This is an excerpt from Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World by Nancy Sathre-Vogel. Together with her husband and children, Nancy rode her bicycle from Alaska to Argentina. Changing Gears is her travel memoir from her time on the road.
“This looks like home,” I thought as I pedaled through the altiplano. The desert of southern Idaho looked very similar with its wide open spaces lined with grasses gently swaying in the breeze. The only thing missing was sagebrush.
I found a beauty and tranquility in the desert; there was something about it that drew me in. I knew some felt it was ugly with the scrub brush being the tallest thing around, but I loved it. It was home.
“This reminds me of the tundra,” Davy interrupted my reveries. “Remember when we first started our trip and it was just flat tundra forever? This is almost the same, but we’re a lot higher now.”
I didn’t relish the idea of frigid temperatures, high altitudes, or unrelenting sun of the altiplano, but the wide open plateaus with sweeping vistas of the snow-capped Andes captivated me. Having the freedom to explore the land and discover hidden treasures that could only be found while riding a bicycle made it all worth it. Whether it was an alpaca herder who was honored that we spent a night with him or bright green cactus growing in intricately fine sand with 21,000-foot peaks in the background, each day brought new and unexpected adventures.
“Where are you headed from here?” Ami, the hotel receptionist in a small hotel in Oruro, asked as we checked in for the night.
“Tomorrow morning we’ll head out for Potosi!” I told her. We were excited to be continuing south through the altiplano and couldn’t wait.
“You can’t go to Potosi,” she replied.
That made no sense to my American way of thinking. Potosi was the fourth largest city in Bolivia; of course we could go to Potosi.
“Potosi is completely blocked off. You can’t get in. There is a strike going on and the entire city has been sealed off – nobody in, nobody out,” Ami continued. “The big news around here is that a group of tourists finally managed to escape the city yesterday after being trapped for thirteen days.” Ami handed me a newspaper with the story on the front page. A group of 37 tourists had finally been allowed to leave after being held in the city for two weeks.
“That’s perfect,” John said when I told him the news. “They’ll block the road for cars, but we’ll get through on the bikes. The road block will mean no traffic so it’ll be perfect for us.”
The more we learned, however, the less we thought it was wise to continue on. We could most likely get through, but everything would be closed – all stores, all restaurants, all hotels. Once we got into the city three days away, then what?
We decided to hang out in Oruro until the strike was resolved.
“It’s getting worse,” Ami told me when I walked downstairs for breakfast the next morning. “The news says they’ve taken control of the hydroelectric plant and are threatening to shut off power to the city. That would also affect the water supply. The news reports are saying there are already serious food shortages in the city. It’s a good thing you didn’t go.”
It was Day 15 of a strike designed to pressure the president of the country into providing certain development projects in the city. Local officials had shut down the city and vowed they wouldn’t relent until they got the promises they wanted. We sat tight, watching the news and hoping they could resolve their differences.
“You guys need to leave,” Ami said as we descended into the lobby on Day 17 of the strike. “Word on the street is that they will close Oruro if the president doesn’t meet their demands.”
We scrambled into action getting the bikes out of the storeroom, packing everything, hauling it all downstairs, and loading the bikes. I ran over to the ATM to get more money out, just in case. Within two hours of hearing the rumor, we were off. Off for a scenic tour of Bolivia.
Our plan had been to stay on the altiplano, a high, flat plain sandwiched between the two arms of the Andes, and we had planned our route impeccably. We knew where the water and food sources were and knew exactly what to expect. Now, that plan had come to a screeching halt and we had changed gears. The only other route we could take involved going up and over the eastern arm of the mountains, then dropping down into the Amazon basin before turning right and heading south to Argentina. It would be a 400-mile detour, but we had little choice.
We knew nothing about our new route. Our map showed a line on the map, but we had no idea where we might find anything. I was nervous as we pulled out of town, knowing we were sorely unprepared for what lay ahead.
Thirty miles later we pulled up to a small restaurant and started talking with a bunch of truck drivers. “Where are you going?” they asked.
“Cochabamba,” I replied. “How’s the road?”
“You’ll climb for another 45 miles,” came the reply. “The top is at around 5000 meters.”
5000 meters? That was 16,400 feet! We pedaled away hoping beyond hope they were wrong.
High-altitude climbing was hard. Climbing was tough enough at sea level, but at fourteen thousand feet, it was insanity. We gasped for air as we pounded the pedals and slowly made our way up.
Fortunately, the truckers were wrong and we topped out at 4496 meters (14,744 feet). Even so, that was higher than the highest peaks in Colorado.
It took us an extra three weeks of pedaling to reach Argentina, but in the big picture, what’s three weeks and an extra 400 miles?