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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