Sunday, November 22, 2015

Colorful Lakes, and Cycling to 19,000 Feet: November 8th-17th

Uyuni-Ramaditas-San Cristóbal-Rosario-Vilama-Soniquera-Quetena Chico-Uturuncu-Laguna Colorada-Sol de Mañana-Polques-Hito Cajon-San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)

Leaving Uyuni we take the main road almost straight south towards the great mountain of Uturuncu. There's a bit of traffic, but the wind is in our favor and blows all the dust the vehicles kick up away from us. For many sections it is almost as if we are riding on pavement.

November 9th is Danny's birthday. It's hard to do something special here in the middle of Bolivia but we have a fun evening playing games in the tent. Plus, it's not every birthday you get to spend camped in a llama pasture. These are the ones you never forget.

The next day comes our first true experience of the rough Bolivian roads we've heard so much about. The road quality deteriorates, turning eventually into one of the worst we have ever ridden.

Bump bump bump bump bump bump bump...
Slowly we chatter our way along sandy washboard, trying to enjoy the expansive landscape, but mostly focused on the ride. When we stop for lunch, a huge sandstorm whips up out of nowhere and fills our mashed potatoes with a bit of extra "seasoning." It's a long day and we're ecstatic to reach the small town of Soniquera where we can refill on water and the small shops sell us cookies. Even better? The people at the local health center are super welcoming and let us camp out back.

The path of least resistance is not always on the road
The next morning we wind through a canyon and climb a small pass before, in early afternoon, we reach the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Reserve. Here we pay a fee of 150 bolivianos (US$21.50) each for 4 days in the park, although the ranger explains that cyclists are allowed to stay longer because they realize that we go slowly. I just hope that they use some of our money for road improvement. Maybe then we wouldn't go so slowly.
The park is full of mineral reserves, like this iron-rich sediment that sticks to the circular magnet on my bag.
After fighting a raging headwind all afternoon, we reach the town of Quetena Chico. We're a bit dismayed that the town, this tiny collection of adobe huts and overpriced tourist hotels (slightly larger huts), has spent a huge sum of money on a new, bright green, turf soccer field. They must love soccer a whole lot. It's a strange place. Tourism is popular here, the popular jeep tours from Uyuni stopping here for a night on their hectic but beautiful few days around the colorful lagunas (more on those later). When we go out looking for food, we are told that there are no restaurants and that our jeep driver should be arranging food for us wherever we're staying. We eventually find a friendly lady who makes us a simple meal of rice, eggs, and potatoes for a few bolivianos.

I wake up nervous. Today we are going to attempt to climb the 6,000 meter volcano Uturuncu with our bikes, something I never imagined I'd be doing. As we walk outside in the early morning, the sun is just beginning to light up the sky. The first bit of road is sandy and we bike through a thin crust of ice on a shallow river. At 8:30 in the morning we're feeling pretty good about ourselves; we've completed 15 kilometers, half the distance up the volcano. Unfortunately, we've done almost none of the elevation. It's time to start climbing, and with expectations of steep rock piles as a road, Danny and Hannes both comment on how great the road is. I don't think anyone should call this road "great." Rideable, perhaps, but not "great."
I guess everything is relative.

"Great" road
At 5,000 meters we celebrate a new altitude record for the highest we've ever biked, woohoo! Then we keep riding. 

Tam heading up
Slowly things get tougher. The road is super steep and filled with large rocks. Most parts of it would be challenging to ride at low elevation, never mind up here. The momentum we need to power over the rocks leaves us exhausted and out of breath. We end up walking large sections.  

Hello, hill. One of the good sections, just steeeeeep
After walking an especially rough section up to 5,500 meters, Hannes and I decide that there's no point in bringing our bikes along if we're not riding them. We drop them in the boulders and walk the remaining three kilometers to the saddle. Danny meets us there, having been pleasantly surprised by the relatively smooth last section to 5,760 meters (about 18,900 feet).
The saddle between the two peaks of our mountain is steaming with sulfurous hydrothermal activity. Along the road, small vents covered in brilliant green and yellow algae send up plumes of vapor. We hope that we don't plunge through some thin section of crust into some boiling chamber below, but the recent tire tracks indicate that we should be okay.

Steam vents accompany a sulfurous smell as we approach the saddle
A steam vent

Danny drops his bike behind a boulder and we hike to the top on solid scree rock. We are exhausted by this point and walking slowly, but it's not too long before we reach the summit at 19,711 feet and are rewarded with spectacular views of the red, windswept landscape. From here we can see Chile and Argentina, but I'm not sure where Bolivia ends and those countries begin. Far below are various brilliant lakes of blue, yellow green, and milky white. The only town we can see is a glimmer of the building of Quetena. I wave to Julia, the only smart one who decided to take a rest day today. 

Hugs on the summit
The remains of some colorful flags
An iron-filled mountain nearby

We made it!
The first part of the descent is really tough, steep, rocky and technical. But the more we go down, the more oxygen we have! We bump and crash our way down, racing the sunset, and ride the last bit just as darkness sets in.

Bumping our way back
Our hotel is super warm and Julia has prepared food for us, a wonderful surprise after a crazy day.

Good night, Uturuncu
None of us is feeling particularly motivated the next morning, and we don't like Quetena Chico enough to want to stay another day. We head off slowly up the pass out of town, and later, while taking a break in the shelter of some rocks, a rickety truck drives by and we decide to see if we can get a ride! Success! And we didn't miss out on anything; I still felt every bump in the road, just at a faster pace.


Our first view of Laguna Colorada
That evening we end up camping in the town of Huaylajara, where all eight buildings are hotels, and are gifted some potato chips and beer by some friendly jeep tourists. Later we join them for dinner (our second dinner) and have an amazing evening with lots of food, drinks, and funny stories.
A huge thank you to Mark, Stefan, and the rest of the crew! We'll see you down the road.

Rather than begin biking up the next pass, we spend all of the next morning hanging out with the flamingos at Laguna Colorada. There must be thousands of them out here. We do our best to analyze the colors of their beaks, butts, and legs to differentiate the three different species that nest here. (We spot all of them!)

Look at all those flamingos!
A graceful James flamingo
Delicate-looking birds in harsh conditions
After saying goodbye to the flamingos, we start up the pass, our highest in Bolivia. It's not a huge climb, as we're already starting pretty high, but the blasting headwind and sandy, washboardy road (it's somehow both at the same time) make going rather slow.

Evidence of the hordes of jeep tours
Julia powering through some sand
We don't even make it to the top of the pass, ending the day huddled behind the only windbreak we can find in this desolate landscape. One of our most difficult cycling days also ends up as one of the shortest.

A frigid breeze is already blowing when we set out in the morning. Our first stop is the geyser Sol de Manana, a large hydrothermal basin filled with bubbling pools and clouds of sulfurous smoke. The landscape is active and colorful, painted with streaks of red, pink, grey, green, and orange.
Steaming landscape. Technically fumaroles, not geysers.

Bubbling mud

The fumaroles are pretty neat, but the real treat is coming this afternoon...

A big descent takes us to a brilliant blue lagoon and hot springs! Before soaking in the amazing pools we hang out by the restaurant, and some extremely friendly jeep drivers load us up with delicious lunch leftovers. These guys might be crazy drivers, but they sure are friendly!

Soaking up the heat
Beautiful mermaids
It's hard to beat an afternoon filled with free food, flamingos, and floating in relaxing hot tubs.

A vicuna keeps us company
The next morning sees us through some more spectacular scenery, and although the wind is already blasting by 8 am, the road is much less disastrous than before.

the Piedras de Dali, "Stones of Dali," reminiscent of Dali's surreal landscapes

A colorful mountain

Laguna Verde, the "Green Lake", with Licancabur Volcano in the background. The lake's brilliant color is caused by its high levels of arsenic and copper.
Tam cycling on the moon
Too soon we reach the refugio at Laguna Blanca and have to say our goodbyes to Julia and Hannes. They are catching a ride back up north for some time in the jungle before heading back to Germany. Fortunately, however, the bitterness of goodbye is tempered by a couple of long-lost hellos. We are excited to encounter Aritz and Esti from the Basque region of Spain, whom we had met a few weeks before, and, after riding with them to the border, we find none other than Chris, our British mate whom we coincidentally met in numerous cities in Peru! It is a small world, indeed, and I'm sure our paths will cross in the future with Chris and other friends in unpredictable ways.

The surprisingly busy Bolivian migration. Chilean immigration is 40 kilometers away in San Pedro de Atacama, so we had to content ourselves with...
...this sign. Chile! Facing the wrong way, but exciting nonetheless
Pavement, yea! "There's a truck coming, just take the picture anyway!" That's Aritz on his back, Esti on the right side

The two of us are excited to reach Chile for reasons in addition to the beautiful, smooth pavement. Within a day of reaching San Pedro de Atacama, we find ourselves on a flight to the U.S, a much-needed break and visit to our families in the works. A thousand thanks to Aritz, Esti, Dan, and Gina for making our quick departure possible, and to Andie and Michel for arranging the whole thing! We're excited to see our families for the first time in a while, and, in addition, to celebrate a holiday centered around food. More adventures in a few weeks!

Route notes:
- The north part of the more famous laguna route runs slightly west of where we went. See here also for a solid guide, though the roads are better (just slightly...) than they let on.
- We headed south from Uyuni towards Ramaditas in order to be slightly off the most traveled jeep track and to set ourselves up to climb Uturuncu. Ramaditas (50 km from Uyuni) has water, maybe a shop. San Cristobal has a decent market with real food, pasta and such. About 10 km after San Cristobal we turned left, a shortcut through Rosario (water) and Vilama (water, perhaps a small shop). The last 30 km approaching Soniquera (water, small shops) were awful, lots of sandy and washboardy pushing and bouncing. Don't expect to go very fast...
- Soniquera to Quetena Chico (water, slightly larger shops, restaurants, accommodation) was another relatively rough day, though nowhere near as bad. Though exhausting, climbing Uturuncu was incredible; see here for all the details. This site also has an interesting account.
- The road from Quetena Chico to Laguna Colorada was where we got a ride, so I can't give a cycling perspective, but it was pretty rough in the truck.
- Laguna Colorada to Sol de Manana "geyser," about 20 km or so, was really rough and sandy, but the road improves after that and stays good (less bad, really) to the border. No water at Sol de Manana. At the hot springs there is water, leftovers from jeep tourists, and some buildings under construction that made a decent camp spot.
- On the south shore of Laguna Blanca there's an abandoned hostel, a fantastic camping option. Apparently it's prohibited to camp there, so just make sure the awful ranger at the refugio 1 km away doesn't know you're there. Even if she does know, you probably won't have any problems; she didn't even check around the side of her building to see if we were camping where she said we had to.
- Bolivian immigration didn't charge us the 21 boliviano fee we had heard about to leave the country; maybe the rules had changed. They can also change money there at the border, at a more fair rate than in San Pedro.
- Chilean immigration in San Pedro de Atacama is a fairly straightforward process. Just remember, you can't bring any meat, dairy, or plant/animal products into Chile.
- At 5,000 pesos (US$7) per person per night to camp, Aji Verde hostel in San Pedro seemed to offer the cheapest option for lodging. With a nice kitchen and courtyard as well, and fast wi-fi, it was a decent deal.

If going this route, it's unnecessary to bring all your food from Uyuni like we did. Quetena Chico is expensive but has enough to outfit you for a few days with pasta, mashed potatoes, bread (on certain days), and other simple items.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Surreal Life: Biking the Salars. November 2nd-7th

Sabaya-Coipasa-Llica-Salar de Uyuni-Isla Incahuasi-Uyuni

November 2nd
After waking up, we enjoy an enormous, delicious breakfast with Freddy and his family. They won the lottery to get a U.S. visa and visited Washington D.C. last year! With some common ground, there is no end of things to talk about.

With Freddy and his family
After saying our goodbyes, it's time to head out into the Salar de Coipasa. For a while we ride on flat, sandy dirt, wondering when we'll actually get to the salt flat. A mirage on the horizon blurs the edge between mountains and ground, and we try to decide which land mass in the distance is the island of Coipasa. Finally the ground starts turning white and then we're riding on pure salt! At first it's a bit wet, but then the surface hardens and we can ride anywhere we want!

Hannes doing some tricks on the hard-packed salt
No road, no problem
Hannes becoming a mirage
When we reach the island of Coipasa we stop for lunch in the windshade of a wrecked jeep, and then continue into the town to get water. Several ladies warn us about the winds in the afternoon, but we decide to continue on regardless. Perhaps this was not the best idea.

Riding back out into the salar, the gusts of wind are so strong that Julia is knocked over. We decide to stop early on one of the islands, hoping that it will provide a wind break. We spend the afternoon huddled behind some rocks, playing reverse Jenga with the crazy lava rocks this island is made of (trying to stack the rocks as high as possible). When it's time to set up our tent, the winds have gotten even stronger. A ferocious gust breaks one of our tent poles and we end up not using the poles at all, just building a small windbreak and sleeping in the tent like a giant bivy sac. Never have we felt with such crazy winds!

Julia with one of our rock towers. No, we`re not cycling, she just likes to wear her helmet for the shade.
Tam and me the next morning with our not-so tent. Photo courtesy of Hannes

November 3rd
The wind is still blowing in the morning, but thankfully it has died down a lot. The salar is hard-packed salt, glittering and sparkling in the morning sun. I feel as if we are riding on a spectacular sheet of marble. Since it's such nice riding and we've heard that the salar is totally dry and passable on this side, we decide to take a shortcut to the town of Villa Victoria instead of following the main road to Tres Cruces.

Slowly the salt begins to build up in ridges, and then it starts forming large plates that push together at their edges and form ridges, like a miniature version of plate tectonics. We are still able to ride, plowing through some of the ridges and bumping over others. But then the going gets worse. The salt crusts up in bumpy waves like a turbulent ocean and when our tires break through them they hit deep sand below. Although it's possible to ride, it's exhausting and in the end it's faster to push. The shore is much farther than it looks and it takes us hours to reach it.
An altogether exhausting endeavor, but it was quite interesting in the end to see all the different permutations of salt formation on the salar.

Tam and me in the morning sun. Photo courtesy of Hannes
Salt plates and ridges
Once on the shore, wind and sand make for tough going and we stop early again, this time in the remains of an old adobe house, an excellent wind break. We joke that we have our own three-room flat for the night.

Like being at the beach!

Sunset over the altiplano. The greyish smudge near the bottom right is one of the many sandstorms that the winds kick up in the afternoon.
November 4th
We wake up with the sun and spend a good part of our morning making our way along sandy roads to the town of Llica. Once in town we realize to our delight that there is a real downtown area with lots of nice shops and hospedajes. In no time we find a nice place run by a friendly guy by the name of Franz. His place is newly opened and he's psyched to have us. He can't stop trying to pronounce Hannes` name and telling us what an adventure we're having! He also tells us all about the local tourist attractions and points us to good restaurants in town. We spend a lovely afternoon doing laundry and eating far too much delicious food, including all 15 pounds of an entire watermelon.

Late afternoon, two cyclists from the Basque region of Spain roll in. Aritz and Esti started their trip in Peru and are continuing south, perhaps as far as Patagonia! They are fun to talk to, and we have a great time helping Aritz clean the innards of his bike`s suspension.

November 5th
We sleep in late because our room is so dark and quiet, but finally we are on the road and headed out into the expanse that is the Salar de Uyuni.

There's some debate about how best to get out there. Go straight out and risk rough road conditions, or follow the crappy washboard road that supposedly leads out to the main road on the Salar. I think we learned our lesson on Coipasa. We decide to stick to the main road, and in no time we are cruising out onto hard packed smooth salt. We made the right decision: everywhere but this road are rough wavy salt plates that would have been awful to ride on.

Entering the Salar de Uyuni
After riding for a while we stop for a while to take ridiculous pictures. Because the salt flat is so large and white, it is difficult to tell perspective.

Tiny Julia and small Tam balancing on Hannes` bike
Hannes being fed in a spoon

Tiny Tamara, me, and Julia 
After lunch we decide to see how far we can ride straight with our eyes closed. There's nothing to crash into out here! All of us are able to go straight for a while, but then a slight turn and we all end up riding determinedly off into the distance and away from the road, still thinking we're going the right way. It's quite hilarious.

In the salar there are many more islands than the map would indicate. In the distance their edges are rounded by mirages and they look like sideways boats floating on a shimmering sea of sky. Our road itself seems to simply end in sky. It's a surreal landscape. Have we gone to another planet?

Julia, Tam, and Hannes riding into the sky
When we arrive at one of the larger islands, Isla del Pescado, we find a pre-built windbreak and an amazing camp spot for the night. Another cyclist is there already! Vaughn is from Fairbanks, Alaska, and tells us a bit about his travels through Boliva and Chile in the last months.
As we eat dinner, a tremendous sunset lights up the salar in bright yellow, then in pinks, purples and blues. A colorful end to a great day!

Cactus and sunset, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni
Cactus and sunset, Isla del Pescado, Salar de Uyuni

A Poem by Tamara
The salar is white and flat
Make sure you bring your sun hat
'Cause when you're riding up this high
All that's around is sun and blue sky
Islands float in distant mirages
I'm thinking my legs could use some massages
We keep crunching through the crystals below
Let's see how far we can go
The salt stretches as far as the eye can see
What a crazy place to be.

November 6th
Back on the road, it's not long until we reach the Isla de Incahuasi, the well-known, touristy island where 30 Bolivianos (about US$4.50) is charged for entry. We're quite happy we camped where we did. Isla del Pescado is actually bigger, with nicer camping spots, and it's free!
We do appreciate, however, that water can be found on Incahuasi. We fill our bottles, have a snack, and then continue on our way.

The morning is clear and calm and we decide to see how fast we can go on this salt flat. Danny and Hannes top out just above 41 km/h, Hannes riding Danny's bike for better aerodynamics. I get to 39 but can't seem to go above that. I think the guys just had more of a tailwind.

Me taking in the view
After lunch the wind picks up, and we are literally blown across the salar. Around 2 pm we reach the salt hotel. The place is swarming with jeep traffic and tourists, a contrast to the rest of the salar, which has been pretty remote. The place looks as if it is made from normal bricks, but when you look closer you realize that the bricks are made out of salt. Tables and chairs at the restaurant inside are also made from salt, along with various llama statues. Only the roof is made from wooden logs and regular roofing materials. It's a neat place, but we don't stay long.

Not quite as fuzzy as non-salt llamas, but still very huggable
Just down the road is a huge monument commemorating the 2015 Dakar rally that went through Boliva, Argentina, and Chile. It`s also built out of salt. Dakar symbols adorn nearly everything in this region, proud testaments to the endurance race that was moved here recently from its original home in north Africa due to safety concerns
A swaddled Tuareg remains the logo. Photo courtesy of Hannes
Back on shore and out of the salar we encounter a newly paved road that takes us right into Uyuni. Awesome! It has been a 100+ kilometer day, but we made it to the city! It takes a long time to shop around and find a hotel because everything is incredibly overpriced. We are in the heart of Bolivia's tourist's gem.

Finally we find a place that's a bit more reasonably priced, and out walks Max, the French-Canadian cyclist we rode with in Mexico! With him are his girlfriend, Dev; Tom, a British cyclist we met in Cusco; Daniel, a Brazilian cyclist also heading south; and a few other new faces. What a crowd of people to walk into! After happy reunions with Max and Tom, we make plans to meet up later then get settled at our hotel.

Daniel, Tom, Max, Dev, and Tam. A happy cyclist bunch.
November 7th
Rest day to update blog, eat good food, and catch up with our amigos. Max, Dev, Tom, and Daniel are all heading the same direction we are so we'll probably see them down the road!

Route Notes:
From Sabaya we took a shortcut to the town of Coipasa. The salar was all very smooth, wonderfully rideable, but it might be muddy early in the dry season. From Coipasa to Llica it`s pretty straightforward, but definitely follow the road to Tres Cruces. Even with dry conditions, we pushed for numerous hours on the salty crust over deep sand. Shortcut = bad idea.
To Llica was a bit sandy but never too frustrating, almost all rideable. About 9 km of washboard until entering the Salar de Uyuni, and to navigate from there to Uyuni, check out the posts on andesbybike.