From Silver to Salt, and a road less travelled.
5 Jun 2008
After a hard day of bumpy dirt, some head wind, pushing your bike up an unrideable 2km hill and negotiating a mine field, things are soon eased away when you are sitting in a thermal hot pool with winds whipping up the surface into steam and a bright pink flamingo flying in beside you for a filter feed.......just another day in the life of Nick and Vick on the road! Sadly not every day ends at a thermal pool that you share with some wildlife, but we have had some very special days since the last update, the kind that really make you have to stop and pinch yourself to remind you that we are actually lucky enough to be out here seeing these things and visiting such magic bits of the planet. We are now in La Paz in the north of Bolivia and have had some great adventures in this amazing country and have also managed a wee side trip to Chile to visit 3 National Parks that a fellow biker had told us about, that was a 'must ride' destination (thanks Christian)but more of that later......
Before we left Potosi we were fortunate enough to stumble on a football match. Not just some lads having a kick about, the real thing in a stadium. They love their football out here and it showed in the passion they put into the singing, shouting at the players and ref, plus chucking their plastic bottles and oranges over the barbed wire fence at a player who had been sent off for harassing a ball boy! The standard was nothing special; I would guess good local club football back in the UK. Sadly we never found out if they are professional, or how it all works out here but we do know that Potosi enter into South American leagues and folk hate having to come and play them at home. Just imagine you play down at sea level in Buenos Aires and you are expected to play at 4000m, not easy. Potosi won 2-1 against a team from Sucre, the Bolivian capital.
From Potosi it was a 4 day ride southwest to the town of Uyuni. The 208km ride was not an easy one. Remote and yet again on rough dirt roads plus 5 times over 4000m, but through some beautiful countryside. Uyuni however is a windy, dirty and dusty town of 14,000 people that only seems to exist to service the world's largest salt lake, Salar de Uyuni. It is the launch pad for tourists looking for jeep tours onto the salar which are extremely popular due to the rugged beauty of the salar itself and the amazing countryside around it. Only a couple of nights there for us to get organised for the next leg which was more than enough, although there was an excellent pizza place with amazing chocolate cake!! As it is now heading into the chilly time of year here and we are well above 3000m the night time temperatures are mostly always well below freezing. Most camping mornings we wake to everything frozen solid until the sun can get on it around 7-7.30am. Until Uyuni we had been finding keeping warm at night a bit of a challenge, our sleeping bags are good but with the climate range this journey has taken us through so far, one sleeping bag just can't cover it all. So off we went to the market to buy a few meters of fleece, borrow some scissors to cut out the shape then, for less than 2 pounds, a tailor on the market ran them through his machine and before you can say "snug as a bug in a rug" we had 2 really warm sleeping bag liners to keep us warm and comfy, and boy have we been glad of them.
As we mentioned before, in Argentina we rode on a dry salt lake which was fantastic. In hindsight that was just the warm up for what was to come 20 km north west of Uyuni. As I said this area is home to the largest Salt lake in the world, 10582kmsq/4085sq miles and when you ride on it, it certainly feels like it. The feeling of space and emptiness is hard to describe but it is miles and miles of pure brilliant white surrounded by huge mountains of various colours. I will leave the photos attached to help describe what it looked like. During our first day on the salt there was not a breath of wind, which is rare, so once you stop riding and the sound of the salt crunching under the tyres stops there was almost complete silence, very eerie. Not to camp out in this special environment would have been rude. So when the time came we just picked a suitable bit of salt and stopped. That in itself was odd, deciding where to put up the tent. You normally look for a bush, a stream, some protection from the wind or a nice flat bit of ground, but out on the salt it is so uniformly flat with nothing but 2-3cm high hexagonal ridges, one camp spot 20m from the next and the next, etc. are all identical! So we stopped literally in the middle of nowhere to pitch the tent. We had been given a top tip from some Belgian bikers that you will wreck your tent pegs trying to get them into the salt. So forewarned is forearmed and we banged in the 6inch nails we bought on the market in Uyuni with a bit of scrap iron we had carried on for the purpose, very novel and very effective.
Camping out there must go down as one of our most special camp spots of all time. The sun went down with spectacular colours on the salt itself and the mountains around us. Then just as we thought things couldn’t get any better Vick spotted the new moon...... breathtaking! We stayed out admiring the 'beuno vista' as long as possible, until the bitter cold drove us into the tent and the supreme comfort of our new liners. Campers on the Salar........ or pigs in shit, same thing!!
In total we rode for three days on the Salar. One took us to a small village off the northern shore underneath Volcan Tanupa. We left the tent in the bag and stayed in a hostel for a couple of nights so we had a base to walk up the Volcano from. This hostel was made almost entirely from blocks of rock salt cut from the lake bed. The floor was just, yes you guessed .....grains of salt and the beds were just blocks of salt with some cardboard and a mattress on top, cool. The reason to wander up the volcano was to get a different perspective on the salar, and well worth the effort it was too. The volcano itself was spectacular with such a variety of colours in the rock and the views it offered across the salt were amazing, you could see for miles and miles.
Our route from Uyuni across the salar was predominantly west, making our way back to Chile. As I mentioned earlier we were heading to do a route that a fellow biker had recommended. As you will see from the pictures there are not too many land marks on the salt so just as we had done in Argentina,we headed off from below the volcano with a vague compass bearing taken from our vague map and rode of in a vague direction. Thankfully when we were losing a little faith in our estimated direction the local bus appeared in the distance. We changed course slightly to intercept it just to check we were going the right way. The driver gave us a look that said it is not every day he gets asked directions out in the middle of this huge open space, but he sent us off on our way which thankfully was the way we were already heading. It was such a unique experierence for us travelling on the salt but for the locals on the bus it's the norm, many of the villages around the salar are only accessible from the lake. In the wet season the salt pan is covered in a foot of water but they drive on it anyway. Not that good for biking, thankfully for us there were only a couple of damp spots and one puddle at the edge that we just unloaded and carried our bikes across, not sure how good a soaking in salt water would be for them.
After the Salar de Uyuni we had a small section of 'road' then it was back onto another smaller salt lake for about 60km , the Salar de Coipasa. This one was much softer and varied in texture a great deal. Here we followed the tyre marks from the other vehicles although they were not going as direct as we would like. However, all worked fine for us and we made it across with no hitches. More than can be said for a truck that we passed that had broken through the salt and was up to the back axels in salty soup!!
We finally turned our backs on our salar route at the border town of Pisiga. Here we had to stock up for 5 days riding without any re-supply, our longest yet. To add a spark to the shopping we could take nothing fresh across the border into Chile and Pisiga had nothing except small 'sell everything but nothing' shops!! About 8 shops later and some creative menu planning we were ready for an off the beaten track adventure. The next 200km of riding was just inside the Chilean border heading north. The route took us through 3 National Parks and through some spectacular countryside and past yet another salt Lake, Salar de Surire. This one we skirted round on the road as it is way too soft and wet to travel on.
The route is definitely a road less travelled as we only saw about 2 dozen vehicles the whole way, a real bonus. Another bonus is that the area has a lot of geothermic activity so 2 camp spots and one lunch spot had thermal pools. The last one actually had two pools, one inside a hut and the other more rustic outside. The one inside performed two functions for us. When we arrived at the pools at the end of the day the sun was already below the mountains and it was baltic outside. So the indoor pool was perfect to ease away the day’s miles from our legs. The second function was to heat the hut so we could sleep in it. Not sure the national park authorities built the place for bikers to sleep in but it was great. It was like sleeping in a centrally heated Scottish bothy......another novel night.
Thankfully the national parks here have protected the wildlife. The Vicuña (a wild cousin of the llama) was almost hunted to extinction in the area but now they are flourishing and we saw hundreds. They were not the only wildlife that featured heavily on this leg, we also saw a huge variety of birds, from Flamingos to tiny wren type species, and other mammals like the Mountain Viscachas, rabbit like creatures from the Chinchilla family that live in rocky outcrops and have tails more like a cat.
We not only had the wildlife for company but also several volcanoes, including the still active Volcan Huallatiri. So no need to look at the grass or bushes to see the wind direction, just gaze up at this 6000+m peak and the plume of smoke piling out the top told you all you needed to know. The remoteness, the wildlife and the spectacular views at every turn were the really special things about this area, it is rare on the bike to get the complete 'away from it all feeling' but this route certainly gave us that, it was brilliant.
The route finished on a paved road that links Bolivia to the ocean at the Chilean port city of Arica. It's a major economic artery for land locked Bolivia and as a result is excellent tarmac, a little relief after all the dirt we have ridden in Bolivia so far. We joined the road below yet another volcano, Parinacota next to Lake Chungara which was teeming with bird life. Then just as we crossed back in to Bolivia we were below Volcan Sajama (6542m) the highest mountain in the country. Despite the obvious increase in traffic (almost exclusively trucks) this majestic mountain and the wonderful open views were more than compensation. The nice smooth road also meant an increase in speed, another welcome change. We now have a new speed record that I don't intend breaking as it was a bit nerve racking going down hill at 92kmph (57mph). Coming off at that speed would not be fun. Vicky having not eaten as many saltenias (Bolivian Pies) as me was chasing my tail at a brisk 85kmph (53 mph), not bad for girl........!!!
Back in Bolivia it was a 2 day ride to La Paz. Should have been 3 but there is only one road into the city for the last 80km which is very busy, so for the grand total of 7 pounds we got our bikes on the roof of our own mini bus taxi and we were in the big city in no time.
La Paz is not the capital of the country but is the biggest city and in a very unique location. In the mini bus we left the rural countryside and hit El Alto, a city in itself on the edge of La Paz, and it is literally on the edge. La Paz fills the bottom and is climbing up the sides of a huge canyon. The city centre where we have been based is at 3660m and the top edge where La Paz meets El Alto is at 4100m, it's amazing. The entire hillsides are covered in red brick houses clinging to the steepest ground you can imagine. The old part of the city (where we are) has plenty of old colonial buildings like all the big cities we have visited down here thanks to those Spanish folk. We have enjoyed being in the city and a touch of the gringo trail for a change. You can get good coffee and cake for example.......the important things in life!!
The city has also been a great base for two non-biking adventures. The first was a 3 day trek from high on the edge of the barren dry Altiplano outside La Paz (4859m)down to the warm and green temperate jungle at 1609m in a town called Coroico. We had not seen green for a long time which is why this trip appealed so much. A lot of the route was on old Inca paved road. Really well made stone roads cut into the hillside when needed, with great feats of engineering for the time and massive amounts of work. For those who live in the Stirling council area those Incas could teach your roads department a thing or two!!! We camped both nights but some of the locals (not that there were many) have got wise to the tourist dollar and built shelters that you can pitch your tent under, great. It was a little like being back in Nepal. Meeting locals on the trail that is the only way in and out of their villages, these foot paths are their main roads and everything they have was either carried by them or Llamas. Dropping from such altitude in a short space of time meant huge vegetation changes. At the start next to nothing growing, then as we dropped down there were more scrubby bushes that developed into tress and a real variety of wild flowers of all shape and sizes. We have not seen so much colour in months.
Our other adventure from La Paz went the other way. This time up to the dry and very cold. We got ourselves a guide and some mountaineering equipment and climbed a beautiful mountain just outside La Paz, Huayna Potosi (6088m). It is a pretty straight forward route that companies here will take total beginners up. It is a two day trip, day one up to a Refugio (mountain hut) where you spend some of the night then it's up at 12.30 am the following morning to complete the 5 hour climb to the top. There were others staying in the Refugio but we were just a group of two with Julio our guide. We left in the dark at about 1.30am to make our way slowly up, very aware of the lack of oxygen and the biting cold. At about 3.30am the crescent of the old moon appeared and gave us enough light to walk by, very special. The last 200m of the route is pretty steep, about 60 degrees. By the time we hit this we had been on the go a good few hours and the sun was showing signs of making its appearance. One reason to leave so early in the am is to hit the top at sunrise. Well our guide timed it almost to perfection only to be let down slightly by the two gasping gringos at the end of the rope. We hit the top just as the sun came over the horizon lighting up the other peaks of the Cordillera Real and giving colour and life to all we could see. We were lucky enough to reach the summit before any other groups so we just relished in the quiet time that the 3 of us had on the top of our world before we were joined by the other parties who where chugging there way up the slope. From the top it was a relatively easy wander down and we were back in La Paz that same afternoon, ready for an afternoon nap followed by a beer and pizza for tea to celebrate. Another great trip.
So where next? We head for Lake Titicaca, about 150km away, which straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru. We plan to visit one of the islands on the lake then head for another new country and more new adventures.
So as always thank you for taking time to read our latest wee story which we really enjoy sharing with you.
Only 5 and abit months to go and lots to see and do..............
Take Care as always.
Nick and Vicky