Tuesday, May 26, 2009

South-West Bolivia - for nutters.

We think that this stage from San Pedro into Bolivia via the South West corner is pretty special. Indeed, you have to be a bit 'special' to consider trying it on a bike.

So we will explain our most painful but beautiful stage in detail, make yourselves comfortable...

DAY 1: San Pedro - Laguna Verde

It took us two days, two days!, to find somebody to give us a lift up the mountain side. From San Pedro to the border with Bolivia the road rises over 2,000m in just 45kms. No way were we cyling that, not after the climb of Lipan in the previous stage.

At the border we waved goodbye to Chile for the last time, cycled down to Laguna Blanca and battled through some ripio for a couple of hours to Laguna Verde. After crossing (cycling through) the stream between the two lakes we sat down for lunch. Laguna Verde was grey when we arrived but while we sat there it turned a bright green in just a few minutes. Very bizarre and very spectacular.

We camped that night near the lake, in an abandoned park ranger hut. It seemed quite sheltered.

DAY 2: Laguna Verde - Laguna Chalviri

We woke in the morning absolutely freezing. Morning temperature of -10C was not nice to get ready in. Most of our water had frozen overnight leaving us with just enough to make breakfast and hope that some would melt before we got thirsty.

The route from here was not too bad. A little sandy in places, we had to push the bikes occasionally before we reached our first pass. At 4,700m we were left panting like excited puppies. The other side was not much better. Even going downhill was slow as our wheels buried into the sand. The Dali desert was just as you'd expect from the name. For us, the 'desert' bit was most descriptive.

At Laguna Chalviri we found oursleves alone with a family of Bolivians who run the refuge there. We enjoyed the hot springs, Ian needed the bath desperately. We slept that night on the floor of the restaurant, a bit warmer than the tent.

DAY 3: Laguna Chalviri - Laguna Colorada

We were rudely awaken by the early arrival of jeep tours. Hoards of tourists expecting hot drinks and breakfast came pouring in just as we were wiping the sleep from our eyes and having a good morning scrat.

Before they got chance to pester us with ridiculous questions we headed north for Laguna Colorada. The route was slightly better, we managed to cycle most of the way. The pass on this day took us to our highest point so far, and probably of the entire trip. At 4,950m we were suffering with headaches and struggling to breath. We assumed it must have been the altitude, but maybe it was also something to do with our little side trip to the bubbling hot pools of sulphuric acid.

Coming down from this height was a great relief and a lot of fun. We found ourselves a nice campsite in a dry river canyon not far from Laguna Colorada.

Day 4: Laguna Colorada - Laguna Capina

We woke up in the morning with -15C. God only knows how cold it was in the night but it can get between -20 and -30C! We raced down to the lake side though, Laguna Colorada is well known for its flamingoes. Because we arrived early and it was still freezing, the edge of the lake was covered in ice. Obviously that meant Ian would wander out on the ice hoping to get a bit closer to the stinking birds.
They were magnificent and beautiful to watch for a while.

This day we had to endure another 4,700m pass, but fortunately again the route was not too bad. We arrived at the next lake to find a dual carriageway Bolivian style!

Passing a couple of mines and nearby settlements, we found ourselves another cold campsite. This time another abandoned building to shelter from the wind. Unfortunately the building was so small our tent would not fit inside, we had to only put it half up.

DAY 5: Laguna Capina - Villa Mar

Following the lakes, we didn't really have much interest in the next part until the great Salar de Uyuni. So this day was rather uneventful. We cycled over another mountain pass and the route seemed to worsen a bit.
Much steeper, much more rocky and great danger of being spat at by local wildlife.

We eventually arrived at our first Bolivian town after pushing the bikes through some pretty deep sand. We found ourselves a hostel with real beds and found some nice lady to cook us some soup and some pasta. It felt like a great treat until we tried the shower. Hot water was supposedly available. Maybe out here, when water is in liquid form and not solid, it is deemed hot no matter what temperature it is.

DAY 6: Villa Mar - Villa Alota

Our first reasonably flat day in Bolivia was quite nice. We first had to cross the river which was not quite fully frozen.
The route was then pretty rideable for the most part, the sand wasn't too deep. We were told in Villa Mar that the distance was only 30kms so we were looking forward to a quick easy day. We soon learned that Bolivians are quite terrible with distances.

After 50kms we eventually arrived in town and found ourselves a hostel with hot water that actually steamed.

DAY 7: Villa Alota - San Agustin

Without doubt, our worst day of the whole trip so far. Asking for directions in Alota was like asking Stevie Wonder to point north. We did the best we could with our Chilean maps but still found ourselves heading the wrong direction early on. After turning back and riding 10 pointless kms, we found our route north. The route wasn't easy with lots of deep sand and many rocks. Gemma's front tyre disapproved of our route and without notice, just erupted.

On with the spare tyre we continued cycling and pushing through ever deepening sand. During a short break a local guy appeared out of nowhere and chatted to us. No idea what he said but it sounded interesting. We did mange to decipher a few important sentences despite his lack of teeth, mainly that we were on the road to San Agustin (not to Chiguana as we originally intended) and that it was still 30kms over the hill.

A big, unexpected hill. Another 4,700m mountain pass to be precise. And this one was horrendously rocky, very steep and mostly unrideable. We pushed and puffed our way to the top hoping for some nice downhill into the next town. Unfortunately the road just worsened and the ride down was just as slow as going up.

The last few kms into San Agustin were through deep sand again. We arrived as day light was fading but just in time to find a local boy to show us the way to somewhere to sleep (there were no signs in this town). The boy showed us to a random door in a dusty alleyway and then he legged it.

We were a bit suspicious but desperate for a bed, so knocked anyway. The man who answered laughed as we asked for a room, this was not a hostel. Fortunately though, he had a garage with a couple of bunk beds in, we could sleep there. With his chickens. Luckily there were no pigs.

We slept very well.

DAY 8: San Agustin - Kolcha 'K'

And woke up cold.

The man came in to show us a map of the area, he drew it in the dusty floor with his pokey finger, telling us it would be only 45kms to Kolcha K with a slight hill along the way.

Our maps did not show any hills from here on but there it was, another nasty pass to tackle.

Expecting to arrive at Julaca about half way, we were disappointed to find it was much further than we were told. This rusty old railway town was deserted and we soon moved through to continue north.

From here the route flattened out and we quickened a little. Still, a long afternoon and nearly 20kms more than the 45 we were told, we arrived in Kolcha K and found ourselves a nice shop with loads of chocolate and fizzy drinks.

Day 9: Kolcha ´K´ - Isla Incahuasi (Salar de Uyuni)

Knowing that today we would get onto the salar, we rushed quickly through the last 20kms of sand. Not long after we were cycling on the biggest salt flat in the world. It was flat, firm and there lots of jeep tracks to guide us to the island in the middle of the vast sea. Much easier riding than anything from the previous days on this stage.

Reaching the island we shouldn´t have been, but were still amazed by the amount of jeeps full of other tourists were there. We headed straight for the restaurant and ordered big llama burgers - a wonderful change from our monotonous diet of rice or pasta with tinned fish.

Once all the tours had left the island we had a wander around, the island boasts stunning views wherever you go. We then asked to stay overnight in the refugio, definitely an experience we´ll never forget. A huge room with big windows overlooking the salar. The sunset, the night-sky and the sunrise were absolutely astounding.

Day 10: Isla Incahuasi - Uyuni

A big day. After signing the cyclists guestbook we headed out across the salt flats, took loads of photos and pushed on while the going was still flat and firm.

Near the eastern edge of the salar is a ´Salt Hotel´ obviously built from the salt. Much like the ice hotel in Sweden, it wasn´t as great as the hype, but they did have Snickers bars which made us very happy.

Back off the salar it was a further 25kms to Uyuni and a well deserved rest. The road was again very sandy and unbelievably bumpy. A sure sign of things to come as we head through Bolivia.

Knackered, filthy, hungry and in pain, we arrived in town after dusk following a 100km day.

While on this stage we had many encounters with the jeep tours. Here are some of our favourite questions posed to us: -
  • Are you guys cycling?
  • How do you go to the toilet?
  • Where have you cycled from? (Ushuaia) Wow, you must have arrived late!
  • Where did you cycle from? (San Pedro) What, in one day?!
  • How do you know where you´re going?

Unfortunately most of these idiots were English. What a shame.

Anyhoo... after our rest in Uyuni we head to Potosi and Sucre. With saddle sores and ripio rashes we will be busing it to Potosi as the road is rumoured to be in very bad condition.

Until next time,

love you all,

Ian and Gemma


Thursday, May 14, 2009

San Pedro and Iquique (a week off)

San Pedro de Atacama is a travellers hub. We have seen more English speaking people here in a couple of days than on the entire trip so far. Despite all the comforts that come with this, we realise we much prefer being in the wild away from anything, or anyone, that remind us of home. Strange, but we don´t want to be around English speaking people, most probably because we enjoy the reactions of locals when we turn up in some pokey one-donkey town.

Biting the bullet, on our first night in San Pedro we joined the herd and went out for a tour of the sky at night. The skies are nearly always clear in the Atacama, making it one of the best places in the world to star-gaze.

Alain, our French guide now lives locally with his 10 or so giant telescopes, most of which he built himself. We learnt about constellations, how to navigate using the stars (very handy for our next stage), about the moon and aliens and time travel and all that.

With his giant telescopes we saw close up views of the moon, of Saturn, gas clouds and star clusters. It was a fantastic night. Unfortunately we had to have our camera set to ridiculous high settings which makes loading them on here really slow. Here´s one for tasters...

On days off Ian likes to spend his time cycling. Now a fully gone nutter, the next day he headed off on his bike into the Valley of Death. It sounds just like a bit of a comical name to make a place sound interesting but the it didn´t take long to find out why. Here´s the entrance, the dust path on the right...

Straying from the main path he soon became lost. This wouldn´t have been so bad if the way was easily passable. Instead he had to crawl through holes, climb huge hills and cross massive sand dunes. Not easy when you have a bike with you.

Luckily other trails showed he wasn´t the only crazy that had been lost out here and eventually led to the way out.

After finding a safe place to store the bikes we headed down to Iquique, Chile´s premier beach resort, to take in some sun and relax before our adventures in Bolivia.

The beaches were very much like the kind you´d see on Baywatch but without all the people. A few surfers around and some kids made sure it wasn´t completely desolate. Oh and the occasional wildlife...

Being on the coast near an area of high tectonic activity means Iquique is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. It was comforting to see the powers that be had thought out the perfect escape if such a catastrophe was iminent... RUN AWAY!!! HEAD FOR THE MASSIVE MOUNTAIN!!!

And so back to San Pedro de Atacama to prepare for what will probably be our craziest cycling of the whole trip. In just a couple of days we head into the South-western tip of Bolivia. Cycling across the altiplano at altitudes between 4,000 and 5,000m for a couple of weeks. Along the way we will pass many lakes, loads of sand, and cross the giant Salar de Uyuni. It is very remote and probably a bit dangerous but hey... we were born lucky remember... eeeh awwww!!!

Hopefully our next post will be in a couple of weeks.
If it´s not up in three weeks, somebody call the British consulate in La Paz and report two missing persons.

Love you all xxx

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Salta to San Pedro de Atacama (Paso de Jama)

Resting in Salta for a couple of days gave us time to fix the wobbly tent pole. We´re just about back to normal now. Here´s Gemma in Salta...

Salta was cloudy and rainy while we were there. It was lovely after such a long period of 40 degree heat. Seeming more tropical, Ian was starting to get excited about the jungle already.

After finding a special place for Ian, we came across this special place for Katie...
the world´s biggest Armadillo. That´s "Armadillo" Katie, go on... say it out loud.. Armadillo...

Out of Salta we rode up a hill into a cloud forest and enjoyed a fantastic descent into the city of Jujuy.
While here we enjoyed massive steaks for the last time in Argentina. It was a sad meal but very filling for two hungry cyclists. The picture is a bit blurry as Gemma was laughing at the 4lb steaks put in front of us.

The road then took us up, quite a lot of up, until we got just to the edge of town and decided to stop. Our still full bellies were refusing to cycle any further. While having tea and cake at a hostel we bumped into a couple of dutch cyclists (Michael and wifey) who we last saw back in January in the south. What are the chances? About the same as being trampled by a donkey, some people are just born lucky.

While at this hostel, we had our evening meal with the French couple who run the place. Their hospitality was exceptional. Gemma was served "Rabbit´s head au vin" and for somebody who was until recently a vegetarian, the conversion back to carnivore is very much complete.

Digestion complete, the next day we continued up the hill to Purmamarca. This town is known for it´s hill of many colours. Apparently like a painters palet, we thought they would do much better making it into a biblical musical. Far more entertaining. More entertaining was our campsite host. An 80 year old man who spoke to us for ages about the good old days in the town, we will remember him fondly for wandering around his garden with a machete, a catapult and a pocket full of sticky tape, metal bits and small tools that could fix anything on his property.

Purmamarca, sat at around 2,500m above sea level was comparitively low. We spent the next two days cycling up Cuesta de Lipan. This beast of a hill rises to near 4,200m in just 31kms (21 miles). As the road is built into the side of a mountain we had to camp on an emergency escape lane for trucks. Luckily all the trucks had good brakes that night. We heard every single one go past as we struggled to breath, making sleep difficult. Note the switchbacks in the mountain in the second picture...

Down the other side we came across our first salt lake. Salinas Grandes was dazzilingly bright and a great introduction for what more is to come in Bolivia.

Out here in the middle of nowhere at nearly 4,000m it was brilliant to come across a random cafe serving nice hot tea and biscuits. The family are obsessed with TV soaps and waving at trucks. Llamas, guanacos and vicuñas also live around here.

The next town was Susques which is rather shabby and rundown. Here children and adults alike, play marbles in the dusty streets. Basically a truckers stopover, we were worried about the road ahead when walking into a shop to find 4 truck drivers drinking beer inside.

The following day we managed to cycle 120kms over another small pass, across another salt lake, over another small pass and with an afternoon tailwind, all the way to the border town of Jama (pronounced "hammer"). It´s a very good name. The buildings look as though they have been beaten with hammers, the cars look as though they are repaired with hammers, and the locals must have been hit on the head with hammers to think it is a good place to live.
It is a difficult place to survive in...

At 4,100m above sea level we arrived just before dark. The border guards told us there was no space to sleep indoors and that we could camp outside. With night time temperatures falling below -10C we decided not to. A lovely lady in a tiny wooden shack of a kiosk gave us a small room to sleep in. With adobe buildings (that have thatched roofs) there is arisk of catching Chagas disease (untreatable) from small ticks which live in the roof. So we put the tent up inside the room, on top of the bed. It was our funniest camp site yet.

The next day we went through the border formalities and left Argentina for the last time. Eric was especially very sad to leave.
Back in Chile, the road continued to climb to 4,400m. Not being a conventional pass, Paso Jama has 3 real mountain passes. The second pass we came to in extremely strong sidewinds. Reduced to pushing the bikes we searched for a sheltered place to camp. Unfortunately we were in a valley with no natural shelter at all. We tried unsuccessfully to put the tent up behind a large rock but the wind was still too strong.

Worried that we would end up with no place to camp, in the dark of night above 4,500m, we headed back down the valley to lower ground. It was here that Francisco pulled over in his pick-up truck and saved us from a potentially dangerous situation.
The empty and very windy valley in front...

Francisco took us over the final pass which reaches 4,700m and then in just 45kms descends to 2,500m into San Pedro de Atacama.

Here, we are taking a couple of rest days to clean and feed. Preparations for Bolivia are being put on hold as we intend to head to the coast (Iquique) for a few days on the beach.

No doubt we will post on here again before we head into Bolivia in a week or so.

Love to everyone back home.

Ian and Gemma.