We’re spit out in Patacamaya like passengers on Harry Potter’s Knight Bus. The bus roars away and we collect our things. The air is dry and dust swirls around. Patacamaya is bleak. Only a few mud brick houses mark this intersection between Bolivia’s highway one and highway four. We purchase bottled water and set off.
We arrived in La Paz four days ago, bleary eyed at 3:00 am. From the airport we go to the Casa de Cyclistas there. It’s crowded. A place meant for six has 12. I don’t want to stay even a day, but intelligence wins out and we stay three, acclimating to the elevation.
We have returned to South America and here we are, sucking air at 13,000 feet heading west through one of the continent’s poorest countries. I needed to trade the anxiety that has invaded my gut since Election Day for something else. Home is pleasant compared to life here. There, every comfort is provided for and every uncertainty insured against. Here, variables abound. Comfort is relative.
Scanning the high Bolivian altiplano a different sort of anxiety sets in.
These wide open, dry, treeless landscapes are far from my comfort zone. But I have been to places like this before and know what to do. Laden with food and water, we dive in.
The anxiety fades as folds in the landscape return. Red rocks abound. I am distracted by my first flamingo spotting. Minutes later, I pass a herd of llamas.
The wind teases, first at our backs and then blasting cold, straight into us. Looking for a wind block, Tyndall spots a collection of herders huts off the road. Out to collect his sheep, this farmer stops to talk, insisting we sleep inside the hut, not merely beside like we had planned. With a warning about the roof, he’s off and we settle in.
The sky is clear in the morning and we’re treated to a sneak peak of Sajama.
After a day and a half of paved riding, we cut right, looping around the mountain to the north. This is quiet country. We pump water from wells paid for by USAid.
We see wild vicuñas, and herds of domestic llamas. Lightning strikes on the horizon catch my eye and I dig in. After a long day at high altitude my legs don’t have much more to give, but we arrive in Tamarapi just before the storm. The church courtyard being the perfect home for the night.
In the name of acclimatization, we only ride 20km to Sajama. Every time I walk outside I am blown away by the view.
From here, it’s an easy ride to Chile. We share the road with trucks, all hauling goods to Bolivia. Rebar, fuel, everything seems imported. What does Bolivia make I wonder? I have found tuna from Thailand and fruit cups from Chile. The line of trucks waiting to cross is at least a mile long.
Chilean customs wants to xray all our bags. We say we have food to declare. What food? Lentils, rice, oats, sugar. Supplies for four days riding. Where are you going? We tell them. Though they shouldn’t, they say, we’re allowed to keep it all. There’s no where to get more where we’re headed.
We camp next to a hot spring, up at 14,700 feet. There’s a hut built around a pool, and the warm water heats the hut. A German couple in an RV pull up. We talk a bit. They ask where we’re going. Tyndall tells them. She says that the road is terrible terrible terrible and doesn’t recommend it. Well. We’re here now and all opinions are relative.
Vicuñas run alongside as we descend in the morning, down to the main road.
Strange flora abounds.
Dust clouds from other vehicles catch my eye. We ride 20km before the truck traffic we had been warned about materializes. They are all empty, going the same way we are. Soon, full ones pass in the other direction. There’s a mine ahead, we’re told. Everyone is courteous and friendly, slowing down so as not to dust us too much, but still, it wears.
48 kilometers later we are at the mine. They are mining borax from the salar.
We push on into a fierce headwind, the road our own now. A pickup truck passes, a bed full of llamas all strapped down, but with their heads periscoping around, inquisitive as usual.
Tyndall asks about water and is waved on. There is a CONAF station and there’s water there. It takes a minute, but we find the pipe. Watchful viscachas keep an eye on us from their rocky perches.
We’re still up above 14,000 feet. The cold air moves in quick once the sun sets. I move to the tent.
In the morning Tyndall tells me the viscachas were throwing dirt clods on the tent. I slept through it all he says.
We ride along the salar to a hot spring.
It’s serene and quiet. We take a dip, but know we can’t stay.
The sun moves higher in the sky. Up and out we climb.
Down the other side Tyndall looks at the map and says we’re technically in Bolivia. Just on the other side of a sad looking fence the Chilean military waits. Who are we? What are we doing? Do we know there’s a Frontera here? Well… We answer the questions, say we have Chilean entry stamps, are given a handshake and wished success. Onward.
The fierce tailwind pushes us out of Chile and back to Bolivia. I furiously turn my 1×10 gears, but it doesn’t make a difference. The wind blows. I wish for a sail.
Where we rode: Patacamaya – Tamarapi – Sajama – Tambo Quemado – Churiguaya hot springs – Salar de Suriri – Colchane
Once in Chile, we filled up on water in Guallatire and at the CONAF Refugio on the west side of the salar, about eight kilometers past the mine.