30 November 2014

Pisiga to Uyuni: sinking and surfacing in the salares

Back in Bolivia after our brief stint in Chile, we headed for one of the most iconic segments of any cycle tour in South America, the chance to cycle across Bolivia's salares (salt flats). We would first take on the smaller and less touristy Salar de Coipasa, and then move on to the big kahuna, the largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. Apart from arriving in Ushuaia, it is probably the single most common place for cycle tourists in South America to visit, and with good reason. Riding a bike across the salares allows you to experience them in full, delivering an experience that is unmatched by any other method of transportation -- plus, it makes for some pretty cool photos.

Apart from contemplating the vastness of the universe, seasoning your food with the ground you are standing on, and wondering whether you´re the only one who finds the salt a little bit monotonous, there are two other rites of passage that every salar cyclist must undertake: taking perspective pictures and riding in your birthday suit. Readers can rest assured that photographic evidence of the latter will not be shared (unless, of course, offered a big chunk of money...)!

Our first attempt on the Salar de Coipasa is a bit of a fail, as we attempt to shortcut directly onto the salar from Pisiga instead of going via the town of Coipasa. The salar in this area turns out to be full of unrideable salt-mud. We push for a few hours anyway, expecting it to get better if we just push a little bit further. 

Finally, after half a day of pushing, we decide to turn around and head back to shore. On our way back we hit the worst surface yet, pushing our bikes through (bike-destroying) salty water and occasionally sinking in a bit too deep.  The worst nightmare a cyclist can ever have in Bolivia.

But then we miraculously find the good stuff - flat, smooth, hard salt. 

So this is why everyone rides the salares! Left side is Lucy, then Alicia and Quique

Our good luck continues as we spot a lonely house on the edge of the salar. The young family living there (the father works on the salar) says we can sleep in their small huts made of salt.

Tourists pay good money to sleep in salt hotels!

The family even give us some water to give the bikes a good washing.

The family helps direct us to the road through the salar, and we enjoy a great morning of salt-flat riding.

We try another ´shortcut´on the way out of the Salar de Coipasa, heading for the town of Llica. Unfortunately it results in pushing our bikes for 11km through deep sand in stifling heat. 

It´s exhausting.

...and our skin suffers the effects of altiplano riding 
It takes all day, but eventually we get to Llica, where we down a liter of cold Coke each and sit in the shade for about three hours. We then set off early the following morning on to famous Salar de Uyuni, where, surprisingly, we found some signs...
Having thoroughly learned our lesson on Coipasa, we stick to the roads this time......getting into the routine of riding on salt, for many many km. It´s actually very grippy, even though our minds keep thinking it´s snow and slippery
When the riding becomes a bit too monotonous, we take breaks in the baking sun...

...or play with the cameras and perspectives. The unchanging white scenery occasionally gives us the feeling that we're running on a hamster wheel...

Within striking distance of Isla Incahuasi (which will allow us to fill up on much-needed water) we decide to camp for the night on the salt instead. It turns out to be a great decision, certainly one of the most special camps of the trip
After a visit to Isla Incahuasi for water the next morning, we continued on in the direction of Uyuni

That day it was surprisingly hot on the salar, and shade was hard to come by...
And so those of us with a more delicate skin have to apply severe measures. Sun reflection is no joke in the salar!
We closed our eyes and wished for a swimming pool, but it didn't appear...
...instead we found this sulfur-smelly holes all over the road

We eventually grew tired of the perspective pictures...
...so decided to find the only shelted spot in the whole salar: Quique and Alicia´s tarp!

Rather than pressing on to Uyuni, we opted for another night on the magical salar - which meant again using the rock we had brought from Llica to hammer the tent stakes in to the salt.  

Our two little tents vs. the vastness of the salar at sunset

The following morning, after a quick route check, we set off for the road to Uyuni (the town) and said our goodbyes to the salar
 ...and just like that, we were in Gringoville, otherwise known as Uyuni! Despite being utterly uninteresting it was a fine place to spend a few days relaxing after having had neither days off nor showers since La Paz. Then it was time to plan our next adventure and our exit after an all-too-short stay in Bolivia. 

Route notes:
- Pisiga to Llica: We recommend taking the roads to Coipasa to enter the salar and taking the road to Tres Cruces in order to leave it, which we clearly didn't do ourselves!
- Llica to Uyuni: We used the excellent Tour.TK guide to cycling Southwest Bolivia which has all relevant information. 
- In Uyuni we stayed at Hotel Avenida for Bs 80 for a double with shared bathroom. There may possibly be cheaper options outside of the center, but we found this to be reasonable considering it´s Uyuni and the prices are much higher than anywhere else on the altiplano (including La Paz)

12 November 2014

La Paz to Pisiga via Sajama and Northern Chile: the route of the volcanos

After a restful week off in La Paz, we set off to visit Bolivia´s highest mountain (actually a volcano, Sajama, at 6542 m) before crossing the western border into Chile, for a visit to some of Chile´s most remote national parks. After all the worry about reaching Bolivia in the dry season, we were treated to warm, stable weather which allowed us to take in the scenery all around. That is, when we were able to look up from the horribly sandy and washboard road conditions. Riding in the Bolivian (and Chilean) altiplano was totally different to what had come before it -- and totally spectacular.   

Our brief stint on the main road north of La Paz had taught us that highway riding in Bolivia is not for us. So we took a bus to Patacamayo, about two hours by car south of La Paz, where our route would turn off of Bolivia´s main highway and onto a road mainly used by trucks headed for the port in Arica, Chile. We left La Paz with Michael, from the US, and rode with him for the first few days.
The road was mainly quiet, apart from a few peak truck times everyday, and we were treated to views of the volcano Sajama, Bolivia´s highest peak, almost all the way. 
The road took us past many chulpas, or precolombian burial structures -- this one still had bones inside!
We pedalled on, over the river Desaguadero...
...and at camp o´clock diverted onto a footpath to find the first of many perfectly flat camping spots.

Although the main road is not busy by any stretch of the imagination, we grew tired of checking our rear-view mirror for trucks, so said goodbye to Michael as we diverted off of the main road onto a dirt (read: sand) road that would take us around the perimeter of  Sajama.
The following morning, we pass the village of Tomarapi

We quickly learned that desert riding means taking advantage of every opportunity to fill up with water. This well in the tiny village of Osjani did the trick.
We set up camp for the night in the wide open altiplano, hoping the slightly-higher-than-average bushes will provide some sort of wind shelter.

We pass through the village of Tomarapi (house to a very fancy hotel, at Bs 550 a night) the next day, and eat lunch in the shelter of the beautiful church.

An afternoon wind requires we find a sheltered spot, which we finally do in the pampa next to a slightly thermal river. As ever, Sajama looms in the background.

The road is sandy, but all rideable...

...and soon enough we are dumped back onto to main highway, just before the border town of Tambo Quemado.

A short climb to the Chungara pass (at almost 4700 m) and we enter our fifth country of the trip - Chile!

Before we even reach the border post in Chile we spot our first flamencos at the famous laguna Chungara.
After the border formalities, we turn up a sandy track which has us pushing almost immediately. In the background, the text book volcano-shape Parinacota (on the left, at 6348 m) and its neighbour Pomerape (at 6222 m)

Fortunately, the beautiful views of the volcanoes distract us from what a slog it is. 

Finally, after taking 2.5 hours to cover the 10km from the border, we arrive at the Termas Chirigualla. The hot springs create a wonderful heated temperature inside, and just about fit two sleeping cyclists (we reckon it was well below -10C at night outside).

But the termales were way too hot for our liking...until in the morning, a nice Bolivian shepherd showed us the trick to make them more beareable. Simply block the hot water input to the pool with the pictured bottle and rock,and wait for it to cool down.

In the morning, we are treated to our first views of the fumarole of the volcano Guallatiri.
Having gone through the village of Guallatiri, where the kind carabineros gave us much needed water, we cycled past another stunning river valley. We then followed what we believed was the tyre tracks of fellow cyclists Carwyn and Mark (yes, we cyclists know each other tyre tracks), and found a great sheltered campspot.

Then it was only another 20 km on corrugated and sandy surfaces (with plenty of mining trucks, of the very kind Chilean variety!) to the Salar de Surire. This was the first salar we've ever seen, and surely the most impressive with its wildife

In Chile things are a little different. Not only did we find signs showing distances to every village en route, but also, they suggest where you can take pictures!
Vicuñas were a common sight chilling out on the salar.
As were flamencos...apparently more than one species can be found here...but being no biologists, we had no clue which ones were they...help!?

We went the East way around the salar, occasionally pushing on sand, until we found one of the most incredible campsites of our journey...

...a flat, sheltered spot, overlooking the salar. All was left was an ideal sunset, which we also got.
The following morning we carried on and briefly entered Bolivia, before heading back to Chile. We knew Michael, plusSpaniards Quique and Alicia (and Michael) were a few hours ahead of us, so we pressed on....

First we caught up with Michael...and cycle past more abandoned villages, with their immaculate churches

Then sandboarded with our bikes through thick sand. Fat bikes came to our minds.

A few km ahead, we caught up with Quique and Alicia, from Las Palmas (Canary Islands) and Ferrol (Galicia), and a mini-peloton of 5 was formed.

With the afternoon winds picking up, we were lucky to find the abandoned settlement of Aravilla...

...and a building which fitted our three tents just perfectly. 

In the morning, we pressed on to the Chilean border town of Colchani, but first was Enquelga. We were surprised by its brand new plaza.
Just before Colchani, the washboard and sand ended and were treated to some km of fine pavement...so we just chilled out to the border.
Once in the Bolivian town of Pisiga Bolivar, we had no choice but to stock up with some junk...

Before crashing down in an ambiente that the villagers lent us. Back in Bolivia, for now...
Route notes:
- La Paz to Tambo Quemado:
We took the bus to Patacamayo for Bs. 20 from the terminal in La Paz (Bs. 2 terminal fee also). We were told to negotiate an extra fee for the bikes with the driver, but he didn't ask us for anything. Prom Patacamayo the main highway is excellent pavement with a good shoulder. The truck traffic was not too bad but compared to the quiet roads we got accustomed to we found it bothersome. Note that our map shows both Callapa and Curahuara de Carangas as on the main road, but in fact both would require a few km's detour. However there are shops and restaurants on the main road at the turnoff to Curahuara, known as 'Curva'.

We followed Big Sur's route notes and turned off of the main highway not too long after Curva to take the dirt road looping around the Volcano and into the town of Sajama. This added almost no distance to the route but added about a day's cycling due to the road being much slower. The town of Sajama has accommodation and (expensive) shops. This road dumps you back onto the main highway close to Tambo Quemado, which has restaurants, shops, and accommodation. Nathan (Velo Freedom) also has useful notes on this route.

- Tambo Quemado to Pisiga Bolivar:
We again followed Big Sur's notes to cross into Chile (no fresh fruit, veg, meat or dairy allowed). We expected there to be no shops or accommodation en route but were told that there is a restaurant with basic shop selling cookies and the like in Guallatiri, as well as accommodation there. The notes on where to get water from Big Sur are spot on. There is a fair amount of truck traffic from shortly after the hot springs all the way until Chilcaya / Salar de Surire. The drivers are without exception courteous, passing with plenty of room and usually giving a wave as they do so. But the sandy road creates plenty of unpleasant dust each time they pass.

 We took the shortcut that Quique found from the Salar de Surire to save about 25km and a couple hundred meters of climbing, turning left uphill about 3/4ths of the way around the Salar (this misses out Polloquere hot springs). The uphill is steep (pushing required), but overall we recommend it, especially as it cuts short the time until the next water source (a freshwater stream on the pampa once you have descended the other side). Carabineri at both Guallatiri and Chilcaya were familiar with this alternative should you have questions - if you mention the road that briefly goes into Bolivia and then back out they will know what you're talking about.

There are shops and accommodation in Colchane, on the Chilean side of the border, but you might as well cross to Pisiga where things are cheaper.

We did this route in 4 days/ 4 nights, including taking things a bit easy the last two days once we met up with the rest of the group. It could quite easily be done in 4 days / 3 nights if you cross the border in the morning and don't camp at the Termas Chirigualla. We carried food for 5 days just to be sure.