Cafe Del Mundo, tucked into the self-titled most touristy street in La Paz, is a glowing blue porchlight to the traveling gringo moth. Inside it is bright white with yellow and teal colored blankets on each chair. The walls are decorated in what Tara lightly termed, 'in-your-face Pinterest.' You can't buy happiness, but you can buy a cup of coffee and that's basically the same thing, reads the sign on the stairs. To prove it's worldliness, vinyl stickers label the various rooms different countries. We sit in America. So do the French couple and the Danes. I figure they must not have seen the sign or maybe they don't have their own rooms. We're here for the coffee as the food is way over our budget. So is the coffee, but it exists in its own category. A cappuccino is $5 back in Portland so it can be $3 in La Paz—even if that's what dinner will cost. We're here to escape. We're here to buy happiness.
On the table there are succulents that aren't native to high altitude La Paz. They're native to low maintenance restaurant aesthetics the hip world over. In each, there is a popsicle stick sign with a handwritten quote, reblogged way too many times to bother with attribution. Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer. Totally, except the house we currently aren't buying. Collect memories, not things. Another says, on a collected thing. My favorite: Travel will leave you speechless and then turn you into a storyteller. I can't help but think of all the one-sided conversation's we've had and how often the breathless travel storyteller leaves you speechless/ unable to get a word in. Cringing at thinking back on moments when I've been that guy, I try out my own popsicle sign on Tara. Bike touring, first it will make you suffer, then it will make you insufferable.
The whole place feels self-congratulatory, like, "you're special, you're doing it!!" And, of course, we aren't above any of it. Maybe the opposite. It's like the bright red sports car of our mid-trip crisis—a place for a particular kind of recovery, a hub for softies looking for a taste of home, a respite from instant coffees and MSG laden lunch specials, a veggie port in the Bolivian meat storm, if you will. A place where it's apparently acceptable to answer the waitress's "buenos dias" with a "What's the wifi password?"
And why are we desperately seeking the comforts of home, exactly? Because Bolivia ripped the rug out a bit as far as trip discomfort. 14 months traveling, three months dialed in on life in Peru and all of the sudden we're regressing. The culture is different, the Spanish has changed, the landscape is harsh, and the food is terrifyingly bleak. You expect, in a way, to be getting better at travel—for it to require less energy than it has before—but Bolivia challenges that expectation. Not to say that it hasn't been worthy of the challenge, in fact, Bolivia has offered some of the best moments so far, it just requires summoning all sorts of effort to experience them. I can't help but think if we were to be simply living in a foreign city we'd have friends, a schedule, favorite hangouts. Instead, we're sitting in a borrowed coffee shop looking at each other over a succulent that insists To travel is to live wondering if either of us really has the energy for this shit.
It didn't make the adjustment to Bolivia any easier that the final weeks of our time in Peru were split between comfortable international tourist destinations. My dad came to visit us in Cusco where we enjoyed seriously good food, relaxation, more good coffee, and a subsidized hotel room with an included breakfast that we ate with conspicuous desperation. We were softened considerably. We spent idle days touring sites, navigating the Sacred Valley through the area's local combi vans and even made our way to the magical and entirely overwhelming Machu Picchu, checking off bucketlist boxes we didn't know existed. All said and done, after the three weeks we spent in Cusco and on the shore of Lake Titicaca, we had been in Peru since Memorial Day and found ourselves leaving just a couple days shy of Labor Day. A whole summer's worth of figuring a country out.
The one room, steel-sided Bolivian immigration office was closed when we arrived. We were worried about this crossing as Bolivia is notoriously particular with document requirements. They have what's called a reciprocity visa fee for Americans. 160 USD in clean, unfolded twenty dollar bills -- a friend called it retaliatory. Any bungled paperwork would have us on a 4-day ride all the way back around Lake Titicaca. The officer was at lunch, a two hour period during the middle of the day, we were told by the national police minding the gate. When he returned he was disappointed to learn we were from the States and had not yet secured our visas. He called his co-worker to see even IF they had US visas to give. He was very serious and unsure of the exact requirements. Under instructions from the phone, he opened a safe, pulled two stickers off a roll containing only three and applied them to our passports. A sticker, good for ten years stuck inside a passport set to expire in six. No computers touched. When he finally took our money he did so with great care. Apparently counterfeit bills are a major concern but he also said he didn't know American money. We watched with apprehension and amusement as he examined each bill, going as far as to hold them to his nose to smell them. He went looking for the passport stamp and set the correct date. At nearly three in the afternoon, we were the first to cross. We had spent over an hour with him when he finally smiled and asked for a photo of the two of us with our bikes to for his collection. He added us to the poster on the wall. This was Bolivia. We were in. Not necessarily outwardly nice, promising all sorts of inconvenience, but, if we stuck around long enough, maybe we'd eventually be friends.
From the border we rode two days toward La Paz. The road was flat and windy, we were fully on the Altiplano now. We passed through multiple bloqueos. Citizens protesting by blocking the road with tires, rocks, or full tent cities. In Santa Ana, they had been camped in the highway for over a month. They halt all vehicle traffic but are surprisingly warm to bicyclists. Still, we were careful to dismount and push through quietly, wishing them luck with their cause. The selfish benefit is that it makes for incredible bike riding, toll booths are abandoned, burnt out tires sit in the road at random intervals and there is zero traffic. And so, when we arrived in El Alto, the high suburb of La Paz, we assumed a bloqueo had stopped the traffic. The infamous congestion of the capital city was nowhere to be seen. In its place, hundreds and pretty soon thousands of people were in the roads walking, biking and playing. Dogs, too, on leashes even! We adjusted our theory to it being a market day, and therefore typical, but as we crested the ridge and looked down into the giant bowl of red-brick buildings that is La Paz, we realized that this was city-wide. Not a vehicle in sight. We descended alongside every conceivable wheeled conveyance: scooters, tricycles, bicycles, wobbling roller bladers, mobs of skater kids, strange metal wheeled go karts and the list rolled on. We were exceptionally well prepared guests. Cruising through La Paz's neighborhoods, any barrio that may have felt slightly dangerous on another occasion was tamed by a father pushing his daughter on a tiny bicycle with training wheels. It was, by complete chance, "Dia de los Peatones" (Day of the Pedestrians) the first Sunday of September, and the one day of the year where all cars are banned from driving in La Paz -- a day meant to encourage activity among Bolivianos. We later learned that air pollution levels fell drastically as a result of the holiday.
Despite our graceful entrance, it would be a bit before we found a fitting hostel. It was a long desperate search of either terribly expensive or terribly depressing, or both. Each apparently common in La Paz. Around the same moment we settled in, I realized I had been gifted the fried chicken flu from an oily meal the night before. Close blog readers will note that this isn't the first bout of illness on the trip. In fact, I had been taken down as recently as Cusco, when I went adventuring after an alpaca burger, which my dad graciously, and entirely too soon, dubbed the "unpaca burger." Bolivia comes with all sorts of food warnings and the thought of this illness repeating itself (which we cured with full Netflix seasons of Narcos, Thirteen Reasons Why and the Mexican tele-drama Ingobernable) was almost too much to bear.
The other task facing us in La Paz was to figure out where we were going. It's said by the more pious of bike travelers that typical tourers race out of La Paz, head to the salt flats and exit the bottom of Bolivia on the most well-worn of routes, missing many of the country's gems. However hard, we knew that we couldn't just blitz through. So, we did what any savvy 21st century traveler would do and hit up our quasi internet friend with the most dramatic Instagram pictures of Bolivia and asked us how he got there.
We met Ryan (@rmdub) for dinner, plied him with pizza and he was gracious enough to pass along a number of routes that he had ridden around La Paz that met the criteria.
Two days later, after waiting out rain in La Paz and snow in the hills, we boarded the teleferico just after dawn. Each of us with bikes inside our own private gondola hummed up and out of the city and over much of El Alto's snow covered roofs, again bypassing the supposed nightmarish congestion.
We looped North, circling two of the mountains famous for La Paz trekking and then dropped down into the jungle. It being a loop, and there being bugs and heat and humidity down low, we opted for a van back into La Paz to reset and start again.
Our second trip out of La Paz wasn't a loop. We were on our way and again caught a van to take us out past city traffic. The best part of the combis is the camaraderie that is formed when you hop in. Vans depart when full, which means there is no set schedule and each additional passenger is a step closer to leaving. Being funny looking and hogging most of the roof rack space, we make for good broken conversation with our combi team. The more remote the destination, the closer the group seems to be. We left La Paz as a tight squad headed for the opposite side of the largest mountain that frames La Paz, Illimani, and the tiny village of Cohoni.
Though we started at roughly the same altitude as La Paz, we quickly dropped down again on romping banked dirt track that took us down a glorious ten thousand feet to the sandstone river valley below. Near the bottom, a stream crossing required a brave shoeless effort by Tara and me sacrificing my sneakers in order to shuttle the bikes. Recent rains flushed the rivers with silt and we opted not to fill our water bottles. A mistake we'd later regret. At this point we were down below five thousand feet—maybe the lowest we had been since the Peruvian coast. The sun was hot midday. There was a serious wind, which, because of the switchbacks, only nearly blew us off our bikes half the time.
We would climb for the next six hours, slowly running out of water and not making much progress. The only vehicles we saw were two motos with three young men split between them. The kid riding double on the back had a rifle slung on his shoulder. They disappeared down into the valley but came back sometime later. I could hear them buzzing up the switchbacks far below. Inevitably my mind went to worst case scenarios. I thought about how vulnerable we were, way out here on a road no one was using, obviously incapable of going anywhere quickly. When they passed, the guy on the first moto beamed a huge smile and the kid with the rifle had his phone out videoing us as they went by. So, still a drive by shooting.
When we made it up and over the first pass we were both almost completely out of water. I was channeling my inner Craig Childs and desperately searching for water in the desert -- scouring cracks and corners of the roadside for any visible sign. Finally, a stream. I told Tara it could be good, but it was important to note the salt encrusted rocks on either side. She may be starting to recognize this self-assured tone as something close to boyscout bullshit. I take a test swig and double over retching and have to use rest of my water to rinse the salty sulphuric taste out of my mouth.
We do finally make it to a campspot down by the river, outside the village of Huerta Grande. The site is not our best and more than a few villagers stop from the road on other side of the river to stare. We are exhausted. Completely worn out. There is a particularly stationary man standing in the opposite field staring our way. Tara, fed up, yells at him in frustration "Hi, we're here! Ok!!" I look again and recognize him as the jacket on a post scarecrow that he is, Tara did too, but it wouldn't be until the next day that I'd dare bring it up.
The next morning we pushed out of the river valley. We actually pushed most of our way that day. In what seems to be typical Bolivian fashion there were highs and lows. We met an older woman who absolutely shined. She was sweating as well, layered in wools, walking up the hill beside us. She was thrilled we were in her town. She leaves us with well wishes and cheek kisses. We feel better. We sit down to enjoy our lunch and realize the shopkeeper subbed anchovies for tuna so we eat what looks like grey cat food out of a can. A mile later the schoolyard boys throw rocks at us from above to try and get our attention.
For the next two days we continue to go up, back toward the last pass separating us from the flat of the Altiplano. We spend a night in a farm field outside of Cairoma. Illimani stands four days across the valley in perfect framed sunset. We feel justified in our excessive detour. The last part of the climb is, as is often the case, crowded with mines. Our beautiful imagined mountain laguna campsite ended up being a concrete decaying racquetball court at 16k'. We actually declined the miner's offer for accommodation as he showed us a bare room with a dozen straw mattresses on the floor. We would be sharing, he said, but only once the 20 or so miners returned around 8 o'clock that night. Racquetball court it is. I did use their baño the next morning. It consisted of a three corrugated steel walls and two holes above a mountain stream that lead into the perfect turquoise mountain lake below. I made a mental note regarding water filtering and aiming upstream of the mines.
We crossed the last pass at 16,869', definitely the highest of the trip so far. From there it was supposed to be all downhill to the Altiplano. It wasn't, of course, but we'd done the bulk of the work. It was also supposed to be a return to hot food after a few days of exclusively camp-cooked meals. What we found is that Bolivian towns seem to have a sort of reverse town pride. "No, nothing here, but the next town, everything!" Again and again. I suppose it's good motivation to keep going. We eventually hit the main road, the flat one, with an excessively wide shoulder that would have been one day out of La Paz had we gone straight through. We cruise comfortably to the dusty city of Oruro where we have a day's reset and rest.
So far, Bolivia has offered some of the most spectacular places and people, but definitely at a price. A price that, at this point in the trip, we have to get re-energized to pay. We've lucked out a bit, too. It could be much more difficult. From Oruro to our latest stop here in Uyuni, Bolivia has let us off easy, offering little concessions in some of its most beautiful places. Like, the perfect 100 mile asphalt road that leads (not so inexplicably) past presidente Evo Morales' tiny hometown. Relatively flat, unpopulated and no more than a car or two an hour, the road provided three days of tiny villages and remote easy camping en route to the world's largest salt flat, the Salar De Uyuni. The salars are famous for their excessive winds, flat and expansive with nothing to slow them down, but we lucked into a dead calm evening with a shocker sunset to match. And so, finally here in Uyuni, it feels like we're getting the hang of the place, enjoying the process of winning over the sometimes reserved people and taking greater pleasure when the difficult gets a tiny bit easier. Just in time, too, for one last challenging stretch and then a whole new country in Chile. Hopefully they have a Cafe Del Mundo.