Finally getting ourselves out of La Paz; crossing borders; a fall and a subsequent ambulance trip down to the coast of Chile; a cornucopia of volcanoes and hot springs, and our first salar (salt flat). So much happened in these past few weeks that I thought it might be difficult to describe an overriding feeling and hence this post would be tricky and clunky to write. However, the constant of me was that once we’d distanced ourselves from La Paz and the asphalt and once I was back on my bike after the coastal hospital trip I knew in earnest that I was where I wanted to be – on my bike and on the ripio. These feelings came partly from again grasping the fragility of life on the road through Charmian’s injury, and partly by entering Chile for the first time, a country which would be the penultimate of the 14 I will have travelled through during this trip; it no longer feels as this journey will go on forever. So for now, all I want to do is pedal, pedal, pedal.
Read Nathan’s account here.
17th September – La Paz to Ayo Ayo
Leaving La Paz and the Cordillera Real behind us. We finally made it out of the city, and getting a taxi up to El Alto saved us a lot of time and energy. Charmian and I had done the journey before and it’s not exactly thrilling so we didn’t really feel like doing that climb again. We’d decided to take a main road for a few days before getting back on the dirt. We’d spent so long in La Paz and I think we were keen to create some distance between us and the city as well as making life a little easier for Charm at the beginning.
This was bike touring at its least fun, no shoulder on the road and plenty of trucks making their way down to Chile meant that we could not relax. Another road was being built parallel so we kept dipping onto the almost finished road giving us some space, then it would end for a section and we had to dip back on to the main road, we played this game all afternoon.
18th September – Ayo Ayo to camp
The village of Ayo Ayo had been our destination the previous night and the only accommodation option was a dirty room run by the family who had the restaurant in the square. We swept the floor and the bed before putting our tarps down on the mattresses. This was one windy cold village.
There was more space along the road to Patacamaya than the day before and then we took a turn off heading towards the border which meant there was still a lot of trucks heading down to the coast of Chile .It was hard to find many redeeming features of the riding, grey looming clouds and constant threat of rain meant too many outfit changes. We found a small village to buy bread, Bolivian villages are quite scrappy, usually lots of beer bottles and broken glass.
Huancarama the 2nd, chuckle chuckle
We set off to head winds and rain going up hill. This finally gave way to some more pleasing views, and our first of the Sajama volcano which raised the spirits a bit.
Chullpas,which an old lady told us were from ‘antes antes antes’ (before, before, before) and were used for storing old bones and nothing more.
We over shot the village we were aiming for and instead stopped on the side of the road to ask at a house about water and they pointed us to their well. Someone managed to break the well but luckily the man bashed it back in place with a big rock. We then decided that this would be a good camp spot, and the man obliged to let us camp on his land, brilliant.
19th September – camp to camp
Stunning early morning camp sky.
View from the other side of the camp.
The campesino who’s land we camped on. He asked if we had any medicines for his various ailments and then invited us to stay another night. He said he would cook llama and quinoa and potatoes for us. His parting words were – we are all the same, one god under one sky.
The morning road
We arrived at a place called la Curva which we were relieved to find had shops, meaning that we would not need to take a detour to the village on the map. Here we bought eggs and stale bread for lunch.
We then began a short climb of a few hundred metres but it was quite warm and these two factors combined were too much for Charmian who was a bit of a wreck by the time we got to the top, leading to a prolonged lunch break. Soon after we left the asphalt and we could all begin to relax a bit.
It wasn’t long before we stopped after finding another small farm with accompanying well and smiling campesino with great teeth. Invited us in to sleep and have dinner but we were happy outdoors. We camped inside a dry stone wall llama pen, a perfect wind break. I was quite afraid of this harmless little pup.
20th September – camp to Sajama
Hitting the road for what would be an easy yet rewarding day of riding.
These home made cattle gates are really typical in these parts, some look more bunting like and add a sense of fun.
Nevado Sajama then comes into view. I photographed this volcano probably as many times as I did Cotopaxi, Ecuador, enchanting.
These guys! The way the look keeps changing, and hence they keep filling us with fuzzy feelings of happiness and we continue to photograph them. Twin volcanoes Parinacota and Pomerata in the background.
These guys, again!
Sajama taken from the outskirts of Tomerapi. This village was now just resident to a fancy tourist complex, out of our price range. I tried to bargain with them to prepare us some egg sandwiches but at 8/b a go we got on our way, stopping shortly after to cook up some supernoodles.
We cycled easily to arrive in Sajama. We assessed accommodation options but the town was quiet and not many places were open so this took a while. We finally settled on Hostal Oasis which had hot showers, was clean and the owner let us cook in the kitchen for a little extra money.
21st September – Sajama
The Twins: Parinacota and Pomerata from Sajama village.
These white wash churches are typical in these parts. We would see plenty of similar ones during our Chilean interlude.
One of the twins from Sajama church.
The day is spent doing the usual chores, one of which was stocking up on food for the next 5 days without shops. Sajama has plenty of shops but they are not always open, we manage to get our supplies together though. We plan to wait until the border village of Tambo Quemado to stock up on chocolate.
The hostel owners son is the heart stealing Juan Carlos. He tells me he is 5 years old but I do not believe him as his drawing and words of wisdom are beyond his years. His mother confirms he is telling the truth. He would draw pictures on demand – volcanoes, rabbits, trucks, bicycles, the stuff that was part of his world. The best was a wolf called ‘Lobo Lobito (wolf, little wolf), the lobo was a friend of the shepherds and would eat the foxes who attempted to attack the shepherds llama herd.
‘Rest’ day jobs include washing clothes…
… and some basic bike maintenance. You can see we like to instil gender stereotypes. J-C is more interested in Nathan’s jobs than ours.
22nd September- Sajama – Termas Chirigualla
The day was a shit sandwich. It was a beautiful start leading out of Sajama on unpaved road as you can see.
Those clouds, those views.
Sajama, and those clouds.
This was followed with a crap middle part on the highway leading up to the last Bolivian commercial outpost of Tambo Quemado which was full of Chilean snack food imports and drunk truckers.
We then had a mind numbing climb up to Chile which was tough for Charmian as it went up to around 4650m altitude.
Lago Chungara, although beautiful and full of flamingoes there was plenty of rubbish around the edge of the lake.
Bolivian trucks have to wait hours in a line which tails back for miles. They are all heading down to the port in Arica, Chile. It seems a little sad to me, Bolivia has been a landlocked country for over 100 years when Chile took it during the Pacific war. To enter Chile you are allowed no fresh food – which includes fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs or honey. We had to put our bags through a scanner and have them checked. We stopped at the carabineros (Police) to stock up on water as there would be none for the next 40km. They insisted on giving us a whole load of army nations in the form of shrink wrapped biscuits, nuts and some fruit purées. Parinacota in the background.
Then climb on sandy surface which was very engaging and works me hard, we hadn’t had a climb like that since leaving dirt road Peru behind, I felt alive. We crossed from the Lauca National Park into the Vicuña National Reserve. Nathan and I chatted at the top for a while before I went down to find Charm, helping her for the last few metres, breathing was really difficult for her.
We then had a 5km descent to the to the thermal springs of Chirigualla.There was a small hut with a bath inside, the water was funnelled from the spring outdoors. Indoors was so hot so I opted to bathe outdoors.
Dividing the army nations given to us by the Carabineros.
23rd September Terma Chirigualla to camp
Nathan and I slept well but Charm had a restless night, sleeping higher than she had been before. We have been drinking a lot of coca tea as it helps with altitude. For this route chocolate Nestle cereal become our breakfast stable as we found no oats in Sajama or Tambo.
Our thermal water heated home. Charm and I squeezed on to the cardboard seat area and Nathan took the floor. Cozy and warm.
It was a day of rolling terrain under a heavy sky which suited the surrounds.
Volcan Guallatire and the Vicuña. These are a protected species and we saw so many of them in their National Reserve.
Viva Chile! We snacked on army nations under this flag. They seem to love flag flying in this country.
Open landscapes and big skies.
We stop in Guallatire for lunch. There is a tap for filling water and apparently some accommodation but no shop.
The afternoon gives way to a healthy combination of ups and downs….
…. and has me exclaiming at the end of the day – I love bike touring! The kind of day that makes me feel I could do this forever.
Nathan found us a great camp spot. It hasn’t been very cold but still we crack out the cocoa winters. It’s pasta for dinner again before jumping into the tents. The night ends with a game of eye spy being shouted across the camp.
24th September – the fall
Leaving camp, we are heading closer to a mining complex and the dust you can see is what happens every time a truck passes us on the road.
It’s less than half an hour into the day when Charmian falls of her bike. A full account of this and the time we spent in Arica can be read here.
I have a moment to take in the views of Salar Surire complete with flamingoes and Vicuña from the Chilcaya Carabinero’s station before we are driven to the health centre in Putre 150km away and then from there down to the hospital in Arica another 150km away.
25th-27th September – Arica
28th September – travelling back up to Chilcaya
29th September – Chilcaya to camp
You can read about how I made my way back up to Chilcaya in the account of the fall, but basically the Carabinero’s became my personal chauffeurs for around 150km, enabling me to start again where I had left the route a few days before. They provided me with a days worth of meals in the process, and some very worthwhile Spanish lessons. I find my Spanish improves so much when I am not able to retreat back to speaking English at any point. I spent an evening watching Chilean football league whilst an open fire was stoked, and the night was spent on the control room floor before I started out again. Espero que ustedes Los Carabineros de Chilean estan leyendo eso, si estan, gracias mucho tambien estoy muy agradecida.
Juxtaposed – flamingoes in the foreground and Borax mining going on in the background. The Salar is still beautiful and I see no traffic on the eastern section that I ride.
Once I cycle on a bike further I leave behind any sight of the mining and the views are unadulterated beauty.
The scenes keep changing as I cycle around the salar, at times it is tough and there is plenty of pushing through sand. I listen to the instructions to ignore any left turn offs which would mean re-entering Bolivia.
It is 32km around the lake before I reach the thermal baths I am aiming for which are on the west side. The salt looks like snow and the Vicuña are hanging out near the inviting warm springs.
I finally reach Polloquere thermal baths at around lunch time and I am in the process of stripping off when the only car of the day appears. It is a bunch of German tourists and their guide. They have no intention of swimming but I do not let them discourage me and I get in to enjoy a brief soak.
Then it’s time to get back to riding. It’s grey sky and head wind for 10km around the salar before taking a well sign posted left turn towards Colchane. There is a stretch of pampa before beginning a climb. I photograph these curious plants which I later find out are one of the oldest living things on the planet.
I pass a few derelict settlements….
…. and continue to climb on corrugated sandy surfaces with only long afternoon shadows for company…
….I can literally feel Nathan’s tracks.
Paso Cerro Capitan reveals Peru like views.
Which leads to a cautious and cold stunning descent.
Towards the end of the descent I realise I will soon enter open pampa so opt to find a place on the high land where it is easier to hide. I go in those scrubby looking trees to the right.
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. The evolving sunset distracts me as I set up camp. Everything is so quick solo and I make couscous and beans (was so excited to find beans in cartons in Chile) for dinner with enough to put in my tupperware for lunch.
30th September – camp to Sabaya, Bolivia.
I am kept up most of the night by wind, otherwise a great camp spot. Being on my own I am shaving off an hour during my morning routine and I soon hit the road.
A short decent before entering open pampa.
There is what feels like a long section of corrugated sand, there are numerous tracks to choose from, some look better than the others but end up being just as bad. It is here that I vow to get rid of my front panniers for good as they keep bouncing off.
The route is dotted with abandoned villages, all of which have these little while wash churches.
I see a few vehicles that day, one of which is some French who stop to photograph me and give me water. Check out that sand, but oh, those clouds.
Some hilly sections mean a welcome change of scenery in Volcan Isluga National Park.
I find plenty of dread locked and matted ‘slug’ llamas in the swamps.
I pass Volcan Isluga and I am racing along this route.
I enter the main road turning left towards the border of Colchane, gaining a couple more stamps on in my passport.
Yep, these guys confirm it, I am back in Bolivia. This is such a stupid poster it makes me laugh every time. I consider staying in Pisiga on the Bolivian side for the night but I am not quite sure how to enter the Salar de Coipasa from here, so I decide to make the dash to Sabaya, 42km away. It involves about 500m of climbing and I manage it in 2 hours.
The descent towards Sabaya reveals stunning open views of the Salar de Coipasa, a sneak preview of what would face me the following morning.
Returning to Bolivia after a week in Chile was a culture shock, Sabaya was a bit of a crumbling mess, this sunset saved it though. Red sky at night…. I was glad that I arrived well before dark as there was an electricity cut in town. I had probably cycled around 120km that day and I was shattered. There is less of a sense of occasion when I am on my own so dinner was a whole packet of cream crackers with peanut butter whilst watching a film.
We followed the route notes given on Sarah and James’s blog. I also photographed this map which includes most of the Chilean section. If you are only doing the Chilean section of this route then you can pick up very good quality maps at the tourist information in Putre. Putre is pleasant village which acts as the tourist launch for Lauca and Vicuña national parks. I am really interested to see what Lauca National Park is like. We took the highway out of La Paz for valid reasons but I would recommend to others to take this andesbybike.com out of La Paz and then link it up with the Chilean section that we took, Nathan says this also.
- Ears popping in an ambulance, Charmian’s fall
- Salt, and a Solo Celebration