Through the Lagunas to Chile

We leave Uyuni early. It’s not hard to do. With a choice between a reportedly washboard, sandy old railroad track and the International Highway, we choose the later. It’s dirt, but has no loose sand and no washboard.

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The kilometers click by. I see the mountains in the distance and aim for them. With a whole day of riding, we make it to Alota.

The plaza has a faucet and the church courtyard protection from the wind. I watch the moonrise over town and listen to the church service nextdoor.

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In the morning llamas share our courtyard. Perhaps we’re in their spot.

The International Highway takes us through La Valle de las Piedras and then we leave it behind, turning left into the mountains. My legs feel like lead today. Sandwiches and cookies are in order.

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Tyndall spots a group of suri on a small laguna. We watch from afar before dark clouds egg us on.

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I want the road to descend, but it doesn’t. It rolls. The washboard we have been warned about appears. There’s loads of different jeep tracks. I try and pick the smoothest but usually fail.

We descend to Laguna Hedionda. There’s a hotel there. We don’t want to stay, but are looking for a place to camp. We’re shown an extra room and told we can stay here.

I watch the flamingos on the lake as afternoon storms roll through, leaving fresh snow on the high peaks.

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The wind wakes me up in the night. I check the time. 2:00 am. That’s a new one. Typically the wind dies in the evening, not to return until the next afternoon. For a minute I worry about tomorrow, but then fall back to sleep.

Clouds hang heavy over the mountains. The wind kicks us south, past lagunas and up over 15,000′.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

I need a break. Lunch is sitting funny in my stomach and I lay down in the dirt. Tyndall waits, but soon can’t wait anymore. Storm clouds close in. We descend as fast as the sandy washboard road allows, working for each pedal stroke.

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We replenish our water supplies at Hotel del Desierto. The staff are kind and helpful. We almost stay but don’t.  Rumor has it there’s a great camp spot not far.

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The rumors are true.

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For a bit, the road is a dream. I sail along in the morning light.

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But then, the dream ends and the washboard returns. The landscapes are eyepopping, but the road is a challenge to enjoy. We can ride with our 2.25 inch wide tires but sometimes I walk just to take a break.

At the entrance to the Reserve there’s a main road of sorts. I pay our entrance fee. The ranger warns of death and cold at night. He says I must take a photo of Laguna Colorada.

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I’m more worried about the sun and the wind during the day. It takes some convincing, but he allows us to sit in his office for a couple hours, cowering from the hot rays. Our shadows grow a bit longer and we move along on a slightly improved surface, the wind coming from all directions.

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The birds and the sun wake me. This morning there’s nothing to do but climb. We putter along, taking lots of cookie breaks. Yesterday we bought too many, so today’s an Oreo feast. We top out somewhere around 16,000′.

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I crave oxygen and long to take a deep breath. Perhaps tomorrow I tell myself. In the meantime, we arrive at Laguna Chalviri with an afternoon to spare.

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We spend it in the hot pool there. I watch the birds and let the hot water melt aways days of accumulated dirt and sunscreen.

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From here it’s just one long day ride to Chile. An early start helps to ensure success. It also ensures we’re sharing the roads with loads of jeeps, all rushing around with tourists in tow. Some coming too fast and too close for comfort, only swerving around at the last second. Some coming alongside, windows rolled down, camera lenses poking out. Respect seems in short supply around here.

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We exit the park. I ask the ranger where my 150 Bolivianos goes. He says that park admission fees pay his salary and pay off the indigenous people who live in the park. Historically, the indigenous were llama herders. Since the creation of the park they have lost their livelihood.

A ferocious headwind has us inching uphill towards the border. A 42km, 7,000′ descent ushers us down the other side and into Chile without breaking a sweat.

Where we rode: Uyuni – Alota – Laguna Hedionda – Hotel del Desierto – Laguna Colorada – Laguna Chalviri – Laguna Verde – San Pedro de Atacama

The hotel at Laguna Hedionda sells bottled water. We were also told there is a fresh water spring 30 minutes by bicycle from the hotel but didn’t investigate it.

Excellent wild camping can be had 12km from Hotel Desierto, in a rock outcropping on the right. More stellar wild camping can be had in a small canyon, 15km from the Control on Laguna Colorada.

Our sources said Laguna Chalviri was empty at sunset and sunrise. This is no longer true. Jeep tours stop at all hours now, with the exception of a few hours in the afternoon between lunch and dinner.

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