Well, that was a ride and a half!
Three weeks from La Paz riding south to the Chilean border through some very inhospitable terrain but also some absolutely breathtakingly beautiful country. The Lonely Planet has it right, Bolivia is:
“…the hemisphere’s highest, most isolated and most rugged nation, it’s also among the earth’s coldest, warmest and windiest spots with some of the driest, saltiest and swampiest natural landscapes in the world.” (Lonely Planet, South America, 2009).
It was very difficult to leave the comfortable cable TV, hot shower and Wi-Fi of the US$15 a night Hostal Colonial, and the good food (especially the steaks), wine and general good feel of La Paz. I am fed, rested and supplied with a brand new water bladder for the desert tracks of the south west (which soon turns out to be leaky rubbish). The initial road south-west is paved so after the 500 alti-metres/12km grind up and out of La Paz to El Alto I turn southward then right off the main highway along another 88km of good un-trafficked tarmac and on to the depressing little mining town of Corocoro and a basic bunk bed.
I then turn south once more onto isolated dirt road and tracks then back on the asphalt SW to Curahuara and the run to Sajama, just before the western Chilean border crossing. Sajama is a very basic village in the shadow of the huge volcano from which it get’s its name. On the dirt road near Corocoro I had the treat of witnessing the enthralling spectacle of a bolting donkey dragging a cart-wheeling and rapidly disintegrating mountain bike across the plain. Two young boys, one of whom had benn inspired enough to tether his wayward donkey to a bicycle, were chasing it as it made its break for freedom, dragging the bicycle with it. The donkey was winning very easily so beast and machine passed me at a rate of knots with the bike at the end of the rope taking an utter pounding, spinning into the air and crashed back to earth again and again. Finally the rope snapped and the poor bicycle lay broken and twisted on the ground. Finally I had the chance to play ‘Bicycle Repair Man’ and miraculously, we managed to put the poor bike back into some sort of working order. A good advertisement for the strength of the ‘Datsun’ bike frame as it somehow held together through this punishment. Perhaps all bike frames should be given the donkey strength test. The repair got the boys another 5km home anyway.
Six km north of the village of Sajama there is a hot spring pool which is a wonderful treat. A great opportunity to soak the legs, gaze at the volcanoes and tighten up one’s ‘individual non-synchronized water ballet’ maneuvers (refer video). South of Sajama the next morning the clear weather reveals the surrounding peaks in all of their collective splendor. These volcanoes form a semi-circle around Sajama village with Sajama itself, the most formidable peak. Across the way are twin peaks (refer photos) and closer to the Chilean border, a huge exploded remnant cone.
It’s a three day ride south from Sajama to Sabaya and then out onto the first of the huge salt plains, The Salar de Coipasa. The track deteriorates into un-pedalable sand in quite a few places but is generally average dirt. Some tracts have protruding baby heads (small hard lumps), a few normal heads and a number of giant heads but was able to make steady progress; a fore-taste of some of the reportedly very ugly sand, rock and washboard tracks to come on the track south of the salt plains. I have 11km of asphalt on the road westward up towards the Chilean border crossing but blasting head wind means that it is 2 hours later that I turn southwards away from the teeth of it onto the good dirt. The plateau is at about 3,800 metres altitude and you can generally see the next village way off in the distance which aids navigation over the sometimes multiple tracks across the arid landscape. The wind (prevailing from the South-West) later becomes a bit of an issue again as does the glare and reflection from the powerful sun. It’s mild in the day but the temperature plummets at dusk and in the tent I have trouble sleeping both from the thin air and the cold. The drink bottles are frozen and about three or four hour’s sleep is about all I can muster.
In the village of Mayocc on the end of day one south of Sajama there are only four people stirring (lively by comparison to some of the seemingly abandoned villages along this track); two soldiers (the track will run close to the Chilean border all the way now), a shop-keeper and a tour guide. The guide quickly goes into his patter about the local lake etc and appoints himself my guide out of town showing me a ‘short-cut’ track across the flat scrub plain to the next village, about two hour’s ride away, I’m told. After parrying his attempt to garner money, am off up the track only to soon come (yet again) to the belated realization that non-cyclists do not have the foggiest as to the effect of sand on bicycle tyres. I soon come to a more imposing impediment; a wide yet seemingly shallow river. Prior to the river there is a large sand mound which is a useful wind-break in an otherwise barren plain so I decide to camp the night there and cross the river early the next morning. Interesting decision.
Eric and Lydie, my biking companions in the last river-crossing episode in Peru, will no doubt smile at this latest attempt at river-crossing. During the night a one-centimeter crust of ice has formed over much of the river (as it did on me inside the tent). Yet the slow water flow beneath appears gentle enough to make a crossing possible with a loaded bike. I am axle deep so there is about a foot of water I guess and also a sand bank to offer some respite mid-stream. So, ever the optimist, off I go, crunching through the ice for 30 metres to the far bank. I’m in sandals and am soon up to my knees in ice and sludge learning to my chagrin that the river-bed beneath my tread is soft mud. It is also becoming belatedly and troublingly apparent just how frickin’ cold the ice water actually is. Half way across and am losing sensation in my feet and breathing hard. Not good. Compounding the quite troubling predicament mid-stream is that I can now see that the flow of water in the final three metres is deeper and faster than it appeared at the outset. The bank is also a tad steeper just to add another 0.5 to the level of difficulty. My legs are really bloody cold now so am faced with that old dilemma; go on or turn back. Turn back – then what? On I go. Junk deep now and the bike is seriously in very real danger of floating off down-stream. Most of the gear would be recoverable but please God not the wonderful Sony Alfa77 SLT camera and the truly brilliant 135mm F1.8 Carl Zeiss lens in the drink!! The Ortleib bag may not hold out submerged. God no!! Am therefore summoning hitherto untapped reserves of emergency adrenaline and energy from The Great Lord Harry knows where to get to the far bank and shove the rig up onto the bank onto dry land – all the while losing more feeling in feet (and junk). Gasping hard – really sucking back the air – from cold and exertion, I step into the middle of the deep and hurl the bike up onto the far bank and scramble up behind. I spend the next 30 minutes massaging some feeling back into the feet and toes, baking them in the sun and pondering my gullibility at believing dodgy advice from village idiots. I summon the scene from ‘Titanic’ where Leonardo De Caprio describes the stabbing pain of the frigid water of the North Atlantic to a suicidal Kate Winslet. Sitting here I can almost begin to imagine. No matter. On I go. The moral? Never take track advice from pushy dodgy ‘tourism officials’ in remote villages. Note to self: Avoid all future river crossings if at all possible.
There is pretty well no traffic on the three-day track to Sabaya. In the whole time I saw four cars, an old woman walking along the road and one guy on a motor cycle, That’s it. Lost the use of the Garmin bike computer. For some reason it doesn’t want to boot up properly. It’s like touring prior to such technology when I first did this sort of thing; just iffy maps, iffy signs and people with often iffy advice. In Sabaya there is a good hostal, basic supply shops and three restaurants.
Can stock up on milk powder, Milo, canned tuna and crackers etc for the next leg across the salt plains of Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni. Beyond, in San Juan, will stock up again for the final Bolivian leg along the lagoon track to the National Park and Bolivia’s southern border with Chile and the Atacama Desert (about two very interesting weeks away). The Garmin is back up – quite a relief. While it was interesting to get a blast from the past in not having access to all of the data, it certainly is better to have it.
The 14km first ride across the Salar de Coipasa to the central island was truly remarkable. About three km from the central island the water from Coipasa Lagoon to the East appears and I ride through an inch, then three inches, then six inches of water across the salt. This experience was a truly wondrous thing, riding across a massive infinity pool to the far horizon. I understand that some believe I can ride on water and it appeared to be true for a little while at least. The going across the salt was rougher than the smooth spin that I had expected but it was well worth it just for the pure surreal land-water-scape. The additional bonus was that there was absolutely no one else there to interrupt my Zen-like moments of clarity. Bolivians continue to be a very pleasant and relaxed people. Resplendent in their delicately balanced bowler hats, the ladies seem to always have a smile, a laugh and a greeting. In Coipasa village on the island in the middle of the Salar, a lady that runs a tiny shop, on seeing my wet salty feet, decides to give me a bowl of warm water and then washed my feet! Didn’t expect that one. She took my only pair of soggy shoes somewhere to dry them and offers a room for the night. She’s 55 but I swear she could have said she was 70 and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Next day is an epic day’s ride of 82km started with taking a ‘short cut’ across the north of the island. The reported one foot of lagoon waters on the eastern side of the ‘island’ means that there was no choice but to take this circuitous route back across the north of the island and then cut south. My ‘short cut’ quickly turns to nightmarish scramble through scrub and rocks for four km and managed to knock and scratch the legs around a bit; all unnecessarily.
On the southern part of salar the going is still not smooth. There are few if any 4WD tracks to smooth out the roughness of the salt meaning a speed of only 10-15km/hour. The feeling, however, out in the central void was well worth it and there was absolutely zero traffic for the whole passage across the salar. Getting off the edge of the salar turned out to be a bit of a challenge as there was about three km of sand and then some ambiguous navigation along various Alpaca tracks to get onto the southward track towards Llica (a town just prior to the Salar de Ayuni). The tracks deteriorate periodically into large sand traps and through the afternoon there was a lot more pushing than riding. I was to rue the time wasted in the morning’s ‘short cut’ as the afternoon drifts on with me in the drifts and the prospect of making Llica diminishing. Battled on and cursed my way through the long sand breaks and made it to Llica by 6:45pm still with four degrees on the thermometer and a slither of light remaining to get me in. Llica has an internet café, a chicken shop and a crappy government run hostel in the municipal building with a caretaker who tries to over-charge me 5B ($0.70) on a 20B room. The gall of the woman!
After the warm welcome in Coipasa, the feel is less so here. Young people wander around with their prized transistor radios or phones blurting out the banal Peruvian/Bolivian pop/cowboy dross. Tomorrow I will ride on to the Salar de Uyuni and 81km to The Isla Incahuasi, an island in the centre of the plain. The ride across Salar de Uyuni was not as smooth as anticipated. Gaps between the plates of salt meant that the going, particularly close to Isla de Pescado was very difficult going. The island kept receding into the distance as I approached so the 50km took on a proportion psychologically not really warranted by the ride. Time and distance seem to somehow warp out in this void. The fierce sun beating down might have also had something to do with the altered state of mind, the sense of isolation out in the middle of nowhere, again, quite an impressive experience. It was at Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) that I encountered Silvano and Paula, fully kitted out cyclists from Italy who were right in the midst of making wedding vows to each other; exactly what you expect to see out in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. I, of course, crashed their intimate ceremony to say hello. Lovely people both, we later meet for dinner on the next island, Isla Incahuasi, the hostel/restaurant and jeep stop in the middle of the salar. They are also intending to travel south past the string of lagoons and bad lands to the Chilean border so we might meet again along the way. Yes, the decision has been made here to take the southward option of at least seven days of horrid sand and washboard roads and high winds past the lagoons along the border with Chile rather than the soggy ease and pedestrian beige-ness of heading east to the highway then on to northern Argentina. This route will put me at the northern most point of the Atacama desert (San Pedro de Atacama) in about seven or eight days. In between, however, there is going to be some horrible tracks to traverse.
Day One: San Juan to top of Pass: Morning is spent cruising across the ‘pampas’ mud/sand flats and then up a pass that proves rocky and steep in places so some pushing involved for 10km in the afternoon. Found a wind-break two km beyond the top of the pass so camped there for a surprisingly mild night with thankfully no wind.
Day Two: Top of Pass to Laguna Hedionda: Some fairly tricky rocky and sandy tracks for seven km to start the day off then down a lovely eight km of excellent maintained hard packed dirt road. Back onto the rough stuff for the afternoon and multiple 4WD tracks fan out across the way making navigation interesting in places. Am getting used to the idea of just picking tracks that head in the right general direction and feeling the way around the largest of the volcanoes, of which there are many dotting the region. There are many flamingos in Hedionda Lagoon before dusk as I arrive (refer photos). I’m already sun burned from the reflection of the harsh light and dry wind on the Salars.
Day Three: Laguna Hedionda to Hotel de Desierto
The morning takes me SW past Honda Lagoon on pretty good dirt tracks and then the path turns due South up the long gentle apron of the pass. All good until near the where I got completely blasted by crosswinds over the shallow dome summit for about 6km making it impossible to ride straight. It is very energy sapping just trying to make any progress. Much cursing at wind gods (Strobog included) and more pushing. Then a nasty sandy track down to the hotel with a lot of pushing the bike in the eight km. The Hotel de Desierto is a very friendly place that gets three stars for cycling tourist assistance. They allow camping next to their building for free and really go out of their way to help out with filtered water and coffee for tired cyclists. Excellent. The camping is very cold though and feet froze during the night. Here I camp with Jons and Martina who are traveling the same way and Jons makes tea. Lovely. It’s freezing cold camping here but bearable. The ride through the stark landscape of barren valleys between dozens of magnificent volcanic peaks is really impressive along this part of the ride.
Day Four: Hotel de Desierto to Laguna Colorado A great ride that took a full day off the expected time for the complete ride. You are completely at the mercy of the machinations of the wind gods (Stribog included) to determine how the day goes and this one turns out to be a cracker with a nice consistent breeze at my back. The track becomes a good dirt road about three km after starting and keeps it up for most of the way to Colorado Lagoon, only deteriorating on the down hill run to the lagoon. The famous Arbol de Piedra (‘Tree of Stone’ – refer photos) is the lunch stop so I press on the 18 km to Lagoon Colorado in the afternoon– which really is indeed a deep red colour. The Just before the little settlement next to Colorado Lagoon I cross into the National Park and pay up the 150B ($22) entrance fee. I have no money left after brilliantly misjudging the funding needs for the ride from La Paz so have to survive on a remaining three or four days with 80b ($11). Accommodation in the basic ‘Refugios’is a dorm bed but thankfully there is no one else there. 30B ($4.30) for a bed is a bargain and 10B ($1.40) buys the greatest spaghetti and tomato sauce and vegetable soup in existence, so am carb-loaded and charged up for the next day.
Day Five: Laguna Colorado to Laguna Chalviri: Great wind at my back again today so the biggest pass of the ride is not the nightmare it could easily have been. At the top of the pass the thermal geysers (‘Sol de Manana’) stink strongly of sulphur but the boiling mud pits are impressive. The 22 km down to Chalviri Lagoon is on good dirt but needs some attention and I almost come to grief a couple of times by getting too excited about the road when sand suddenly appears again there is a restaurant. The owners allow bikers to sleep on the floor. A real bonus is a thermal Pool with crystal clear hot water (drinkable by reports) across the road next to the Lagoon. Bliss soaking the weary bones and muscles in the soothing water at sun down looking out over the salt and the flamingos. Some 4WD drivers show up in the middle of the night and one snores like a drunken contented rhinoceros. Little sleep. A cycling shoe has blown out from all of the pushing through sand. Great. Pack buckle has broken. After a year on the road the equipment is now starting to fail. The Rohlofff gear hub is skipping on two gears 5 and 6, gears that would be really useful right now!). Am delighted about that one.
Day Six: Laguna Chalviri to Laguna Verde (Park Hut): Took another dip in the hot spring pool, with my bike (refer photo). The restaurant owner has pity on my financial plight so gives me a 5B ($0.80) discount. How has it come to this? How embarrassing! On starting the day’s ride I have a big energy drain going up the shallow pass. Sulphur poisoning? It’s been 18 days since La Paz so I might be starting to fray at the edges. I decide to ride straight at 4WDs coming too fast in the other direction to slow them and then accost them in an increasing vocabulary of Spanish abuse for flicking stones. Usually the wind kicks in around noon but today there is an early arrival of a very strong wind, and its right in my face. No energy, no money, blasting head wind. Oh Bliss. The road is not too bad dirt with only some patches where the sand grabs and stops you. There is a grader near the road and actual evidence of recent grading so the road could get even better soon. By 5pm I am absolutely shattered and the wind is literally howling across the final plain just south of Laguna Verde. The last 2km up to the Park Hut and Refugios is just about time to lay down and have a good cry. I walk the bike up to the refugios and empty out the final 30B ($4.50) in my bag, thankfully securing a room.
Day Seven: Laguna Verde to San Pedro de Atacama: There’s only 7km slightly up hill on good dirt road to the Bolivian immigration post then another 5km to the top of the rise and the westerly turn towards San Pedro de Atacama. I fear the, “do you have the little slip of paper ploy from the official but he mentions it and then gives up. I must still look like a mercy case. I understood from some that the immigration would charge you 21B to leave but this guy doesn’t bother. I have to ask him and he says that it sometimes applies but for you, no. Mercy be! I do look that bad! Just beyond the Bolivian frontier, bike, Buff3y and the new-found lovely asphalt enjoy a touching group hug moment (refer photo).
The magnificent roll of 41km down 2,000 alti-metres into the Atacama valley is pure unbridled joy so I let the pony have its head and we hurtle down hill at 50-60km/hour. I have ‘Whiskey in a Jar’ stuck in my head on the long plunge for some unknown reason. The heavily touristed oasis town (3,000 locals and 4,000 North Faced gringos) of San Pedro de Atacama awaits along with its beer, pizza, cappuccinos and lovely hostels. On arrival I discover that during the three weeks that I have been out of radio comms on the track in Bolivia, there have been fraudulent attacks on all three of my credit/debt cards so all are blocked or cancelled. Am in SP de Atacama and can’t afford an ice cream! Bliss! Brother to the rescue with a Western Union funds transfer from Australia. Cheers! I spurge on a North Face Polartec beanie (for $30!) which is ‘Asphalt grey’; a good indicator me thinks of the make up of the roads that I will be sticking to for a little while to come. Thank you Bolivia, for one of the most amazing rides and scenery displays that this boy will probably ever encounter.