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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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…
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).
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.
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.
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 …
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 …