Thursday 31 March 2011

Tupiza, Bolivia - Back on the trail of Butch and Sundance

Those of you that pay any attention whatsoever to this blog will recall that back in December in Argentina I cycled south from Bariloche in the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Cholila, to see Butch Cassidy´s cabin that still stands there and the ranch that the pair bought in 1905. You can read that blog again by clicking here. Back then, I wondered if I would pick up their trail again in Bolivia. Well, here I am in Tupiza, heart of Butch and Sundance country.

I thought that cycling on the Altiplano would be flat but I was wrong - the ride to Tupiza from the Argentine border was a roller-coaster over high mountains and through tight rocky passes that opened out onto broad, fertile valleys. I imagined Butch and Sundance riding their horses through here - it wasn´t difficult to picture the scene as not much has changed in the intervening years. The villages I cycled through were comprised of simple adobe houses overlooked by whitewashed churches and surrounded by small plots, tilled, planted and harvested in traditional ways. The people here have little material wealth but they could afford the time to slow their vehicle on the road beside me to welcome me to Bolivia and wish me a good trip, or to pause from their work to shout or wave a greeting as I cycled by, or to flag me down when I was hot and weary to give me a bunch of juicy grapes.

Tupiza is an attractive wee town, set in a natural amphitheatre on the banks of the Rio Tupiza and surrounded by mountains of red rock. When I pulled into town I was pretty exhausted but there was no chance to catch up on sleep next morning - each day at 5am the cathedral bells ring, a loud tannoy announcement welcomes the "brothers and sisters" to a new day and the little performance is rounded off with a rendition of Ave Maria! Tupiza is a vibrant and colourful place, especially at the central market where I like going shopping for groceries. Indian women in their colourful skirts and odd little bowler hats sell everything from fruit to fancy goods.

A hundred years ago, Tupiza was an important mining centre and perhaps that´s what attracted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. After they fled their ranch at Cholila, they worked their way north through Chile and took jobs at a Concordia tin mine where, ironically, Butch worked as payroll guard. They eventually ended up in Tupiza where the Aramayo Mining Company attracted their attention.

On a hot afternoon, when a gentle breeze rustled the autumn-tinted leaves of the poplars, I walked across the bridge over the sluggish waters of the Rio Tupiza to Aramayo House. Today the abandonned building is locked away behind a tall concrete wall but in the days of our two outlaws it was the wealthy home of the Aramayo family. It was from here on 3rd November 1908 that an Aramayo Mining Company manager set out with a payroll consignment. The next day, at Dead Cow Hill 30 miles north of Tupiza, he was held up by Butch and Sundance in what was to be their last ever robbery. News of the robbery travelled fast and the powerful Aramayo Company despatched soldiers and trackers. Butch and Sundance spent two days and nights zigzagging across the Altiplano to evade them. They eventually came to San Vicente, a tiny mining village, where they took a room for the night. But they were out of luck - a four-man posse of the Bolivian Army, also staying at San Vicente, was alerted to the presence of the Americans. A gunbattle ensued and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot and killed on 6th November 1908. They were buried the same day in the local cemetery.

I took a trip out to San Vicente. It lies 75 miles west of Tupiza at almost 15,000 feet along a rough track that crosses remote, rugged terrain and high mountain passes. The only way to get there was by jeep and fortunately a Canadain chap, who also wanted to make the trip, turned up in Tupiza and we shared the cost. It was an incredible journey, at times a little scary when the track was a narrow ledge gouged out of the mountainside. It passed above one of Bolivia´s most famous sights - Al Sillar, a spectacular formation of rocks moulded by the weathering effects of wind and rain - before climbing high onto the Altiplano where the view stretched to distant snow-capped volcanoes and across green plains grazed by huge herds of llamas. It took three hours to cross this spectacular landscape to San Vicente.

In the days of Butch and Sundance, San Vicente was a grim mining community on a barren windswept plateau. Today, San Vicente is a grim mining community on a barren windswept plateau. The mine is now privately-owned by American and Canadian companies and is surrounded by tight security - just to get into the village I had to handover my passport! The site of the gunbattle no longer exists but the small museum was unlocked for us and inside were guns retrieved from the shoot-out and other fascinating bits and pieces from the time. But what I really wanted to see was on the hillside above the village - the tiny walled cemetery where the two outlaws are buried. I walked up the hill, catching my breath a little in the thin air, opened the iron gates and picked my way through a tight jumble of graves adorned with plastic flowers, fluttering in the breeze. In the middle, looking out over the mountains, was the last resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I felt a little emotional standing by the grave. I think that partly it was the culmination of my long journey here from Cholila and partly a similar experience to that at the cabin at Cholila - here was another very special piece of history in this remote little cemetery with the beauty and the power of the mountains all around. I lingered a while, took some photos, then wandered back down the hill, closing the gates behind me.

When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid first arrived in Bolivia, they were quoted as saying it was a perfect country for them to settle down in. Little did they know that they would spend eternity here in that windswept cemetery that looks out over the mountains.

Photos on my Flickr page.

Friday 25 March 2011

La Quiaca, Argentina - Woman with altitude

This blog comes to you from the dizzying altitude of 11,300 feet - I´m on the Altiplano at the border with Bolivia. It´s the end of the line for my cycle trip in Argentina - I can go no further north and in the next day or two I´ll cross into Bolivia.

It´s been an incredible journey through Argentina that´s captured the very essence of this whole trip - adventures, excitement and riding my bicycle through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. But when I first set out from Buenos Aires I was full of fears and doubts about cycling here and when I returned to Argentina from Chile, I thought the challenges of the desert and the distances too great to tackle on my own. But I took on the challenges and Argentina has rewarded me with a pannier-load of memories to mull over in years to come.

I've seen so many beautiful places - Bariloche and the Lakes; the Tromen Pass and the monkey puzzle forests below Volcan Lanin; canyons of red rock; Butch Cassidy's cabin at Chollila; desert landscapes and oasis towns wrapped up in poplars; vineyards and orchards that stretch to the very foot of the mountains; the beautiful city of Salta; the cloudforest of La Cornisa. And yet Argentina had one more trick up her sleeve . . . the final road to Bolivia . . . the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a spectacular valley cut into the Andes that for centuries has linked the Altiplano with the plains below. It was first settled 10,000 years ago by the Omaguacas who gave it their name and today the population is still predominantly Indian. In 2003 it was designated a World Heritage site for landscape and culture. But before I tell you about my journey through the Quebrada, I should pick up my story back in Salta.

I cycled north from Salta on a beautiful route known as "La Cornisa" which was quite unlike anything else I'd seen in Argentina. The road climbed high into a subtropical landscape of densely-forested mountains, all damp and drippy and draped with vines, ferns and lichens. It was like cloudforest or jungle, except cold. I wouldn't have blinked an eye if Tarzan had swung by on a vine shouting "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh ... it´s jolly chilly in this loincloth". Cycling and camping in a damp climate, just like the desert, presents life-threatening challenges. For example, a week of wet weather made doing laundry impossible and (readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now) I had to recycle pants and socks from the dirty laundry bag. Things don´t get much tougher than this!

North of La Cornisa I cycled over a 6500-foot pass back into a semi-arid landscape and the delightful village of Purmamarca, gateway to the Quebrada. It´s narrow streets of adobe buildings and colourful Indian craft market were overlooked by a spectacular rock face, the Cerro de Siete Colores - the Mountain of Seven Colours. It doesn't really need any further explanation! I'll fondly remember the campsite at Purmamarca. It was accessed by balancing along a plank across a fast-flowing, muddy river - a bit tricky with a bicycle! When heavy rain persisted into the evening, the owner came round to tell everyone that if we wanted groceries from the village we should go now as the river would likely rise and the plank would become inaccessible! At Purmamarca the road splits - it's a left turn for Chile and a right turn for Bolivia. I turned right and entered the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

After a few miles I pulled off the main road into the muddy streets of Maimara. There were two things I wanted to see here - the colourful rocks on the mountainside above the village known as La Paleta de Pintor (the Painter's Palette) and the little cemetery built on a hill. Beyond Maimara the valley was vibrant and green with little plots of maize, vegetabales and flowers where people worked along the rows in broad-brimmed hats. Between the plots were flat-roofed adobe houses and where the fields ended, the mountains rose sheer into a blue sky. It was absolutely idyllic. At least it was idyllic when the sun shone but, boy, did it rain a lot through the Quebrada and not just that gentle pitter-patter stuff either - it was torrential. An afternoon downpour in the village of Humahuaca turned the streets instantly into muddy torrents and cut me off from the campsite. I've been told that this year´s wet season is especially wet and especially long - oh lucky me! Despite the fresher climate I have to remind myself that I´m now in the Tropics - a few days ago I cycled across the Tropic of Capricorn or, as they call it in Argentina, the Tropico de Capricornio (true!).

I loved cycling through the little towns that were dotted along the Quebrada - they had so much colour and life. This part of Argentina is more poor than the south so the towns do look a bit shabby but are likeable nonetheless. Narrow cobbled streets and colourful markets are wrapped around central plazas. And despite appearances, you still come upon modern internet kiosks and trendy cafes tucked away along the alleyways. In the evenings, tucked up in my tent, I would often hear bands marching through town playing jolly tunes on trumpets or more melancholy notes on pipes.

At the northerly limit of the Quebrada I cycled up to an amazing 12,400 feet and popped out onto the "puna", Argentina´s barren, high plains where llamas graze on sparse vegetation and exhibit an alarming tendency to wander onto the road in front of trucks. When the climbing got tough for me, I thought about the French family I'd spent some time with over the last week. Not only were Eric and Gaelle cycling with an amount of kit similar to mine, they were also towing two small children and everything that comes along with them - two trailers, clothes, toys and a potty!

A battle with the wind across the puna, brought me to La Quiaca, a lively border town. I´m relaxing here for a couple of days, taking time to say my farewells to a country I have so much fallen in love with. Argentina has gotten under my skin, she's coursed through my veins and settled in a very special place in my heart.

View my photos on my Flickr site.

Click on map to enlarge

Saturday 19 March 2011

Humahuaca, Argentina - guest blogger

After more than eight months on the road, you're probably weary of me prattling on about ballbearings and bruised buttocks. So "The Bicycle Diaries" is pleased to introduce guest blogger Graham Kitchener . . . also known as Base Camp Manager:

That's quite a glamorous title: Base Camp Manager. It conjures up images of rugged types, wind swept and interesting, battling against the elements of a Himalayan tented camp, at the base of an ever-advancing glacier. The reality I'm afraid is far less impressive.

Base Camp it could be, if one counts the flat I live in being the place Pauline left from all those months before, with cupboards containing odds and ends of her equipment, discarded just prior to departure as surplus to requirements. Base Camp Manager I suppose, in the sense that most days I receive a text from Pauline advising of her current position, which I then plot on a world map stapled to my wall. I occasionally get the odd challenge though, requiring me to leave the comfort of my Georgian stone-built, terraced base camp "tent" and venture up into the icy ramparts (it is winter after all) of the city, to employ the services of a worldwide courier company, to carry an essential piece of replacement kit to wherever Pauline may be at that precise moment.

There have been times though when I have had an opportunity to prove my worth. Moments that also show modern day technology at its best. Take the time Pauline was in France. She was in the beautiful city of Bordeaux and was having enormous difficulty exchanging money. Back here at Base Camp, I powered up the internet, searched for the Bureau de Change in Bordeaux, then plotted it on Google maps. Once I found the address nearest to Pauline's location I was able to give her directions, even, thanks to Google Streetview, down to the colour of the door and what shops were either side of the office!

Occasionally in mountain expeditions, where the men are men, and the women are too, opportunities arise to experience an advance camp further afield. So it came about, just 6 weeks after Pauline left, that I was able to venture further afield for a month to Spain and join up with her to cycle the Camino, all the way to Santiago de Compostela. A phrase that was often said, which summed it all up, was : "and we cycled here"! It pales though, compared to the almost mythical number of 5,000 miles now cycled. However, the Camino was a truly memorable adventure and one that still pops into my head often. It was hard to return to the reality of every day life back in Edinburgh, but it did give me a better understanding of the daily life that Pauline has to endure. I recall being quite grateful, after 25 days in a sleeping bag, to be curled up under my duvet in a proper bed. So after almost 250 days living in a tent I can only imagine how feral Pauline must now be.

The other way that I justify my title is to assist Pauline in the production of maps to post on her blogs, which give her readers a better idea of where exactly she is at that moment. It is something I assume most people take for granted these days, but for Pauline to be able to write a blog and within an hour or two have a map drawn up back here in Scotland and added to the blog, still seems fantastic to me.

I'm guessing that when you are the one physically doing the adventure it may not dawn on you just how fantastic the whole thing is. It was only after returning from Spain and the Camino that I looked back at the photographs and the little mementos I had gathered along the way, and realised just how rich and varied it had been, not to mention an adventure of a lifetime. So for Pauline to already be able to look back at having cycled through Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal, to then board a gigantic ocean-going freight ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, cycle across Argentina and over high passes of the Andes . . . you couldn't make this stuff up! Rich and everlasting memories in the making, and privileged we are that Pauline has taken us along with her in her personal, colourful and captivating blogs.

Currently I am in the midst of planning to meet Pauline again, this time for a greater length of time in a much further afield advance camp (more on that nearer the time). Part of this planning process is physical training. After 5,000 miles and pedaling almost every day, I'm quite confident Pauline is very fit. For me I'm not sure watching videos of Mark Beaumont cycling and reading books on other peoples cycling adventures are quite good enough training sessions, especially if those sessions take place over coffee and cake. Getting the old gluteus maximus in shape for the pounding it is about to receive on top of that is quite another thing. I haven't looked recently, but I fear all that coffee and cake could have turned mine into something the size of a small country with the softness of a large blamange.

By the time I meet Pauline again it will be more than 10 months since she left the UK, and more than 8 months since I last saw her (not counting the marvels of video calling on Skype). It is a real test of friendship. In the past we were regularly away on adventures together. Although I feel part of her current adventure it's not the same as actually being there, feeling the wind in your face, picking up on the smells and being able to say to each other; "wow, look at that view". The other test of friendship is being able to spend an extended amount of time in each others company, 24/7, something we are about to do. I am reminded of the lyrics to an Abba song:

"Times of joy and times of sorrow
We will always see it through
I don't care what comes tomorrow
We can face it together
The way old friends do"

So in just a few weeks it will be time to go west, saddle up and join her big adventure.

I just hope I can get my duvet and mattress in my saddle bag.

Graham Kitchener, aka, Base Camp Manager

When Graham is not busy as base camp manager he is an independent film-maker and keen outdoors type. If you've enjoyed his blog here, you can follow his musings regularly on his own blog at

The story so far. Click on map to enlarge

Saturday 12 March 2011

Salta, Argentina - 5000 miles

A few miles north of Cafayate on 9th March I passed the 5000 miles cycled mark. Woohoo! If you've not sponsored me already, that´s got to be worth a few bob for Oxfam on my Justgiving page. I celebrated with a packet of fruit pastilles!

The cycle north from Cafayate took me through the spectacular desert rock formations of Quebrada de Las Conchas. Then, after weeks of cycling through semi-arid desert, it was a real treat to pop out the other end into Valle de Lerma with its lush farmland and wooded hills. There were all sorts of novelties along here - freshly-mown grass verges, green fields with grazing cattle, acres of ripening crops and people messing about in boats on the reservoir, Embalse Cabra Corral. Slightly less welcome was the heavier traffic after so long on the one-car-an-hour Ruta 40.

Valle de Lerma delivered me to the beautiful, old city of Salta. I ambled through the colonnades of the colonial buildings that border the main plaza, sipped cappuccino under the arches and got a sore neck gazing up at the San Francisco Church. I was glad of the opportunity for a lazy day as it's all uphill from here. Over the next couple of weeks I'll be cycling up to heights of 3500 metres, onto the Altiplano and the border with Bolivia. Blimey!

Some more pics on Flickr and a map below.

Click on map to enlarge

Message for Zelda - how brilliant to hear from you. Unless I have to file for bankcruptcy, I am planning to come back to NZ. Pop me an email some time at

Monday 7 March 2011

Cafayate, Argentina - It's a wonderful life

A week ago base camp manager Graham sent me a text to say that I was closer to La Paz in Bolivia (where my compass needle is currently pointing) than to Chiloe Island, my furthest point south. This made me feel pretty good and it also made me reflect that it's quite amazing the distance that you can cover by bicycle - all you need is a little bit of time and a little bit of patience. Just by cycling a small distance each day, an inch on the map perhaps, it seems that, before you know it, your wheels have turned for thousands of miles. Obviously you'll cover much less distance than in a vehicle but the journey will be so much richer. You'll feel every contour of the earth and each breath of the wind. You'll smell the sweet aroma of roadside oregano and hear frogs croaking in the pools that form in the verges after the rains. You experience the gradual transitions in landscapes and appreciate the subtle changes. Of course, it will drive you nuts at times when there's an impossible headwind or a wearisome road stretching to the horizon. But even then you'll grit your teeth and remind yourself that it's character-building. Most of all, travelling by bicycle opens up adventures and encounters that escape the motorised traveller. You don't have to cycle for thousands of miles through South America to experience this. Slap some oil on that old bike in the shed and take a short ride along a route you would normally do in the car. Marvel at the fine detail that is opened up to you by the slow pace and intimacy of travelling by bicycle ... the little details that you never noticed before ... the little details that make it such a wonderful life.

After Chilecito my own bicycle journey swung way out west as Ruta 40 left behind sparesly-populated areas and crossed an even emptier stretch with few towns, gravel roads and lots of river crossings. It became a real mountain road again, climbing up into the foothills. I'd been staring at this tricky section on the map for weeks, slightly anxious about the logistics of cycling across it. But in the end I made the crossing without any real problems.

Pituil was my first stop after Chilecito and I stayed in a simple hospedaje run by the lovely Rosa who also managed a small kiosk, served meals and cut hair! My tank was filled by two enormous steaks that I ate in front of the telly with the family and next morning I was sent on my way with my panniers stuffed full of peaches and apples from the local orchards. Then the longest empty stretch was conveniently bridged by the remote outpost of Hualfin, a pleasant little hamlet with a lovely old church and all the services a touring cyclist needs - a small shop, a service station and a hospedaje! A welcome splash of green was provided by the small vineyards,now heavily-laden with ripening grapes.

I cycled a little higher beyond Hualfin on ghastly gravel then crossed a barren plateau below snow-capped peaks before flying down a 40-mile descent that took me swiftly to the next settlements and the Indian ruins at Quilmes. What remians of this holy city today are a series of terraces and low walls, some with decorative stonework, built into a natural hollow in the mountainside. They are not as impressive as more famous sites such as Macchu Picchu but when I visited early in the day as the sun was creeping over the mountains, I was the only person there and I thought it quite special to gaze down over the ruins, the forest of candelabra-cacti and the beautiful valley with its meandering river, shimmering silver in the morning light.

North of Quilmes Ruta 40 took me across vast vineyards and delivered me to the delightful, wine-making town of Cafayate where, like the wine, I'm chilling for a few days. Cafayate is just how you would imagine a South American town to be. There's a smart central plaza with tall palms and views to the surrounding hills. On one side of the plaza is a beautiful old church with twin bell towers and on the other sides attractive colonial buildings that now house pavement cafes. It's touristy which is fine by me after the last few weeks of hard graft. I'm staying in a gorgeous wee hostel with rooms set around a tiled courtyard where there are rambling plants and comfy seats in cosy corners. I was lucky to get a room at all! Not only is the town very busy but there were so many mucky river crossings on the road here that Shirley and I arrived up to our knees in mud - I'm surprised anybody took us in!

It's here at Cafayate that I part company with Ruta 40 as I cycle a more direct route to the old city of Salta. It's been an incredible journey along this famous road. Although I've been cycling on it for weeks, I've covered less than half of its length. Perhaps one day I'll come back to cycle the rest ... in a few years time ... when I've forgotten how tough it's been!

There's an updated map below and some photos added to my Flickr site.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Belen, Argentina - I've just found God

All along the desert roads in Argentina there are roadside shrines dedicated to the Difunta Correa, an unofficial saint whose infant, according to legend, survived at her breast even after the mother's death from thirst in the desert. Today desert travellers place gifts of bottled water at these shrines.

But if I'm to worship anything it should be the god that is well known amongst two-wheeled adventurers - the God of Cyclists! The God of Cyclists moves in mysterious ways - as I set out through the dangerous streets of Buenos Aires, I meet local cyclist Juan who guides me safely to the city limits; when Lesley, Chris and I are caught out by a storm on the vast empty pampa, the day's only bus shelter appears within minutes; when my progress is barred by flash floods, roadworkers instantly appear to ferry me safely across.

There are no roadside shrines dedicated to the God of Cyclists but if there were I'd donate a bottle of oil in the hope that I'll continue to enjoy good fortune on my bicycle adventure.

Click on map to enlarge