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Cycling the Bolivian Altiplano

I aim to put up some (hopefully useful) information on cycling in Bolivia shortly. Until I get myself sorted though, here is an article based on a (long) email home with a few shots to whet the appetite. Muchos apologies if it's too boring:

8 a.m., 28th June 2005, and we pushed our bikes loaded down with camping equipment, 10 days’ food and kit to survive at -20 degrees C or +20,000 ft, to the bus station. La Paz's streets go either up or down at about a 20% gradient and the traffic is completely mental. Took the bus to Oruru, where we changed to the train and took the 8 hour ride to Uyuni and arrived at about 10:30 pm. The train went through a lake on a raised causeway, and there were flocks of flamingos and other birds taking off and circling as the train went past...wonderful.

The following day, we arranged to be dropped off on the Isla Inkawesi on the other side of the Salar de Uyuni by jeep. It's one of the weirdest places I have ever been-imagine a volcanic island like somewhere out of the Wild West, with no plants apart from big saguaro-like cacti (one was over 12 m tall, making it about 1200 years old), transplanted to the middle of the arctic ice sheet-that's what it looks like. Although of course, the "ice" is actually salt.

Isla Inkawesi on the Salar de Uyuni

Looking out across the Salar de Uyuni from the Isla Inkawesi

The Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt lake in the world, at an altitude of 3600 m. There are some pretty birds on the island, and we also saw a vicacha-a cute little animal like a rabbit with a long tail, who hopped about a bit like a tiny kangaroo. We had dinner and camped on the island, as a final shakedown of our kit before our bigger cycle. The clear, high altitude air and absence of any light pollution made the night sky very black, and I have never seen so many stars in my life. The temperature got down to between -5 and -10, and as well as our water, even Damian's contact lenses froze in their saline solution overnight.

Tunupa volcano from Inkawesi

View towards the volcano Tunupa from Inkawesi

The following day, we cycled back to Uyuni across the flat, blinding white salt lake-one of the oddest and coolest experiences ever. As it was winter, the cool conditions increased the illusion of cycling on a Polar ice sheet and it was strange not to be covered in melting snow after having sat or laid on the ground to take a photograph or something. We navigated by a mixture of my watch (which has an electronic compass) and my brother’s GPS receiver, and it worked well. About 80 km across the salt, and then another 25-odd km on a rough dirt road back to the town.

Damian and Tom cycling across the Salar de Uyuni from the Isla Inkawesi

Damian and Tom cycling across the Salar de Uyuni from the Isla Inkawesi

Volcan Tunupa from the Salar, with my bike in the foreground for scale

Just as I was coming into town, there was a big trench across the road and I rode straight into it. Both clips on one of my panniers snapped straight off-total disaster. We went to see the guys who were to drive us South to the Laguna Colorada, and while we were waiting to see if they could take us that evening (in the end we went the following night), they sent me down to the garage they have for maintaining their tour jeeps. The mechanics custom-made me three new pannier clips out of steel, with welded-on nuts. Absolutely bomb-proof. Perhaps I should send one to Karrimor, with a “here’s how it’s supposed to be done” letter attached.

Engineering new pannier clips

Engineering new pannier clips

We set off South the following evening in a jeep with our bikes and kit on the roof, a girl from Australia who was on her way to Chile, the driver and his mate. The drivers were rubbish, faffing with the tape player rather than watching the road (nearly rolling the jeep off the road at one point, which would have been expensive with our three bikes on the roof), and drinking beer at the wheel. We stopped at a hostel for a few hours in Alota, and then drove on at 6:15 the following morning. We arrived at the Laguna Colorada (“Red Lake”-and it is red) at about nine, and stopped about half way along the lake so that we could see the flamingos.

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada

We had a dozen 2 litre bottles of water, which we put into our bike and collapsible camping bottles; almost 10 litres per man (we reckoned we would need to be able to carry two complete days’ worth of water), then said goodbye to our Australian friend and the driver and his mate and off they went. We were now alone in the middle of nowhere, so we had some breakfast (expedition-grade muesli mixed for us by Tom’s wife, with added dried fruit, coconut, chocolate, nuts and dried milk), and then wandered down to the lake shore to watch and photograph the birds. We set off about 11, and at the Southern tip of the lake started climbing our first pass, the Sol de Manana (almost 5000 m).

Starting the climb of the Sol de Manana at the end of the Laguna Colorada

It is unbelievably sandy in this area, and the roads are much worse than those of the Himalayas-lots of washboard, deep sand or gravel, and rocks. We climbed fairly slowly, as all our time so far had been at about 3600 m and we were not acclimatised to 4500-5000 m. We had lunch, and approached the top of the pass. The top is an incredibly alien environment just like Mars: Hills of red volcanic gravel everywhere and loose rocks, no sign of life and of course, no air. I was getting a bit of a headache, and we had a panicky hour or so near the top. To my surprise, there were actually several tracks up there going in different directions, and, obviously, no road signs. We were getting our first clue that the Bolivians just aren't into road directions: they just expect you to know where you're going. The map was of no use. (I was to discover as we went on that it is full of errors and out-of-date features. There are no decent maps of this country). And to top it off, I couldn't find out how to delete the route across the Salar de Uyuni I had programmed into the GPS two days before. It has an annoyingly opaque interface, and unless I was missing a couple of pages, the manual was no use either. But we really didn't want to camp there because we didn't have enough water for three days (which we'd need to get to the Laguna Verde if we stopped so soon), and we didn't want to sleep so high either. However, I found another way of using the GPS, getting it to tell me the bearing and distance of a waypoint programmed into it. I had programmed GPS waypoints recorded by a cyclist who was here a couple of years ago and posted his data on the internet for others to use (it pays to do your research!), and was able to use this system to pick the right roads. So we descended to a reasonable height and camped in the desert at about 4500 m. A very cold night.

Our first camp at ~4500 m

Our first camp, above the Salar Chalviri at ~4500 m

If you reckon you can survive more, part 2 is here.