I had a choice of two routes to head into Bolivia. The easier option would involve backtracking to Calama then heading into Bolivia via Ollague. The more difficult option would be to head straight into Bolivia from San Pedro via Las Lagunas (Laguna Blanca, Verde and Colorada). Neither option would be easy.
In the end I chose to try and go via Las Lagunas. I say "try" because I knew that it would be bloody difficult and I was never certain that I would complete the route, which is mostly dirt, sand, rocks and gravel, with passes of up to around 4,900 metres above sea level. I had read a lot about people having to push their bicycles for hours on end. Despite sounding like a bloody nightmare from start to finish, I thought I would give it a shot. I do like a challenge and I love cycling over mountain passes.
The day before leaving San Pedro I hiked up to this Mirador and caught a glimpse of the pass that I had to cross on day one. The pass is 4,600 metres above sea level and involved an ascent of around 2,200 metres or so. It doesn´t look so intimidating from here. Think again.
Day One - San Pedro to Laguna Blanca (55km)
I set off very early. I was at Chilean immigration at 8am to get my departure stamp in my passport. Foolishly I stayed out late the night before as good things were going on in San Pedro. It was a fun night but a major schoolboy error. It was pretty much flat for about 13km heading towards the pass.
On this route you pass some minefields - remants of conflicts past between Chile and Bolivia.
The beginning of the climb really was not that bad. It really started to get tough about half way up. That is when the altitude really started to affect me.
All through the climb you get amazing views of Volcan Licancabur.
I took a nap about halfway up after having some lunch and awoke to a bunch of wild donkeys behind me.
Somebody had written the altitude on some of the barriers en route. This is the first time that I had ever cycled above 4,000 metres. A few days before I took a tour up to The Tatio Geysers, which were about 4,200 metres, but hitting these heights on a bicycle is a serious punisher. I hadn´t really suffered from any altitude sickness, but at this point I felt immense fatigue. I don´t think the night out before helped in anyway shape or form. Usually I love to finght a hangover with a tough ride. It would work wonders. This does not apply at high altitude. Even mellow ascent take your breath and leave you completely shattered.
I ended up pushing for quite a few hours up this road. Despite being paved and not all that steep by low altitude standards, it completely dominated me. A few people stopped to see if I was okay during my regular roadside breaks. I was fine, just completely knackered and was wondering when the hell the top of the pass would come. Most people´s estimates were large, so I was really surprised and ecstatic to see this sign for the turn off into Bolivia. The pain was almost over!
Turning off towards Bolivia the dirt roads started. Suddenly I had to be so much more aware of my steering so I didnçt wipe out.
I eventually got into Bolivia and arrived at a refugio by Laguna Blanca around 7pm. I had only travelled around 55km, but it took all day and a whole lot of pushing. I hate pushing bicycles. If I enjoyed that I would get a job at a supermarket pushing trollies. The winds got stronger and the temperature dropped rapidly.
Day Two - Rest day
I was so exhausted after day one that I took a rest day and spent two nights at the refugio by Laguna Blanca. I thought it would also be a good idea for acclimatisation to the altitude. There were a couple of older German men that were on vacation climbing some mountains. They were going to climb Licancabur the next day.
I spent most of the day resting up and eating. Nobody was around. The winds started howling around midday. I started to suffer from a crisis of confidence. I had no belief that I could get through the whole way to Uyuni on bicycle. I kept staring at my map, a pdf that had been compiled by many cyclist that had done the route. In the end I decided to stop thinking about the long term goal. The next day I would just focus on getting to Salar de Chalviri.
Later on that day four young Austrian lads turned up in a tourist jeep and spent the night at the refugio. It was nice to have some company. Regretfully I kept referring to Germany, to which they constantly reminded me that they were Austrian. Whoops! Way to go Alasdair! They fed me some of their left over spaghetti bolognese. Their cook made way too much for the four of them.
Day Three - Laguna Blanca to Salar de Chalviri (44km)
I awoke at around 6am as the sun rose. I was dying to get going. All of my negative thoughts from the day before had evaporated. I packed up all of my stuff and got ready to set off. I was really excited. But, alas, I had somehow suffered a puncture. So I fixed it, pumped it up only for it to deflate immediately. I checked it for a second time. The inner tube had got pinched, so I had a snakebite puncture to deal with. Eventually I set off at around 8 am.
Flamingos at Laguna Blanca. It was amazing to be all alone in this magnificent landscape watching these birds. Nobody else was around. They were quite skittish. As I walked closer to take these snaps they took flight. It made for some nice photos though!
Laguna Verde. Yes, it is supposed to be bright green, but arrived very early, so it didn´t look so spectacular. If only I had shown up an hour later! I was trying to make early progress to avoid the winds.
The roads were really shitty, but not as bad as I had imagined. On day two I managed to cycle almost the entire way with the exception of about 200 metres or so at the steepest part of that day´s pass. I must admit though, I did wipe out on the gravel in the first twenty minutes of cycling.
Utter joy! Not so far from the top! Despite being completely out of breath almost the entire ride, it felt unbelievable to be in this place. It did not feel like being on earth at all. Once over the pass and I had caught my breath back I was able to relax and really soak everything in. This sky high desert is so beautiful, if not stark and bleak. It was definitely one of my happiest moments and I was sad not to be able to share it with a friend. I know so many people that would have loved to have come on this trip with me, but timing dictates everything.
The joy riding downhill. I quickly forgot about all the suffering and my attention focussed on trying to keep the bicycle upright on this mixture of washboard and gravel.
Looking back at the "Desierto del Dali" as I headed towards Salar de Chalviri.
There was a restaurant, hostel and hot springs at Salar de Chalviri. Despite being only 1pm when I arrived I decided to spend the night. I didn´t feel like tackling another pass that day. None of the refugios have showers so it was nice to soak in the hot springs after three days without washing. I managed to get sunburned shoulder while bathing.
The hostel had no room so I camped outside in my tent. It got pretty cold that night, but it didn´t feel too bad.
Llamas grazing by the hot springs.
It was carnival, so the locals covered me and my bike in streamers. See how my bike is placed beneath the window? A chinese man got really sick during the night and vomited all over my bicycle. He was so apologetic the next morning, but I found it hilarious. He washed the bike of course. That was probably the cleanest my bike has been on this entire trip!
After the tourist jeeps disappeared I was invited to join the party with a local family. I got thoroughly fed and filled to the brim with beer. I spent the whole afternoon and evening partying with them. It was a lot of fun and really boosted my spirits!
Sunset over Salar de Chalviri.
Llamas by the hot springs at sunrise over Salar de Chalviri.
Day Four - Salar de Chalviri to Sol de Manana.
I rose early again and got on the road my about 7am. I was aiming to cycle about 50km to Laguna Colorada. I was feeling pretty good, but decided that I should take it day by day, so I would make a decision as to what to do next when I got to Laguna Colorada.
Flamingos in Salar de Chalviri.
The day started off nicely for about 7km, but as soon as the climb got started it wasn´t long before I was pushing again. I pushed my bicycles for hours. The landscape didn´t change at all. I had to stop so frequently to catch my breath. I was quite a sight, stood up, slumped over my handle bars. After several hours I reached a junction. Foolishly, I turned right, because that was where all the vehicles were going. Little did I know that they were heading directly back to Uyuni, not to Laguna Colorada.
Looking back towards Salar de Chalviri. This hill looks like nothing, but it defeated me.
It was moments after taking this photo that Bolivian men in a pick up truck stopped to ask me where I was going. They informed me about my wrong turn. I began to panic. I had just ridden several kilometres downhill and had no desire to go back up. I consulted my map to see if there was any information on this route. There wasn´t. Did I want to carry on down this route, or go back? Was I having any fun cycling the Lagunas route? Despite the amazing surroundings, the answer was "no". I decided that I really couldn´t be bother to ride this route any further. I wanted to ride my bike, not push it. I asked the two Bolivian men if they could give me a lift. They obliged and drove me to Villa Mar. It was a long drive and their was nothing inbetween there and where they had picked me up.
I was so relieved to be off my bicyle and sat in the pick up truck as we drove at break neck speed down a nasty road. Bolivian tunes blasting out of the stereo, I was having so much more fun that being sat on my saddle listening to the sound of the wind and my heart pounding in my throat.
I got dropped off in Villa Mar, a pretty little village with some amazing rock cliffs with a desert back drop. A river runs through it, so it is incredibly lush. You can see llamas grazing everywhere.
From Villa Mar I managed to negotiate a lift to Uyuni in a tourist jeep. They strapped my bicycle and kit to the roof and I sat in the back next to two young Koreans. There were also two Ecuadorians and Germans in the vehicle.
Valle de Rocas. I love this moss like plants. I have no idea what their name is. Answers on a postcard please!
So I´m sat here in an internet cafe in Uyuni. Bolivia is a world apart from Chile. There is such a huge difference. This town is much more raw that San Pedro, but it is completely geared towards tourism. I have also never seen so many Korean and Japanese tourists in my life! They are everywhere! I am going to do a full day and sunset tour of the Salar de Uyuni tomorrow. I think all of the other passengers are Korean.
I would have loved to have cycled across the Salar, but it is flooded. I think it would be really difficult to navigate in these conditions, although it definitely has been done before. Personally, I like my bicycle too much to ride it through a gigantic salt lake. The salt would totally screw the bike up. It is steel as well.
So my next step is to head north on dirt roads up towards Oruro and then La Paz. Paved roads should start again in about 180km. The altitude on the altiplano is around 3,750 meters, but being a plain I won´t have to deal with any mountain passes for quite some time, thank god. Wind is probably going to be the biggest obstacle along with the road conditions.
Despìte bailing out on the Lagunas route and taking a lift to Uyuni, I´m glad I gave it a try. Through trial and error I have learned that high altitude mountain passes are not for me! My body really doesn´t like them, I won´t make that mistake again... at least for a while. Later on, this trip will take me back up to 4,000 metres as I head towards La Paz, but it won´t be nearly as bad as the 4,700 metres dirt road passes I just encountered. I had some amazing moments on this leg of the trip, especially spending carnival with the Bolivian family at Salar de Chalviri. However I´m not sure if I would recommend it to anyone. Even the tourist that did the journey in jeeps complained of the monotony of the landscape and how slowly it changed. It´s a lot slower on a bicycle!
(next page: Uyuni to La Paz)