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

The Americas

Chapter 31

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

8 comments on “Bolivia: with a sprinkle of salt and a dash of Chile

  1. Looking forward to you comingback. We’ll prepare a shoebox for the micro-Gay to sleep in and see if we can get an aircraft hangar for the mega-Ed. Great photos. The “Where’s the shower?” is an award winner

    1. A very very special HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Gayebell. Thinking of you two with LOVE. Oh! What a trip!

      You two are SUPER HUMAN! When are the special couple due home in Anglesea?

      Do have a very Happy Christmas and New Year. Lots of love from: Betty Boop and Mongrel


      1. So lovely to hear from you! Hope all is well in Anglesea – we will be home in just a few months now, maybe early April? Planning a stop off in NZ along the way. Will you be home then or off on a trip? Can’t wait to see you & will be in desperate need of Betty’s lemon delicious pudding by then … Have a lovely Christmas & New Year! xxxx

    2. Yes, Bolivia really does bring out something (not sure if it’s the best) in people …
      I can sleep in a bidon cage in one of your bikes when we swing past in a few months, maybe you can move your plane to make space for Ed?

  2. Wow, that looks amazing but very hard going. The heavily corrugated section would have been brutal.
    Hope you have a great week off stuffing your faces and a very merry Christmas and all that.

    1. Hi Jen, yes Bolivia certainly had some Type 2 fun! Definitely enjoying a bit of a feeding frenzy here before we head off back over the Andes again. And a very Merry Christmas (I think I saw a photo on FB of Charlie’s first bike? – excellent!!) xx

  3. Awesome photos amigos – can’t wait to get down that way! We’re in Cartagena for Christmas and starting to think about where to head from here. I’m sure we’ll be reading your blog posts in more detail and following your tyre tracks at some point over the next year or so.
    ¡Feliz navidad!
    Hana and Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *