Salt and Sand – The challenging but stunning remote riding on the Altiplano in Bolivia and Northern Chile

Some of the stops in our route through Bolivia and Northern Chile. Google maps could not connect the dots as it said there wasn't a road through the places

Some of the stops in our route through Bolivia and Northern Chile. Google maps could not connect the dots as it said there wasn’t a road through the places

There are two things that cycling in Bolivia seems to be known for: salt and sand. Cycling in the high Altiplano in Bolivia is challenging but its hardships are almost spoken with reverence, that it is a test to prove your mettle as an adventurer on two wheels in the wilds of South America and/or it is a high but worthwhile price to pay for the stunning, remote landscapes we get to experience. In this amazing ride, we visited the highest navigatable lake in the world, the legendary birthplace of the sun and homeland of the Incas, four national parks, five sets of hotsprings/gyser fields and three spectacular salars, each special and unique in their own way.

Welcome to Bolivia...the first time at Copacabana

Welcome to Bolivia…the first time at Copacabana

Gorgeous Isla del Sol

Gorgeous Isla del Sol

We crossed from Peru to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca where we visited Isla del Sol, a beautiful island rich in legend and history. People have been living on this island dating back to 2200BC (archaeologists have found obsidean blades dating back to this time….originally from Chivay in the Colca Canyon….and the island was an island at that time too! Incredible!) and every part of the landscape has been sculpted. All of the hills are covered with terracing looking a little like coral emerging from the sparkling blue waters of the lake. Legend has it that the sun is born here and the first Inca emperor, who is considered the son of the sun, was also from here. Leaving Copacabana was a beautiful ride with the still blue waters of the lake with picturesque islands, hillsides covered in pre-Colombian stone terracing and the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real, the Royal Range, in the distance.

Crossing on a wooden barge

Crossing on a wooden barge

It was a fun crossing of the strait on a wooden barge. We left the lakeside farmlands behind and the main industry in this lonely stretch seemed to be gravel, which was loaded dripping from streambeds into large gravel trucks that sped down the two laned highway spraying water and rocks behind it. However, across this lonely stretch, we had the beautiful tall snowcapped mountains of the Cordillera Real ushering us all the way into La Paz.

Metropolis La Paz

Metropolis La Paz

After weeks on the desolate but beautiful Altiplano with vast plains that go on from horizon to horizon until they touch the sky and the fluffy white clouds that seem to hang just above reach, La Paz was a culture shock. I had thought Juliaca was busy and Puno was a big city. La Paz is a whole new level of busy big city. Buildings are jammed into every possible space in the bowl shaped valley and spill out onto the surrounding hills and mountains. However, we didn’t really explore La Paz too much. We instead spent most of our time in the Casa de Ciclistas, a cyclists home run by the knowledgable Christian. The walls of the apartment is covered with notes and blog addresses of previous guests who passed through and the CdC is a treasure to connect and chill with over cyclists.

Downstairs bike workshop where we spent most of our time in La Paz

Downstairs bike workshop where we spent most of our time in La Paz

Christian is a cycling enthusiast and has an amazing workshop downstairs….which is where we spent most of our time. After 12,000km ridden from Canada, our gear is starting to show its wear. Bryan’s back hub needed work and my front rim was cracking! At home, we would have just gotten new parts but as Christian said, “but…you’re in Bolivia.” Christian and his brother, Ariel, were a wealth of knowledge and a can-do attitude for repairs. We spent three whole days painstakingly fixing our bikes with what was avaliable and it was such an experience. We have learned so much more about our bikes and the little things on how they work. It has been a journey in emotions, sweat, determination and learning but it has been truely rewarding to make the repairs ourselves. For me, it was amazing to turn the depressing situation into a success story crafted by our own hands and long, tedious, hard work. We were going to leave the next day but decided to stay an extra day to actually rest before we head back out on the road. A heartfelt thanks to Christian and Ariel for being amazing hosts and being with us every step of the way with our bike repairs!

A wonderful group of cyclists and our host Christian in the middle

A wonderful group of cyclists and our host Christian in the middle

Leaving La Paz is a battle between whether we hate traffic or busing more. Many people bus out of La Paz because of the crazy traffic through the congested downtown and then the busy autopista with cars and trucks bleching fumes as the road climbs 500m out of the city to El Alto. Bryan and I find putting our bikes on buses very annoying. Because our bikes are jammed into the bus and then bumped around as it drives, we always find that something gets broken….and we just spent three full days fixing up our bikes! We decide on a third option after we’re bumped in traffic a few times – getting a taxi up to the outskirts of El Alto where we found our own private highway for cyclists all the way to Patacamaya, the junction where we turned off on Hwy 4 towards Sajama and Chile. They are repaving the highway so one side of the divided highway seems to be closed to traffic. Best bike route ever!

Our own paved highway - best bike path ever!

Our own paved highway – best bike path ever!

Little house on the Altiplano - an abandoned house where we camped in for the night

Little house on the Altiplano – an abandoned house where we camped in for the night

We passed by lots of llama herds chomping away athe pokey pom pom grass. At about 40km after the junction, we decended into bright red hills making me wonder if I had been magically transported to Mars. It seemed very otherworldly. To make the landscape more surreal, there were old clay towers that looked like man-made stout rectangular tree trunks with a large round hole in the front. These chulpas, funerary towers filled with bones, were weathered with the wind and age and baked in the sun, standing tall like lonely guards on the empty landscape.

The peak of Volcan Sajama...right there....!

The peak of Volcan Sajama…right there….!

We circled around the southern side of Volcan Sajama though vast open Altiplano plains covered with evergreen scrub, pokey yellowish-tan and brown pom pom grass, wind and water eroded boulders making intriguing shapes and llamas grazing in it all. We saw a rhea, 7 foot tall flightless bird like an ostrich with 10 babies that ran from the road with its long legs as we rode up. Volcan Sajama was clear as we woke up but then danced a burlesque strip-tease as we spent all day riding around it. Misty clouds veiled the top and then here and there, clear to reveal a stark white glacier that tantalizing drew my eye up to the snowy white conical peak barely visible through the clouds. Then, grey clouds dripping lacey tendrials of whispy mist would blow by, closing the curtain, and ushering us along our way with a blazing tailwind and bitterly cold rain droplets and stinging hail. Up on the shoulder of the volcano, the clouds around the peak cleared up giving us a glorious view of the glaciers on its slopes. It is amazing to think that we have been steadily riding towards Volcan Sajama for the last four days really since we could see its peak off in the distance shortly after the turnoff from the junction at Patacamaya. We have had three amazing sunsets looking at huge volcano, the tallest peak in Bolivia, a land of high mountains. We have so many pictures of the volcano, small at first and growing bigger and bigger in those pictures as we got closer. On the last day, as we were riding on the shoulder of the volcano, it was right there over my right shoulder. We spent a few nights in Sajama, a very sleepy little village, where we did laundry, rested and went on some hikes in the Sajama National Park. We visited the awesome hot springs there and then the gyser field with its surreal colourful bubbling pots.

Beautiful views in Parque Nacional Volcan Sajama

Beautiful views in Parque Nacional Volcan Sajama

Gorgeous riding by Volcan Sajama

Gorgeous riding by Volcan Sajama

It was a very windy crossing over the pass into Chile. A headwind roared, whipping us with wind and sand, and forced me to walk my bike for a considerable distance for the first time on this whole trip from Canada. After clearing immigration, we turned onto Hwy A-95, a dirt path leading us to a series of remote national parks. We camped in our first national park in Chile that night, Parque Nacional Lauca with tall snowcapped volcanos all around us and vicunas grazing in the grass. The whole section in Chile is incredibly high and all over 4000m in elevation. I watched the first stars come out but was tucked into our tent by full nightfall as the temperature dropped with every fraction of change from dusk to darkness. Everything froze in the night – from our water bottles to the condesation on our mesh and fly of the tent. I shone my headlamp in the middle of the night for a pee break and everything was glittery and frosty even inside the tent! It’s the first time that it has gotten that cold for us. The border police told us it drops to minus 8 degrees at night here!

Snowcapped volcano reflected in Lago Chungara in Northern Chile's Parque Nacional Lauca

Snowcapped volcano reflected in Lago Chungara in Northern Chile’s Parque Nacional Lauca

The next day, we crossed a small pass where we saw a condor soar over our heads into the next park, Reserva National de las Vicunas.

It was just a short 10km ride to the hotsprings, Termas Chirgualla, but they were awesome so we decided to spend the day there. There is a little stone hut with a jacuzzi pool fed directly from the springs. The water is scalding hot but there are plastic bottles to block the pipe feeding the pool allowing it to cool a bit. It was almost too hot for the first hour but then great for the rest of the day. We had an amazing day in our own private hot tub hut which had enough room for us to pack in all of our stuff and sleep in at night. We let the hot water fully flow again at night, keeping the hut warm while we slept.

A sizable icicle that formed in our hot tub hut

A sizable icicle that formed in our hot tub hut

We were woken up in the morning to falling icicles in our hot tub hut as steam from the hot springs had frozen on the tin roof in the night and the first rays of the sun was loosening them onto us. It got us up and riding early this morning, which was great because we had a good day of riding. We camped by the River Lauca at night facing the active Volcano Guallatiri. At sunset, we watched as three new vents seemed to open up on the side, fuming smoke into the sky from part way down the side in addition to the top! It was a great show but we were happy to make some distance the next morning, riding away from the volcano.

The friendly police at Chilcaya

The friendly police at Chilcaya

The ride to Chilcaya at the edge of Salar de Surrire was hilly and sandy. We camped out with the friendly and bored police at Chilcaya that night and we walked around the salar infront of the station full of life with vicunas and lots of shy flamingos that slowly walked away as we approached. We saw a pair of Andean geese, who pair-bond for life, walking around as well, sqwaking away to each other. It made us think of us, who were also walking around talking to each other. In the evening, we saw a condor being harried by a dozen Andean gulls. There are a surprising amount of bones on the Altiplano, picked clean and bleached white. There are not a lot of predators out here and I think the main challenge to life is the harsh environment with hot days and freezing nights and limited fresh water on basically the high desert plains. There are apparently pumas but they are pretty rare and not a significant predator for the thriving populations of camelids – the wild vicunas and their domesticated cousins, llamas and alpacas. Consequently, condors flourish here as scavengers. Vicunas die and then the condors swoop in. We have seen a condor two out of the three days where the first day was basically a ride over the border.

Vicunas on Salar de Surrire

Vicunas on Salar de Surrire

It was a beautiful ride for the first 20km of the day rounding the east side of the salar, which is an another park and it is blissfully free of traffic. It is just us, the gorgeous landscape and the animals. The Salar de Surrire is named after the Amyara word for “place of the rhea” – the ostrich like creatures here. When I first saw the name, I thought it refered to how the place was very surreal because the whole landscape is. Vicunas, delicate deer-like camelids with long necks, walk in a train across the flat white salar, freezing like a photo snapshot and looking at us when we ride by…at a distance that is. They leap across the road or run alongside our bikes if we’re close. Boulders seem to float ontop of the white lake like black icebergs. Brilliant pink flamingos perch with their long legs in the watery parts of the salar, often perfectly still with their reflection mirrored in the water below them along with the mountains in the background. There were plenty of flamingos in our ride today.

Flamingos on Salar de Surrire

Flamingos on Salar de Surrire

Gringo war paint! Rawr! The UV is strong at these high 4000m plus elevations

Gringo war paint! Rawr! The UV is strong at these high 4000m plus elevations

After about 20km of amazing riding, the road turned to deep sand. It is really sad when you have to get off your bike and push downhill. We walked and pushed our bikes for about half a km when German tourists in a big red truck, which was only the second vehicle that we saw in our ride that day, came up and have us a ride for the last 10km to the hotsprings. Like the rest of the surreal landscape, Termas Polloquere seems out of this world. It was a sight for sore eyes glowing brillantly on the stark landscape like a tropical lagoon landlocked up high in the mountains with gorgeous bright turqouise and a jade green colours depending on the time of the day and fringed in deep slate blue colours. It was huge with one side very hot where the springs bubbled and the other side of the pool more warm for long soaking baths.

Camping beside Termas Polloquere

Camping beside Termas Polloquere

We camped right by the pools and had numerous soakings throughout the day. Some tourists came and left but never more than a few at a time since the area is so remote and by the late afternoon, we had the whole hotsprings all to ourselves. It was our private piece of paradise as we soaked in the amazing hot waters, watching flamingos off in the distance and vicuna trains trek by and then finally the gorgeous sunset paint the whole landscape pink and purple and then until the first stars came out. It was really magical making this hotspring jump ahead to be our number one hotspringing experience so far. In the morning, there was a flamingo in the hotspring beside us.

Stunning hotspring

Stunning hotsprings Termas Polloquere

We climbed over Cerro Capitan pass, which if you think that the Salar de Surrire is almost 4300m elevation already, a day of climbing brought us up to dizzying heights where the high altitude plants can not even grow.

Camping in an abandoned old stone Aymara house

Camping in an abandoned old stone Aymara house

We descended in what I liked to call the pampa hell until Volcan Isluga. It was a windswept plain where basically nothing grew and it was my definition of cycling hell – it was a bleak, desolate, sandy wasteland where not even the hardy pom pom grass could flourish. Each pedal was a grind in the sand deep enough to grab my tire but yet firm enough to make washboard. Seems unfair that it can be both. The road diverges into many equally terrible options as we swim our bikes through the sand, exerting incredible amounts of effort to make very little distance. The wind wass already roaring even in the morning and you could tell where it usually blows becasue certain sides of the mountains and the whole plain really is stripped of vegetation. There were many ruins of old stone homes with the roofs long gone and empty rings of stacked stone where llamas once were corraled. We camped the first night on the plains in one of these abandoned homes, which made a good wind break.

White church at Isluga

White church at Isluga

Even in the two more established villages, there were bright white churches but many of the homes lack roofs and no one was ever seen in sight. After 8km on our second day on the plain, Bryan said, “I just don’t want to ride my bike anymore!” and I had to agree. We haD little water left and continueD to push onwards. I wanted to just sit down and cry at times. However, I thought to myself, “If I can do Cerro Capitan pass yesterday, I can do this. These conditions can’t last forever. I can do this!” Apparently this thought was out loud as Bryan says, “WE can do this!” We kept pedalling and pushing and making slow progress until finally we drop out of the windswept high altitude pampa hell. The river canyon sheltered from the wind with tumbling streams of water and llamas peacefully grazing on the short green grass is idyllic and seems like paradise in comparison. We stop to have a picnic lunch on the green grass and recharge our spirits a bit. The rest of the ride was challenging but fun and do-able as rode around Volcan Isluga up over bouldery hills and down around steep sandy hairpin gulches. There were sandy parts but there was enough hard packed stuff that our wheels could get a grip on so a little bit of hard pedaling could swim us back onto a hard patch and keep us going, We could actually ride again. The termas close to Enquegla aren’t hot but it is a delightful warm clear blue swimming pool, great after a long day a riding. After, we left Parque National Volcan Isluga and got a little bit of pavement before the border back to Chile where we took a detour to Sabbaya village just to enjoy the 42km of pavement there and restock on supplies.

So happy to see pavement again just before the border crossing back into Bolivia

So happy to see pavement again just before the border crossing back into Bolivia

The hero Bryan getting the container back from the theiving wind!

The hero Bryan getting the container back from the theiving wind!

I got sick the day we left Sabbaya and had stomach wrenching cramps that came and went as we rode to the Salar de Coipasa. We rode onto the salar at Villa Vitalina and soon decided to just ride around the point on the salar instead of going all the way to the island and then taking a 4km sandy road to Coipasa village. Who needs that?! The Salar de Coipasa is not touristy like Salar de Uyuni and there were no jeeps or garbage, just us riding wherever we want to on the sparkly white salt that looks like vast sheets of ice. We camped right in the middle of it, though the wind that picked up around and after sunset really gave us a blowing across the vast flats. It was a theiving wind that picked up my round container and took it on a long ride that Bryan actually had to jump on his bike and race after as my running chase could not get close. The container was going at like 35km/hr! Stargazing on the salar is an amazing sight where the whole horizon is spread out over you in all directions and the icy white vast plain seems to glow in reflection of the starlight.

Sunrise on the Salar de Coipasa

Sunrise on the Salar de Coipasa

Cracks in the salt pan

Cracks in the salt pan

The next day, we took a wrong turn on the vast open white salt flat. Everything south of Isla de Coipasa turns into a mud field, which we’re lucky because it was dry and flaky rather than mucky but it was still a trial to get through. However, it was a surreal other world as the tan salt encrusted mud buckled and flaked. The ground cracked forming huge spiderweb lines with a little pot of pinkish brown water in the center. The landscape seemed to be peeling, layer by layer, and it was a maze to ride around it as areas formed rows of ridges. The layers of crusted salt were a couple inches thick and were coming apart with some ridges. Those, we could crash right through like a saltbreaker in a frozen sea of wavy salt. Others ridges were integral and held up the weight of our bikes, giving us a big bump as we rode across. Our riding across this icy snapshot of a rough sea of salt was slow at about 6-7km an hour but grinded even slower as the waves settled into foamy, crumbly salt encrusted mud that sank under our tires. We walked our bikes, which seemed to be a trend as other bike tracks also had footprints beside them. Bryan’s back rack broke again and we stopped to repair it and then it was a slow, hot walk through the salty desert. As bad as it was, there were stormy looking clouds rolling in so we wanted to make it as far as we could because rain would make this whole mud flat a diaster. We passed a couple sandbank islands before settling on one around 5:30pm. There were these little tree shrubs that grew on the sandy island with basically no roots. We could pick the dried dead ones without much trouble at all and had a great dinner and camp fire that night. It was a tough day but beautiful campsite with a rare campfire at the end of it. Also, I was feeling better and got over my illness, which was great news!

There was a bit more of the mudflats the next day though it was suprisingly ridable as we followed hardened mud streambeds zigzagging back and forth and narrow vicuna tracks that stamped down the crumbly salt-crusted earth. We reached the road at Villa Victoria and found that the deep sand was worst than the plains. Luckily, there was a parallel road on the hardened mud of the pampa until almost the village of Challacollo. The road was still sandy and washboard the 11km from Challacollo but it was more ridable. We spent the night camped out in a hall at the government building in the bustling Andean town of Llica and then rode out to the Salar de Uyuni the next day.

Bryan with his mini bike in hand!

Bryan with his mini bike in hand!

Salars are salt lakes which are often seasonal. During rainy season, they’re lakes but for the most of the time, they’re often dry with a thick salt crust. There is still water under the salt but the crust is so strong and hard that it can support the weight of vehicles and you need a rock to pound tent pegs into it. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and riding across it has been a dream come true. It has been one of the places I really wanted to visit and we have sure taken the adventure route from La Paz (well really from Canada) to get here but we made it. It is huge in a way that is mindblowing.

La de da!

La de da!

We rode over 150km from east to west and you can’t see all the way to the otherside. It is just blinding, shimmering white ahead of us. It’s interesting how the different salars each have their own characteristics. Salar de Surrire in Northern Chile is the wettest, mostly still a lake and consequently is full of bright pink flamingos. Salar de Coipasa is covered with a thick crust of salt but the salt pan is wetter than Salar de Uyuni. There are some spongy sections but mostly, it is shimmery white smooth magic. It looks like a giant ice rink framed by blue mountains that seem to float in the distance. Even after riding through two previous salars, the salar de Uyuni does not fail to impress. It is completely dry and hard and covered in a dizzying endless pattern of honeycomb ridges. It seems like another world. Islands first as little floating dots that grow larger as we ride closer and finally ground themselves onto the white plain. It is as if we are not riding towards them but rather that we’re pulling them towards us. It is amazing to be in an area so desolate but beautiful. There is nothing for kilometres all around us – no people, no animals, nothing but salt.

Salar de Uyuni at sunset

Salar de Uyuni at sunset

Great little campsite on Salar de Uyuni

Great little campsite on Salar de Uyuni

We stopped at a little island just north of Isla Pescado. It is not even on the map. However, on the west side of the island, there is a little cave that a single cyclist could set up in or further along, a stone wall around a campfire ring that was stocked with bags of firewood. These bags were old and worn like they have been left for a long time but the wood was fine and it was great to have a campfire that night. Everyone seems to go to Isla Incahausi, which is an island in the middle of the salar and has a small settlement on it with water. However, it’s kinda strange to go to the middle of the desert to be crowded with all of the other tourists in worn out campsites. We’re really glad to camp at this little island because we had it all to ourselves to enjoy the serenity of nature.

13,000km crossed cycling from Canada on the Salar de Uyuni!

13,000km crossed cycling from Canada on the Salar de Uyuni!

Old salt hotel on the Salar de Uyuni

Old salt hotel on the Salar de Uyuni

The next day, we had a tailwind and spent the whole day riding across the spectacular and surreal Salar de Uyuni. We camped for the night by the old salt hotel where the whole building is made from bricks of salt. There was another spectacular sunset for our last night on the salar.

Bryan walking into the sunset on our last night on the Salar de Uyuni

Bryan walking into the sunset on our last night on the Salar de Uyuni

We were both really excited the next morning, waking up before dawn and watching the beautiful sunrise over the mountains by Uyuni with coffees already brewed. Uyuni has been our destination for so long and reaching the town marks a big accomplishment for us and also a change. It has been three weeks and a day since La Paz, almost 900km ridden with about 600km of that off-roading, which is quite a feat for us with our skinny tires. For the last three weeks, it was like riding through a wildlife safari The wilderness is like the savannahs of Africa except up around 4000m elevation where the swaying grasslands are pokey yellow and grey pom pom grass and herds of antelope-like vicunas roam among tall flightless ostrich equivalent rheas. The ride has been stunning but challenging. There were points in the trip that I didn’t know if we were going to actually ride all the way to Uyuni, especially with the saga of Bryan’s back rack, which was breaking almost daily. Of the four points of attachment, three of them are broken and we had limited tools to repair it with. Bryan’s creativity and inguneity amazes me. We call it the Frankenstein rack now. On the last day, we rode the last 36km into Uyuni where we had our own paved highway – with a few parts underconstruction so closed to traffic making it one of the best bike lanes ever, gently downhill for the last 10km with a tailwind blowing us to the city. The weather gods have blessed us with sunshine and we have squeeked in before the rains. Of course, the ride today would not have been complete without Bryan’s back rack breaking, which it did about 10km before the town.

Uyuni is part industrial town specializing in its connection to the railway network and a cement plant and part tourist town where the downtown streets are hectic in the morning with jeeps picking up tourists for tours out to the Salar de Uyuni and the Lagunas. It is more expensive than expected but we barter a nice hotel for a few nights to rest, have Bryan’s belated birthday dinner, clean our bikes and do general maintenance on our gear before hopping on a train to Villazon at the border with Argentina. It has been an amazing trip through the Altiplano but off-roading takes a long time for us and the season here is now done. It is snowing in the mountains in Bolivia now so it is time for us to head south. Also, we are ready for lower elevations with richer oxygenated air, warmer nights, our wind-and-sun-burned chapped lips to heal and the famed beef and wine of Argentina.

It's been a great ride! Us on the Salar de Uyuni

It’s been a great ride! Us on the Salar de Uyuni

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2 thoughts on “Salt and Sand – The challenging but stunning remote riding on the Altiplano in Bolivia and Northern Chile

  1. You both have great endurance, wonderful spirits and a true love of adventure. Thank you for sharing your amazing experiences. Xoxo

  2. Pingback: The Lemming Effect and a Potential Alternative Lagunas Route via Northern Chile | Maggie's travels

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