We survived the lagunas!: San Pedro De Atacama to Uyuni

Cycling days 130, 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138, 139 & 140

San Pedro de Atacama to Gravel pit camp

Laden with 8 days worth of food and the capacity to carry 6 litres of water each, we left our cushy backyard campground in San Pedro and pedalled towards the wilds of southwest Bolivia. Our first port of call was the Chilean immigration building, located at the edge of town, where we received our exit stamps at around 9:30. With the formalities out of the way, we hit the road to Bolivia.

The first 11km out of San Pedro were fairly flat, but stretched out in the distance we could see the 2,000m climb that we would be tackling over the next two days. It was unusual to see such a big climb with barely a bend in the road (and definitely no switchbacks). It looked scarily steep from afar

We hit the climb and indeed it was steep! Low gears and headphones engaged, we spun our way uphill for the rest of the day. Though the scenery didn’t change much, we really didn’t mind the climbing – something Sarah thought she’d never say at the beginning of this trip! We got into a nice rhythm and watched the kilometres slowly tick by.

The road was beautifully paved and without much traffic – save for the numerous Paraguayan car transporters carrying second hand Japanese cars from (we assume) a Chilean port to Paraguay. They were barely traveling faster than us and if we’d been brave enough we probably could have grabbed on the back of one for a free lift. The lorry drivers were incredibly friendly, flashing us thumbs up or offering us water.

Once we had reached about 4000m and had about 15km of climbing left, we stopped for the day. It was about 4pm and although we could have carried on, possibly completing the climb, we felt like taking it slow to help us acclimatise to the increasing altitude over the next few days. We know many cyclists hitch or organise transport up to the Bolivian border, skipping this “boring” climb all together. But we enjoyed the challenge and felt it was a useful acclimatization tool.

Having inspected some creepy-looking goat/llama farming buildings and rejected them, we settled on a cosy gravel pit to set up camp not too far from the main road. It had a bit of rubbish in, but after a quick spruce up it made a good, sheltered, and flat camp spot.

While we were cooking dinner on the trangia a desert fox came right up close and watched us very intently. He was a cocky thing and was a little too close for comfort. Once we had washed up though he cleared off – he knew he wasn’t getting any Frankfurters tonight!

 

Gravel pit camp to Laguna Blanca

We had a very quiet night – free from fox attacks – and not a single vehicle passed us once the sun had gone down. It was a little chilly and Freddy struggled to get back to sleep at around 2am as the frosts set in.

We awoke at 7am, with the sun yet to rise over the surrounding mountains. We slowly packed everything away and loaded up the bikes, before wheeling them to the road and settling down to breakfast – hard shoulder style!

Bellies full(ish), we returned to the climb. Trucks started to overtake us almost immediately. One truck even broke down, but what was lovely to see was that a few other drivers stopped and rallied round to help.

We were both feeling pretty good and weren’t feeling the effects of the altitude – no headaches or tired limbs. Before long we had reached the top and made the left turn down towards Bolivia. Unfortunately, the initial turn had now been blocked off so we had a little more climbing to do than we thought we would.

We cycled along the last of the Chilean tarmac towards the border post, passing a new Chilean border building. In the future, we guess San Pedro de Atacama will no longer be where people have to checkout of Chile – it will be here!

We then enjoyed the last 5km of tarmac we would experience for quite a while as we headed towards a series of snow-capped volcanoes, desert, and the Bolivian border. Here we got our stamp for 2 months and swapped our last Chilean pesos for Bolivian Bolivianos (at a terrible rate – oops!).

Our tyres greeted their first Bolivian ripio as we pedalled the few kilometres to the national park entrance and an isolated hospedaje – where we intended on stopping for the day – our first stop in Bolivia!

We spent a relaxed afternoon eating lunch at the on site restaurant and enjoying a walk around Laguna Blanca. It was a very pleasant start to the feared Laguna’s route!

 

Laguna Blanca to Polques

We had a warm night’s sleep in the hospedaje, tucked under a mound of blankets. To conserve our rations, we decided to order breakfast and were surprised when a stack of pancakes appeared! This made a welcome change from the bread or crackers and spreads. Still hungry, Freddy wangled another pancake each and then unashamedly scooped up the leftover bread rolls from two tables of tourists on jeep tours. Cycling is hungry work!

We were on the road before 9 and took the track that headed towards Laguna Verde. The road was pretty awful with lots of sand and washboard so it was slow going. Our brains felt like they might get shaken out of our skulls.

It didn’t take too long to reach Laguna Verde, but we did have to ford a partly-iced river to get to the viewpoint. Freddy with his long legs was able to stride across using his bike as a prop for balance. His foot did get a little wet though as it broke through some thicker-looking ice. Sarah opted for her tried and tested ‘just stride on through’ approach, for which she donned her flip-flops. Gosh it was cold!

Soon after we joined the main road heading north, which was much better in quality – though was still pretty slow going as some parts were pure sand. The wind began to pick up and was incredibly strong as we neared the bend in the road that would take over a small pass towards Polques. It was hard, frustrating cycling. There were a loads of Jeeps buzzing around, filled with tourists, kicking up stinging clouds of sand that were blown into our faces. We were also surprised to see some large lorries on the route – which kicked up larger and more painful plumes of sediment.

The road turned and began to climb through a narrower valley and the wind started to give us a push. It was just as well because we were really starting to feel depressed. With the wind behind us, we reached the top fairly quickly. We then had a long and bumpy descent as we passed the desert De Dali.

The descent continued all the way to Polques (a tiny settlement with a hot spring, restaurant, and two hospedajes that cater for overnighting jeep tours), which we reached just before 4pm. Having done a little research, we knew to head straight to the restaurant, owned by Leonardo. He is incredibly kind to cyclists and let’s them stay on the floor of his restaurant out of the cold for free. We plonked ourselves down on a table and he brought out some much appreciated hot, meaty soup for us (on the house!). We were yet to have lunch so it was wolfed down with our earlier-procured leftover bread.

Hunger abated, we decided to head across the road for a soak in the geothermal hot pool (which was also complimentary for cyclists!). We dashed through the cold afternoon air, before wallowing in the hot pool for at least two hours. As we soaked, we watched an amazing sunset spread over the adjacent laguna, before a blanket of stars gradually appeared. We didn’t take any pictures, just enjoying the moment of being in the middle of the Bolivian wilderness with such incredible views.

Dried and fully clothed again, we returned to the restaurant to find 4 motorcyclists who would also be sharing our floorspace – slumber party! Leonardo’s mum cooked us up a filling rice, meat, and egg supper, and we spent the rest of the night exchanging stories from the road with our roommates.

 

Polques to Sol De Mañana Geysers

After another warm night inside, we had to be packed up early (6:30am!) so the restaurant could be used for breakfast for the visiting jeep tours. We joined them, tucking into fried eggs, stale bread and spreads with the four motorcyclists. They were really entertaining and had lots of hilarious stories! Two of them (Aaron and Mike) are brothers and have a blog at www.endurobros.com. They’ve had a pretty eventful time with injuries and bike issues slowing them down.

Having watched the sunrise, we set off from Polques in pretty good moods and waved goodbye to the motorcyclists who were now wallowing in the hot pool.

Straightaway we noticed the wind was present, but we hoped it wouldn’t get stronger – how wrong we were!

We began the day with a 550m climb – if there had been no wind it would have been fine – possibly lovely! The road started off a bit soft for a couple of kilometres, but then became hard, compacted dirt that was rideable the whole way.

As we got higher the wind got stronger and stronger – and of course it was in our faces. Large mining trucks would blunder past flicking up volleys of grit that stung our faces. Before long, the wind picked up enough strength to launch the sediment unaided. We could see the vicious clouds of dust approaching from ahead and had to quickly turn away and cower to shelter our skin.

As we neared the top of the pass, the wind became unbearable. We were forced to push for about 3km. When strong gusts blew, it was impossible to walk and at times and we could barely hold our bikes upright. This had become the hardest cycle of our lives!

At long last (at around 3pm), we did reach the top (4,900+m), where the wind was strongest, and took our turning to the right, hoping for some downhill. The road quality dropped considerably and the gale was still in our faces. We could see the road continuing into the distance – this was no downhill. The road looked like it undulated for several kilometers, with steep ups and downs, all into the wind on a terrible surface.

We got about 30 metres down the road. Sarah could now barely push her bike and it eventually dropped to the ground. At this point, Sarah had a complete meltdown – she sat in the dirt and cried hysterically. We still had 25km to do until we wanted to stop, but this now seemed impossible because of the ferocious winds. All day we had been saying that we had to make it off the top because we were close to 5000m above sea level and we didn’t want to camp at this altitude. Our sleeping bags have a limit of 0°C and we knew from other blogs that temperatures can drop to -22 degrees here. We really didn’t know what to do!

In the end we felt we had no choice but to camp somewhere nearby​ – we only had three hours of daylight left, we were exhausted, and the winds weren’t getting any lighter. The next 15km were open and very exposed to the winds with nowhere to set up a tent, whereas at least here there were some sheltered areas.

We headed towards the geyser field about 2km away – which sits in a little bowl below the road. In a way it was kind of lucky the wind was so bad because we wouldn’t have seen the geysers otherwise – but not really because the wind was ripping the steam plumes apart. It just wasn’t nice to be outside. After half an hours pushing, we found an abandoned structure that appeared to be the most sheltered spot around. It had no roof, massive holes in the walls and was decorated with human poo and used toilet paper, but at least we were out of the worst of the wind.

By this point it was 4pm. We sat with our backs to the wall and had lunch – it had been too windy to stop before. Afterwards, we erected the tent, scuttled inside and both had a cry. We were both exhausted by being physically beaten by the wind and were so worried about the cold night. How bad was it going to be? It was already getting cold.

We made a hot dinner of instant mash, hotdogs and soup and ate it while huddled in the tent. At 7pm Sarah’s water bottle was outside and had already frozen – the sun had only set 30 minutes ago. It was going to be a cold, cold night. We put on all our clothes, made a hot water bottle each and anxiously tried to fall asleep.

 

Sol De Mañana Geysers to Huallajara hospedaje

We had made it through the night alive! It wasn’t the most comfortable night’s sleep but weren’t awake shivering for hours as we had feared. A couple of small bottles of water had frozen inside the tent, but the large bottles were only a little icey. We later learnt from a tour guide that the temperature would likely have dropped to -15 degrees.

The wind had howled all night long and was still going in the morning. Freddy tried to wash up last night’s dishes, but the washing up liquid had frozen and any time he squirted water into the pots, it instantly froze. We made some hot porridge before slowly packing up.

With the bikes loaded, we left the relative shelter of the hut to look at the geysers up close. They were very disappointing as the strong wind just blew the steam away very quickly. It was also just really unpleasant to be outside with the cold and the wind. A couple of Jeeps arrived, their passengers dashing outside for a momentary glance and a quick photo, before hurriedly returning to the shelter of their vehicles.

We began the push back up to the road. Somehow, the wind was even stronger than yesterday and we struggled to keep our bikes moving. It was then Freddy’s turn for a meltdown. It was the strongest wind we had ever experienced and he felt like it was trapping us on the mountain. Were we even going to make it to yesterday’s intended destination today? Sarah gives a good pep talk though and we were soon pushing on to get the hell off that mountain! We had shed more tears in Bolivia in 3 days than the previous 7 months of this trip combined! Damn, Bolivia is harsh!

With the headwind strong and the road poor, we mainly pushed for the next 6km – only occasionally getting back on the bikes for slight downhill sections. It was really very dangerous as we were being blown all over the road – luckily no vehicles passed us. By this point it was 12.45 so we had a bit of lunch sheltered behind a mound of dirt – who knew when we would next have shelter?!

We carried on, mainly pushing, knowing that a big downhill should come eventually. As we pushed, quite a few 4x4s passed, kicking up mounds of dirt. Not one stopped to check we were ok – we felt very alone. With hours of pushing in our legs, Freddy was a true hero and even pushed Sarah’s bike for a bit in relay with his own.

Eventually we reached the start of the descent – we went round the corner and had a beautiful view of the red Laguna Colorada. We both said that if the going hadn’t been so hard we would have appreciated the day’s views a bit more, but we definitely appreciated this one!

We then began the bumpy, often scary descent – but at least we were now riding our bikes. A 4×4 passed us and tooted to encourage us off the road – we both did large arm movements for him to go around us. He was in a Land Rover – why couldn’t he go in the soft sand and dirt!

We then hit the bottom of the valley – it was now only 6km to the Hospedaje! Of course the wind was smack, bang in our faces again and the road was covered in washboard and deep sand. Sarah was absolutely knackered and getting on her bike seemed impossible. She pretty much pushed her bike the whole 6km – occasionally mounting it only for a big gust of wind to knock her sideways. She was wobbling all over the place and slurring her words. Freddy took over and pushed her bike the final metres.

At just after 5pm we finally reached the hospedaje. It was full of tourists on jeep tours. We wandered over to two ladies who clearly worked there and asked​ if they had any room. One of the ladies was quite quick to say ‘no’ but the other could see how tired (and traumatised) we were, showing us to a rather unglamorous room. We were so grateful to be inside.

We were then treated amazingly​ well – we were given tea, biscuits and a large dinner. We slept very well under a heap of blankets.

 

Huallajara hospedaje to Laguna Capina Mine

We woke up at 7am. The hospedaje was completely dead – there was absolutely no one around. All the jeep tours had already left at 5am.

We tried to filter some water but the bag used to squeeze the water through the filter has split. So we struggled for today, but I think we are on bottled water for the foreseeable future.

The Hospedaje owners appeared with a pancake breakfast for us – leftovers​ from the Jeep tours – but we didn’t mind and gobbled it down speedily before setting off just after 9.

We began by repeating the last 6km from yesterday. It was so different! Yesterday this took us close to 2 hours – this morning it took 20 minutes. There was no wind so we rode every inch.

We turned left, heading around the eastern edge of Laguna Colorada and were really blown away by its bright red colour. We could see some flamingos in the distance but were feeling a little disappointed that we didn’t see any up close. At that moment, one flew just above our heads – we felt content. The road on the east side of the lake was very sandy at points, but rideable the whole way.

At about 12.45 we arrived at some llama farming buildings. We took shelter from the growing wind behind a wall to have lunch – crackers, ham and cheese. We were still tried from the last couple of days and in the morning we thought we might stay here for the night. But it was so early we decided to carry on.

We began a 7km climb and were amazed to have a slight tail wind – what a treat! The road was very rocky and bumpy, but we plugged in some music and got into a good rhythm as we rose away from the red Laguna.

The descent that followed was gradual, but the road was poor and our arses took a pounding! We entered another wide valley and the road eventually flattened out and improved. We even reached heady speeds of over 10km/hr! Hardly a single Jeep passed us all day which was lovely – no gritty teeth today.

We surprised ourselves and made it 45km to a mine. We inquired if we could stay and to our great gratitude, the man in charge led us to a dorm with several beds and stacks of blankets. Before leaving, he informed us that tea was to be served in the mess at 6pm, followed by dinner at 8pm. Wow! We were again blown away by the generosity and kindness and we were so happy to be inside!

 

Laguna Capina Mine to Villa Mar

It was another 7 o’clock start after a good night’s rest. We ate breakfast in the mine’s Comedor under the watchful eye of a massive llama and it’s baby through the window. Unfortunately, we hadn’t been informed when breakfast was served so we had to settle for our own! Lol.

The road leaving the mine buildings was very sandy and hard going as it wound around the edge of the lake. Having had the morning off yesterday, the wind was back with a vengeance today.

Soon into the ride, an extremely steep climb started and we were pushing the whole way. Thankfully, it then flattened out a bit and we returned to cycling.

We were passed by two French motor homes. Their occupants were very friendly and we stopped to have a chat in the road much to the annoyance of the queue of impatient Jeeps that built up behind.

After 7km of climbing we reached the top and began a steep descent through a tight valley filled with llamas. The road was in poor condition and made for an unpleasant, bumpy ride.

We left the tight valley and emerged into a much wider one, but the road remained rocky. Our wrists and butts took a pounding as well as Sarah’s front rack. She lost a screw and then had to cycle with one pannier in hand until she caught up with Freddy for a replacement.

Just outside Villa Mar, the road turned to sand we were back to pushing – if only for a kilometer or two.

Once in Villa Mar there was no one around and nothing sign posted, so it took us a while to find a hospedaje. We did find one though and had a late lunch of rice that we cooked up in our room.

For dinner we found chicken, chips and rice – a welcome change. We were joined by the local lads who played very loud music from their pick up truck parked outside.

 

Villa Mar to Alota

After a crackers, breads and spreads breakfast, we were about packed up when there was a knock on the door telling us that “breakfast is ready”. Freddy had enquired about breakfast yesterday, but hadn’t said we wanted any. Anyway, we weren’t going to let it go waste and welcomed the second breakfast – the leftovers we took for lunch.

We left town and were followed by a rather large, excited puppy, keen to join us for a cycling adventure. It’s owner followed trying to encourage him back with no success. In the end he had to just pick the puppy up despite his yelps.

The road took us through a wide open valley, passing interesting rock formations and grazing llamas. Its condition was very variable – sometimes compacted dirt, sometimes just sand. It was mostly all rideable but occasionally we had to put a foot down to steady ourselves or change road position.

About halfway through the day we began a gradual climb which was pretty easy going. Once at the top, we could see our intended destination (Alota) 13km away in the valley below. We saw a pack of llamas and decided to watch them over a spot of lunch – unfortunately they were just very stare-y and a bit boring. Just as we were finishing up our crackers and cheese, a jeep stopped and the driver offered us there leftovers of rice and tuna. Of course we gratefully accepted. Two breakfasts and two lunches today – score!

Bellies well and truly full, we then completed the very sandy descent to Alota. It took quite a while due to the poor road quality. Once on the valley floor we continued on, passing a wetland full of birds and (of course) more llamas.

In town, We stayed at the Alojamiento Cemar which is run by an adorable elderly couple. We took a walk around the village which was like a ghost town and felt very creepy.

The hospedaje owners prepared us a dinner of soup, pasta and eggs and just before it was served there​ was a powercut. Dinner was to by candlelight tonight – how romantic!

 

Alota to Vila Vila

After a hearty breakfast of bread, eggs and coffee we hit the road at around 9:30. The first 20km or so were bloody lovely – compacted dirt and flat. We were speeding along and loving it. There was also no wind!

However, road works then began and we were forced onto diversion routes which although bring pretty well maintained were much slower going. Just before the village of Culpina K, there was a short sharp climb resulting in very pretty views.

We stopped in Culpina K for lunch, hoping to find a well-stocked tienda or cheap restaurant. However, all restaurants were closed and only tiny tiendas were open. So we had to make do with a depressing meal of biscuits and crisps – not ideal.

Back on the road, the wind had really picked up and we cycled into a headwind all afternoon. Our progress slowed right down. The road was dull and it was a bit of a mental challenge to keep going.

We made it to Vila Vila, about 70km into the day, just before 4pm. Signs leading up to the village indicated that there should be beds in town, so we hunted around. There were no official accommodations and we were sent from one end of the village to the other by locals to people who rented out spare rooms. We were finally successfully directed to a restaurant on the southern edge of the village. The lovely lady their explained she only had a small bed – but we said we didn’t mind, we just wanted to be inside. However, she then showed us to a room with a massive double bed – we think she gave up her and her husband’s bed for us!

We spent the evening cooking and relaxing, having the occasional stilted conversation with the owner’s cute children.

 

Vila Vila to Uyuni

The dull, flatish road continued. The scenery was boring and of course we had a nasty headwind all day. We were both pretty grumpy as the kilometre marks reduced from 75 to 0 way too slowly for our liking.

We finally rolled into Uyuni at around 4pm and screwed our faces up at the outskirts of town – a smelly rubbish dump on fire. As we headed towards hostal Quinua Dorada, Uyuni’s impression improved slightly – but there was rubbish everywhere and lots of scrappy-looking stray dogs.

None of this mattered, however, as we would soon be tucked up in bed knowing that we had completed Bolivia’s Laguna route – the most challenging section of our trip to date. We had faced wind, terrible roads, steep hills, and the freezing cold. We had survived and would never have to do it again!

 

Days in Uyuni

We spent a little longer than planned in Uyuni, first relaxing, then blogging, and finally hanging out with fellow touring cyclists. We also got Sarah’s cracked saddle rail re-welded… Again!

Aside from eating and drinking, our most noteworthy experience was a trip to a nearby train graveyard. Of the 5 tourers we had met in town, 3 came along for the ride.

Robbie (from Norwich) and Benoit (from France) had been cycling south through the lagunas (where we had just been) and had made it to the Huallajara hospedaje, by Laguna Colorada, before a snowstorm set in! They were stranded there for three days. The road and border to Chile was closed and, running out of food and money, they had no choice but to get a lift back to Uyuni with a jeep. Amazing to think this happened just days after we passed through that area!

Next on the agenda is to cycle across the nearby world-famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats joined by Austrialian cyclist, Leroy. He fancied setting off a day after we intended to leave and we didn’t need much persuading to take an extra day’s rest!

It was a nice break in Uyuni, but having spent 4 days there, we were ready to return to the bikes and get moving towards La Paz.