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Georges at the well known salt lake of Salar d’Uyuni
Georges at the well known salt lake of Salar d’Uyuni

Hallo Bolivien!

12. May 2011

To reach Santa Cruz, the first big stage in Bolivia, the route varied little. As in the last few days in Argentina, it was all flat, with long straight stretches, and I was accompanied by mosquitoes and heat. Santa Cruz, a big university town, is situated at an altitude of 200 m and has a hot, humid climate. There are hardly any old Spanish-style areas left.

As soon as I left the town, the landscape quickly changed. The road snaked through a gorge in the middle of a tropical forest. Although a national highway, it was not in very good condition. Certain parts are true mudbaths, still bearing the traces of the last torrential downpours which hit the whole of Bolivia in February.

Little by little I gained altitude. I arrived at Samaipata, at 1600 m altitude, where I was welcomed like a lifelong friend by Anne Catherine, with whom I spent several days recuperating. Even though we both come from the same region (Cornaux, St Blaise), we never knew each other. But before long, with our memories and mutual friends, I left with the impression of having always known her. A massive thank-you goes to her for the hospitality and kindness that allowed me to return to health.

From Samaipata, the adventure almost became a pilgrimage as I passed through Vallegrande and, especially, by taking the "camino del Che". It was a terrible track, unbelievably steep, with potholed sections that would have been almost impossible to travel on when the rains came. After each hairpin bend, I thought I had finally arrived, but each time I was faced with another stretch of road that was even more steep and potholed. Finally I arrived at La Higueras, just a few houses where around twenty families now live.

In the small school, which has since been transformed into a museum, there are two monuments erected to the glory of the guerrilla who was assassinated here on October 9, 1967. It is an almost dreamlike setting in the middle of this immense mountainous region, with its deep ravines and vegetation-covered mountains, a real labyrinth where it would be so easy to get lost. After a few photos, a visit to the museum and finding my "stone", I went to have coffee at the house of a woman who had been present in '67, and who had seen Che still alive inside the school, as well as his body being carried away towards Vallegrande in a helicopter.

After this great moment, one of the most significant parts of my adventure, I discovered Sucre, the country's capital. It's a wonderful city situated at over 2600 m of altitude, with magnificent Spanish-style buildings, tree-shaded squares and a relaxed atmosphere. From there, I popped over to the traditional market of Tarabucco.
Then a terrible stage of 160 km took me to Potosi. A formidable pass forced me to climb 1400 m in 12 km to reach 4000 m in altitude, at a speed of 5.4 km/h on the 22/34 with rests every kilometer to regain my breath.
Potosi is a town known across the world for the silver mines discovered under Cerro Rico in the 17th century. I became a miner for my visit, and I witnessed the conditions under which 70% of (unionized) miners work. They have no fixed salary or insurance, and all the work involves heavy manual labor. Almost slaves, they have a life expectancy of 45 years. As is tradition, I made them a gift of cocoa leaves, dynamite and Bolivian whisky (95% alcohol).

It was a great shared moment with these men who live and work like rats in the heart of the mountain. Another enlightening visit was the La Moneda museum. After this interesting stage, the adventure continued in the direction of Uyuni by way of a partly tarmaced track which snakes through a mountainous setting, sometimes through narrow gorges, sometimes in the middle of huge plateaus where llamas graze. Three extraordinary days allowed me to discover the famous Salar de Uyuni by 4x4, although unfortunately it was covered by water from February's torrential rains.

Then it was towards the Altiplano, with its extraordinary landscapes at almost 5000 m of altitude. A delight of colors and scenes to take your breath away, in all senses of the word. Words fail me when I try to describe those unforgettable moments in that wild environment which is still so preserved.
On leaving Uyuni, there were three very difficult stages in the last section of the potholed road (ripio) which were a very tough challenge for my BMC. 200 km in which I had to brave multiple pitfalls, sandy sections which made my thighs bulge, other sections covered in stones - and all this on such a rugged route with steep climbs and vertiginous descents. I even had to take a railway bridge to cross a river. Following this hellish section, only my clock couldn't bear the regime.

I was pleased to return to the tarmac to reach Oruro, the carnival capital of Bolivia. I arrived in the middle of a demonstration: the road cut off by barricades, tires on fire, glass bricks and demonstrators sitting on the road. But I wasn't worried, as I'm Swiss, and they let me through with a smile.

From Oruro, I took the bus to Cochabamba to visit a friend of mine, François, who sacrificed everything back home a year ago and came here to help children without a family. I take my hat off to him for his commitment!
After this visit, during which I was really moved by François' passion, I continued in the direction of La Paz. Founded in 1548, this city has over a million inhabitants and lies between 3200 m and 4000 m of altitude, with a backdrop of Mount Illimani (6402 m). It is situated at the 8000 km mark of my expedition.

I spent several days in this city, the seat of the Bolivian government, to prepare for the next part of my journey towards Peru: a little relaxation, a few visits and maintenance work on my equipment left me fully satisfied. My BMC has truly passed its test of reliability with flying colors. And thanks to the Mavic clothing gear, I overcame all weather conditions, rain and heat without a problem. And I found energy during difficult times thanks to my Go2 food. Thanks to those who allowed me to fulfill my dream.

I'll be in touch soon with my next "noticias" from Peru.

Hasta Luego,