The wind is ripping the tears from my eyes. My nose has been running constantly and I’ve given up doing anything about it. It’s pointless. We are climbing the pass up to Sol De Mañana, at 4,920 metres the highest we will have been on a bicycle. We have had a beastly headwind most of the day. Progress has been very slow. At this altitude, everything is slow, except perhaps one’s heart rate.
We gain the pass at about 3.30 pm, very late in the day as it is still another 25 KM to the nearest refugio. We decided against camping at this high altitude and try to get to the Refugio south of Laguna Colorada. It will be dark before we get there. In the end, we arrived at about 8 pm. All of us completely thrashed from the toughest 48 KM we’ve ridden.
A few days earlier, Jan and I hooked up with four other cyclists at our hostel in San Pedro De Atacama. All of us were planning to cross the Altiplano via the Laguna Route and figured there is strength in numbers so why not go toghether. We met up, as planned, with Cyril, a French cyclist we had met in Patagonia and again in Argentina. Two other French cyclists, Alice and Nicholas, joined us, as did Marcin, from Poland.
After clearing customs in San Pedro, along with several hundred Chilean soccer fans heading to Brazil for the World Cup, we headed east to the Bolivian border. From San Pedro it is about a 40-kilometre climb, from 2,400 metres to 4,650 metres. The highway continues east to the Argentinian border but our dirt road turned north, dropping down to the Bolivian border a couple of hundred metres lower.
The first day we managed 35 KM of climbing and camped at 3,950 metres beside the road, giving us a little taste of what camping at altitude would be like. The following day we finished the climb and descended to the border. It is a small building with a Bolivian flag flying from a rickety pole. There were several border guards there who stamped our passports and wished us a good journey. It took only a couple of minutes. We continued on to the refugio at Laguna Blanca and decided to stay, although Marcin went on to Laguna Verde and camped (at -21C, it turned out).
Inside the refugio it wasn’t all that warm. The building is made of stone and there is no heating but the beds had four or five blankets and we were out of the elements, at least. In the morning we cooked breakfast in the dining room wearing our down jackets before heading off to Laguna Verde to catch up with Marcin.
Laguna Verde is indeed green and was not frozen like adjacent Laguna Blanca, which, as a result, is white. We were now on the other side of Licancabur, the volcano we had seen most of the two previous days as we climbed up from San Pedro. The landscape is stark, barren and amazing. Not many other places I’ve been look like this. It reminded me a bit of Iceland and also of places in British Columbia’s interior and the Canadian Arctic.
The weather was good. The temperature goes up into the teens during the day but as soon as the sun drops, the temperature plummets well below zero. As long as there is no wind, the conditions are quite nice. But invariably, there is wind. We were lucky that day. We had tail wind. The six of us carried on north from Laguna Verde crossing a 4,730-metre pass on the way to Laguna Chalviri.
At the summit we paused to take photographs and have a snack, marvelling at the multi-coloured landscape crowned with many volcanos all around. The wind would occasionally whip up the dust but we mostly had clear sailing down through Desierto Del Dali and on to Laguna Chalviri.
The reward for a hard day was the hot spring at Chalviri. There is also a small hostel where we checked in before running for the hot pool. It was absolutely amazing to sit in the 38C water looking out over the frozen lake at 4,450 metres and letting the hot water work its magic, soothing aching muscles and keeping us warm in an otherwise cold environment.
We cooked inside the hostel’s kitchen for a small fee, but went to bed early as there is not a lot of sitting around when it’s so cold. The only warm place is the bed with multiple blankets. We also faced the prospect of an even harder day ahead so we could use all the rest we could get.
The day we had been dreading started out beautifully. No wind and warm as soon as the sun was up above the horizon a few degrees. We set off to tackle the highest pass on the route: Sol De Mañana, 4,920 metres. Our perfect day quickly changed into the worst possible scenario as we turned northwest 8 KM from Chalviri. A blustery head wind greeted us as we rounded the mountain. The road was not too bad. Some washboard and some soft spots but it was rideable. It was the wind and the altitude that nearly stopped us in our tracks.
The climb seemed to go on forever. We had left at 9.30 and did not gain the pass until 15.30. Six brutal hours of climbing into the wind. We found a bit of shelter behind some boulders to rest and have some food. Normally, we would make camp at that time of day but at this altitude it would not be much fun, especially with the strong wind and no shelter from it.
We checked our route and headed south in the direction of Laguna Colorada. We still had a long way to go to the refugio but pressed on. The actual descent did not begin for another 10 KM. The sun was down by the time we headed downhill with our headlights on trying not to hit any big rocks and stay in the track as much as possible. I think every one of us fell at some point but nobody got hurt and no bikes were broken.
It took us 90 minutes to descend as darkness settled around us. We were heading for the refugio using the GPS, trying, in the dark, to find the track that would branch off the main one we were riding on. We missed it and ended up on another track. It was rideable at first but quickly degraded into a mess of big rocks and washboard.
Elated and exhausted, we finally saw the lights of the small pueblo and the refugio. We pushed the bikes the final few kilometres cross-country to get to it. They welcomed us into the refugio and, realizing our exhausted state, brought us hot water, tea and bread, followed with a plate of hot rice topped with a mix of veggies and meat. We sat in stunned silence sipping our tea, wondering what the hell we were doing. It had been a very hard day for everyone but we were glad to be inside and out of the cold.
For some reason, sleep eluded me that night. I lay awake most of it listening to the repetitive breathing of the others dreaming away the night. I must have slept some but finally got up when I could see the sun had risen. A group of tourists was just leaving and I took the liberty of using their left-over hot water to make some coffee and also made a couple of scrambled egg sandwiches with the bread and egg they had not eaten. I sat on a window bench in the sun, still mostly stunned from what we had done the previous day. Jan joined me for breakfast a while later as I cooked oatmeal on our stove in the warm window seat.
I discovered that Jan’s remaining left rear rack mount had broken off and spent a good part of the morning repairing it with a kit we had in the spares bag. I had fitted the same kit on my bike months ago as the left rear rack mounts had broken off, too. Hopefully, it should last the rest of our trip.
Since we were all quite tired and Cyril had fallen ill, we decided to go only as far as the next refugio at the north end of Laguna Colorada. We arranged for a Jeep to take Cyril and his bike there and the five us cycled the 11 KM. We had to check a few refugios before we found Cyril. It seemed nice enough and the price was nice: B$35 per bed (about $5). As we were unloading our bikes, Jan dashed off to find a place to get sick, something that had come on very suddenly.
We had been careful to only drink bottled or treated water but something got to her, regardless. Probably the food served at the refugio the night before. She went to bed, joining Cyril who was already in bed when we arrived. The road had claimed its first victims.
Alice, Nicholas, Marcin and I ate dinner but Jan and Cyril did not eat anything. Jan was unable to keep anything down, anyway, and she did not have a good night. In the morning, it was clear neither she nor Cyril would be able to ride any further so we arranged for a jeep to take them and their bicycles to San Juan De Rosario and the remainder of us would join them there as soon as possible.
Their bikes were strapped to the roof of the jeep and the luggage loaded as we prepared our bikes for the next dance with the Laguna Route. We faced yet another climb up to Arbol De Piedra at 4,600 metres. It was only 17 KM but I think we pushed about 10 of them because the “road” was so bad.
When we got there, a man and woman living in a small house invited us to stay. That was all we needed as the alternative was to continue on to an abandoned house another 10 KM further and camp out.
Arbol De Piedra, the Stone Tree, is a gorgeous landscape of desert studded with sculpted rock protrusions and ice. One of the sculpted rocks looks just like a windblown tree, giving the place its name. We sat in the warm sunshine most of the afternoon, still trying to recover from the previous days. As the sun set and darkness fell we moved into the small kitchen where the woman was preparing a meal of rice and llama meat. We were told we could use the stove once she was finished.
Unexpectedly, they offered us to take part in their meal and served us all a bowl of rice and meat. Every fibre of my being screamed not to take it but what are you going to do. I took it. It was tasty, too. Afterward, we cooked up a big pot of pasta with mushroom and asparagus sauce and the four of us bunked down on the kitchen floor, happy to be inside as the temperature outside dropped to about -20.
We were awoken when the kitchen door swung open and the sun light streamed in. We quickly cleared up our bedrolls so breakfast could be made. We thanked the pair for their hospitality and the food, and even though they did not ask for money, we all gave them some for their graciousness. It was humbly accepted and we set off under the stares of the morning’s first batch jeep tourists who had already arrived to take selfies with the stone tree.
We had a long day ahead to make it to the next refugio at Laguna Hedionda but as we danced our bicycles around the washboard and sand it became clear that we would not make it that far. In the end we managed 48 KM but as the sun was setting, we desperately needed a place to camp that offered some shelter from the wind. We found it a couple of hundred metres off the track along a sloping mountain ridge.
We quickly pitched the tents before it got completely dark and set about preparing meals. Marcin in his tent, Alice and Nicholas in theirs and I in mine. I was not feeling all that well, however, and strolled off to relieve myself from something that had been roiling inside me all afternoon. It was clear that the llama meat from the previous night had not agreed with me and it wanted out.
Despite the relief of having gotten rid of something obviously rotten, I felt even worse than before. I made a cup of tea and tried to have a couple of biscuits to see if that would settle my system. It did not and I chose not to eat anything but just go to bed. My world was spinning and a half hour later I managed to get my head out of the tent just in time to relieve myself from the top end. The road was claiming another victim.
I crashed, feeling sick and weak, waking up from time to time to have a sip of cold tea, hoping it would stay down. The temperature had dropped to around -15C. My sleeping bag is only rated for 0C but I stayed remarkably warm wearing a wool shirt, toque, socks and tights inside my bag.
In the morning, I still felt very weak and not up to anything. I made a bit of oatmeal and a cup of tea, hoping I would be able to retain that while trying to make it to Laguna Hedionda, thinking I would arrange a ride to San Juan to join Jan and Cyril in mysery. Packing up took forever as I had to stop every few minutes from weakness and nausea, but we finally got under way. It took three hours to cycle the 16KM to Hedionda. I was exhausted. The others also did not feel like moving on so we tried to get a room. I would have gladly paid the exorbitant price of B$130 ($22) but no luck. Fully booked. The staff at the hotel ended up generously giving us a small room off the dining room free of charge. However, I thought I would be better off alone in the tent so as not to disturb the others.
After a lunch of hot soup and bread at the hotel, I set up the tent behind the building in the sun and spent the afternoon in the hot tent dozing and hallucinating. The soup stayed down and by evening I felt a little better as the jeep tourists started streaming in. We arranged to have dinner in the hotel, thinking optimistically that it would do me good to have another soup, a piece of chicken and mashed potatoes. I was right. Good thing, too, as there were no jeeps heading north so I would be stuck there waiting to get to San Juan or somehow get there on my own steam.
That night, I had probably the best night sleep since leaving San Pedro and awoke feeling fairly well rested and much stronger than the day before. I was wondering how Jan was doing in San Juan. We had gotten a message from one of the jeep drivers that they had arrived and were bunked down in one of the hostels there. But that was all.
We had the hotel’s breakfast of bread, pancakes, yogurt and cereal washed down with bad instant coffee and got on the road after buying some bread and bottled water. I was not as strong as I thought but managed pretty well. We had another tough road with lots of washboard, sandy stretches where we had to push the bikes, and just generally a crappy ride through a beautiful landscape where flamingos dot the open water in the lagunas and volcanos pierce the sky.
As the day progressed, I did not feel any stronger. The whole thing was a struggle of mind over body. After about 25 KM we ended up on the road between San Juan and Uyuni. Finally, a sealed road without sand and rocks and washboard, but it was short lived as only eight kilometres later, our route veered north back onto a jeep track with all the familiar elements.
Alice had gotten ahead of me and I did not have the strength to keep up with her. I stopped at the crossroads and yelled but she did not hear me and just kept cycling, disappearing into the distance. Marcin and Nicholas eventually caught up with me once we were over a small pass and down on the Salar on the other side.
It turned out that Alice had ridden to the next intersection and waited. When none of us materialized, she rode on a bit and bivouacked without a tent wearing all her clothes inside her sleeping bag. She is all of 40 KG soaking wet, about what I carry on my bicycle in food and gear, but she is a very tough, young woman. The temperature dipped to -18C that night and us boys had tents to sleep in. Alice arrived in San Juan just about the same time we did the next day none the worse for wear.
We were reunited with Jan and Cyril who both looked pretty chipper and ready to get out of San Juan where they had been for five days. But none of us who had just arrived were ready to move. I was still recovering from my own bout with Montezuma’s revenge and desperately needed a couple of days to rest. We got a room at the hostel where Jan and Cyril had bunked the previous days and had hot showers which did us all a lot of good.
The next day we moved to another hostel as there really was no room for us at jeep tourist central and it had become an uncomfortable situation. The place Nicholas found turned out to be lovely. A circular building made of stone and salt blocks with rooms radiating out from a central covered court yard. All the furniture was made of salt blocks, too, and the hostess was a lovely woman attentive to our needs.
We were all ready to head out the next morning as we turned our wheels north to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. The road, we were told, was good. But this proved to be a misnomer. More dancing with rocks, sand and washboard but we managed to get to the edge of the Salar to the small pueblo of Puerto Chuvica and bargained our way into three rooms, with two beds each, for B$35 per person. The initial price had been B$60, so, not a bad deal. B$35 is the going rate for a bed in these parts but there is always room for price fixing and negotiation.
In the morning, the Salar stretched off to the horizon under yet another crisp blue sky in which a blinding sun reflected off the white salt. Now the road was really good. The Salar is perfectly flat and the road for the most part smooth and straight, stretching off to the horizon.
Three hours and 42 KM of cycling in a straight line we arrived at Isla Incahuasi, a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Salar. The place is the top of the remains of an ancient volcano, which was submerged when the area was part of a giant prehistoric lake, many millennia ago. It is covered by giant cacti and is home to a handful of people, as well as Mongo’s Restaurant where we had one of the best burgers with fries in recent history.
We sat in the sun, getting fried, watching the hordes of jeep tourists come and go but by 5 pm most of them were gone and we pretty much had the place to ourselves, for a while. We made camp on the east side of the island and watched the sun set over this amazing salt expanse from the top of the island. A magical place.
While we made dinner, a couple of trucks and crews rolled in and started building something a few hundred metres from our camp. After a while, we realized that the next day would be June 21, the solstice, and we figured that there would be some kind of event that day. What we had not anticipated was that the event was to be at sunrise.
The sound system testing went on until about 11 pm but we slept well enough until the music started blaring from the speakers at 4.30 am. Hundreds of people had arrived in buses and the party had begun. They all turned to the east as the sun rose over the salar, welcoming the start of a new season, while we watched it from our tent with some amazement.
While we had breakfast and packed up, a few curious people came by to see who we were, where we were from and what we were doing. We left the party behind and headed east for part two of the Salar: 60 km of absolutely horizontal riding on a straight road out to the town of Colchani on the edge of the Salar. It took just over two hours.
The road from Colchani to Uyuni, however, was gone. The highway was under construction and traffic diverted to a 23-kilometre-long torturous path of sand and washboard with trucks and buses slowly bouncing along, kicking up unimaginable amounts of dust.
We quickly got off that torture track and decided to ride the highway under construction. It was flat and relatively smooth, and we had a tailwind to boot. We arrived in Uyuni by mid-afternoon and found a small hotel to spend a few days to rest and eat. I think I left a couple of kilos on the Altiplano that I couldn’t afford to lose, so the goal is to gain them back while here before we carry on.
We had a great dinner with our group of cycling nomads last night while watching the US-Portugal game. They all headed off today while we decided to stay another day to eat and rest. After all, we are more than twice their age and they recover much faster. We watched the Holland-Chile game this afternoon. Hup, Holland! Hup!! On to the next round.