate our speed just enough to keep us on the road and at the same time the vibrations from the unsealed surface below the pain threshold. By the time we'd reached the bottom I found my hands had cramped into permanent claws, but with an equally permanent grin on my face. It was great fun.

Tupiza was great interlude and we were dissapointed to leave so soon, but like the legendary Bolivian powders time marches on. At least we hoped to have found a more comfortable bus for the 8 hour journey to our next destination ...

Once again apologies to my US readers ...

One of the curiosities of altitude is it's effect on beer drinking. It is most definitely not recommended during the aclimitisation process, and even afterwards the altitude is rumoured to magnify the effects of any alcohol significantly. Thus I have been abstaining.

OK, not quite. I have managed to sampled one local brew - purely for scientific research of course. It was pretty average, but after the equivalent of 3 pints although a little merrier than usual I am pleased to report no serious adverse effects. Other that is than the other effect of altitude on beer - a seriously frothy head taking up about 90% of the glass when first poured!

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