Bolivia: with a sprinkle of salt and a dash of Chile

Over the border and into Bolivia we went, and at first it seemed that nothing much had changed.  We followed the edge of Lake Titicaca until we couldn’t avoid the highway any longer and were sucked in towards the huge mega-city of La Paz.  

Village life looks much the same

The mountains of the Cordillera Real form an impressive backdrop as we head for the big city

Cemeteries were crowded for the ‘Day of the Dead’ when deceased family members are honoured

We make our way through the outer suburbs of El Alto – the satellite city that crowds the rim above La Paz

The city is a weird compilation of the old & dusty, and the new & lurid

Nothing dodgy about the wiring

We decide to stay out of La Paz & find a home amongst the colourful buildings of El Alto …

Managing to avoid the local bus service …

… opting instead for the impressive telefericho service to access the huge city nestled 600m below

We’d known for months that what we really wanted to see in Bolivia was something ‘different’ – and thus we turned our backs on the mountain ranges, the lowland jungle, and the cowboy country of the Chaco, and headed instead for the high altitude deserts of the south-west …

After a couple of days we’re more than happy to jump back on the bikes & head west … the peak of Volcano Sajama luring us on

No problems finding a secluded camp in this part of Bolivia

Before long we turn off the main road & on to a series of tracks that take us around the mighty Sajama

Looming above us, the huge mountain dominates our days …

… and our nights …

There’s no-one around, just some belligerent alpacas …

And the herds of dainty vicunas

Past Laguna Huanakota en route to Sajama village

Arriving in the village early we decided to take the rest of the day off – watched over by the 6542m summit of Volcano Sajama, and the twin volcanic peaks of Parinacota and Pomerape.

There’s that volcano again

Even indoors you can’t escape the image of Volcano Sajama

It’s not so bad when you get to do laundry with a view like this

The next morning we’re off again, leaving the NP via a back track & heading for the border …

Pausing in the border village of Tambo Quemado we stock up on packaged food for the next five days – unable to take fruit, veges, dairy or meat products over the border into Chile, and heading into a remote area without any services, things look a little grim on the nutritional front.

Well hello there Chile!

Our route for the next few days took us through three remote and rarely visited reserves – firstly the National Reserve Las Vicuñas, which features the grumbly Volcano Guallatiri.  We spent the first night sleeping in a little hut which houses a fantastic thermal pool – with steaming hot water from the creek funnelled through.  Utter bliss to climb out of one’s sleeping bag in the morning chill and drop into the pool for a soak.

Nothing flat about the altiplano here

Riding away from the Termas Chirigualla hot spring with the volcano steaming in the distance

Some gorgeous riding through the Reserve …

And some less-than-pleasant riding along a stretch of road monopolised by heavy trucks transporting borax from a nearby mine

The Salar de Surire is a National Monument important for the protection of rare & endangered wildlife … & also the site of a massive borax mining operation

Strong winds are a daily event – as is dodging the frequent ‘dust devils’ that hurtle across the plains

Polloquere hot springs on the edge of the salar – not a bad spot to spend the night …

The South American version of the emu – the rhea or ñandú – we saw these fleeing across the road as we approached

Climbing away from the Salar de Surire on a back road we seemed to have inadvertently crossed back into Bolivia …

Great riding as we make our way to Volcano Isluga National Park …

 Past abandoned villages with tiny churches

 

And the namesake volcano

We crossed back into Bolivia at Pisiga, a complete dump of a village which lacked even basic provisions (other than biscuits).  Getting some vague instructions from a military checkpoint, we headed off in the general direction of Coipasa village – following a maze of tracks that eventually spat us out on to the salt lake.

Um – maybe it’s this way?

Success – launching on to the Salar de Coipasa & heading for Coipasa Island

 

Looking forward to a few days on the salt lakes

After picking up water in the village of Coipasa we set off to find a campsite …

Finding a little island for shelter from the wind, we set up as the sun goes down …

And the world glows a peachy-orange

On the Salar de Coipasa thin slabs of salt expand, crack & lift up, forming hollow triangles …

Crashing through salty pyramids is excellent fun, but means you should probably wash your bike …

After leaving the Salar de Coipasa and wading through a mass of sandy tracks, we reached Llica – a town that sits between the two main salt lakes.  Stopping here for a day we joined five other cyclists in cleaning bikes and bodies before the next salty episode …

And it’s off again on to the huge Salar de Uyuni – a 160km trek across the salt

The 10,500 sq km salt flat is the largest in the world, and the brine beneath the salt crust contains around 50% of the world’s lithium reserves – which makes for a lot of batteries.  It’s also really, really flat – with a variation of less than a metre in elevation across the entire area. 

Pick a campsite – they’re all the same out here

And once we’ve selected a patch of salt for the night it’s fun photo time …

Playing with perspectives …

Everything in hand

After a night on the Salar de Uyuni we headed in to the town of Uyuni.  Time to restock ready for the notorious Laguna’s Route – an 8-10 day trip across some of the worst ‘roads’ on the continent, and for some inexplicable reason a bit of a ‘rite of passage’ for touring cyclists…

Uyuni – a dusty windswept town in the middle of nowhere

Popular with cyclists though

After our earlier processed food interlude in Chile I made a point of stocking up at the market in Uyuni.  In possibly something of an over-reaction we then left town loaded up with ten different vegetables (broccoli, capsicum, cabbage, carrots, spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, eggplant & onion).  This at least provided a few days respite before we had to succumb again to the delights of the Bolivian Biscuit Diet – biscuits being often the only ‘food’ item available (if you can find a store that’s actually open).

Our first stop is at the famed train graveyard – a dumping ground for rusty rail relics from the early 20th century

Two days later we reach San Juan, stopping overnight in a basic ‘salt hotel’ which we have entirely to ourselves

Leaving San Juan we begin the 350km ‘Laguna’s Route’ south-west to the border.  For the first 30km we follow the edge of the Salar de Chiguana – despite a headwind this is the smoothest and fastest stretch that we’ll pedal for the next week.

Silky smooth

And then it’s off up the first ascent – soft sand, corrugations, rocks & a ripping headwind make for a slow climb

But there’s plenty to distract from the toil

Including a fairly impressive Volcano Ollague

But it’s not long until the deep sand takes its toll …

Laguna Hedionda sure looks pretty in the morning calm

Pick a track, any track …

Wondering if this is how a giraffe feels when faced with jeep-loads of camera-wielding tourists

The surreal beauty of this route makes it incredibly popular with tourists – most taking a standard three-day 4WD tour from Uyuni.  Unfortunately there is little regulation and vehicles tend to travel at high speeds, throwing up huge clouds of dust, spraying stones and gouging ever deeper corrugations in the soft surface.  Particularly in the north there is no defined ‘road’ and vehicles spread out across the open landscape, driving in all directions and creating a huge scar of tracks. 

The landscape looks like a giant comb has run through it

Feeling small in an immense space

The southern viscacha or ‘rock rabbit’ – with a very funky tail

Where’s the shower?

On the road to nowhere …

The sandblasted rocks of the Arbol de Piedra

Ride & herp – it’s a thing

That time when you realise that it’s worth it – the colours of the Desierto Salvador Dali

And the twin lakes – Laguna Verde …

And Laguna Blanca – just a short ascent from the border

The border line – dirt versus asphalt, Bolivia to Chile

Well hello again Chile

After a fairly limited diet over recent weeks, it was inevitable that we’d find ourselves feeling pretty worn down.  We’re now looking forward a few days of stuffing ourselves with pizza, ice-cream, wine and beer in San Pedro de Atacama – at least until we no longer need to use the tent ropes to hold our shorts up … 

High in sugar, saturated fat & calories – the Bolivian Biscuit Diet

Are we there yet?

And after more than six weeks at altitudes of between 3700 – 5000m, the drop to San Pedro de Atacama at a mere 2500m will surely fill our lungs with joy.  Not for long though – we’re heading back up to 5000m as we make our way over to Argentina to explore the east side of the Andes …


Until next time,

Rubber side down

 

 

Ed & Gaye

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