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The Laguna Route Into Bolivia

Leaving Purmamarca behind, a steep 2,000 m climb started winding its way up onto the altiplano. When we asked for water at the last houses before the climb, the people living there were right in the middle of desperately trying to catch two hens that were afraid of the dogs and hiding inside a big thorny bush. These guys were literally about to miss their sunday dinner, and Jenny had a perfect proverb for this funny situation – “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, haha. I felt a little bit dizzy when we slept at 3,200 m that night, and the following day up to the pass Cuesta de Lipán at 4,170 m was quite tough when we weren’t acclimatized. The descent then took us to the salt flats Salinas Grandes where we camped for the night and had -16° cold. Brrr! After that, we stayed in Susques, one of the most remote villages in Argentina, for a two days rest. A German shepherd dog chased me and bit me in my leg the night we arrived, and since then I have my pepper spray mounted onto the handlebar bag for quick access…

Cuesta de Lipán, 4,170 m

Salinas Grandes

The second day after crossing into Chile, we got a very strong and cold headwind. With the 10 days of food and 13 l’s of water each that we carried, we simply couldn’t cycle anymore but had to push the bikes into the wind. After a few kilometers, a car with road workers stopped and asked if they could give us a ride. We were so happy about this offer, considering that this weather could ruin our plans to head straight into Bolivia due to the food supply, so we gladly jumped in! We hitchhiked the last 100 km’s to the Bolivian border, 40 km’s before San Pedro de Atacama, and found ourselves very relieved of not having to push for perhaps five days! We quickly continued to the border post and then to the camp at Laguna Blanca where we got served soup and a plate of llama meat with rice. I fell asleep that night excited about being in a new country with a different culture, and also at a place that I visited in 2006.

The landscape on the altiplano is stunning! The colors are amazing, and even though the landscape is very harsh, the long distances make everything look soft and harmless. Especially this part of Bolivia, the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, looks very surrealistic. It looks like you are on another planet! On our first day, we cycled from the turquoise/emerald green lagoon Laguna Verde with the cone-shaped volcano Licancabur in the background. After a 4,650 m pass and cycling through Valle Salvador Dalí, we made it to the natural hot springs of Polques, where we had beer and Pringles in the 38° water, watching a clear starry sky appear. A relaxing and rewarding end of our first day on the laguna route.

Laguna Verde and Volcán Licancabur

Valle Salvador Dalí

The second day took us up to Sol de Mañana, a volcanic site with bubbling, sulfur-stinking mudpots and steaming fumaroles. The steam sets such a magical touch to this place. Fascinating! The following day, we cycled over the highest pass so far on almost 5,000 meters above sea level. Up here, the density of oxygen molecules is only about 50% of that of sea level, which means struggling to breathe properly. We made Indian face paintings with the mud from the mudpots and pepped each other by ululating, and made it all the way to the flamingo lagoon Laguna Colorada. Here, we met up with Brian, an Australian cyclist that we both had met a couple of times before. We had obviously been lucky with the weather so far. A guide from one of the many jeep tours that pass here every day told us that it was snowing and -25° the previous week!

Mudpot

Fumaroles

Roads in the sky

After Laguna Colorada, we chose to head for the east route instead of the west, due to better road conditions and more villages. The hot springs that we used on our way always left you with a slight smell of sulfur and we never used soap here. But, when we got to the village Villamar, I had the first shower in 12 days and it felt really good even though it was lukewarm!

Llama kid

Laguna Colorada

Flamingo

When we cycled on the abandoned road between Alota and San Agustín, we passed through a fertile valley with a “Jurassic Park”-feeling to it. We saw some men working in a cave next to the road. At first, I thought it was some sort of mine, but suddenly an American PhD student appears and invites us to have a look. It turned out that they recently had discovered the oldest archeological site in the Andes – 13,000 years old! This cave had wall paintings, and in another cave nearby they had just found the remains of a shaman. Their excavation is funded by National Geographic, and the head archaeologist is Bolivian and a copy of Indiana Jones himself.

Vizcacha

When we arrived to San Agustín, there was an annual party going on. Everyone were drinking and dancing on the plaza and we were not late to join them! The orchestra got more and more drunk and the music slower and slower. People poured half their drinks on the ground as a toast to Pachamama, “Mother Earth”. What a scene! I even made a deal with a local farmer to investigate the possibilities for Swedish companies to import his quinoa, haha! At 9 o’clock the following morning, the most persistent guys were still sitting on the street drinking (two hours before driving back home).

The road conditions have been really bad with lots of washboard and sand, but I haven’t had any problems with the bike even when it’s been fully loaded, except for breaking the mudguard. Jenny sheared a bolt on her rack as well as snapping the wire of the handlebar bag. Brian’s rear tire blew in the middle of a sand storm, but he fixed it surprisingly quick using duct tape and the old inner tube.

Sandy road

Hmm, where to go?

Leaving these bumpy roads behind, we entered the world’s biggest salt flat Salar de Uyuni. Bolivia has built a pilot plant for extracting lithium from the huge lake that is underneath the crust of salt. Several countries with car and battery industry have shown interest in this, but Bolivias president Evo Morales has been very clear that this should be for export only and benefit their country. We camped at one of the pools that they have made for taking samples for this plant. Cycling on the salt flat is a unique experience! We crossed it from Rio Grande to Colchani, and by cycling on the car tracks it feels smoother than fresh pavement. This white and perfectly flat surface makes it hard for the eye to get a perspective. That’s why you are able to take pictures like this one:

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

It was such a relief to finally get to Uyuni and back to civilization. The ability to eat any kind of food, surf the Internet, buy things etc. made us very, very happy! You appreciate these things that you otherwise take for granted so much when you have been away for this long. It’s an amazing feeling that I wish everyone could experience once in a while! Being able to leave your clothes to a laundry after three weeks was also a treat ;-)

My plan for Bolivia is now to make a circle via Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. One reason for this “detour” is to get a bit of warmth for a change, and to see parts of Bolivia other than the altiplano. By descending to the lowlands on this latitude (17°) means tropical climate and jungle, ahhh!

Talking about tropics, I have now finally decided whether to continue along the Andes or across the Amazon. I love mountains and the views that you get by standing on the edge of them. I also like the feeling of getting exhausted by climbing and then rewarded with a downhill, plus that curvy roads are more entertaining than straight ones. By choosing this route, I will also get to Colombia which I’ve heard so many good things about. Not to mention the famous Galápagos Islands in Ecuador that helped Charles Darwin to develop his evolution theory!

It would undoubtedly be a great challenge to cross the Amazon by bicycle, especially the part Humaitá to Manaus in Brazil, but I’m afraid that I would get bored of only tropics and straight, “flat” roads. I also have experience of cycling on muddy roads now, and that’s simply impossible with my bike. Constantly damp clothes and hungry mosquitoes would probably drive me insane as well, so it feels better to stick to the mountains/coast!

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