The High Desert, Lagunas, and Cream Crackers of South Bolivia

The Lagunas route of the Sur Lipez Region of Bolivia is one of those routes, like the preceding Salars that you just expect you will ride.  To be honest I had heard the name banded around by other cyclists, and knew that this was primarily a voyage carried out by tourists in jeeps stopping off at various sights along the way, but what was this place actually about? The Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve is apparently Bolivia’s most visited national reserve, the whole area sits way above 4000m sea level and the reason so many flock to this area is to visit the coloured lakes, other worldly rock formations, volcanoes, geisers, hot springs, and flamingoes.  The vast expanses of high desert where nothing grows, no water flows and no people live (but those serving the tourist industry) adds to intensity of this place, I can imagine going at the speed of a jeep this would be quite an impressive journey.  Some tourists told me that this is surely the most beautiful place on earth. To that I replied that beauty is surely subjective.

In Uyuni I was reunited with Nathan after our solo Salar stints.  We pondered the idea of riding the lagunas for a while, fearing the jeeps, tourists and corrugation on the road might cause a lot of frustration; however back in La Paz The Positivity crew, Cass and Mike had spoken with such enthusiasm that we were convinced to ride at least some of the route.  Honestly, I leave the route planning to Nathan, he has clearer ideas than I do about how he wants to ride, and he is very meticulous, and I did not hold strong feelings either way.  What I did know was that I wanted to go up Uturuncu, a volcano where it is possible to ride up to 5777m, and then hike the final way to over 6000m, some of our friends had done it and it sounded like my idea of fun. With this a route was planned that involved a few of the lakes, and then went off towards Quetena where we would ride Uturuncu.  Our plans however changed completely, and this is my story of our bike ride in South Bolivia. This was a land where fresh food is hard to come by, and cream crackers became a dietary staple.

You can read Nathan’s account here. 

In Uyuni Nathan and I had sent some of our stuff on encomienda to be light and stealthy and decrease the chances of having to push in sand.  I think this made the route a lot more fun for us.

The reason this blog has taken so long to come out is because my laptop has broken, maybe it was the cold nights, or the corrugation but the motherboard is broken and can not be fixed.  I will try my best to continue this blog.  For this post I have used a combination of internet cafes and my friend Jukka’s computer.

                                         

                                         13th October – Uyuni to Rio Grande

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We head out of Uyuni  on the train tracks after a decent rest, I felt as though I’d had a good chance to catch up on sleep and was raring to go. We leave with plenty of food as we were not sure of supplies in small villages, crackers and biscuits yes but pasta and oats, maybe not.

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A few km along the road we stop to check out the train cemetery.

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Alti-plano views from a dead train.

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Ground control to Major Tom.

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We ride along the salty mud in blazing heat. After lunch we had to give ourselves a real pep talk as we found ourselves sapped with energy and reluctant to keep riding. The train tracks became difficult to ride so we instead took a track which went wide of the tracks and made our journey a lot longer than planned.

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We crossed a river, and were chased by some weather and made it to Rio Grande before dark. We did a good deed as we had seen a guy who’s moped had broken down so we went and alerted the relevant people for him. We found a place to stay and the owners knew Gill, a physiotherapist colleague I had worked with back in London. Gill had volunteered in Bolivia for a few years and had helped their disabled daughter. The woman cooked us food of rice and eggs and cups of tea and we slept really well. We were impressed by how well stocked the shops in Rio Grande were.

                  14th October – Rio Grande to San Augustin

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We arrive in the railway village of Julica and decide to take a turn off to San Agustin rather than go to San Juan, which would save us half a day of riding. The only people who speak to us are a drunk, and some of the children that make up the 8 pupil village school.

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The track was sandy in sections but mostly ridable.

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It was an enjoyable afternoon riding with some climbs to keep things interesting.

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We found a really comfortable place to stay in the village, we were again really tired and were grateful for the bed.

                           15th October – San Agustin to camp

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We headed out of the pleasant San Agustin…

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….we crossed a river and then began to climb.

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At the top of the climb we were treated to some great views.

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We then stopped to eat cream crackers for lunch with some odd looking llamas.

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The rock formations are a real draw in these parts.

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We arrive in the village of Alota thirsty, and hungry for something other than crackers and biscuits. The writing across the front of the school is an Aymaran proverb and says – Do not steal, do not lie, and do not be lazy, people tell us that central to their culture that they live by these words, I have seen it written in many places.

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Finding adequate supplies in small villages of Bolivia is often hard as people tend to work the chacra (small holding of land) during the day, even if they have a business such as a shop or restaurant. All in all we spent around 2 hours in Alota hunting for food to last us around 5 more days. We had a lot of bread, some eggs, jam, backup supplies of crackers and even some freshly made orange cake. No oats though, our bags were brimming and we were carrying 24hrs worth of water in our drom bags (8litres each).

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Finally making it out of Alota we ride another 15km up hill on a more major road.

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We find a place to camp amongst some huge rock formations. We cook eggs , it’s always a treat to not eat pasta for dinner. It is a warm night, we are suprised about how mild it has been so far compared with how cold other cyclists warned us it would be.

                                     16th October – camp to camp

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Continuing up through the rock forest, there are plenty of trucks coming from the border which cause lots of dust and make riding quite unpleasant. We are also heading towards the lagunas route and there is plenty of jeep traffic too.

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To get away from the traffic we take a turn off onto some rocky track. It is initially hard to find a good position but it works out fine. Nathan does not fee well that morning and progress is slow.

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Some fun sections of road soon lift the spirits though.

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These little stone piles are offerings to Pachamama (mother earth) for a safe passage.

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It was a great decision to take that track, beautiful.

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I love the way these scrubs shimmer in the sunlight.

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We stop at the salar for lunch, our recent purchases in Alota means we get to eat jam sandwiches instead of crackers, hurrah!

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We arrived at a stream which was unexpected. This meant we did not have the pressure to arrive back to the main road to collect water from the hotel, instead we decide to back track to the salar and began climbing up. We name this guy the Llama King as he stands so proud over his land and the rest of the flock.

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Nathan collects and siphons water, whilst I lie in the dirt.

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Back at the salar. Weighed down with water it wasn’t long before we decided to stop to camp, finding a dry stone pen to call home. The floor of the pen was sandy and I pushed by pegs into floor easily and was about to put my belongings inside when a sudden gust of wind came and blew my tent away. There had been no wind until that point. I couldn’t grab it and watched as my tent flew up and away. I began chasing it but running is just not easy at 4700m above sea level and it was soon out of sight over the brow of a hill. The wind was up now and the surface was rocky and full of scrubs and hard to run on. I had no clue of where to look and just did not expect I would ever see it again. I eventually found it after around a mile of walking and as the light was fading. The outer part of the tent was completely ripped after obviously being bashed by rocks and prickly plants, but the poles and inner were in tact. I could not believe I had found it! Taking the tent back to camp was tricky. The wind was strong and the tent was like a sail but I couldn’t take the tent down as there was too much wind to do so and my fingers too cold to work the clips. The tattered tent would have to be gaffa taped the following night as I feared the winds might rip it apart even more. I finally made it back to camp, I lied in my tent just relieved it still existed in some form, and Nathan made pasta. The weather had not been too cold camping but was progressively getting colder and colder each night.

                                      17th October- camp to camp

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This photo of Nathan sort of typifies his mood that day. His cereals spilt on the floor at breakfast time and then he became poorly.

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We climb up and then head down to the sandy expanse.

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This was the hardest and most boring section to ride.

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I felt so small in the nothingness.

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We arrive at Laguna Cachi and are pushing is rewarded with the tranquility and flamingoes.

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Laguna Cachi.

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Nathan is a clean and tidy boy, he usually sits on a mat as not to make his trousers dirty. This pose therefore is quite reflective of how he feels that afternoon. We snooze for a bit before resolving to begin riding again.

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It is a brutal afternoon, going up hill with a headwind on a rocky and sandy surface, not much fun. I say I would rather be at home on the sofa watching HeartBeat or Midsommer Murders, and Nathan just feels awful.

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Luckily we came down to the main Lagunas route and found some rock formations that could act as wind breaks and enable us to camp. Taking no risks that night we gathered giant rocks to place over our tent pegs. Nathan crawled into his tent and I made medicinal coca tea and peanut butter noodles. I had been carrying a tiny hot water bottle out of fear of the cold nights but this was the first time I’d used it for the feverish Nathan.

                                   18th October-camp to Piedra de Arbol 

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Nathan was feeling better that morning, we were not too sure if the illness was caused by the altitude but this meant that we gave up on the idea to ride up Uturuncu. Instead we would ride the rest of the Lagunas route, I was happy with that and excited by the idea of getting to Chile.

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Starting off that day.

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Our water situation wasn’t great but after around 10km we made it to a desert hotel where the friendly staff let us fill our water bags and we bought an overpriced coca cola. The hotel serves the jeep tours on the laguna route and seemed pretty luxurious.

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The second half of the morning was the most pushing we did on the lagunas route, and was because we were not on the main track. We stopped at some rock formations for lunch and made friends with this little rock bunny, we understand now it is called a Viscacha.  Ultimate respect to this guy, anything that lives out here must be double ‘ard.

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We are tourists too!

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Entering the National Park there are plenty of reminders for the jeeps to stick to main track.

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The main track is in good condition and we can ride!

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We arrive at some rock formations, the biggest attraction is this one, called the rock tree. I love the guy in blue’s power photo shooting stance.

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Soon the last of the jeeps has gone and we are left to choose a camp spot. Under many of the stones there is toilet paper, and worse. I feel quite disillusioned, there is a toilet on site but it’s quite grim and it seems people would prefer to use the national park as their toilet.

                            19th October- Arbol de Piedra to Laguna Colorada

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The first tourists arrive around 6am. There was one German guy who approached us to tell us he too rides a touring bike, and we gave us some biscuits and an apple (the first fruit we had seen since leaving Uyuni), he was quite teary and emotional as he did this, and we are touched.

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The morning sunlight shows the rocks in all their beauty.

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The tree rock, whittled away by the winds and sands of time.

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We cycle down to Laguna Colorada and pay to enter national park. At 150/B (about £12), it might not sound a lot to people at home but that’s about twice the daily income for a Bolivian. I didn’t see a park ranger during our 4 days in the park.  When I left the park I asked where the money goes, I was told it goes to the government, it seems it is a tourist tax rather than a fee to help maintain the park.

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At the lake there are a series of refugios (refuges that offer accommodation to tourists). They have little shops attached and in one we found chocolate, biscuits, coffee, crackers and pasta. Sat outside the shop thinking of what supplies we’d need for the rest of the route we came to the decision to stay put at the lake for the rest of the day. We found a comfortable room in the first refugio which seemed the best, we got tea and crackers late afternoon and then dinner of vegetable soup, and spaghetti with cheese and then breakfast of pancakes, bread, hot chocolate and coffee included in the 80/b price. There was a refugio next door with a shower, it cost 15B to use the shower which we paid, it was worth it to feel clean. The rest of the afternoon we spent washing our small items, walking around the red lake and playing UNO. I’d recently purchased the card game and it’s been worth the £1 spent. The tourist jeeps arrived late afternoon and left before we woke at 6am, they seem on a tight schedule.

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It seems the lake is most red in the afternoon and this is when we head out to take our snaps.

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Popular flamingo hang out.

                  20th October – Laguna Colorada to Sol de Mañana

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Previously we had planned on taking a turn off here to Quetena Chica but instead we carried straight on around the lake then up.

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There were not many jeeps on the road in the morning.

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We begin to climb and the clouds are as much of a draw to me as the lakes.

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Taking a lunch break at the top of that climb. I appall Nathan that I am able to just lie down in the dirt, I think really he is just envious of my ability to not care.

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Just because you are eating cream crackers in the dust doesn’t mean you can not add a sense of occasion to meal time. The apple given to us by the German the day before is such a treat.

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Those clouds.

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The tourist jeeps were more frequent in the late afternoon and the people inside them would clap as they drove past, people were only trying to be encouraging but what was quite annoying was people just getting out of our cars to photograph us without wanting a conversation or asking us first, we felt a bit like animals in the zoo. The late afternoon became pretty miserable, we were heading up hill facing a freezing head wind and the clouds were grey. We made it to the Sol de Mañana (The morning sun) geisers where the route notes we were following said we could wind a break from the wind. There was nothing suitable around apart from a disused building but there was excrement covering the floor inside as well as out. We headed up to some sulphur mine to try and find some shelter but there was none up there. We settled on a small quarry type dug out that was only big enough for one tent, so we had to share. We were so over it, and we just ate biscuits in the tent and went to sleep.

                          21st October – Sol de Mañana to camp

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It was a cold cold night, too cold for me to sleep properly in all of my clothes so I think it was lower than -15c, although I may have felt so cold because I was already freezing before even setting up camp. Crawling out of our little ditch the morning started with 2 jeeps taking interest. The first came over and a person ran over and started photographing without saying anything to us and the second just wanted to know if we were ok, about our experiences and insisted on giving us some food.

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We headed down hill, some dusty mine traffic getting in our way until we arrived at Laguna Chiviri. There is a hot springs pool at the lake making it an essential stop over for the tours. There is a restaurant which provides food for the jeep tours and reluctantly they prepared us rice and eggs and we watched longingly whilst the tours ate their vegetables and fruits.

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We headed on up hill under heavy clouds, rocket charged with coffee.It was a freezing and miserable descent down but became less difficult as we lost altitude. We found some old buildings to camp in which were perfect.

                               22nd October- camp to San Pedro de Atacama

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Camp. So many of my photos have been sabotaged by Nathan making faces or hand gestures.

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Awwwww, he can be a nice boy some times.

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We weren’t in a rush to leave camp as we knew that Laguna Verde (The Green Lake) was best viewed after 9am when the wind sweeps the otherwise mirror lake into green.

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It is quite a site to watch the lake change colour.

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We are satisfied with what we have seen and get on our way.

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We arrive at the refugio by the exit to the national park. A tour group gives us some left overs of REAL ,PROPER food, wow!

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It’s up hill for the final 6km of Bolivia. Laguna Blanca (The white lake) and the refugio behind us.

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Quite a humble little office. I beat Nathan up there, which impresses the Immigration guys so much that they forget to charge us the 15/b exit fee (which is a complete scam anyway).

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Simon Bolivar freed South America from Spanish rule, Bolivia named their country after him. His photo hangs proudly from the wall….

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…. next to Evo Morales. We had left Uyuni the day after the election and had not heard the official results. The immigration guys told us he had won a 3rd term with 62% of the votes.

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Welcome to Chile!

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It feels pretty exciting that we now only have 2 countries ahead of us.

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It is downhill on a paved road for 45km to San Pedro de Atacama. This is my last day of riding with compadre Nathan. We had ridden out of Ayacucho, Peru expecting to do one route together, but this had turned into a 4 month union of high altitude dirt road jaunts and a lot of silliness and cynicism.  It has been an honor and I will miss him.

5 thoughts on “The High Desert, Lagunas, and Cream Crackers of South Bolivia

  1. Nathan Haley

    Lets be clear of one thing Ms. Fitzsimmons, I do not envy your ability not to care. You are getting envy confused with pity. Did you hear the story of the motherboard that committed suicide it was so ashamed of its owners tendency to crawl around in the dirt? Did you? I did.
    Good luck on your future rides… keep it dirty and never forget about the gnarly

    Moonface ; )

    1. Cherry Post author

      Jukka, you know it! However the quality of Bolivian oats was always disappointing. Much better here in Argentina.

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