Reflection – Why off road in Northern Chile?

Riding in Parque Nacional  Lauca

Riding in Parque Nacional Lauca

We recently crossed the border from Bolivia to Northern Chile for a remote week long route through the Chilean Altiplano that is considered an alternative to the tourist jeep filled, sandy Lagunas route in Southern Bolivia. After x-raying our bags to make sure we weren’t smuggling apples and other fresh food into the country (though ironically coca leaves are completely ok), I asked the officals to confirm our direction on a map. The border guard in Chungara winced a little when he learned of our plans. The ride through Parque National Lauca, Reserva National de las Vicunas, Monumental National Salar de Surrire and Parque National Volcan Isluga is definately not for the faint of heart as it is about 250km of off-road riding up over 4000m where even standing up left us gasping sometimes and the harsh environment varied from blazing hot without a lick of shade during the day and freezing cold at night where our water bottles would freeze solid. Adding to the challenge, we are riding with skinny tires by the standards of those who cycle South America. Furthermore, there are no shops in this whole section so we have to carry all of our food with us and water is sparse in this high altitude arid landscape. The roads are sandy tracks at times and often endless kilometres of rumble strip washboard.

So why cycle here?

Well it’s beautiful and it’s been such a pleasure to have the opportunity to experience this amazing, remote area.

It has definately been tough and there has been moments that I just wanted to sit down and cry, especially on a stretch that I called pampa hell. It was after a high pass that dropped us onto a windswept plain where not even the hardy high altitude pompom grass could flourish and there were many ruins of old stone homes with the roofs long gone and empty rings of stacked stone where llamas once were corraled. It was a bleak, desolate, sandy wasteland where each pedal was a grind in the sand deep enough to grab my tire but yet firm enough to make washboard. Seemed unfair that it could be both. The head wind was already roaring even in the morning and you can tell where it usually blows becasue certain sides of the mountains and the whole plain really was stripped of vegetation.

It has brought me to the brink of tears at times but also beyond it.

I’m really proud of us for doing the trip and look back on it fondly. It is not the hardship that defines the adventure but rather the places you can get to when you challenge yourself. We rode by tall snow covered mountains reflected in still blue lakes and by smoking volcanoes, including watching a whole series of new vents fume up at sunset from the side of Volcan Guallatiri. We have camped on the vast open plains of the Altiplano where the millions of stars seem to just hang over our tent in the crystal clear and bitterly cold night….and woken up to startle a llama grazing beside the tent. We have raced vicunas, a delicate deer-like camelid that flourishes wild on these high plains, and watched majestic huge condors soar above our heads. We have tried to count how many brilliant flamingos we could see at once on the Salar de Surrire and failed because there were so many and camped beside basically our own private hotsprings in the middle of the wilderness.

We love hot springs!!

We love hot springs!!

We are hot spring enthusiasts and that’s what sold the route for us. The trip usually takes five days though we extended it to spend more time at the three hotsprings on the route (plus another amazing hot springs and gyser field in Sajama National Park on the Bolivian side). With eight days of riding in the bush and hot springs every second night or so, we managed to emerge rather clean but reeking of sulphur and its distinctive aroma of rotten eggs.

Cycling by a hotspring in the morning

Cycling by a hotspring in the morning

It was fun to challenge ourselves, to see these incredible places and be completely surrounded by nature. One of the best things about remote areas is the connection between the few people who are there. People are actually excited to meet you and help you if possible. On many days, only two vehicles would pass us on our whole ride that day and one would stop to see if we needed a ride or anything.

So for us, we were sold to go on this route for the hotsprings and was won over by the stunning surreal landscapes and the friendly people….and incredibly cute fuzzy alpacas…we met on the way.

Why do you pick the adventure route and stray from the beaten track at times?

Add your thoughts in the comments below 🙂 


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