Back in Bumpy old Bolivia

This wasn’t our first visit to Bolivia’s inhospitable Sud Lipez region. As true Gringo Trailers eleven years ago we zoomed through on a four day jeep tour. Then, in 2010, we pedalled through with a sense of awe. The ‘Lagunas’ route is a challenge most cyclists feel they must complete on a journey along the Andes. Beforehand we pored over maps, gleaned information from other cyclists’ blogs and psyched ourselves for the toughest ride of our lives. Then, we were surprised to find that though the roads were corrugated and sandy and the wind exhausting, the fabled ‘Lagunas’ route wasn’t as tough as it was built up to be. Jeeps seemed to pass continually. This was no wilderness route, and navigation wasn’t tricky. As Amaya mused when cycling here,  ‘Getting lost in southwestern Bolivia … is about as likely as getting lost on your way to the supermarket.’

Despite the jeeps, we loved the wide open spaces and went on to explore the Bolivian highlands for a further two months, then decided this year to come back for more. But a return to Bolivian roads came as somewhat of a shock after the well maintained surfaces in Peru. Our selective amnesia had remembered the big skies, cone-shaped volcanoes and colourful lakes but eliminated the bumpy discomfort. Or maybe the surface on the route through San Pablo and Quetena was just worse…

On a Bolivian road you rarely have time to look around. Eyes need to remain fixed on the few metres ahead to negotiate the next obstacle. Sometime it’s corrugations; sometimes sand. Ocassionally it’s rocks. Or a river, thrown in just for fun. We found ourselves wondering what a different experience cycling here would be if the roads were improved; or even paved. Looking around to enjoy the scenery would be possible. All routes would take half the time. You’d hardly have to carry any food and water. But perhaps we all traipse to this corner of the world for the misery factor?

We also pondered what cycling Sud Lipez would’ve been like before it was on the the gringo to-do list. Was this yet another destination that it’s now ‘too late’ for? Now in the tourist honeypot of San Pedro we can’t help but wonder what a potty business tourism is. If we travel to discover new cultures and experiences why do touristy places continually evolve to become more like back home? Why do we demand coffee and pizza when we’re in the middle of the driest desert on Earth?

Hmmmm coffee……


From Cusco we caught a bus to La Paz to see Raul and Linda, and to meet Alvaro, for whom we’ve been ‘padrinos’ for the past few years.


La Paz is still pretty much our favourite city in the world and is made even more special by now having some good friends in town. Here we are at Alvaro’s home, where his charming mum Jeanette cooked us up a feast. After 5 happy days in town, we dragged ourselves away and catch a 4th bus in a week. This one goes to dull old Uyuni, where luckily more amigos await.


In the form of these Three Little Piggies who’ve just been to market. And come back with 80 peanut bars and 60 Sublimes… This is Anna, James and Sarah whom we met months ago back in Huaraz. Our taking the bus from Abancay to Uyuni meant we could catch up again before heading out to the Sud Lipez.

The first day out of Uyuni on the road to San Vicente

The first day out of Uyuni on the road to San Vicente couldn’t have contrasted more with our time in Peru. The road was totally flat; there wasn’t a bend in sight. Made for a gentle reintroduction to heavy bikes. With 10kg of mountaineering kit for the Puna to lug around, we’re using front panniers for the first time in nearly 3 years.


In 2010 it took us 10 days to find a Bolivian road sign. On the route from Uyuni to San Pablo and Quetena there were plenty, including this beauty.


Day 2 saw us reach some climbs. Steep ones too – the Bolivians don’t go in for corners. We saw about as many zigzags in 10 days as you’d normally see in 10 mins in Peru.


At lunch time on the second day we reach San Vicente. This is the old part of the village, a larger new part has sprung up to house workers and families from a big mine. I’m sure most of you recognize this sad little village from Hollywood. It’s the unlikely place where Butch and Sundance were finally cornered and killed. Tearing out of that casita, all guns blazing and all that…


The route to San Pedro de Atacama turns out to be all rideable, apart from a few pushes through rivers and a couple of tiny sand dunes. Occasionally though there are huge gashes in the road, and we have to follow the short detours taken by the jeeps.


Here’s one of those sandy parts. This is about 10m of the 50m we had to push this week.


But the surface is rarely good. Much of it looks like this.


The route is reasonably quiet as far as Polques, though it’s by no means a wildernerness experience. Each day we are passed by 15-20 vehicles.


Finding serene campsites is never a problem. As we carried water all the time and the terrain is mostly flat, we just camp when we get tired. This is in a dry lake bed.


Sections like this were not uncommon.


But villages like this were unique. San Antonio Viejo used to house the workers from a now defunct mine. This is the church.


And here are some workers’ quarters.


Having left the rains and storms of Peru behind, cycling became a different experience. We no longer had to rush to put in the kms before the threatening afternoon clouds materialized. Added to the fact we are now 10 degrees further south and the days are longer, meant far more hours in the saddle.


Rolling hills and ever changing shadows…


Before Quetena is a 4900m pass, the highest of the route. It turns out to be a tough one, with steep gradients and the obligatory crap surface. Staying in a straight line isn’t easy on the climb…


It is on the descent though. Here’s Haz rolling down to the sandy shores of Laguna Morijon. Uturuncu puts in a first appearance.


It’s pretty, and we cruise down to the lake, where the surface turns into…


…a gravelly mess. Throw your weight one way…


…then the other.


But as always, things improve once we leave the flat sections and begin climbing again.


Though it is occasionally wet. There are plenty of rivers and streams around on the way to Quetena.


Which turns out to be a depressing little town with not much going on. Not for the first time in Bolivia the thought ‘Can you imagine living here?’ lodges in our minds. This place has a sad number of half wits and mentally retarded residents and even watching perfectly ‘with-it’ shopkeepers battling to calculate how much change we’re due is enough to make you want to weep. Rarely on our travels have we encountered a country where the mental arithmetic is so poor – back in 2002 we remember being struck by it.


After a 2 day detour to climb Uturuncu, we continue on to Polques, and the main tourist route through the Lagunas. On the way is this incredible climb. Something like 400m in 3km, and on a sandy surface too…


On the other side are some beautiful lagunas, including the one peeking out on the left – Kollpa Laguna.


Given it’s a beachless, landlocked nation, Bolivia must’ve shouted loudly when God was apportioning the world’s sand…


Though navigation is pretty straight forward, working out which is the least sandy track isn’t. Let’s try over there…


This visit to Sud Lipez was nowhere near as windy as our last one. The first 5 days there was barely a breeze. As we honed in on San Pedro the afternoon gusts caught up with us though. Makes everything twice as hard…


And not just the cycling. Even getting dressed becomes a challenge.


Particularly when it turns cold. After a week of nights when the temperature barely fell below freezing, we camp on the Salar de Chalviri. On waking we worry our thermometer has broken and the mercury fallen out the end. Then we realize it’s just a few cms lower than usual, at -17C.


At Polques we encounter more flamingoes, and Mannfred Mann’s classic lodges in our heads. But close-up encounters with these ugly birds kind of ruin the song. ‘On our block all of the guys call her flamingo, ’cause her (prehistoric dinosaur head-) hair glows like the sun, and her (beady little) eyes can light the sky…’


There are nice pastel colours around, but being on the main tourist route is no fun at all. The worst kind of road: an unpaved highway. Every minute for the first 3 hours, we’re covered in a thick coating of dust.


But the surface occasionally improves. The road is thankfully the bit on the right, not in the middle.


We expect to make it from Salar de Chalviri to San Pedro in a day, but the afternoon headwind is just too strong. At Bolivian immigration we’re kindly shown to the abandoned hut where many a cyclist has spent the night. Not sure what these machines are for – they evidently don’t get out and about to clear the routes very often.


The morning is still as usual. After a short climb up to the Chilean paving, Haz is expecting to break all kinds of land speed records on the descent to San Pedro. Sadly the wind starts up before we begin our descent, and despite frenetic highest-gear pedalling, neither of us can even approach 70kph…

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6 thoughts on “Back in Bumpy old Bolivia

    1. Neil and Harriet

      I’d recommend bringing a fat bike with you when you come back next year. Only useful on the Puna and W Bolivia, but it would make things much easier and more enjoyable in those areas…


  1. Zee

    Hey, loving all the picks and adventure 🙂
    …and seeing pick of Anna, got strong feeling we met…. hmmm, maybe Ladakh 06??
    Anyway, world is a tiny place, have a great Christmas.

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