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.

Spin Class on the Salars

We arrived in Sabaya yesterday and meant to leave today. All packed up and ready to go, we stall. Everything is a little crisp: lips, noses, ears, the sun toasts it all. Instead of leaving, we stay.

There’s a static, radio voice echoing around town today. Someone is selling something from a truck. I tune it out, but then I catch a word. Papaya. Then another. Piña. Mango. Papa. Tomate. I look out the window and see a truck full of fruit. In a second I’m up, shoes on, money in hand, running out the door.

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We spend the afternoon working our way through a soccer ball sized papaya.

From Sabaya we ride across the Salar de Coipasa. The surface is not as smooth as we had hoped. We follow jeep tracks, hoping they’ll go where we want them to, then riding across bumpy salt mounds to find another track when they don’t.

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The sun beats down. There’s no relief here, only the need to keep moving. All the wide open space gives me the jitters. I watch Tyndall fade into a small speck in front.

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In Challacollo I collapse in the late afternoon shade of an old building. We don’t need to go any farther today. Tyndall spots an abandoned school house. It will do. The wind whips up and we move in. The walls are covered with undated, slightly inaccurate maps and inspirational sayings in Spanish with backward Ns and Ss.

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There’s also one poster dedicated to the “Mar para Bolivia.”

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Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile over one hundred years ago and still dreams of having it back. Given the mineral wealth there, I doubt Chile plans to return it.

In Virginia I went to one spin class with Tyndall’s Dad. The Salar de Uyuni is like spin class without climate control and much better views. Objects come into view, grow in size and then we slowly pass them. Again and again.

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The islands are like a mirage. The space mind boggling.

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We arrive at Isla Incahuasi at lunch time. Tourists are milling about, let out of their jeeps to play. I just stand there, taking it all in.

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Right on schedule the wind whips up. I know it would blow me the remaining 90km to Uyuni in a few hours, but I want to camp out on the salar. We drink Coke and pass the afternoon inside. I watch other tourists as I would wildlife, remarking on their bahavior to Tyndall. Eventually this gets old and we venture out to find a sheltered spot for the tent.

Tyndall goes scouting and comes back with a new hair do.

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We pick a spot on the north side, easily able to watch the sunset and sunrise.

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Past the island, the jeep tracks spread out in a hundred different directions. Pick one and go. Potholes appear. We investigate.

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Beneath the salt crust is water. We don’t see the bottom. Huh.

Off the salt flat we turn towards the tourist town of Uyuni, hesitant to go but in need of some services.

Where we rode: Sabaya – Challacollo – Lica – Isla Incahuasi – Colchani – Uyuni

Lica is a well stocked, well kept little town. Resupply here is possible.

We found the road between Colchani and Uyuni recently paved.

Pressing Play in Bolivia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tyndall is made to stoop, so the señor didn't seem so short. He is shorter than I.

The sky is clear in the morning and we’re treated to a sneak peak of Sajama.

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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.

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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.

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In the name of acclimatization, we only ride 20km to Sajama. Every time I walk outside I am blown away by the view.

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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.

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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.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

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.

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Strange flora abounds.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s serene and quiet. We take a dip, but know we can’t stay.

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The sun moves higher in the sky. Up and out we climb.

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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.