Salars, Lagunas and a lot of snow

The drive from Sucre via Potosi to Uyuni was scenic, especially the second half from Potosi – beautiful desert-like landscape with hardly any human presence. I arrived late in the town of Uyuni, getaway for the popular 2-4 day tourist jeep trips into the Salar (salt flats) and the Laguna Route. I had just enough time to buy some last minute supplies for my planed 10 day trip, get some dinner and do a last email check. I was quite nervous about this trip, because of its altitude (between 3700m and 4900m), extreme cold, exposure to high winds and isolation. This was the crux of my trip and I had hoped to meet someone to do it with. The next morning I was ready to leave about 8am and was just loading the 10 liters of water onto my bike when a young German lad, from two doors down, popped his head out the door asking: ‘You travelling on a bike too?’ Him and his mate where off today too to the Salar and the Isla Incahuasi and on through the Laguna Route as well….Yeah!!! Vincent and Kay are two super nice German students in their early twenties and we got on really well immediately. They were leaving later as they had a few things to do and we decided to meet up along the way. With a much lighter mental load, still a very heavy physical load on my bike, I took the road towards Colchani, last small settlement about 20km down the road and entry point to the Salar. It was a fast ride and from there it was a further 5km to the edge of the Salar, where I chatted with a nice tour group and got the guided tour of the salt making as well. Next stop was a few km down at the last salt hotel still remaining on the Salar. All the others have been moved off the Salar to the edge, as the salt was to hard on all the materials and maintenance was a constant problem. They use salt blocs for wall construction held together by a salt slurry of sort and all the furniture is carved out of salt blocs as well. In front of the hotel a Japanese decorated van was transformed into a temporary snack shag and advertising Japanese ‘Fideo’, a noodle soup Japanese style with Bolivian touch. A lot of filming was going on as they were documenting their travels from Paraguay to Lima by bringing the taste of Japanese food to the locals while financing their trip and also advertising less frequented locations by Japanese tourists to the Japanese market. This was a one off opportunity to eat fine Japanese food on the Bolivian Salar…how good is that! I was the first to sit down and it was very good! From here it was about 60km of flat white ground to cover till the Isla Incahuasi, in the middle of the Salar. It was relatively fast riding, as dead flat, and the road marked by the many jeeps was easy to follow. It was kind of fascinating riding through this endless white and never really feeling any progress, while jeeps drove past only a few meters away looking like toy cars. It was a bright sunny day with a slight headwind and it felt like I would never reach the island even when it looked so close already. A couple of km before arriving Kay and Vincent turned up as well and we all settled into the ‘refugio’ on the island together. We still had the best of the afternoon and went for a walk to the top of the cacti covered island to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful setting, surrounded by huge cacti and looking over the white salt flats,. …looking more like snow! By the time we got back down all the tourist had left and we had the island to ourself except for the stuff who run the show. We had nice dinner at the cafeteria: quinoa soap and lama steak….yummy! The boys even ate two! Than a German (Munich) father and daughter with boyfriend turned up at dark…..all on bikes they bought in Potosi for not much. They weren’t really equipped for such a trip and had suffered the consequences that day. The atmosphere was a bit tense between them, and we had to share the one room ‘refugio’ with them.

It was a beautiful full moon night and I was tempted to do a turn with my bike on the Salar, but was too tired and decided to watch the Salar lit by the full moon from my bed via the big picture window instead. I was up early in the morning and in time to watch the moonset over the Salar….very cool! The first Jeep tours arrived shortly after for sunrise, and since the cafeteria had a sleep in, we got given breakfast from one of the tour operators…very nice, thanks! We finally left around 9am. It was much more fun riding the ‘boring’ white stuff with the guys and the 40km to the edge of the Salar went fast. We had a nice lunch at a local ‘tienda’, papas fritas with fried egg, right at the edge of the Salar while chatting to a very friendly enthusiastic tour guide named Edgar ….and than carried on from there to San Juan. The road was mostly fine with a tailwind, but than road finding got a bit tricky and we hit some deep sand. We arrived in San Juan just before dark and after some looking around found a nice, cheap and very clean hostel with a burning hot shower, great beds and use of the kitchen. Since we couldn’t find a restaurant in the village we ended up cooking up a big feast and got given some fresh pizza bread by the owner as well! In the morning we left after making the rounds to find some petrol for my stove. The first 30km to Chihuana, a military base, were easy going on salt flats, than along a still operating railway track and over more salt flats before we hit some mean deep sand and had to climb a few hundred meters to a small pass at 4300m. I wasn’t feeling my best with a bit of  ‘la tourista’ in the stomach and a horrible cough in the lungs. It was hard enough at the best of times to keep up with a couple of much younger guys with much lighter bikes! The wind had come up considerably as well and we looked for shelter for our three tents. The next morning we were up and off early to avoid the wind. We were slightly confused, as our progress didn’t match the road description. We were now on the international gravel road form Chile to Bolivia, but were meant to take a right hand turn after 8km onto a small and very bad road. We took the first right hand turn after about 15km and went a further 16km down a stunning road close to the smoking volcano Ollague before realizing that it was far too good of a road, not a tourist jeep to be seen and finally turned around back to the international road. By than the wind had come up considerably and the weather had turned bad. We stopped and asked some jeep tours about the way. They gave us plenty of snacks, water and good advice. While eating the snacks another local guide stopped and told us: ’you’ll be alright to camp further on out of the wind and bike to Laguna Hedionda (30km), but after that the road climbs to 4700m, it’s pure desert and if it snows you will die!’ Hmmmm…local advise is always good, but what about all the cyclists going through? Since it was very windy and the clouds had come in we carried on to the right turn off and found a nice little sheltered spot for our tents. The next morning I woke up to a gentle noise on my tent and found that everything outside was covered in a thin layer of snow. Well, since it kept snowing for most of the morning we weren’t keen on continuing the road and pulled the pin, not knowing what the weather would do. We hitched a ride back to Uyuni, which turned out to be the right thing to do as the snow continued for another day and than incredible strong winds sandblasted the town of Uyuni while in the mountains the white wind (very dry snow) made navigation impossible. No Jeep tours could get through and the border crossing to San Pedro de Atacama was closed for the next 4 days.

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Back in Uyuni we found another cycling couple from France to join our team and spent the morning tracking down that friendly guide Edgar from ‘Expediciones Nueva Aventura’, which we had met in the Salar. In the afternoon we made a trip to the train cemetery. Most tour companies weren’t operating the lagunas route at this stage because of the snow, but Edgar said he would give it a go and if we wouldn’t get through there was an alternative route to the different lagunas. We quickly learned during the trip with Edgar that ‘todo es possible, pero nada es seguro,….pero con Edgar todo es seguro!’ (everything is possible, but nothing is for sure, ..but with Edgar everything is sure).

We started the next day and it was sunny but still very windy and freezing cold. We were all happy to not be riding our bikes! We drove back to where we had camped in the snow and onto the lagunas from there: Laguna Canape, Laguna Hedionda, etc… and than via the desierto and el arbol de piedra (stone tree) on to Laguna Colorada. We watched a lot of beautiful Flamingos feed in the lagunas and could get quite close. It was stunning scenery and with the snow around even more impressive. That night we stayed in a ‘refugio’ and the  next morning were treated to a 5-6km morning walk back to the Laguna Colorada while Edgar attended to his car which wouldn’t start because of the cold. It was a beautiful calm sunny day. We spent some time hanging out at the beautiful Laguna Colorada before carrying on to the Gyseres ‘Sol de Manana’. These were some 80 degree Celsius hot and steaming mud pools. A little further on and we drove past another salar/laguna to some aguas calientes (hot pools) at its edge. We had a lovely soak surrounded by an other-worldly landscape dotted with flamingos. Very relaxed, after the hot bath, we carried on through the little desierto Dali and through some snow on to the Laguna Verde, a lake full of cooper articles and arsenic. The ‘refugio’ for the night was close by and we walked the last few km. The next day my new ‘family’ dropped me off at a very snowy Bolivian border post. The guy on duty hasn’t seen a soul for 4 days and was happy to have someone to chat with. I finally got away, just as the wind had started as well….argh! The 5km to the main road were hard going with snow over ice and I pushed a lot. Since the weather looked like it would snow again I decided to not take the 45km descent to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, but head via the Paso de Jama to Argentina instead. I was afraid the pass might close again for a few days in case of snow. I hitched most of the way as I was keen to get out of the cold to get ride of my cough and I had had enough of bleak but beautiful landscapes. I arrived at dark in the town of Pumamarca but even than was stunned by the beauty of the place. The houses were pretty, finished with render and no rubbish laying around in the street. What a difference that makes. Also the climate was a lot milder and the place had a friendly feel. I immediately fell in love with northern Argentina!

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Madidi National Park and the ‘most dangerous road’

I got hit by quite an unpleasant cold leaving Puno and couldn’t get rid of it before arriving in La Paz and got quite sick. It wasn’t getting any better in this polluted and high altitude city. I initially wanted to bike through the subtropical valleys known as the Yungas, -some steep forested slopes squeezed in between the Cordillera and the Amazon lowland – but than decided that a holiday in the Amazonian Jungle was a better way to cure my cold. I booked a ticket and left the next day. Amaszonas Air runs a small plane and the flight to Rurrenabaque itself is quite spectacular. We first climbed over the Cordillera Real and flew right past the top of Huayna Potosi, a popular easy climb at 6088m, than descended down into the Amazon basin at 200m. I expected to get hit by a heat wave leaving the plane, but instead it was surprisingly cold at 17dgrees. The region gets a rare southerly air flow a few times during winter and it gets unpleasantly cold. Rurrenabaque itself was a quiet and very relaxed little town. I did the tour of the agencies and decided on a 3 day jungle trip with Madidi-travel, an organization using all its profits for conservation work. Parque National Madidi is quite possibly the most bio-diverse of all protected areas on the planet. It is the variety of habitats, from freezing Andean peaks of the Cordillera Apolobamba in the southwest through cloud, elfin and dry forest to steaming tropical jungle and pampas in the north and east, that accounts for the array of flora and fauna within the park’s boundaries. In an area roughly the size of Wales (1,895,750ha) are an estimated 900 bird species, 10 species of primates, 5 species of cat (with healthy populations of jaguar and puma), giant anteaters and many reptiles. Madidi-travel specializes in tours to the private Serere Sanctuary in the Madidi Mosaic. It’s a conservation project and the tourist are their way to finance it. They only have a few at a time, which makes for a very pleasant experience. They do a great job at sharing their passion of what they do and my guide, Severo, was very knowledgable. The camp consists of a main house and many mosquitonet-walled accommodation houses a wee ways away. It’s a great experience to sleep in the jungle and listen to all the noises, especially the howling monkey which makes a tremendous noise in the mornings and evenings. The guides took us for walks through the jungle and rowing excursions on the lake. We saw many kinds of monkeys, crocodiles, bats, a rescued baby tapi living at camp, a variety of birds, etc… and went pihania fishing. We didn’t see a jaguar, even in August are the best chances as he likes eating the turtels eggs along the river banks. My only regret was that I didn’t stay longer, 3 days was just not long enough as the travel up the river to the Serere Reserve already takes about 3 hours. Oh….and the food was amazing, best I’ve eaten in months. After this amazing experience I had a warm humid night in Rurrenabaque before catching the early morning flight back to La Paz.

I spent the day around town and the next day took a bus to La Cumbre at 4725m and an hour out of La Paz and biked all the way down to the Yungas via the ‘most dangerous road’. It was a very beautifully scenic ride starting with snowy mountains and finishing in tropical forest. The first half was asphalted and than there was a choice of the new road and the old road, now used mainly for bike tours and with the reputation of the ‘most dangerous road’ of the world. Once the only road, all the traffic had to navigate this at times very exposed road carved into the mountainside and often slippery due to the moist  climate. By history this road has a high death toll and the many crosses on the side of the road tell the story. But it is a most amazing scenic ride….and now without the traffic much safer!

I had a last day in La Paz getting organized to finally move on. I took the night bus to Sucre saving myself a not so interesting pampas Altiplano ride on a high traffic road. I immediately liked the feel of Sucre, often referred to as Ciudad Blanca, owing to the tradition that all buildings in the center are painted in their original colonial white. This works to beautiful effect and in 1991 UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage site. From 1825 to 1899 Sucre was capital of Bolivia, but lost this role to La Paz after a civil war. I had a day wandering around and as I was still hanging on to my cold decided to stay an extra day and visit the colorful indigenous Sunday market in Tarabuco, popular with tourists for its textiles and the many local people in traditional dress.P1200257 P1200260 P1200266 P1200268 P1200282 P1200285 P1200303 P1200328 P1200336 P1200342 P1200351 P1200365 P1200387 P1200396 P1200418 P1200425 P1200427 P1200438 P1200442 P1200484 P1200494 P1200504 P1200508 P1200519 P1200524 P1200531 P1200536 P1200552 P1200555 P1200563 P1200568 P1200583 P1200587 P1200589 P1200596 P1200601 P1200617 P1200632 P1200638

Highest navigable Lake and Highest Capital of the world

To speed things up a bit  I took a bus from Arequipa to Puno (3855). Puno lies on the north west shore of Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake on the world, and shares is sapphire-blue waters with Bolivia.

The next day I went for a half day boat trip to the floating Islands, the Uros. The people of the Uros fish, hunt birds and live of the lake plants, most important of which are the reeds they use for their boats, houses and the very foundations of their islands. It was interesting to see their way of life and I even got a ride in a reed canoe.

The following day I headed of along the western shore of the lake, stopping in at Chucuito to check out its interesting church and the Inka sun-dial. Than the road went inland for a bit and went mainly through farmland till it hit the shore again at the town of Juli. I stayed a bit further on in Pomata for the night, a very relaxed local town with a strikingly beautiful red sandstone church perched on a cliff overlooking the lake. It was a short ride from here to the border with Bolivia, which was a very busy place this day. In the popular tourist town of Copacabana, just 10km after the border, was a 2 day festival on: La Virgen de Copacabana (4-6 August). Many Peruanos and Bolivanos flock to the town these days, with their colorful decorated cars, to get them blessed by the Virgen. That doesn’t justify their careless and dangerous driving, and roads have been very busy and traffic fast!

Since I had a cold and not much energy I stayed in the very overpriced mediocre hostel Sonia (prices quadruple at these times) and watched the madness. The whole town was converted into a market, people were dressed up and the decorated cars got a champagne shower with their blessing. And of course not to forget their favorite brass band tunes, which they play walking the streets followed by a dancing crowd.

I didn’t feel motivated to visit the Isla de sol, a favorite tourist destination and the site of the main Inca creation myth. Instead I left early and made my way up the hill and along a high traverse, a beautiful stretch of road , overlooking the lake and with vistas to the snowy Cordillera Real. I cross the lake on a narrow stretch in a precariously looking wooden ferry which nevertheless is strong enough to take even a bus across. Now on the east side of the lake I came through a few villages and was accompanied by ever the same brass band tune. Today was Bolivia’s Independence days celebrations, 6th of July. I stayed the night in Huatajata, which has the highest yacht club in the world, but I was more impressed by the many pole restaurants on the lake offering nice local fish. I spent my last hours of Titicaca time on the lake eating a kind of whitebite dish, called Ispi. It was a very windy and stormy night…..apparently the start of a windy month!

The next day it was an easy flat ride with gorgeous views to the Cordillera Real all the way to La Paz, highest Capital of the world. I first had to traverse the town of El Alto (at the edge of La Paz), which is the second biggest town of Bolivia after Santa Cruz (leaving La Paz a mere third), than there was a great descent into the heart of La Paz which is located in a canyon, apparently because at the time gold was found there and also to get away from the cold winds of the Altiplano. I was lucky enough to be able to stay at the Casa de Ciclista, right in the center of town. The owner Christian Konitzer put up a whole apartment for passing cyclists. Great to have a place to feel like home and to be able to cook my own food for a change. I’m really missing having fresh vegetables, something which doesn’t exist in the Southamerican diet very much, …and I cooked up a great feed!! Food becomes very important for a cyclist…as we are always hungry!!! There were also quite a few other cyclists, mainly germans.

One of the days spent in La Paz Christian offered to take us and our bikes up the old skifield road. Chacaltaya mountain used to be the highest skifield of the world at 5300m but nowadays it’s closed due to lack of snow. Me and a german couple from Hamburg took up the opportunity. We walked up the remaining 120m to the top of the mountain first and than traversed the rather snowy ski-slope to take a route down the back – back to La Paz. What a great trip and beautiful scenery….not your everyday downhill ride!!!

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Canyons and Volcanos… on road to Arequipa

After leaving Cusco on the road to Puno, I took a right turn in the town of Sicuani and headed due south aiming for the town of Yauri, also called Espinar… on another map. This turned out to be a rather ugly miners town and therefore was expensive. I arrived friday evening and it was the lead up to the Peru National day celebrations on Sunday/Monday….most people in the streets were drunk already! I seemed to be the only tourist in town, which was a nice change to Cusco. The next morning I took a dirt road to Suycutambo which followed a beautiful canyon, past a couple of archeological sites with Inka ruins. I only than found out that this was to be a scenic tourist drive called the three canyons, but I only came across a couple of local cars and a few motorbikes….no tourist and what a landscape! After Suycutambo the road climbed up to 4700m, than dropped down into a high valley with many lamas only to climb back up to another pass of 4700m before dropping down to the small hamlet of Sibayo. I first wanted to stay the night, but the only free dingy horrible room had no lock on the door and there was some dodgy looking characters next door. Since it was already getting dark I got a ride with a nice geologist couple to Chivay (3600m), about 30km down the road and a tourist town, getaway to the Colca Canyon. Next morning I took the road to the Cruz del Condor down the famous Colca Canyon. Hords of tourist make their way out there early every morning to see the majestic condors at close quarters. Some buses come from as far as Arequipa, others depart from Chivay. I arrived mid day and most tourist were gone by than, so were the condors. The place was deserted for the afternoon and I enjoyed hanging out on this beautiful spot till the condors arrived back between 4 and 6pm to settle back into their nests across the canyon. The Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and quite impressive. I camped the night at the Mirador and was first up at 6pm. The Condors arrived about 7pm, but were low in the canyon and had to wait for the sun to heat the rock enough for them to soar. It was amazing to watch them fly once they got high and close. It was all over by 10am and everybody made their way back. It was a dusty road and once I came to the tunnel I caught a ride back to Chivay. I had eaten enough dust by than and the tunnel was scary enough first time round. As it was still early in the day I carried on up the Abra Patapampa (4910m) and across the Altiplano surrounded by volcanos. What a gorgeous scenic road: great vistas with snowcapped mountains, lamas and alpacas abound. I didn’t quite make it to Canahuas and camped out on the Altiplano which was a little cold, windy and dusty. From Canahuas I had the choice of a 80km asphalted pure downhill run to Arequipa with all the heavy traffic or a 60km dirt track via the Altiplano with another climb before it dropped sharply to Arequipa. I just couldn’t help myself and choose to go down the dirt road. It was a beautiful road, if somewhat sandy.  I was heading straight towards the perfectly cone shaped Vulcano El Misty. The beautiful and shy Vicunas were running alongside and not a car to be seen. The downhill was very rough, sandy and full of big loose stones. I had taken the backroad into Arequipa and had no traffic all along till I hit town. And this is to be the second biggest town of Peru! I did come in via a very poor and depressing part of town though. There was a new settlement of tiny cabins on a sandy hill….I hate to imagine life there on a windy day.

Most cyclists go straight from Cusco to Puno, or vice versa, as it is a strenuous detour to go all the way to the Colca Canyon and Arequipa. But this road is definitely worth it and in the top 10 of most beautiful roads I’ve biked on this trip.

The city of Arequipa stands at the foot of El Misty volcano (5822m), a perfect cone, and is guarded on either side by the mountains Chachani (6057m) and Pichu-Pichu (5669m). The city has fine Spanish buildings and many old and interesting churches built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic material almost exclusively used in the construction of Arequipa. It is the main commercial center for the south and has been declared a World Cultural Heritage site by the UNESCO. Arequipa is said to have the best preserved colonial architecture in Peru, apart from Cusco. I spent a couple of days roaming the streets and admiring the colonial architecture. The Santa Catalina Convent is one of the most remarkable sights, a complete miniature walled colonial town of over 2 ha in the middle of the city. Nowadays the few remaining nuns have retreated to one section of the convent, allowing visitors to see a maze of cobbled streets and plazas bright with geraniums and other flowers, cloisters and buttressed houses. These have been painted in traditional white, orange, deep red and blue.

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