When Two Become Three Become One: La Paz to Sabaya via Chile

Hurtling down a ripio slope on the way towards the Salar de Surire, Chile I suddenly found myself losing control. As my front wheel snarled up in some deeper sand, momentum took the back wheel out, flinging me out of the saddle and harshly to the ground. Landing heavily on my left arm and hip I was left stunned but ultimately unhurt. My immediate concern was for my jacket which suffered a rip but otherwise I escaped with only slight bruises and a grazed elbow. Getting straight back up and into the saddle I reflected on my first real crash of this tour. I didn’t fully appreciate at the time just how lucky I was.

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One of the main incentives to take this route via Chile was to experience the Salar de Surire

The three weeks Cherry and I spent in La Paz were far from relaxing. Busying ourselves with the mountain of tasks that had piled up as we enjoyed a break from civilization in the high Peruvian Andes, neither of us had much time to kick back. Instead we absorbed La Paz life in motion and enjoyed the chance of some semblance of normalcy. Fortunate to have bagged floor space in Cristian’s incredible Casa de Ciclista our lives were filled with the coming and going of cycling characters and the endless search about town for wi-fi that works. Cherry’s blog post (click here to view) gives a snap shot on that time, a period blessed with the arrival into our lives of English Spud, Fat biking Cass and Mike, and the tranquil Liechtensteinians Daina and Robin. Life was good for a while but my mood steadily soured as the casa got taken over by couples and started to resemble a hostal. Cyclists who seemed to forget that we’re all travelling competed with each other for story prowess and some obnoxious and smelly (literally) characters passed through. By the time we left it was time to go.

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Our new band of three approaching Nevado Sajama, at 6,542m, the highest peak in Bolivia

Cherry and I had enjoyed our period of riding as a pair, but La Paz was to mark the end of that glorious partnership. Cherry had a friend jetting over from London to join her for the duration of her journey south. So when we did eventually leave La Paz we did so as a three, with Charmian (not Charmain) making up the third. In light of Charmian’s newness to the altitudes of the Altiplano and Cherry and my recent time off our bikes, I shunned my original route plans in favor of an easy spin south-west into Chile via Bolivia’s highest peak, Volcan Sajama. From there we’d cross the border into Chile and planned to enjoy four or five days remote Chilean dirt, around the Salar de Surire and back into Bolivia. An easy but rewarding stretch of riding it promised so much, and for some of us, it delivered.

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As usual around these parts this route was packed with Llama type life. they continue to amuse me, as did the ñandus (close relative of the ostrich) in Volcán Isluga National Park, Chile

The day after my little crash I once again found myself careering down a ripio slope. As with the previous day I hit a sandy patch, but this time I resisted the urge to brake and thankfully rode it out. Charmian was not far behind me, herself easing every smidgen of speed out of another fun descent. But when I got around the corner and stopped to wait for the ladies, they did not appear. I knew immediately what had happened and hot wheeled it back to the slope. Sure enough that is where I found Cherry comforting a rather shaken looking Charmian. Charmian had not been a fortunate as myself, her grazes were deeper and her body clearly battered. Unable to lift her left arm we could do little but clean her wounds and keep her warm. Fortunately the accident had occurred on the busiest stretch of the road, where salt mining trucks rumble past with alarming frequency. A kind driver went ahead to alert folks of our predicament and before long Cherry and Charmian were disappearing off in the back of a truck. I continued on, in what transpired to be a rather enjoyable return to solo riding.

La Paz to Sabaya Route elevation profile

Here is the story of our post La Paz return to the road. Taking boring highways down to Sajama before rolling over the border and into a glorious introduction to Chile. A few days riding in Chile and my first trip into the otherworldliness of the salt flats led back to Bolivia and a brief return to the drudgery of paved riding. Overall, not a bad roll at all…

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Leaving the Casa de Ciclista in La Paz couldn’t have come too soon as I was getting fed up with it. A phrase that cropped up during our stay was ‘Just because we both ride bikes doesn’t mean we’re friends‘. However that doesn’t apply to the lad in the picture, Robin is one of the good ones

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In order to avoid the dull slog uphill to El Alto from La Paz we elected to hire ourselves a mini-bus. Perhaps decadent but undeniably worth it

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From El Alto it’s straight out onto the highway, turning our backs on La Paz and the impressive Cordillera Real

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Pumping down straight, flat and paved highways is one of my least favorite bicycle related activities. Fortunately Highway 1 to Patacamaya is undergoing a complete rebuild so we enjoyed long stretches on new and unoccupied asphalt, the traffic still riding the old road

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Turning west at Patacmaya the paved drudgery continues…

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… but spirits are buoyed considerably with the appearance on the horizon of Volcan Sajama

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On the way into our second nights camp we pass a number of ruins and archaeological sites…

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… which this lady says are neither old nor important… but are filled with bones

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Delighted to find a friendly old farmer with a well and space to camp I promptly dive in a break the water pump. To my enormous relief it transpires that a smack with a large rock solves the problem. After this our new friend assumes pumping duties

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We pitch our tents inside the shell of an old building (pictured left) and enjoy a wind free night

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The next morning our ‘landlord’ raids Charmians medical supplies before…

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… we hit the asphalt again

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Dreading a detour to Curahuara de Carangas to pick up supplies the well stocked shops in the service hamlet of Curva come as a welcome surprise. It also gives Charmian a good opportunity to practice ‘blending in’… camouflage being an essential bicycle touring talent

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The km’s (I’ve recently turned metric) come quick on the paved surface and we’re soon close to the mighty Sajama

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Turning right off the highway towards Ojsani we’re finally back on the dirt and I feel as if i can breath again

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Finally released from the pavement I think we all experience a boost. Even so we don’t ride for long before pitching up with another really friendly farm family

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Over breakfast the next morning I watch the Llamas being herded out to graze and the old lady of the farm start random fires about the place

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Back in the saddle the day promises some exciting riding…

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… a stretch during which we’re treated to magnificent…

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… and intimate views of Volcan Sajama…

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… as we ride around its quiet north side

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Passing through small deserted hamlets…

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… and the obnoxious tourist village of Tomarapi…

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… we soon find ourselves skirting Laguna Huaynacota…

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… and on the home stretch into…

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… Sajama village

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Taking a day off in Sajama we devote ourselves to the general maintenance tasks that accompany touring. Occasionally we lift our heads to marvel at the volcanic twins Parinacota and Pomerape, and…

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… amuse the enigmatic little Juan Carlos. As we left the next morning ‘Don’ Carlos ominously tells us to be careful… he’s five

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From Sajama we’re advised to avoid the main track back to the highway, instead riding a better conditioned route…

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… past some beautifully tumble down little buildings…

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… and around the south side of the magnificent Volcan Sajama…

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… before reconnecting with the highway. This tediously takes us up through the Bolivian border town of Tambo Quemado…

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… to the frontera with Chile

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Despite now being in the desert…

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… a beautiful mirror lake, home to flamingos, grabs our attention on the way to border control

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Passport formalities are easy for us and we leave border control with a huge bag of army rations, donated to us by the police there. The lorry drivers who have to drive through Chile to reach the coast and pick up the containers that feed Bolivia, aren’t so lucky. The queue they form stretches for miles and miles, snaking back as far as the eye can see

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As the lorry drivers twiddle their thumbs we hit the dirt…

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… climbing a small sandy hill…

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… before descending down to camp at the Termas Chirigualla. We’re delighted to find that the hut there is centrally heated by it’s own thermal bath and all squeeze in for a cosy night

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The following morning we hit the road under heavy grey skies…

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… and soon find ourselves on the main road towards Guallatire

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Despite seeing very few people and no Chilean civilization, it’s exciting to be in another new country

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As the morning wares on I find peace with the grey skies, enjoying how they compliment the surrounding landscape. This is the hill I have my tumble on, no big deal but a good wake up call for careful riding

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The village of Guallatire offers running water and a great lunch spot. We see no one but a couple of really friendly dogs…

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… who run with us for about 3km as we ride out of town

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On wide roads through a big open world…

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… the afternoons riding from Guallatire strikes a good balance between utility and beauty. The wind gets up but we’re able to hide away in a sheltered camp spot

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Holding promises of salt flats, the next day starts with so much hope. Unfortunately it doesn’t last as only 5km into the day Charmian crashes badly on a speedy descent. She’s shaken up and things don’t look good with her arm as we wait for medical services to arrive. When they do a clumsy paramedic does a great job of causing her more discomfort before carting the ladies and their bikes off to the ranger station in Chilcaya. Suddenly I’m solo again!

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Head spinning I continue on my way. Just as the shimmer of the Salar de Surire comes into view I see a police truck coming towards me, it’s Charmian and Cherry on their way to hospital over 200km away in Arica. They load me up with extra food, we say our goodbyes and this is the last I see of them

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Once the ladies have gone I suddenly find I have far too much food. Still I squeeze it into my panniers and continue on down the hill towards the Salar de Surire

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The first in a series of three mighty Salars I’ll experience, the Salar de Surire is a captivating sight…

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… so many things about it make no sense…

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… but its beauty is undeniable

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Passing flamingo filled waters…

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… and spinning through deep swamping sand…

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… I don’t reach camp at the Polloquere thermal baths until sun down. Fortunately there is an adobe wind break to camp behind and I settle in for a relaxing evening on the salar

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I always intended to go in the waters but the next mornings puncture repairing soon leads into a full on bike service and I run out of time

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After a hell of a battle into an intense morning head wind it comes as a relief to turn south and start climbing away from the salar

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Now assisted by a strong tailwind I float effortlessly up to the Cerro Capitan pass…

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… before descending down…

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… onto expansive pampa

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The deserted villages of the pampa offer a creepy distraction from this short stretch of monotonous riding

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Deriving little enjoyment from slogging over flat pampa on badly corrugated sandy tracks…

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… I push on to the edge of the flat stuff and am rewarded with a relaxing desert camp

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With the fun stuff pretty much done the final day on the route is an enjoyable formality. It starts with a drop down through Volcán Isluga National Park where I’m treated to an encounter with the wild ñandus (close relative of the ostrich)…

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… then continues on through the desert communities of Enquelga…

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… and Isluga, before catching a few km’s quick pavement to Colchane

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Crossing back into Bolivia is a mere formality…

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… signalling the start of a quick 42km paved sprint…

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… over to the ‘delights’ of Sabaya.

Route Tips

9 days, 566 km (352 miles), 4,827 m (15,837 ft.) of climbing

Although undoubtedly a fun and interesting route the course we rode could have been made considerably better by knocking off some of the pavement we endured. My recommendation would be to jump on Neil and Harriet’s route from La Paz, through Visviri into Chile and then instead of crossing back into Bolivia to Sajama, connect with the route I rode here. Although the route around Sajama was fun, the riding was never as involving as I usually enjoy. Just be aware that joining these routes may involve a food resupply detour or carrying plentiful supplies into Chile. Also note that it isn’t necessary to ride to Sabaya if you’re intending to continue south onto the Salar de Coipasa, there is a route directly onto the salar from just beyond Pisiga (See Sarah and James and Anna’s route maps).

Our venturing onto this route was inspired by the excellent accounts of Sarah and James and Anna. Sarah and James offer up some valuable route notes that can be added to with information from Neil and Harriet’s ‘La Paz to Sajama‘ and ‘Sabaya to Sajama‘ routes.

Noteworthy extras:

  • No fresh fruits of vegetables (including jam) can be carried over the border into Chile. They x-ray scan all your bags to make sure. However, dried herbs and leaves such as coca (thank god) are fine as long as you declare them.
  • You will need to stock up with a recommended five days worth of food in Curva and Tambo Quemado before entering Chile as I saw no shops until reaching Colchane on the crossing back to Bolivia.
  • I found no water after Chiclaya until the village of Enquelga. It may be possible to drink some of the stuff on the pampa but I didn’t need to. Instead I stocked up with 10 liters from the carabinieri (police) in Chilcaya that carried me through to Enquelga without a problem.
  • One small route variation you may want to try is turning off the highway onto the dirt road around the north of Volcan Sajama a bit earlier than we did. The turning right is opposite the first buildings you will see on the left of the highway as you reach the top of the climb. It is easily visible on maps and is often marked as the main route. This will cause you to bypass the village of Ojsani but not by much so if you want to retreat to the village to collect water it won’t take you much out of your way.
  • When leaving Sajama village the road you want leaves from the other side of the football pitch on the west side of town.
  • As usual, GPX tracks for the route can be downloaded from my RidewithGPS page.
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3 responses to “When Two Become Three Become One: La Paz to Sabaya via Chile

  1. Hi Nathan! Remember us? We met in 2010 Alaska! You were just setting out! Great to keep up with your progress, super pic’s and all that!
    Bill & Penny, just back from 6 months down under,great return visit!

    • Wow, great to hear from you. How could I ever forget Penny, Bill and the magic quilting bus! I hope you’re both well and the new vehicle held up well down under.

  2. Pingback: La Paz – Pisiga: Dejándonos llevar | MientrasPedaleamos·

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