Bolivia is now gone, cemented as just another memory beneath my wheels. The grand finale to my fleeting visit being the magnificent world of the Cordillera de Lipez and altiplano desert. A stunning, beautiful and unique country, Bolivia has fallen short on only one major count, it is not Peru. My tour is littered with route come-downs; the highs of Arizona followed by the lows of Baja California, my first adventures in Guatemala bought to earth by the dull heat of Belize, the large majority of Central America being a stinking hangover from the joys of an exciting life and now Bolivia, a country that has served to break my fall from the Peruvian high Andes. So the fact I have slipped through Bolivia mostly numb to its charms should not serve as a direct reflection on the place. ‘Numb’ does not necessarily mean oblivious. I may have been detached but I’ve certainly not been blind. With landscapes like those of south-west Bolivia, I’m sure even a blind man could shoot a memory card full of outstanding photos. Bolivia is and will remain a bicycle touring jewel, unfortunately for me it shines just a little too brightly and has caught a few too many wonderer’s eyes.
One of Bolivia’s problems is that its cycle routes are so iconic. In many ways it has become a victim of its own success. Riding the salars and lugging through the Lagunas have become a priority fixture on the South American tour wish list. Thousands of touring cyclists have pedaled and pushed these routes with many of them then injecting their thoughts into the ever-expanding biking blogosphere. As a result the positives and negatives of these experiences have been laid out and hammered into folklore by constant repetition and affirmation. And as we’re not all blessed with bottomless reserves of positivity it is the less desirable references that seem to have risen to the top. Thus my route research on this occasion acted as little more than an exercise in indoctrination, filling me with the certainty that the fabled Lagunas Route through the high deserts of south-west Bolivia was going to be a nightmare of dust throwing tourist Jeeps, shit piles and rubbish. With the riding to be a certain punishment of butt bouncing corrugations and cyclo swallowing sand.
Having marinated generously in the expected downsides I had settled on trying to avoid the famed ‘classic’ Lagunas route all together. It was only an email from a friend that pushed the idea back onto the agenda. He posed the question ‘why else do we ride Bolivia?’ and I found no answer. He was right, the route is popular for a reason. Any potentially annoying factors have to be balanced with the draw to explore the show stopping landscapes that attracted people to the area in the first place. So after much deliberation I mapped a compromise, a route that would dip onto the ‘classic’ Lagunas route but then withdraw quickly into sections of more solitary adventure. I thought I would be able to hold my breath and deal with the failings of this parallel touristic universe for only a minimal amount of time. And having ingested the words of others, I also figured that avoiding the tourists would mean avoiding annoyance. This plan became known as ‘Operation Jeep avoidance’.
Partnered by a freshly matured Cherry (welcome to your 30’s old girl) we mounted the railway line out of Uyuni and put ‘Operation Jeep avoidance’ into effect. But as the days ticked by the plan slowly unraveled. At seemingly every junction we took the opposite turn to my plans and the route soon became a pragmatic adventure towards the dreaded ‘classic’ road. Although joining up with the main route later than I’d originally envisaged, once we did we never left. Sucked in by the elegance of the surroundings and surprisingly by the ease of the riding, the ‘classic’ route stole us. It quickly transpired that avoiding tourists would mean avoiding the ‘best bits’ of the region, so we surrendered to our fate. And strangely once we joined up with the ‘classic’ Lagunas route my world brightened immeasurably. A nagging nausea that had been getting me down dispersed and I finally lifted my head to enjoy the surroundings. The first few ‘classic’ days were great. Only sporadic convoys of tourist Jeeps passed by and when they did the roads have become so convoluted with different tracks that they were seldom close enough to really bother us. There wasn’t as much rubbish around as I had been expecting and the weather was warm and sunny. Although brutal afternoon headwinds added some spice, the low temperatures we’d been programmed to expect never materialized. And although there were short stretches where we were forced out of the saddle to push our bikes these where of negligible frequency and duration and actually added some welcome variation. With our medium weight set-ups and wide enough tyres, Cherry and I were able to ride the Laguna’s, something we could see from telltale tracks in the sand that other cyclists were unable to do.
I cannot deny that the further we rode south the more real the negativities became. However, after the sorry slant of my last post on this occasion I shall try to keep in my moans and let future riders make up their own minds. It would not be right to lump the kind German man who had tears in his eyes when presenting us with an apple and some biscuits together with those who scream, shout and shit everywhere. And it would be unjust to forget the warmth of the tour guides who slow their Jeeps and check we’re okay just to recognize the fools who speed dangerously past. My only statement on the situation is this: We are tourists and they are tourists. The only difference being that we have chosen to take responsibility for our actions while it appears that many of them have paid someone else to take that responsibility from them. Common sense aside it is therefore the fault of tour agencies and their staff that my preconceptions of this beautiful route were clouded in negativity. It is also their inability to control and verse their clients that, despite what I write here, my lasting memories will likely be clouded by anger.
Here is the story of mine and Cherry’s adventure through the high desert of south-west Bolivia and on down into Chile. Full route notes and useful information on the route can be found at the end of this post…
10 days, 491 km (305 miles), 4,820 m (15,814 ft.) of climbing
As I said at the top of this post my original intentions for this route led to route imaginings that changed considerably on the way down. One of my top priorities when setting out on the route was to climb Uturuncu (6008 m), reportedly one of the easiest 6000ers in the world to ascend. This is in large part due to the fact it is possible to ride most of the way, one of the world’s highest rideable roads climbing to a dizzying col at 5760m. Unfortunately we had to abandon this plan on account of my poor health. Scaling Uturuncu requires a detour east away from the ‘classic’ Lagunas route to Quetena Chico. Instructions on the climb can be found on Neil and Harriet’ Andes By Bike site here. My inspiration for attempting the climb came from Cass and Mike, Cass’s account can be viewed here and Mikes here.
My original route plan can be viewed and a GPX track downloaded here. Our eventual route varied considerably from this plan as we got to know the terrain and other options opened up. Most of my information during route research came from Neil and Harriet, Tom and Sarah, Cass, Mike, Anna and from the ‘Cycling South West Bolivia’ pdf.
Here are some notes and comments:
- We had planned to ride the railway tracks all the way from Uyuni to Rio Grande. However, after the small village of Vinto we abandoned the idea and joined the road to Rio Grande instead. The swamping sand just wasn’t worth it.
- I had originally planned to take a route from Julaca through San Juan before turning south to San Augustin. Having spoken to locals we changed this in favor of taking the direct road south out of Julaca to San Augustin. This proved to be a beauty and saved us half a day.
Route Notes Rio Grande to San Augustin:
- 33km from Rio Grande is Julaca
- Turn left in Julaca on the road to San Augustin (see map board in Julaca)
- 11.3km from Julaca branch right towards climb. Straight would take you to Catcha ‘K’
- 8km of sometimes sandy climbing delivers you to the summit cairn (roughly 4,125m)
- 6km descent from the summit is a right turn to Quebrada y Laguna Turuncha. Stay straight. (Village on left)
- 69km from Rio Grande reach San Augustin central Plaza
Route Notes San Augustin to Alota:
- 12.9km climb from San Augustin (small shop and cheap accommodation sin shower) reach saddle between two volcanoes (4,195m).
- Sign points straight to Alota and left to Laguna Buena Vista y Nido de Condores (6km)
- 15km from SA is the high point (4,200m)
- 33.2km from SA take a left onto the International highway towards Alota
- 35.6km Ville Alota plaza (3,830m). Accomodation options and shops (if you can get them to open). There is a guy that sells good bread from his restaurant and makes exceptional cake too.
Route Notes Alota to Laguna Cachi:
- From Ville Alota I had originally planned to take the International highway around the north side of Volcan Caquella before turning left south towards Laguna Canapa. Instead we turned left before the volcan and ducked down its east side towards Laguna Chulluncani. A route I’d highly recommend, this allows you to leave the International highway sooner and avoid Jeep traffic.
- We filled up with water and food in Alota then camped in the rock forest about 14km up the International Highway.
- 28km (all distances from Alota) take left round east side of Volcan Caquella
- 36km reach a high point (4,415m)
- 36.3km take a left into a track more popular with Jeeps
- Upon reaching Laguna Chulluncani continue on the road around to the right. This will descend about 4km down to a fresh flowing saline free water source. We each filled our 10 litre dromedary bags and all bottles here before returning back up the hill to the laguna.
- 50.5km, having returned to Laguna Chulluncani take the right turn around the east side of the lake, heading S/SE.
- 0.5km later return to the original road that delivered you to Chuluncani and turn R.
- 56km, great little walled camp spot on the left of the road, nestled into the hillside before the main climb starts.
- 56.7km, stay right and climb up between the two small peaks. Left will take you to Laguna Pastos Grandes.
- 62.6km, toppled the pass at about 4,680m
- The descent from here to Laguna Cachi ends in a corrugated and sandy slog to the lake. But once you get there you’ll find some abandoned buildings that can make for a shady lunch stop of a good little camp.
- From Laguna Cachi follow the main track up to the right. This will take you over a high point of about 4,685m before descending down to join the ‘classic’ route (89km from Alota).
- The ride back to the classic route from Cachi was a bitch for us due to a savage headwind but when we rejoined the main route there was a great camp off a side road to the left.
- Our water from the spring near Laguna Chulluncani was plenty adequate for two camps and a days riding. The next morning we were soon at Hotel Desierto (the turning 7.5km from where you join the ‘classic’ route) and able to refill.
- See Tom’s route notes from here.
- We filled 6 or 7 litres of water each in Hotel Desierto and that did us fine for a camp by the Arbol de Piedra and ride down to Laguna Colorada.
- The tienda at Laguna Colorada had pasta, crackers, soft drinks, biscuits, toilet paper, lots of alcohol (to drink) and the such like but no oats.
- From Colorada you need an overnights supply of water to get you to the restaurant at Challviri. The guy at the restaurant was unhelpful but they will serve you a good plate of food once you tell them you’re a cyclist. Fill up an overnights supply of water there to get you to the great disused building camp spots about 2km off the road towards Laguna Verde from Laguna Blanco.
- Note that http://www.tour.tk/pdf/cycling-southwest-bolivia.pdf says there are good sheltered spots by the Sol de Manana geysers to camp. As an experienced wild camper I couldn’t find anywhere half sheltered enough to camp. We eventually found a dip on the way up to the main road at 4,900m. Our wind was very strong though. Don’t bother exploring the abandoned building for a camp by the geysers as it contains the biggest pile of human shit you will ever have the misfortune to witness.
- Water is available at the refugios by the park entrance. We managed to scam some free left overs at there too.
- On leaving Bolivia you may be asked to pay a BS.15 departure fee. This is a scam. Get your exit stamp and tell them to eff off. We didn’t get asked for the fee but our friend a couple of days behind us was.