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Having expected Puente Acero to be a town, I had no food left over. I asked the lady about breakfast and got the choice of fish or the ubiquitous chicken. Even though we were right by a river, I really didn’t want fish for breakfast. I’ve had it a few times in Japan and Korea and it just doesn’t work for me. I hadn’t seen any dots on the road before Padilla, at the top of the hill, and so tried to stock up at the little shop. That was until I went inside to see what they had. Bread, pasta, various types of soft drink and toilet paper – not quite what I was wanting for the long climb ahead. Things didn’t get much better when I asked her to fill my bottle with some water, and she grabbed a gallon jug to pour muddy river water in saying it was what they drink. Not having any other option (there was bottled water, but I really don’t buy that) I accepted and hoped to find something better along the way.

I started the climb up and within a few km found a slightly bigger community, with maybe 20 buildings, where they did have tap water, but no shops. Another few km along the way another community, and this time some little shops. I’d tried to eat the bread, but it had seemed to have the same effect as eating flour so I was glad to find some ‘dulce de leche’ (caramel spread) to make it a bit less dry. I also picked up plenty of biscuits to keep me going. I was chatting with the lady who owned the store and she spoke about how difficult life is living there. No real chance to make money, poor access to education and having to sit in the back of a truck for a 2-3 hours to get up to Padilla for most things, and being surrounded by just ‘silencio’. Of course taking that truck costs more money than she makes in a day, so you can imagine how well it works for the whole family to go.

The road seemed to go upwards forever, with little traffic. Most parts were rideable, but I still found myself pushing where I hadn’t expected to. In a way it was good to have short breaks, but if I kept pushing I’d never get to Padilla. After a couple of hours I found my rhythm and managed to sit on the bike all the way, riding up countless switchbacks and past an inordinate amount of crosses given the seeming lack of traffic. I imagine that the dirt turns to a deadly mud bath during the rainy season, especially for those who go up during the night.

After the initial communities, it turned into the silencio the lady had mentioned, with only a few odd buildings to break it up. Thankfully one of those included a school, where I could not only get water but also become the entertainment for the 20 children that made up the school as they crowded around me. It took me until just before sunset to get to the top of the climb, and so I was descending half-blind with the sun in my eyes. I was trying to go quickly, and that was my downfall as my front tyre, which I’d lowered the pressure on to ride smoother, punctured from a hard impact onto one of several large rocks. I sat down to switch tubes, but had a sinking feeling that I’d not got round to repairing the tubes in AsunciĆ³n, and so when a transport truck stopped by me to offer me a lift I jumped in.

The truck was filled with Bolivians sat on top of their colourful luggage and wrapped up warmly in blankets. They told me it was the first time they’d seen a foreigner in a truck and so there were the obvious stares, but also kindness as a family gave me a blanket to wrap myself up in and keep warm for the downhill that I’d earnt with my day of climbing but unfortunately couldn’t enjoy as I’d hoped. When we stopped at Padilla, there had bee a power outage and so all the lights in town were out. I found my way to the centre and the one food option that wasn’t chicken and chips where I tried all three things off the menu – a regular hamburger, sausage and chips and a deluxe hamburger (same as the regular but with an egg) – and made friends with the owners who then invited me to throw my tent up in their courtyard which I happily accepted.

Looking back at one climb

In the truck

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