Saturday, March 16, 2002

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Friends: It is with great joy and no small relief that I am able to report from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I reached this storied lake and the town of Copacabana after a 98-mile bike ride from the capital city of La Paz. With the majority of the ride at over 13,000 feet, including one pass of over 14,000 feet, in the rain no less, this ranks as a century ride unlike any other. It is the first leg of a 1,500-mile circuit of Bolivia that will eventually take me to the steamy jungles of the Amazon before I climb back up to La Paz on the "World's Most Dangerous Road."

Never before have I been so uneasy and so uncertain before setting out on one of my bicycle adventures, not even that first one back in 1977, coast-to-cost across the US.  I had a severe climb of over 2000 feet out of La Paz immediately awaiting me that had me greatly concerned. I wondered if I was adequately acclimated to this high altitude to be setting out just yet, if my gearing was low enough, if my sun block were strong enough, how dangerous and demanding would be the "World's Most Dangerous Road" that would culminate my Tour de Bolivia and would force me to climb 10,000 feet in less than 40 miles to over 15,000 feet on a mostly one-lane wide dirt road, and what anti-American hostility might await me, particularly in the coca growing regions that US drug agencies had meddled with.

Less than three days before, when I arrived at the La Paz airport at 13,500 feet, I was staggered by the lack of oxygen in the air. Five steps with my 45-pound duffel and I was gasping, on the verge of passing out. Fortunately, my friend Teresa, who I had come to visit, insisted on meeting me at the airport, and wouldn't let me bike to her home. Teresa has plenty of experience adapting visiting friends to the altitude and kept a very close watch on me. She plied me with coca tea and regularly checked the inside of my lips to make sure they weren't turning purple, an indication of a lack of oxygen circulating to the head. If need be, she could rush to a nearby pharmacy for an oxygen tank

La Paz, the world's highest capital, is down from the Altiplano at 12,000 feet in a dramatic steep canyon that is about three miles across at its widest. Teresa lived another 800 feet lower, three miles down the canyon from the town center. That helped my acclimatization, but that was an extra 800 feet I had to climb when I set out on my ride back up to the Altiplano. On the morning of my second day in La Paz I gave my reassembled bike and myself a test ride to see how I was adapting to the thin air. On my brief ten-mile ride I could climb without any light-headedness. Later that afternoon I tried again, this time with Teresa's 18-year old son, a sometimes competitive mountain biker. I was good for twenty miles and then some. We didn't encounter another cyclist. The steep, narrow streets and thin, thin air make any riding a true athletic endeavor--not only putting extreme demands on the heart and legs, but on the bike as well. The typical third-world bike wouldn't hold up long under such stressful conditions. The altimeter on my cyclometer recorded 2,000 feet of climbing in our wanderings of ups and downs, a plenty good workout. I had gotten my heart beating quite significantly, forcing me to pause to catch my breath from time to time, but I had been spared any of those sharp stabs of pain to the brain indicating a shortage of oxygen. It was an encouraging test ride. I was adapting just fine. I felt as if I was ready to leave the next day, but let Teresa persuade me to give it an extra 24 hours.

It had been a strain to ride the steep streets of La Paz without any gear. With 50 pounds of camping equipment, clothes, spare parts, books, food and miscellanea, that strain was going to be something I didn't want to think about. I knew I was in for a struggle and would suffer. The question was, "How much?" When I set out at 6:15 Friday morning in the semi-dark, I at last saw a cyclist in La Paz, a young man on a mountain bike. He, like me, had to stop every ten minutes or so to catch his breath on the steep climb to the city center. I was relieved I could still pedal my overweight bike without the thin air assaulting my head. I wasn't so happy though to have to use my lowest gear from the very start. I have gone many a tour through mountainous terrain, from the Sierra Madres of Mexico to the Himalayas of India and Nepal, without having to use my lowest gear. I always like to keep that in reserve just in case a road should suddenly turn super-steep. But here I was, already in my lowest of lows, and I had over 2,000 feet to climb. Not once though did I regret declining Teresa's offer to drive me up to the Altiplano to start my biking.

For half an hour, I continued to stop every ten minutes or so when my heart started pounding too hard, until I found a better rhythm. I found that by lessening my exertion just a bit, I could maintain my effort for twenty minutes or more. That was a relief. I didn't want to be like my novice bicycling friend who joined me on a bicycle tour of Cuba. He ignored my advice to adequately train for the ride and had to stop every fifteen minutes the first four days of our ride to rest and walk as he adapted his body to being on a bike for hours a day. I also had to resist standing on the pedals for a little extra effort, as it would immediately send my heart to my throat with an accelerated beat wanting out. It was eleven miles and 2,360 feet of climbing to the 13,500 foot Altiplano.

I reached the flats of the high altitude plain two hours and twenty minutes after setting out. My cyclometer told me I had averaged 5.9 miles per hour for the time I spent pedaling. That's a lot of numbers. I prefer not to dwell on such things, but when it comes to the extremes such as this, it's nice to know what effort it required and what I'm capable of for future reference, but also for the sake of others who may wish to attempt this ride themselves. It's always nice to know what you're in for. I had shed three layers of clothes as I climbed. I was down to a t-shirt and shorts when I reached the summit, despite a temperature cold enough that I could see my breath. I was so overheated I could sit and eat several 15-cent empanadas for twenty minutes before I needed to add a shirt, even though everyone around me was bundled in winter gear.

Then I had the joy of a flat road, my first of Bolivia. There was a slight headwind, but I could pedal with minimum effort and propel myself at 10 to 12 mph and rediscover the pleasures of cycling. Off in the distance were 20,000-foot peaks shrouded in snow. The landscape had enough green scruff that there were sporadic clusters of goats and sheep and cattle, each monitored by a shepherd. An occasional unattended llama reminded me this certainly wasn't Kansas. I'd finally cooled down enough after a couple of miles to stop and add an extra layer and a pair of gloves. I couldn't overly exert myself to warm up, as then I would get light-headed, but at least I could keep pedaling with a moderate effort for as long as I wished without tiring. I stopped after a couple of hours for a lunch of chicken, rice, two kinds of potatoes and shredded carrots. The cost--85 cents. The intense sun was getting to me more than the thin air. For the rest of the day I rode for an hour and then took shelter from the sun for an hour. Lunch had so filled me up I needed no more nourishment than a bowl of soup for the rest of my miles. Around six, after 68 miles, I found a place to set up my tent that I couldn't resist, even though I had an hour of daylight left. My goal had been 75 miles for the day, but there hadn't been too many places suitable for camping along the road, so I thought it best to seize this one. Dinner was a fish dinner I had ordered earlier in the day and had packed in my Tupperware bowl.

Just as I was taking down my tent at 6:15 this morning, it started to sprinkle. That wasn't as aggravating as the long climb that awaited me. It wasn't the best way to start the day, but at least it wasn't as extreme as yesterday's, less than a thousand feet. Still it had me huffing. I gave just enough effort to keep the bike upright and in motion, at 3.5 miles per hour, not knowing how much higher I would have to climb. I had to dip into my emergency rations of energy bars for the first time. It was tough going. The lone consolation was the succession of spectacular views of Lake Titicaca and the minimal traffic. Yesterday it was two or three minutes between vehicles, today it was two or three times as long. From the summit I descended to an inlet of the lake that required a ferry to cross. There was more climbing and then another descent.

By the time I began the final descent to Copacabana, the rain had penetrated to my skin, and my hands were frigid. But whenever the sun would momentarily break through, I was quickly warmed. The descent wasn't as great as it could have been in the wet and the cold, but the site of the picturesque town nestled against mountains, highlighted by a couple of stunning, jutting promontories similar to those of Rio de Janeiro, which has a Copacabana of its own, diverted my thought from dwelling too much on my discomfort. The town is on the gringo trail. I encountered my first travelers since arriving in Bolivia. There were restaurants advertising pizza and spaghetti and outfitters offering excursions. It's quite tranquil here and would be an ideal place to hang out for a few days, but I have no time to dally. After I sign off it's back on the bike. I'll follow the shoreline to Peru. I'll be in Peru for about fifty miles then swing back into Bolivia. I'll be happy to descend to more sane elevations, but I have a week or so on the Altiplano ahead of me. That ought to make me super-charged for the weeks to come. Elite, and would-be elite, athletes go out of their way for such training.

Later, George

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