June 2, 2009

Tierra del Fuego - the Final Chapter


When the Portugese explorer Fernando de Magallanes and his crew cut across the end of the American mainland after 14 months on the high seas in October 1520, they had already suffered from low morale, mutiny, murder, intense cold, and wild storms. Although Colombus had already discovered that the American continents were not the Spice Islands (or the "Indies") of the Asian kingdoms, there was stiff competition in Europe to chart a trade route westwards to the Indies. The Panama Canal was non-existent, and the Strait of Magellan - as it is now known - that cut through the Southern tip of South America, was the most accessible.

The Strait separates South America from Tierra del Fuego (literally, "Land of Fire"), the island-archipelago that forms the bottom tip of South America. When Magallanes arrived, he saw dozens of bonfires burning along the coast of the island. These fires were lit by the Yaghan and Ona tribes who lived on the islands to ward off the intense cold of the region since they wore little to no clothing. He feared that they were trying to lure him into the forests to ambush his armada, so deftly avoided contact and was largely uninterested in these groups.

As I arrived with my bicycle in Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city on the American mainland, Tierra del Fuego loomed in the distance. Far from seeing any bonfires, it was a freezing -3 degrees Celcius. Instead of crossing the Straits on an ancient wooden-hulled ship, I was granted access on super-modern cargo liner that made the crossing daily for passengers, vehicles, and cargo.

"These Southern waters are some of the harshest conditions in the world," explained the eccentrically moustached captain. "See those things sticking out of the water?" he asked, pointing to what seemed like an abandoned dock with roughly strewn planks of wood. "Thats what happens to unlucky ships."

I lucked out on the Straits, and made the crossing in a rare day of light winds. While negotiating the two and a half hour passage on the ship, I wandered around the deck and made friends with the crew, and a strange conglomeration of tourists, sheepherders, and fishermen. As I protectively peeked below deck to make sure my bicycle hadn't been tossed out into the sea, the captain chuckled, "but don't worry - we're not quite as primitive as Magallanes today. This ship is almost indestructible."

I touched ground on Tierra del Fuego around mid-day, and the wind now howled in its full fury. Even standing up proved to be difficult. However, the Patagonian wind in Tierra del Fuego was finally in my favor, and I was excited to ride at warp-speeds towards the culmination of a long journey. Needless to say, although I harbored hopes of conversing with native Fuegians, the only people I encountered were descendants and immigrants of European ancestry.

During the time of Magallanes, it is estimated that the Yaghan numbered at around 3,000 individuals. Since he had little interest in them, they were largely ignored for three hundred years until Robert FitzRoy sailed to Tierra del Fuego on the maiden voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1830. He captured four native Fuegians and decided to "civilize" the "savages," teaching them "English... the plainer truths of Christianity... and the use of common tools" and intended to return them as missionaries. They were presented to the King and Queen in London and became instant celebrities.

A year later, the HMS Beagle returned on its famous second journey to Tierra del Fuego with Charles Darwin. One of the Fuegians had died in the interim, and the remaining three were brought back to their native land, fluent in English and "civilized." Darwin was fascinated with them, especially one Jemmy Button (his native name was "Orindellico"), and remarked that the Fuegians were "without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld. I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement."

Darwin's curiosity and remarks, which would now be considered largely racist and Euro-centric, engendered the view that after these people came to learn about the European lifestyle, they would naturally progress to more "civilized" forms. After setting up a mission for the returning Fuegians, the HMS Beagle returned a year later and was surprised to find that Jemmy Betton had returned to his tribal ways, left the mission, and commented in clear English that he "had not the least wish to return to England," and was "happy and contented" to live in what they thought a shockingly primitive manner with his wife.

Unfortunately, since the HMS Beagle's voyages, the indigenous groups of Tierra del Fuego have dwindled to near-extinction. The second-to-last full-blooded Yaghan, Emelinda Acuna died in 2005, and the language and traditions of the Yaghan are kept alive today only by Cristina Calderon, an elderly lady who lives across the Beagle Channel in Isla Navarino, and makes a living charging foreigners, government officials, and anthropologists who stop by for a visit.


Much of the the Northern half of Tierra del Fuego is Patagonian steppe; in common language, windswept, shrublands where a rough dirt road cut across into the horizon. The winds fully in my favor blasted me across Tierra del Fuego all the way to the Atlantic Coast. The last time I gazed on Atlantic waters were up in Colombia, by the caribbean fortress of Cartegena de Indias, nearly a year ago.

The road turned due South, and the wind then bothered me immensely from the side. As the short austral day came to a close prematurely, I set about searching for an estancia, or sheep farm.

"He who rushes in Patagonia, loses time," Don Jose casually replied after he heard the rapid-fire, well-honed plea for a space to camp from an overly excited cyclist.

"Thanks for the advice," I spelled these words in a much calmer manner, and he invited me in. We settled into a conversation over warm brews of mate. Inside, it was a humble home with a wood-fed stove and that distinct scent of smoke. Outside, the wind whipped the plains to a fury and my host had just returned from the afternoon hours corralling his animals into the farm. Don Jose was a short and stocky man. The lines on his face were largely invisible, but the few times he smiled or settled into a deeply thoughtful visage, they told spoke lucidly. He wasn't one to speak much and when he did, it was short, aphorisms, like "don't listen to the wind, listen to the sheep," or "walk slowly."

Men like Don Jose are gauchos - the "cowboys" of Patagonia who are the descendants of the European settlers since the nineteenth century. Their hospitality is limitless; living in such seclusion and extremes, they know the value of trust and favors. That evening, along with a few other ranch hands, we swapped tall tales and dined on freshly stewed lamb. It was surreal to think that a traveler arriving in these lands just two centuries ago instead would be chatting with native Fuegians next to their monster bonfires by the coast.

I settled into my space in the garage, where I was to spend the night. The final 200 kilometers of the journey brought me to the southern portion of Tierra del Fuego, where the humid subpolar climate formed gloomy forests, silent lakes, and the snowy reaches of glacially carved mountains. The temperatures hovered around freezing, and even though it had been a week since the last heavy snow-fall, the roads were constantly glazed with a thin layer of black-ice.

Even though I slipped and fell a million times on my bicycle, crashing hard and sufficiently bruising my knees, elbows, and arse, I was fortunate to ride windless days and the cold wasn't as extreme as I had imagined, nor as fierce as it was back along the Ruta 40. I crested a final icy pass, descended down a beautiful valley, and across the crest of small hill, glimpsed my first view of the Beagle Channel and the bustling town of Ushuaia along the harbor.

This was it. Sold to tourists as "the end of the world," Ushuaia - meaning "bay (waia)" in the "upper back (ushsha)," in the Yamana language, is set in a spectacular bay, with snowcapped peaks all around. I rested in town that evening and the next day before tackling the final 26 kms to the *real* end of the road, along a dirt path into the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park.

After more than 22,236 kms of cycling over 548 days, I had arrived in Bahia Lapataia, where the road abruptly came to an end. I was now at the southernmost point accessible by road in the world.

I arrived alone, in tears, and after spending a few moments in silent contemplation over the Antarctic waters... turned my bicycle around and slowly continued.


Since embarking on this voyage in November of 2007, those of you who have joined me along for this ride have journeyed with me through the United States, Baja California, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina together.

We learned Spanish together and became experts at fixing flat tires. We have crossed featureless deserts and lush tropical forests together. We learned to salsa together and danced around countless bonfires together. We were robbed by knife wielding thieves. We survived Peruvian pub brawls and escaped Colombian guerrillas together. We climbed some of the highest mountains in the Andes together, and battled with thirst in the Atacama desert. We snorkeled warm Caribbean coral waters and kayaked down freezing Andean rivers together. We were adopted by indigenous families and millionaires alike, and know very well the heartbreaking sentiment that is departure. Together, we have hugged and shared intimate spaces with people we would otherwise never have come to know. We nursed countless stomach parasites together, coughed up numerous colds, and strange tonsil infections together. We smiled widely on the pages of national newspapers and magazines, and volunteered talks at schools. We explored ancient ruins, wandered along Inca trails, and camped atop Aztec ruins together.

We also learned that it is not a person's material wealth or social status that amounts to a rich and fulfilling life, but that our only true universal sources of wealth are intangible, like friendships, love, family, and time - and how we choose to spend this time. We learned that if one is following her or his dream, there is nothing wrong in making mistakes and getting lost every so often. Through this journey, we learned that there is something noble in sleeping in ditches, camping in the wilderness, and having only one change of clothes. After all, when stripped of all our material possessions, we learned that the world is filled with rewarding and enriching experiences.

We learned that cycling half-way across the world is not about "proving" oneself or a show of machismo, but about learning to be self-sufficient. To live and care for our planet in a sustainable way. To take a risk, push a little, follow our dreams, and make ourselves available for this beautiful world and its amazing habitants to surprise us and fill us with an insatiable sense of curiosity. To face the world head-on, and encounter it the way it is, not the way we imagine it.... and to be transformed.

You laughed with me. You cried with me. You encouraged and supported me when I needed it the most. Above all, you believed in me. You improvised with me, and helped me get through the toughest moments on the trip. I am endlessly grateful to each one of you who shared these experiences with me.

The people and places I have encountered along this journey have forever transformed my perspectives of this world. By choosing to embark on this journey, most of all, I am grateful of having had the opportunity to explore the invisible paths into that trackless wilderness that is our selves, and to learn a little more about how I fit into this infinitely beautiful world of ours.

Thanks for joining me!

Japhy Dhungana
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.


"The world is as it is...
and this is where we start."

- Saul Alinsky


* The full photo gallery from this stage can be found here.
* Route maps of the journey can be found here.

May 23, 2009

Stage 13 - Southern Patagonia and the Deep South

California to Patagonia: A Cycling Expedition
Stage 13 – Southern Patagonia and the Deep South
13 April - 21 May, 2009

* Photographs from this stage of the journey can be found here.
* Route maps of the journey can be found here.

Total distance cycled: 21,722 kms
Total distance in this stage: 1,853 km
Days on the road: 537
Maximum speed: 81 km/h!!! (storm-fed tailwinds on butter-smooth pavement to Junin de los Andes)
Maximum altitude: 6,310 mtrs (20,561 ft) - Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador
Highest altitude cycled to date: 5,021 mtrs (Abra Huayrajasa, Peru)
Flat tires to date: 42 (1 in this stage!!!!)

Total money spent in this stage: $181
Average daily expenses: $8.25 (total average for the whole trip: $12.24/day)

Nights spent...
... invited to a home – 11
... camping outdoors – 14
... in cheap hostels - 6
... firemen stations - 5


The morning light comes in. It slips through the two-inch opening between the edge of the curtains and the wooden panels of a lovely cabin in the woods. Lifting my head just slightly, I make out the azure silhouette of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The bed is so comfortable that even as I begin the process of burrowing my face into the pillow, I've already fallen asleep again. When I wake up again, its almost noon, but considering that last night was gifted by an extended dinner party with a tasty Argentinian asado and many bottles of wine, this timely awakening is more celebratory than accusing.

The week and a half I spent in Bariloche thus passed with late mornings and even later nights. Silvina and Juampa, old friends of Damian, my cycling partner through Mexico and Central America (remember?), invited me to their home in this bustling mountain town to recuperate and it came at the perfect time, as I had just spent long days cycling through a monster 8-day storm and was exhausted.

And as an unintended bonus to the already Eden-like setting and company, my friend Melisa (from Mendoza, remember?) came to visit for a few days, complementing the serenity.

The only thing that troubled me each morning was the ever-reaching grasp of the Antarctic winter, now setting in fast. My hesitant departure from Bariloche was followed by a high-velocity charge southwards. Day after day, my primary concerns were staying fed, cranking pedals, and ignoring the beautiful and numerous distractions all along the road. I'm not very proud to say it, but the winter scared me into speeding. My journey had suddenly become an athletic endeavor, a race southwards, unlike never before in this journey. I now followed the light intently each day from dawn to its arc across dusk.


The morning light comes in, but this time, instead of shining right into my eyes, it politely changes the color of my tent's rain-fly from darkness into a light blue. I know its already 8 am and the day needs to get started, but its so cold outside that I continue breathing through the small slit in my sleeping bag instead of birthing out of my cocoon.

Today I enter Coyhaique, the only major city along the length of Chile's famous Carretera Austral - a 1000 km stretch of mostly dirt road built by Pinochet in an effort to connect the vast wilderness of Southern Chile to the rest of the country. The road is still a patchwork of sorts; road conditions vary wildly from pavement to horse-rutted dirt. In many ways, Pinochet failed to realize his vision: the Carretera Austral remains an unconnected stretch of highway in Chile - giant Patagonian ice-fields stopped progress in the South, and in its northern end, a crucial piece of Chilean territory which could have made the whole area accessible was bought up by Doug Tompkins, an eccentric American millionaire who has been protecting the land as a wilderness sanctuary, unyielding to any sort of development.

As the only major city along the spine of the Patagonian Andes, Coyhaique is also an important staging ground; at the local post office, I pick up two precious packages. Cradled in my arms, I make my way back to my bicycle with the warm knowledge that the precious survival kit I´ve just received will be put to good use.

The ammunition received amounted to gear for the winter (socks, gloves, boots, and a hat), letters from friends (always the best part of the goodies, meant to be savored over and over again!), and a collection of thick, heavy paperbacks to keep me company throughout the long nights. Thanks to all my familia and friends - you´ve helped me out in so many more ways than you can imagine!

I thus followed the Carretera Austral due South, crossing over Lago General Carrera. Blocked by massive Patagonian ice-fields and glaciers, the road ends abruptly at Villa O´Higgins, so instead of following it to the end, I crossed the border into Argentina to negotiate the most trecherous yawning horizons of the mythical Ruta 40.

"Hacete hombre," Damian wrote to me just a few days ago when I nervously inquired about the route. He rode this entire distance over 10 years ago, and I vividly recall his stories from when we were together back in Guatemala. Damian´s not the only one who believes that crossing the Patagonian steppe is worthy enough to enter manhood, but bravado and machisimo aside, cyclists talk about this portion of Patagonia as a "horror," "extremely difficult," etc. etc. etc. Extremely long distances without services, winds gusting up to 120 kph, and terrible dirt roads - these are the challenges, explained in human terms.

Instead of rushing through the pampa, I survived, but only because I took my time, and deftly kept my guard not to let my mind fall into the abysmal trap of infinity, the contemplation of existentialism, and the tenacity of horizons. More on this experience can be found in this post.

After nearly a week on the pampa, I caught a cold and rolled into El Chalten just as a storm was brewing up. I recuperated with the usual regimen of sleep, alcohol, friends, and it seemed to do the trick. Four snowy days later, the storm cleared, revealing the Patagonian spires of El Chalten and Cerro Torre. These are the mountains that inspired Yvon Chouinard to found the clothing company, and to forever immortalize it in its namesake and logo.

Southern Patagonia has been called the windiest place on the planet by National Geographic. Its not uncommon for the wind to carry off roofs, buses, and animals. After nearly 17 months on the road, I knew that when the wind was blowing at full fury, life is best experienced indoors. Still, cycling had to be done, and this was the challenge.

The winds regularly sweep from the cordillera towards the Atlantic. Fed by rancid Antarctic currents, imagine a giant fan placed somewhere along the ragged Pacific Coast blowing to the Atlantic at full speed. Therefore, on the bike, this means that whenever you had the wind at your back (rare moments!), winds carry you up to speeds of 35 km/h from a full stop without any effort. Riding against the wind or with the wind at your side (nearly always!) was a different story altogether. An average speed of 8 km/h could be considered good progress!

Just two days out of El Chalten, after exhausting myself with the intense winds, I rode into El Calafate to be greeted by Analia and her daughter Valentina. Seasoned couchsurfers, the two were housing 6 other travelers, and over the span of a week, I forgot about the wind and the bicycle and we all spent hours exchanging stories, preparing hearty meals, and visiting the local glaciers and forests.

The weather having turned sour again, I cycled out of El Calafate with a monster tailwind that lasted all of an hour before I had to turn and fight it again. Southward progress be damned, if it weren´t for the blessed scenery ahead of me, I would have given up much sooner.

Then the snows came. Thousands of crystal bullets whipped into my eyes and stung my digits as I was cast into the ditch countless times. Entering Chile against the fury of the storm, I continually pushed my bike for more than three hours - never before had I encountered such extreme conditions. Each time, after exhausting all the curse words in my lexicon, I got back on the bike and continued pushing. Although this all sounds miserable, in retrospect it really wasn´t that bad and I was enjoying myself through a good deal of it cracking jokes and trying to stay in the present moment.

The skies cleared, and I saw a clear blue sky after a long hiatus, and I made a break for Punta Arenas. With calm winds and a clear, snow-shoveled highway, I racked big miles and reached the Southernmost city in the South American mainland, where I´m writing from.

Whats left of my adventure?

Tomorrow I cross the Stretches of Magellan into Tierra del Fuego, the dramatically curved island near the extreme tip of South America. Before the Panama Canal was constructed, this was the treacherous passage sailors had to negotiate at the bottom of South America to gain access across the Pacific and the Atlantic. Fighting subzero temperatures, black ice, and fading daylight hours, this marks the end of the completion of this stage, and only a few hundred kilometers separate me from road's end in South America. For the first time in my life, I can almost feel the "End of the World" dropping off into the not-so-far-horizon.

Will you come seek it out with me?


  • Chris and Elissa: for the pleasant encounter en route to El Bolson.
  • Leandro Eguiazu: thanks for the great conversation in Esquel and keep those tires rolling!
  • Diego: thanks for helping me fix my thermos to be bike-proof in Cholila.
  • Bomberos Esquel: for the last-minute accommodations in Esquel.
  • Don Marcos: for the memorable Nandu hunt in the steppe!
  • Ignacio Garcia y Gustavo Tome: thanks a million for your amazing company, the good food, and all the stories shared in Rio Mayo.
  • Juancho Mansilla: for the accommodations in Coyhaique.
  • Roberto Fillipponi: for the grand company in Coyhaique.
  • Don Manuel, Dona Audolia, y Jorge: thanks for all the stories and mate shared in Puerto Ibanez.
  • Gil Alejo: for the amazing warmth and camaraderie of the entire bombero station in Perito Moreno.
  • Gabriela Horta: thanks for making Chile Chico forever memorable with your good vibes!
  • Sarah: haha - thanks for making me laugh a bunch of times and perhaps we'll see each other in Ushuaia.
  • Marcos Mendoza: for the anthro discussions and for helping me clarify my path further.
  • Nadia, Valeria, Julian, Maxi: for the good times waiting out the bad weather in El Chalten.
  • Analia y Valentina: a heartfelt thanks indeed for all your positive vibes and family-warmth in El Calafate.
  • Nico, Lucile, Gaelle, Lucia, Irena, y Pablo: the few days we spent together in El Calafate were truly something magical, and I have all of you to thank for this!
  • Sofia and the whole Mardones family: for your kindness and hospitality in Punta Arenas.

May 15, 2009

Ruta Cuarenta

In the realm of emptiness, individuality is a debilitating weakness. When faced with the totality of existence in the vast Patagonian steppe, shreds of personal identity, emotions, and ambitions either battle it out with the imposing horizons, or eventually give in; what remains is a humbling sense of the infinity of things, and of the absurdity of our pretentious struggles.

The Patagonian steppe - or the pampa - is an ocean of sand and shrub. Short, thick grasses disperse themselves such that each breathes freely without encroaching on one another's territory. Every so often, the desolation skips a heartbeat and the landscape is interrupted by long, sailing canyons and mesas. Much like long sighs or Pacific waves, beginnings and endings in the steppe do not exist; rather they flow freely from one into the other.

"There is a certain time in the evening," Borges once wrote, "when the pampa is about to say something: it never says it or maybe it says it endlessly and we don't understand, or maybe we do understand, but it is something untranslatable, just like a melody."

Men and women who dare converse this timeless place are also drawn into its confounding puzzles. Whereas in everyday life, things make sense because they are grounded in human terms, the pampa dissolves all sense of self, allowing one to become part of this infinite totality (if he/she hasn't yet gone mad in the process). And after submission to nothing, everything becomes freedom.

The denizens of this wild place know how to harness this freedom. Guanacos roam across the vastness in tight social herds. Much like humans, they laugh with one another, hop, skip, and sing, despite the seemingly measureless pampa. Nandus, an endemic flightless bird and distant relative of the ostrich, gaze out at sunsets and in the right moments, open up their curiosity to bewildered cyclists. Zorros, the elusive andean fox, is also unperturbed by two-wheeled adventurers when returning from its evening hunt. And finally, liberty herself - the Andean condor sweeps across the landscape like a wailing legato.

Thus, in the company of condors, guanacos, sand, and shrub, the only ray of hope connecting me to the human world was the ribbon of road that is known the world over as the Ruta 40 (read: "Ruta Cuarenta"). Its mythology is rooted in the tall tales of gauchos who've labored through the great distances and return to their local drinking holes to cast larger-than-life stories of the Patagonia that is time-less, and in many ways, space-less (although like me, the gauchos surely shed existential tears and hallucinogenic self-doubt and confirmation through the process).

These wilderness-honed gauchos knew one thing for certain: mythology is best experienced in person, not through the cold pages of books nor the virtual cyberlandia of blogs. Much like drinking with Dionysus himself, or sharing glances with Venus, I'd like to think that the Ruta 40 will forever be a myth that many dream of, but few experience.

April 14, 2009

Stage 12 - Wine Country to Patagonia

California to Patagonia: A Cycling Expedition
Stage 12 – Wine Country to Patagonia
5 March - 13 April, 2009

* Photographs from this stage of the journey can be found here.
* Route maps of the journey can be found here.

Total distance cycled: 19,869 kms (yes... a big celebration is coming up!)
Total distance in this stage: 1,665 km
Days on the road: 505
Maximum speed: 81 km/h!!! (storm-fed tailwinds on butter-smooth pavement to Junin de los Andes)
Maximum altitude: 6,310 mtrs (20,561 ft) - Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador
Highest altitude cycled to date: 5,021 mtrs (Abra Huayrajasa, Peru)
Flat tires to date: 41 (4 in this stage)

Total money spent in this stage: $437 (critical rain-gear replacement and expensive food in Chile!)
Average daily expenses: $11.52 (total average for the whole trip: $11.49/day)

Nights spent...
... invited to a home – 26
... camping outdoors – 12
... in cheap hostels - 0
... firemen stations - 0

Best Day: Peaceful country road into Pucon with berry season in full swing and Volcan Villarica nodding in approval
Worst Day: uff... non-stop rain, mud, cold, and bad dirt roads across the pass to Argentina.


The road out of Mendoza climbed up ancient glaciated valleys like a student's pen drawing theorems to the mathematical mystery of the mountains, looking for a high pass to lead to the solution on the other side. Despite the the mild hangover from the final night's reveries in Mendoza, I felt good. In the town of Uspallata, the sun's long rays traced the tips of cottonwood trees, hinting at an autumn that had not quite yet arrived.

The magic of blind navigation soon led me to the excellently maintained municipal campsite (which cost all of $3!), and after setting up my home for the evening, I acquainted myself with the parilla and one last Argentinian asado before crossing over to Chile. A few friendly hellos and exchanges soon turned into a bustling social scene as the neighboring campers invited me over to a mate, then a few gulps of vino, and then as a magical enchantment made the atmosphere light, conversation took over reason, uncontrollable smiles over sleep, and soon it was too late to even consider riding the next day towards a high Andean pass.

Before my eyelids finally took over, I responsibly bid good night to all the new friends of the evening. One held on a little longer than the rest before letting go, and her's was the one that carried my smiles into sleep.

The following day, an impolite sun greeted me earlier than I was ready, and I decided to romp around the surroundings to see what it had to offer. After all, this is where Brad Pitt's Seven Years in Tibet was filmed, and even if the Himalayas were far away, the draw of the mountains was strong.

Much to my delight, the hug-giver from the night before asked if she could join me, and I did my best not to sound as excited as I actually was. Melisa, a soft-spoken psychology graduate from Buenos Aires on vacation quickly proved that she was an excellent conversationalist and the hours passed by pleasantly. We roamed on and on, and eventually followed a windy trail by a nearby creek to the mountains.

Below the majestic Cerro Aconcagua (6,987 mtrs), the highest peak outside the Himalayas, something must have blossomed, because after our farewells a few days later, I felt a certain afterglow that I'm still trying to shake off as I write this. Blaming the high-altitude for the light-headedness, I pretended to know exactly where the road ahead was leading, but could neither hide the fact that my mind was not focused on the winding road, nor that I had any idea where it was leading.


On the other side of the Andes, after clearing the fuss that is always Chilean customs, the road descended into a wild series of switchbacks known as "Caracoles" - or "shells," for its impressive pattern. Chilean engineers truly do a good job maintaining a steady grade throughout the length of long climbs, quite unlike their Guatemalan brethren, whose major highways in comparison would be steep horse trails.

In the town of Los Andes, after making quick work of some monster empanadas and enjoying the free wireless internet in the local plaza, I sought out a local cyclist who maintained a "Casa de Ciclistas." Unfortunately, however, he had sold the house, but being a veterinarian, owned a parcel of land a good distance out of town that served as a pet cemetary. Since I didn't have many other options (wild-camping is just about impossible in the heavily populated Central regions), I took my chances and set up camp next to some old headstones devoted to once-beloved canines.

Thankfully, it turned out to be one of the most pleasant evenings and none of the preternatural barking that I imagined took place. The next day was a mad dash into the big city, dodging heavy traffic, and navigating the confusing highway system of the Santiago metropolis. Seth and Kirsten, fellow cyclists and old compañeros from the Peruvian highlands, had now settled in the big city and treated me to a wonderful week of rest and recuperation.

It was clear after a while that neither wine nor good food nor good friends nor access to a full kitchen could shake off the impending winter. I made a side trip to visit a few friends in Limache. One introduction led to another, and soon I was in the company of a National Geographic photographer and his family who inspired me to no end (and helped me set aside that lingering feeling from Uspallata). After conversations about Pinochet, photography, and philosophy had grown to a fertile pond of ideas, I bid a hesitant farewell and then allowed myself a few days in Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. Before I could get too home-sick due to its extreme likeness to California, Bucephalus and I were making southward progress once again.

The highway system of Chile reflects the country's prosperity. Autopistas make up a mycologically precise network that boosts productivity, connectivity, and modernity; however, it makes for absolutely boring cycling. Riding the autopista, the road never actually enters any towns, and social contact is limited to the lavishly stocked gas stations (showers, wifi, beer, etc.). These don't come cheap either, as toll booths litter each exit, the government making sure motorists pay up. The cyclist, however, fed by beer-cold gasoline and human-power, passes for free!!!!

After a short break in Temuco resting with a wonderful family, I was glad to leave the autopista for some peaceful rural roads into the Lakes District and Patagonia. The berry bushes were now ripe with bountiful harvests, and the cottonwoods celebrated Autumn with golden shades of light.

Winter is just around the corner.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.


PATAGONIA. Pa-ta-go-ni-uh.

A name that immediately stirs my childish imagination to a distant place and an even more distant time.

Picture vast horizons dominated by mountains spearing high above a blanket of bone-white glaciers; picture sapphire lakes and virgin forests breathing a chorus of elven fantasy; picture a wind so fierce that knees buckle and teeth chatter when one dares to make peace with it.

Patagonia. That distant place is here. That distant time is now.

And the pictures I feebly paint with my words and my camera lens are like a young lover, who... lavish in his caresses, can only say so many inadequate flowery words before realizing that in the end, there is only the surrender to the vast unknown mystery of intimacy.

The moment I was waiting for so long did not come with a defining road-sign. And there were no candles and bright lights celebrating my arrival. A rain storm hit, winds kicked up, and my sandaled-toes were going numb as I pedaled furiously up the slopes of Volcan Lanin towards Argentina. On the other side of the pass, I was a bit disappointed that the only things that said "Patagonia" were high-priced boutique outdoor shops and tour agencies. I reflected critically for a moment on my own fascination with Patagonia clothing... selling unreasonably priced fleece jackets insulated in a sheen of fashion.

American company. Andean images...

It might as well be called "Pata-gucci."

Just like others elsewhere in the western world had capitalized on words like "Sherpa," "Himalaya," and "Quechua," Yvon Chouinard, the brainchild behind Patagonia had successfully immortalized the name as a place that is forever a faraway concept, one to marvel at and dream for.

Places become mythical or magical or exotic only in our minds. Beyond that, they simply exist, just like every other place in the world, whether its the Himalaya or an ignored barrio in East LA.

I had bit the bait and came looking for the Patagonia I dreamed of as a child through the glossy pages of National Geographic. Fueling my way ever southwards since leaving California over a year and a half ago, now - more than ever - is the time for me to question this whole journey.

What brought me here? I am a bit embarrassed to reveal that a small part of Patagonia was "sold" to me by the brilliant marketing of the western world.

The desire to reach the imaginary end of the world. The world of fantasy.

The world where human suffering, injustice, and poverty are masked by the sheer enormity of natural beauty.

However, much like the young shepherd Santiago in The Alchemist, although these dreams filled my spirit with an insatiable fire to move, it is the process rather than the destination that has been more valuable. While I am glad to be here, I am also thankful that as a once-distant goal, Patagonia also brought me closer to hundreds of new friends along the road; to confronting biting poverty and extreme injustice that exists in the world today; to the shameful history of conquest and war; to the haunting folklore that tries to make sense of all this; and to everything that my University education could never reveal.

For me, this process... this conscious search, this critical questioning, has been Patagonia.


  • Seth and Kirsten Gates: thanks for the wonderful accommodations in Santiago de Chile and for all the rica comida shared!
  • Angelina Upshaw: thanks for the engaging conversations and for a lovely crossing of paths in Santiago. Best on your own journeys, and hope to see you again soon!
  • Soren: Amazing asados in the big city... ride safe and see you further South!
  • Lina y Jan Puerta: thanks for your limitless hospitality, and for making Limache officially my favorite town in all of Chile!
  • Ariana Mansour: thanks for the magazine interview, and especially for your warm vibes and spirited conversations.
  • Hernan Blanco: thanks for helping me out while I was rushed getting to Limache, and for the short, but memorable time we shared on Cuesta La Dormida.
  • Manuel Vargas: in my greatest time of need, past darkness, thanks for helping me out with a safe place to camp, a warm shower, and for your welcoming spirit!
  • Omar: thanks for the loads of free fruits and for the continued energy along the road.
  • Hogar de Cristo Curico: thanks for accepting me into this special community and for giving me the opportunity to get in touch with people I would otherwise never meet.
  • Tamara Gutierrez: Tami, thanks for your positive vibes and for sharing so much about Chilean life with me. I'll carry your gift to the end of the world, and perhaps not too long after that we'll see each other again... maybe in Nepal?
  • Harold, Marta, Esteban Gutierrez: your hospitality in Temuco will fondly be missed. Thanks for the wonderful family-atmosphere, the soft bed and warm showers!
  • Eric Blair and Claudio: for all the drinks and laughs shared waiting out rainy days in Temuco.
  • Dona Marta: thanks for your amazing food, and for helping a foreigner learn a bit about Mapuche life!
  • Joel and Karen: for the route info along the 7 lakes!
  • Adrian Zumsteg: great company from Villa La Angostura to Bariloche... keep that smile alive, and bike forever!
  • Juanpa and Silvina: thanks for your unforgettable hospitality in Bariloche, and most of all, for all the mates and lively conversations shared! Best of luck on your upcoming journey.
  • Melisa Soles: vocé e uma maluquinha! thanks for reminding this solitary voyager how beautiful it is to share and for helping me open up to the magic that is friendship!

March 16, 2009

Stage 11 - Atacama Desert and Northern Argentina

California to Patagonia: A Cycling Expedition
Stage 11 – Atacama Desert and Northern Argentina
5 January – 4 March, 2009

* Photographs from this stage of the journey can be found here.
* Route maps of the journey can be found here.

Total distance cycled: 18,204 kms
Total distance in this stage: 2,712 km
Longest distance covered in one day: 181 km (San Juan to Mendoza!)
Days on the road: 465
Days total in the Atacama and N. Argentina: 60
Maximum speed: 79 km/h (downhill out of Loja to Catamayo, Ecuador)
Maximum altitude: 6,310 mtrs (20,561 ft) - Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador
Highest altitude cycled to date: 5,021 mtrs (Abra Huayrajasa, Peru)
Flat tires to date: 37

Total money spent in this stage: $429
Average daily expenses: $7.15 (total average for the whole trip: $11.34/day)

Nights spent...
... invited to a home – 29
... camping outdoors – 28
... in cheap hostels - 2
... firemen stations - 1

Best Day: Cycling down pleasant rural roads into Salta and a warm meeting with Pichi and his wonderful family, who immediately served up tons of mate and asados!!!
Worst Day: Hard to think of one!!!!


Let us begin with a place. The Atacama Desert.

Imagine a hundred shades of sand. Imagine these colors as properties that exist not only within each grain, but also in terms of the relationship each grain has to the world it inhabits. Mornings paint the sand a deep, metallic blue – cold to the touch. The sun striking it at midday gives birth to a juvenile whiteness that forms a stage for hallucinatory waves of heat that move like belly-dancers across the horizon.

The same sun then breathes a fiery red to the earth as it feels its way below the waistline of the shapely horizon.

Intensity heightened.
Glowing, glowing. Burning.

A symphony of sensual contortions. And then the magic. Climax is a magic minute – never more, often less.

Then the land sinks into its bed and after cuddly sighs, stretches her body to prepare for a night of long breaths and moonlit dreams.

Until we repeat the performance again tomorrow.


Let us add now, some characters. The dramatis personae – a voyager who has now proudly developed multiple holes in the only set of pants he owns, his faithful two wheeled companion – Bucephalus, whose diseased bottom bracket clicks metronomically when climbing hills – and a world full of kind people that aid the two in their quest.

The first task presents itself as a monster Andean pass – Paso de Sico. This is not to be underestimated. Frequent and unpredictable snow storms scour the length of these highlands, which are also known as 'the Puno.' Over 210 km of terrain over 4,000 meters. High winds, and erratic dust storms. Intense heat, and then intense cold. No villages. One mining camp and one remote border post to measure progress and refill agua. Seductive horizons that only hide more horizons behind them.

And all of it is dirt. The shade and color of this dirt doesn't matter so much anymore; rather, the shape and the form of the dirt dramatically affect important tactile sensations, such as those of the wrists, shoulders, neck, and most notoriously, the rear-end.

There are, however, gifts along the way. Perhaps these are better thought of as treasures. Like accidentally running into a pool of thermal springs at the far end of a forgotten meadow, or a starlit jam session with the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.

And the few critters that decided to keep me company at camp while it snowed outside.


If the solitude in Paso de Sico introduced itself as part of a balancing act, then the community awaiting me on the other side in Argentina was the equalizing weight. These are the people that make such a journey worthwhile.

Like “El Pichi” and his family in Salta. Better known as Pablo, his burly physique from years of mountaineering and rugby just adds to the spunk of his big hugs and warm vibes. I was immediately shown to my room, warm showers awaiting, a yerba mate served up, and loads of delicious vinos and asados to follow. In comparison, however, these were all just condiments to the spirited conversations and stories shared during the week or so I spent recuperating. It is easy to fall love with Argentina.

Hospitality in Argentina is not an isolated experience. Just about every place I went, I was invited to meals, greeted with warm smiles and hugs, and fine vinos!


The Deserts of Northern Argentina are a different cousin of the Atacama. Lying on the other side of the Andes, they receive more rainfall, so the scenery is dominated by brush, and pockets of spectacular red-rock canyons. At times, the riding felt a lot like being in Utah and the Desert Southwest.

The magical route through the entire length of the country is the Ruta 40. It follows the foothills of the Andes winding through deserts, lush vineyards, tranquil rural roads, and mountain passes. Thousands of miles of wonderful camping possibilities and very little traffic.

I won't go into every detail of the long stretches in the North, and hope the photographs tell their own story. In due time, the Ruta 40 delivered me into Mendoza, the lush flatlands with a perfect climate below the Andes created a space that radiated so much wonderful energy. My arrival was marked by the annual Vendimia festival -- a celebration of the late-summer harvests.

Dionysus himself must have extended a hand to me because Mendoza was filled with so much celebration, that I had the distinct feeling it wasn't just grapes that were coming to fruition. I got together with over 20 friends from more than 12 countries - locals and travelers alike, brought together by the Couchsurfing community. In an inspiration of ritual madness, the thousands of bodies in the local stadium thrived to the music of Manu Chao. As Manu grooved from song to song, the camaraderie shared with my new friends was an unforgettable experience. The following days continued with more merrymaking - asados, vinos, fiestas, and in the end, the promise of cycling into mountains once again was the only thing that made me mount my bicycle once again.

And as Manu sings, "el viento viene, el viento se va..." the wind did its best as well, to keep me in Argentina. Battling headwinds along the whole climb, a few days later, I crested the Andes again just below the majestic Cerro Aconcagua - and prepared for the next chapter in Chile.



- Juan Enrique: Thanks for welcoming me into Chile and for the much-needed legal stamp of entry!
- Maria Teresa, Victoria, Juan, y Liliana: My Quechua family... thanks for making me feel so much a part of the family ('Tio Japhy!') during my stay in Calama!
- David Harden: Thanks for your support, for the unique opportunity to climb Tupungato and for the wonderful moments we shared in Santiago.
- Sharkey Cornell: for your excellent company on Tupungato!
- Don Hertil: thanks for getting us across the river that was 'supposedly' uncrossable.
- Alegria and Miguel: for your cheerful company at 16,000!
- Thomas Pflug: great dinner and conversations in S. Pedro de Atacama!
- Lorenzo Parera: thanks for the crucial data on crossing Paso de Sico on bike!
- Marcelo Gonzalez: thanks for accompanying me a few kms out of town in the Atacama.
- Juan and the whole team at Mina El Laco: the water you provided, very literally, saved my life in the Atacama!
- Nahuel and Sebastian: for your indomitable spirit and for the quest you've put out for yourselves!
- Jean-Noel, Stephanie, and the whole Ayabombe family: thanks for the surprise crossing in S Antonio de los Cobres!
- Pichi, Mercedes, Vicky, and Pablito: thanks for your warm hospitality in Salta and the best welcome to Argentinian culture.
- Ramiro Ragno: for all those asaditos, vinos, and fond stories shared in Salta.
- Tom, Clemente, Josie, y Marcela: for the jam session in Cabra Corral, the spirited conversations, the asaditos, and the sangria, and so much more!!!
- Alex, Lauren, Ash and Poppy: for your amazing company in Cafayate and for being such an inspiration.
- Carlos Isas Guillou and family: for taking care of this weary traveler in Tafi del Valle.
- Dinora: for your warm smiles and your wonderful friendship!
- Silvana, Maria Eugenia, Marcos, Alvaro, Ana, y Paulina: for your enthusiasm, curiousity, and that wonderful game of ping-pong!
- Jose Agustin Iramain: for surprising me in the middle of the night and for your company in Tafi.
- Marcos Villa Kenning: for helping get Bucephalus' bottom bracket running smoothly!!!! I couldn't have done it myself.
- Debora: for your big hugs and unforgettable stories in Amaiche del Valle!
- Alfredo: for the gift of grapes – in the mid-day desert heat, this was paradise!!
- Celine and Thomas Reynaud: for the chance encounter in the middle of the desert and for making those long kilometers go by fast!
- Jules and Jess: great camp in Andolucas!
- Raul Diaz: for inviting me to the most delicious asado in Andolucas.
- El Negro: for the memorable campsite in Sanogasta.
- Rafael: thanks for driving your tractor at the right time, right place (I drafted behind his slow tractor for over 30 km to cut intense headwinds out of Chilecito).
- Stella and Joris: for helping me celebrate 17,000 km out of Villa Union!
- Rolando Coria: for taking such good care of me in Rodeo, for introducing me to Martin Fierro, and for sharing your bottomless knowledge of Argentinian folklore.
- Cristina Guerri: for your motherly love and all those unforgettable moments in San Juan.
- Ivana Coria: you and Harry are truly an inspiration for me, and I am eternally grateful for helping me feel at home in Argentina.
- Tagua, Mara, y Marita: for the jam session and buena onda in San Juan.
- Carina, German, and Ignacio: thanks for hosting me in Mendoza, and for Manu Chao, the asaditos, dance parties, ahh, the list is endless!
- Natalia Lazaro: for getting me excited about big mountains again, and for inspiring me to find my true voice: you are amazing!
- Yasmin Irani: for the pleasant encounter under a shady tree in Mendoza.
- Luis Jait: for your priceless gift... your book reminded me that the world is always more magical than it seems.
- Melisa Soles: for your love, your friendship, and your unforgettable companionship in Mendoza.
- Paula, Diego, and Lucas: for taking great care of me in Puente del Inca!
- Eric Savard: for the “terreno de ciclistas” and the dog-cemetary campsite!
- Jan Puerta: thanks for the random encounter near Los Libertadores and the excellent photographs.
- Damian Lopez: and the most important thanks to my old friend and brother of the roads – for embodying all that is BEST about Argentinian culture, for making me fall in love with Argentina, and for sharing your insatiable fire to move the world!

February 27, 2009

Two different perspectives...

Photo: Passage. Canyon del Pato, Peru

Two friends of mine - one from Nepal, and the other from Argentina - have written some wonderful words I'd like to share. I hope this post also offers a perspective from the two languages that are not represented in this blog, but occupy a strong space in my thinking and view of the world.

First, a poem from Sol, an Argentinian girl I met for just a brief moment near the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. The short time we spent talking transformed my experience in the Altiplano, and days and days after in the solitude of the high desert, my thoughts drifted to our spirited conversation that day.


En un pueblito de América
y en esas noches de verano boliviano
fue que un ser atravesó con su existencia
y demostró tanta humildad inmensa
que dejó reflexionando a mi más oculto pensamiento.

Desde el Himalaya que viene aventurando
entre culturas, lenguajes e increíbles paisajes,
adaptándose a la hermosura
de pedalear en el camino para avanzar encontrando recónditos sentidos,
recogiendo energía de cada sitio en su vida
adhiriendo los mejores momentos
que vivirán por siempre en su corazón…
anécdotas maravillosas de la vida.

Nadie apura su tranco
y despacito investiga para conocer al hombre
alimentando la esperanza de que juntos transformemos
al mundo que hemos creado algún día.

En soledad, pero con exactas compañías
medita para convivir en su perfecta armonía
guardando los secretos que la naturaleza le brinda…
pero luego, una vez que los procesa en su costado izquierdo
logra desprenderlos,
y en el aire se puede rozar el aura de sus intentos…
sólo el bien a lo largo del actual trayecto.

Second, for those who've been waiting for a post in Devanagari script, some words from my friend Archana, who writes in Nepali:

साइकलमा नेपालको झन्डा फरर


February 14, 2009

Stage 10 - Bolivia

California to Patagonia: A Cycling Expedition
Trip Report

Stage 10 -Bolivia
17 December, 2008 to 4 January, 2009.

* Photographs from this stage of the journey can be found here.
* Route maps of the journey can be found here.

Total distance cycled: 16,456 km
Total distance in Bolivia: 968 km
Total distance on DIRT ROADS: 505 km
Days on the road: 436
Days total in Bolivia: 17
Average distance per day in Bolivia: 71.2 km
Maximum speed: 79 km/h (downhill out of Loja to Catamayo, Ecuador)
Maximum altitude: 6,310 mtrs (20,561 ft) - Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador
Highest altitude cycled to date: 5,021 mtrs
Flat tires to date: 34

Total money spent in Bolivia: $105.40
Average daily expenses: $6.20 in Bolivia (a trip record so far!)
Savings from an illegal entry: $135!

Nights spent...
... invited to a home – 6
... camping outdoors – 8
... cheap hotels - 4

Best Day: Riding along the shores of the glassy waters of Lake Titicaca with a perfect tailwind.
Worst Day: Intense rain, mud, and headwinds (and 505 km of continuous dirt roads!) in the Sur Lipez Desert, especially that last day to the Chilean border.


After successfully negotiating my illegal entry into Bolivian territory, Natalie and I promptly commenced on making good friends with the local street food vendors of Copacabana, a tranquil village along the shores of the magnificent Lake Titicaca – whose name, in the childhood wonder of my mind, will forever rank in that list of special places such as Timbuktu and Teotihuacan. The delicious empanadas ($0.25 each!!!) sold by the kind man at the corner of the central plaza, however, definitely ranks as the highlight of Bolivian gastronomy in my humble opinion.

Leaving tierra firma for a while, we hopped a boat across the glassy waters of the Lake to Isla del Sol, the mythical birthplace of the Inca civilization. Overhearing the tour guide spew entirely fictitious dates of settlement on the island and that the Inca capital was Macchu Pichu (haha!), we decided to part ways and ruminate on ancient origins ourselves.

The irony about places such as Macchu Pichu and Isla del Sol is that the stark beauty and mystery of the run-down ruins leaves much to the imagination; a partially constructed set of walls conjures up in our minds questions of how the people actually lived, interacted, etc. While this is all good to stir the juices of curiosity, it also breeds lots of fictitious constructions that over time, pass as pseudo-science or 'truth.' Places such as these are never short of New Age, tarot-card reading, crystal toting, millenial prophets.

Leaving the Island, we continued along the shores of Lake Titicaca towards La Paz. The route winded up and down hills along the vast watery blanket of the aqua-blue waters below. The boastful clouds tried to attract our attention as much as the 'gringo-gringo' yelling sheepherder kids along the road.

After running out of luck with the wonderful tailwind that was following us, we battled the final few kilometers into La Paz with a stiff headwind. Although I had prepared mentally for the spectacle that was the capital city of Bolivia, nothing had prepared me for the madness, the pollution, and the chaos that come with each Latin American capital.

Dodging potholes and streetkids, Natalie and I finally found our way into the heart of the city, where the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in Bolivia were more profound than ever. We were invited to the home of a friend – nay... the place deserved to be called a fairy tale castle – in the middle of the city. Juxtaposed against this wealth, there were streetkids with long looks and their mothers reaching out their hands to businessmen clad in three-piece suits.

The holiday season in full swing, it was difficult to grasp the reality of poverty when everything about the city screamed consumerism – from toys and new clothes to fresh television sets and fancy shoes. We spent Christmas Eve just as adrift as the homeless searching for a good place to dine, but even this proved to be a depressing spectacle. Between fried chicken and french fries, we ended up settling on a greasy Chinese restaurant, which, under the circumstances, was perhaps the healthiest food around.

After we exhausted our conversations about globalization, poverty, and pollution, what remained were long sighs and the familiar pains of farewell. After nearly a month of cycling from Cuzco to La Paz, it was time to say goodbye to Natalie as she was about to start a fresh semester in college.

Cycling solo again with my handlebars pointed towards the great Altiplano due South fueled me with a newfound energy. The landscape opened up to infinity, and the villages along the side of the road disappeared slowly as big noise and crushing silence took over. The pavement also bid me farewell, and at times my thoughts focused on nothing more than the crunching of my tires beneath my feat.

In a world so entwined in the frivolousness of everyday life, solitude, I find – is the best way to really learn about oneself. When stripped down to only our thoughts, we are exposed to an essence that is at times frightening, enlightening, beautiful, disturbing.... but always, honest.

The great altiplano thus stretched into the Southern horizon, seemingly endless. Some time in the distant past, the Incas traversed this high plain to expand their empire southwards; the Spaniards came after them to re-conquer those same lands and in the process discovered the world's richest silver mines in Potosi. And after conquest and wealth seemingly became unpopular, tourists flocked to the surrealistic landscapes of the Altiplano to witness the Salar de Uyuni and the unbelievable desolation of the region. Thankfully, the tourists were like moths who flocked around the singular brightness of Uyuni, a small tourist hub where 4 x 4's buzzed around like confused bumper cars.

To those who could resist the blinding draw of organized tourism, the dirt roads in Southern Bolivia were like a dream. Despite the ass-grinding masochism, in retrospect, it was a positive experience. Zero to no traffic. And pausing for a moment, I would often realize that I was truly in the middle of nowhere. As the English explorer David Livingstone, reduced to childish simplicity during his crossing of the Sahara Desert wrote: “the mere animal pleasure of traveling in a wild, unexplored country is very great.”

A crumbling set of ancient walls abandoned in a forgotten corner, decomposing llama bones returning to the void it came from – all served as uncanny reminders of why I had come here in the first place. I was a traveler in an antique land, where my passage was perhaps just a blip in the immensity of existence.

My hopes of cycling across the Salar de Uyuni were shattered by the first winter storms. For three days and three nights, Biblical rain seemed to punish me for all my sins and wrongdoings. Instead of repenting, I watched the world's largest salt flat fill up like a swimming pool. The next day, I dipped a toe in the waters to see if I could still perhaps tread my way across.

When filled with water, the Salar de Uyuni is like a vast mirror due to its immense reflective capacity. The ground and sky seam perfectly at the horizon and the still water blurs reality. Like Jesus, I walked across the shallow water, spun around in circles and drove myself dizzy, but I still found it difficult to drag my bicycle into the salty waters.

The salt is extremely corrosive, and thus wreaks havoc to any steel machine, so I gracefully decided to return to tierra firma with Bucephalus and promised the Salar that I would be back at another time when it was dry and I could cycle across to the other side. For now, I was still stuck with the terrible dirt roads!

Three days of difficult riding against headwinds across the Sur Lipez Desert confronted me with the Chilean border. For three days, the wind howled so fiercely that it fixed a permanent soundtrack in my head, much like the plaguing rhythm of electronic music days after a festival.

When I reached the border post, my physical state was reduced to a delusion... a body so broken down by the elements that when I sheltered myself from the wind behind the wall of the customs building, it felt like a 5 star luxury. Every inch of skin and every piece of gear I had was coated with a film of dust.

Perhaps my ghostly appearance scared the Bolivian immigrations officer at the exit post, but he didn't even budge as I crawled in the wind without paying him a visit in his sheltered trailer park office. My illegal entry in the country came to a glorious full circle when I was welcomed into Chile by the friendliest immigrations officer who not only gave me an official stamp into his country, but also filled my water bottles with clean, dustless water and my stomach with a filling meal.

Chile was a welcome respite from Bolivia. Even though I still had over 200 km to go across the Atacama Desert, my spirits were lifted high enough to soar across the remaining distance.

Physical hardship and Herculian feats of endurance are not the reason why I cycle. While some people thrive on dirt roads and are attracted by difficult passages, I find that I am happiest when interacting with the people who live in the places I am traveling across. For me, the human and cultural experience, in the end, is richer than the accomplishment of extreme physical feats. Aside from the desolateness of the Altiplano, the few people I encountered in Southern Bolivia seemed very reserved and fearful of strangers, unwilling to let me into their everyday lives.

As I write this, I am glad that the difficult roads of Southern Bolivia are now behind me.

But then again, in retrospect, a small part of me winks and wants to go at it again. Can the road ahead promise anything remotely similar?

There's only one way to find out.



- Ricardo: thanks for your smiles and warm thoughts on the Copacabana hostel roof!
- John and Michelle: for the good vibes and conversations shared on the boat ride from Isla del Sol.
- Juliet and Sabine: thanks for the good company at Ariel's 'castle!'
- Ariel Conitzer: thanks for letting us crash in your wonderful 'castle' in the middle of La Paz.
- Natalie Stameroff: thanks for sharing all those moments on the road, and for your continuing friendship.
- Ricardo Velez: for sharing your enthusiasm and for the epic journey you're embarking on!
- Simon and Elias: thanks for the info on the route ahead between Uyuni and Ollague.
- Jean-Noel, Stephanie, and the Renard family: our roadside encounter before Oruro definitely ranks as the highlight of that day in the altiplano.
- Ricardo Rafael Hidalgo: for your well wishes and for convincing me that there are wonderful people in Bolivia.
- Franz Yucra: for the unexpected encounter in the middle of the Altiplano and the invitation for lunch!
- Sol Montechiari and Cintia Cerella: thanks for the unforgettable dinner and conversations in Uyuni, and most of all, for lightening up my spirits with your bottomless smiles!