San Juan, Bolivia.
I’m only 300km from the Chilean border! All that stands behind me and the last two countries to the South is an enormous amount of huge mountains, sandy roads, and among the highest UV indexes in the world! I’ve heard this area is among the weirdest and most stunning in the country, and am very excited to explore it! Only foreseeable problem in this equation is that I somehow lost my SPF lip balm while riding across the Salar de Uyuni a couple of days ago. Certainly no lip balms for sale here in San Juan, so hoping for the best…
After being loaded up with food by the kind guides at a tiny salt hotel in San Juan, I set out into the arid desert.
I’m not sure if this salt flat even had a name. They’re everywhere around here! Luckily the sporadic high-velocity gusting wind was low for the moment and I could power across with ease.
Off in the distance, the sound of a train. I glance to my right to see the cars all loaded with enormous water tanks. No other way to get water out here than on rails. Hm… I hope I carried enough…
Climbing out of the salar, I was welcomed by my old friend, a deep, soft, sandy road.
While rocky roads are a bit more punchy on my rear, they do allow easier pedaling than their deep sand alternate. Feeling really appreciative for the easy going here!
As day stretched into evening, I started looking for a good place to camp. I noticed a small lake a bit further on my map, and aimed for it in hopes of topping off my water supply. My last 2 hours were slow going, as the sand got deeper and extremely washboarded, and the rocky sections got quite a bit steeper. But I’d had 3 days of relatively level salt flat riding, so well rested and prepared for the challenge! I arrived at the lake and noticed an old coleman tent set up in a small, wind-shielded cove, a bicycle carefully covered with a large tarp laid by it’s side. I didn’t see anyone in the tent, so I rolled on in search of my own wind protection assuming I’d come back for a visit later. Just as I passed, a heard a voice yell, “Scott!!!!!”
It’s quite a surprise to be recognized out in the desolate Bolivian desert, I must say.
So funny, it was my friend Johannes. A German cyclist who I’d first met in Zapatoca, Colombia this Spring, then crossed again back in La Paz. Johannes had taken a slightly different route here but made it nonetheless. I found him extremely inspiring as he was in his early 20’s but had already left home and had made it on his own, first backpacking through Colombia then found a local frame builder and bought a handmade bike frame for about $20USD! His bike was kind of a big, weird frankenstein of a thing, but the wheels turned and the crank spun! Sorry, no picture here. I was exhausted and totally forgot about photos. Johannes and I cooked our dinners together and decided to ride much of the remaining kilometers of the Lagunas route together.
Johannes and I rolled out from our roost at Laguna Cañapa to the cool morning air, hoping to get some kilometers in before the mid-day sun dragged us down. We came across this random street sign at one of the only road intersections so far, and could not make any sense of it. Something about the Bolivian Republic and the European Union. We were curious, but not curious enough to waste the water and spend the sandy road riding energy it would take to explore it. Please let me know if any of you readers were!!!
Laguna #2: Hedionda. Fantastic blue and green waters a flamboyance of flamingos to boot (yes, google told me a flock of flamingos is a flamboyance).
In the middle of nowhere along the shores of Laguna Hedionda, a bright, freshly painted and luxurious eco-hotel stands. Rooms are VERY pricy here, so we didn’t even consider it. We did however fill up on water and I got a very over-priced grilled cheese sandwich that was fabulous! They did however kindly send me off with a second sandwich as a gift for later, yes!
Along Laguna Chiar Kkoka we saw the first of many jeep tours heading in the opposite direction. As the tourists poured out to take all their photos, a local fox stood patiently, awaiting a handout.
Laguna Chiar Kkoka from above.
The road stretched on into the open mountainous desert. It was washboarded from edge to edge with no clear path to avoid these 4-6” deep endless bumps. I’d try riding off to the side of it for moments, only to get stuck in much deeper sand, so I settled in and accepted my fate of boundless butt bounces for the rest of the day.
At times the road would have as many as 15 apparently distinct lanes of traffic, no doubt the jeeps added parallel routes as the washboarding got unbearable on current ones. We just sighed and succumbed to the sadistic sand.
Johannes riding across the open desert with enormous bike and somehow even bigger smile.
The occasional steep rocky climb broke up the endless washboard, always a welcome respite.
I was deeply appreciative upon cresting a sandy pass to be able to descend. Sand this deep is so hard to climb, even ride on flat ground, but gravity really helps keep up the speed. Unfortunately what goes down must eventually go back up…
And it did. After about 7 hours of this, my legs rebelled, and I had no choice but to start walking. It’s humbling however, walking up a moderate slope that I would normally comfortably ride. The amount of energy it took to stay on the bike was just too much.
I had been riding ahead of Johannes for the second part of the day, and as I reached the summit of the long sandy climb, I glanced back to see two dots side by side a mile or two back, that of a human and a bike by his side. I knew he was at least as challenged as I, given his heavier bike and narrower tires. Good on him! I glanced to my right moments later and saw the remnants of a stone house at the base of the mountainside. Tucked into the corner of the rock wall was a bicycle crank and chainring, sticking out as a welcome matt to future two-wheeled passers by. Given the strong winds and impending freezing temperatures, I found solace in one of the enclosed areas. I was soon joined by another cyclist coming from the South, opposite to my direction. He was riding a narrow-tired full suspension mountain bike with an enormous trailer of bags towed behind him. I envied his bike setup the least, as pulling a big heavy trailer on this terrain with that tiny little wheel through deep sand must have been nearly impossible. The Austrian traveller seemed to be in great spirits nonetheless, and we compared notes on what lay ahead for each of us in our alternate directions as Johannes arrived. We shared a meal in our little ‘casa ciclista’ and moved on early the next morning.
“Piedra de Arbol” or Tree-Rock. A famed stopping point for jeep tours in this area. We saw the most humans here of anywhere on the route. All came, took their photos in front of the rock, and drove on.
I found this sign particularly entertaining since I’ve struggled to ride over 15km/h even on some of the steeper downhills. Sand. You are my nemesis!
Arriving at Laguna Colorada.
We arrived to the ranger station on the shores of the laguna around mid-day. We were told to pay a park-entrance fee and informed that we were not allowed to camp anywhere within the park (it would be another 50 miles before we could leave the park). I was nervous about this as it seemed pretty unlikely we’d make it that far before sundown, but then noticed the ranger had a deranged smile on his face, as if to say, “That’s what I am supposed to tell you, but I could care less what you actually do.” I smiled, nodded, and rode on.
Lots of big long climbs and descents today, but luckily on harder packed roads. By late evening I decided I had enough energy to take a small detour to visit a geyser field called Sol de Mañana (morning sun). Given the late hour, I assumed I’d need to find camping in the area. This wouldn’t be easy as there weren’t many flat places with protection from the intense gusting wind. There was however this perfectly inviting little structure off in the distance as I neared the geyser field. Sweet!
Ugh. Not. Sweet. At. All. It appears that this one structure had been appropriated as the local lavatory, lined with excrement from wall to wall. Gross.
I decided to take in the geysers for a little while then push on in search of a more inviting campsite. The geysers were indeed beautiful, with colored waters ranging from green to blue to brown to grey, all bubbling with boiling hot geothermal heat. There were sporadic holes from which steam shot into the air with the constant roar similar to a jet plane engine.
Cresting another pass, I was pleased to find the road remained smooth as it descended into a long valley toward a lake. I was sure I’d find solace there. On my map, I noticed a small icon that was titled, “Aguas Termas de Polques.” Translation: HOT SPRINGS!!! Given the freezing cold nights, this sounded pretty fabulous. I pushed on and made it to the small restaurant, hotel and natural spring-fed pool down by the lakeside. Inside the restaurant I was surprised to see a number of touring bikes lined up against a wall. Walking in it was clear the restaurant had closed as all the chairs were up on the tables, but the floor space was lined with 6 sleeping bags. There was a British couple who was completing their circuit of South America, a German couple who were popping around to the most beautiful areas down here, a solo British and solo American cyclist. The restaurant owners were kind enough to let us sleep inside for a night. After a quick meal, we all wandered down to the pool by the moonlight. I was surprised to see we would be accompanied by about 20 other travelers, all recently having arrived by jeep tour. No matter. The pool was plenty large and plenty warm. What a joy to feel the whipping wind in my ears as the rest of my body comfortably soaked in hot water. Well earned, and well worth it.
This of course was another of those amazing moments that was so lovely it didn’t occur to me to bring my camera, so I’ll leave it to your imagination, or discovery if you make it there!
The following morning we all rolled out together, but it was clear we’d be riding at different speeds. I pushed on ahead, knowing I’d likely see these guys for lunch at one of the lagunas coming up. The road over this mornings ride was intensely stunning. Enormous desert scares with mountains sprouting up from it in all directions.
Everywhere I looked the mountains were some other intense and brilliant color.
Just before lunchtime I reached Laguna Verde (Green Lake) and it’s glowing light green waters.
Just beyond that, Laguna Blanca (White Lake) with it’s pink flamingo accents.
I sat by the lakeside for lunch, deciding if I’d stop and wait for the other cyclists or push on. Given the fierce winds and blazing sun, it seemed smarter to push on, through to the Chilean border, and drop down to San Pedro de Atacama, where I’d find fresh food, shade, and maybe even a beer!
Bolivian customs office. A tiny adobe shack in the middle of the desert. I loved it.
Jeep tour clients lined up at the doorway to get their entry stamps and begin exploring the vast lands I was departing.
Holy shit. I’m entering Chile. My 15th international border crossing by bike since leaving my home 2 1/2 years ago. Only crossing between Chile and Argentina lay between me and Tierra del Fuego. I’m getting really close now!
As I straddled the border between Chile (left) and Bolivia (right), I appreciated that I was now very specifically LEAVING the “third world” to re-enter a more developed country. As it turns out the Chilean government really takes pride in demonstrating how much better their roads are by perfectly paving the road all the way up to the exact border. It was literally a line drawn in the sand.
And then I was on a paved highway. Just like that. After nearly 2 weeks of rough Bolivian roads, sand and rocks, The Chilean highway to San Pedro de Atacama was as smooth as glass. It shot straight through the rough countryside, dropping steady for nearly 7000’. It was almost a shame though. Dropping this amount of elevation should really be done on a super fun single track trail, or at least a bouncy dirt road. But none were in sight. Alas, I tucked into some attempted “aero” position to better battle the blustering winds and stopped pedaling. Finally.
Not bad views on the way down!
I rolled into the rough unpaved streets of San Pedro de Atacama, one of the main tourist centers for visiting the famed Atacama desert in Northern Chile. After a painless passport stamp, I wandered into town in search of beer, food and lodging. In that order.
Yeah, I’m not in Bolivia anymore. The street dogs here are well fed, not aggressive and totally comfortable napping right in front of public areas without fear of being kicked.
In searching for my first two objectives, it became pretty clear that Chile is about 2-3x as expensive as Bolivia. My days of 3 hot meals and a hotel for $15USD were over. Time to tighten the belt and get back to full-time cooking and camping. I wandered into a tourist office in town to ask about where I could put up my tent most safely in town without being bothered. The guy working the desk was extremely nice. He gave me a couple ideas, but after chatting for a few moments, he paused, and said, “well, I do actually have a spare bedroom in my house if you’d like to use it for a few days. It’s a ways out of town but you have a bike…” Sweet! I ended up spending 4 days at Alex’s house, accompanied by a sweet French couple that he’d already been housing for a week. We all shared meals every night and hikes during the days. If you’re ever in San Pedro de Atacama, look up Alex Baez! I can’t say he’ll offer you a room, but he’s a great guy with tons of knowledge!
While in a relatively “urban” area, I decided it was time to deal with the variety of broken down parts and clothing I’d been limping along since La Paz. First and foremost, my rear tire had a small tear in the sidewall that had occurred North of the salt flats. I booted it and put a tube in but the tear had been growing and the tire bulging out to the side in the weak spot. I put a huge truck tire patch around the torn area, wrapping it around the tire bead back in Llica near Uyuni and it held all this time. But I needed to replace the tire now. Not as easy as I thought. After visiting the two shops in town I found I’d need to take a bus up to the nearby industrial city of Calama about an hour to the North, and visit the bike shop inside the enormous mall. I did NOT looking forward to that experience, and got in and out as quickly as possible!
Then there was the sleeping pad. One of the baffles had delaminated, so sleeping on it felt like leaning against a small log. Alas, no viable alternatives around here, so I’ll be loggin’ some more miles for a bit longer.
This fabulous Smartwool shirt has been with me since my first backpack tour of the Great Divide back in 2013. It’s travelled with me for over 30,000 miles. But the whole thing is now paper thin, and the holes are getting bigger. I already had big patches put on the shoulders back in Northern Peru but these too were wearing out. It’s getting close to the time to find a replacement. But this thing is like my woobbie! Sigh. Nothing lasts forever.
Saving the best for last. Bolivia with it’s off-the-chart UV index had done a number on my lips. I’d lost my lip balm back on the salars, and had been obsessively licking my lips to keep them from sticking together over the last week. Once I got down to San Pedro I realized they were FAR worse than chapped. They were completely fried. Within 2 days they developed blisters and scabs covering the extent of both lips, so much so that every time I even slightly smiled they would crack open and start to bleed. Awesome image, eh? Want a smooch? I ran into a couple of German cyclists I’d previously met back in La Paz who offered me a small portion of an Alum crystal they’d bought back in La Paz. Alum powder is used in making antiperspirants, but is a local remedy for severely chapped lips. At their direction I wet my lips with clean water and rubbed the crystal over the area…
It burned and stung so intensely I saw only red for a moment. They assured me it would hurt less with future applications. But holy underwear, that was painful. I spent the next 10 days repeatedly applying the Alum, avoiding licking my lips, and really trying not to smile to avoid cracking. Not easy!!!
Eventually I got my tire replaced, found a new long-sleeve shirt and was ready to continue South across the Atacama Desert. But that’s another story…