The Lemming Effect and a Potential Alternative Lagunas Route via Northern Chile

How do travellers choose the places they want to travel to? What inspires you to go to a certain place or take a certain route?

Hearing about different trips people have gone on and reading in guidebooks helps in most cases but sometimes it seems to be bit of a Lemmings Effect where people just go to a certain place because everyone else is doing it.

What are lemmings? Well, lemmings was a computer game where you could lead a chain of little critters around anywhere (apparently based on a real animal with similar characteristics). If you clicked for them to go off a cliff, then they would one by one jump off the cliff into the ocean below.

For us, a couple places in Bolivia came to mind including the famous Lagunas Route and also Isla Incahausi. Both of these places are popular in the 3-4 day jeep tours from Uyuni through the Salar de Uyuni, stopping for sunset at Incahausi and then heading south towards San Juan and the picturesque stone tree sculpted by wind and sand, the flamingos at Laguna Colorada, the translucent jade green lake of Laguna Verde and the Manana y Sol gyser. I had been hearing about the Lagunas Route in Southern Bolivia since Ecuador and it just seemed discussed like a route every PanAmerican transversing cyclist should do. The amazing sights were supposed to balance out the trials including at least 30km of pushing the bike through sand, which was not flat terrain by the way but climbing up over passes and hills with the whole area between 4000 to almost 5000m elevation. The area has potentially tent ripping strong winds and trying to find a little windbreak to camp by was always a challenge as those places are also popular as impromptu wilderness washrooms for the thousands of tourists who pass through on jeeps that roar down the road often without consideration for cyclists.

We were fully planning on going on the route because it seemed like the thing to do but then we started talked to other cyclists who had recently done it. “I can’t recommend that route….but I guess you have to decide for yourself” came up as a popular phrase. One couple told us that the route is definately not for bicycles and they fell numerous times on the route when they haven’t fallen once in the rest of their almost finished world tour. Another couple said that the landscape wasn’t as amazing as they expected it to be. Of-course, like the popular phrase that came up, it’s somthing that you have to decided for yourself. The landscape is supposed to be beautiful with some incredible sights….

….but…. the Altiplano is filled with amazing examples of stark, desolate beauty.

We are riding relatively skinny tires so we knew the stories of pushing your bike through kilometers of sand…uphill…at high altitudes…would be even worst for us. We started asking around and found a route via Northern Chile that people said had similar sights to the much busier Lagunas route. Though still with its challenges, it was apparently easier in terms of flatter (still at high elevations though), better roads, quieter and the seller for us – hotsprings almost every night! We had also heard that someone with skinny tires had just successful completed it so the day before leaving La Paz, we changed our route and headed to Chile.

It was an amazing route, which I talk about more in the blog entry about our experiences here. In short, the route includes first going from La Paz to Sajama National Park across the stark Bolivian Altiplano dotted with chulpa funerary towers in vast plains filled with pokey pom pom grass and llamas grazing.

Altiplano church

Altiplano church in Bolivia

Sajama National Park is gorgeous with the tall snowcapped Volcan Sajama, the tallest peak in Bolivia, but is also surrounded by snowy mountains and hiking opportunities to hotsprings (perhaps one of the most scenic in the world out in the open altiplano moors with Volcan Sajama behind it) and colourful gysers. The route then crosses over to Northern Chile where you traverse four spectacular national parks and reserves one after another. You enter at Parque Nacional Lauca and then cross to Reserva Nacional de Las Vicunas where there is a hotspring with a hut that you can sleep in warmed by the hot thermal waters in the shadow of smoking Volcan Guallatiri. 

Smoking Volcan Guallitiri in Northern Chile

Smoking Volcan Guallitiri in Northern Chile

Then, you go to Salar de Surrire where up to 10,000 flamingos live and at the southern corner is a gorgeous hotspring that looks like a tropical lagoon. Its waters glow brightly with hues of turqouise, deep blues, and shades of green. In the morning, like at Laguna Verde on the Lagunas route, you can water turn translucent jade green with the rising of the sun. However, with the one in the Salar de Surrire, the water is hot and lovely to bathe in.

beautiful green Termas Polloquere

beautiful green Termas Polloquere

There is then a high pass over Cerro Capitan to windswept sand as it gets too high for even the high elevation plants to grow and then drops into a vast pampa plain with half abandoned Aymara hamlets with their characteristic earthen constructed churchs painted bright white and llamas grazing. The route wraps around smoking Volcan Isluga in Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga where just past the town of Enquegla is another hotspring. This hotspring is warm rather than hot but set in a lovely open pool that makes for great swimming at the end of a long day of riding. This whole section is like an extended wildlife safari as you ride with herds of vicunas, spot condors soaring above you, try to sneak up to shy flamingos and witness ostrich-like rheas running around on the vast plains and become astonished as a 7 foot flightless bird can disappear in plain sight right before your eyes. You can see them running and then at a certain point, they just seem to vanish camoflaughing so well with the surrounding environment.

Vicunas on Salar de Surrire

Vicunas on Salar de Surrire

The route crosses back into Bolivia where it then goes through the Salar de Coipasa and the largest salt flat in the world, Salar de Uyuni. Each of the three salars you pass through on this route has it’s own unique qualities that makes it special to ride through – Surrire with its thousands of flamingos, Coipasa which looks like a huge ice rink surrounded by blue floating mountains in the distance and Uyuni in its vastness. Though Salar de Uyuni is the top tourist attraction in Bolivia, the jeeps tend to follow a very specific route – from Uyuni to Incahausi and then south to San Juan for the Lagunas. This means we hardly saw anyone on the whole of Salar de Coipasa and half of Uyuni until Incahausi. Isla Incahausi is an island right smack dab in the middle of the giant Salar de Uyuni. There is a small settlement with water and everyone seems to go to it. We must have seen about 50 jeeps heading towards Incahausi making us think it must be quite a crowded place. On a jeep tour, you don’t really have a choice but on a bicycle, we have more freedom to choose where to spend the night and watch the stunning sunset on the salar. Many cyclists seem to also head towards Incahausi, maybe because they need water or because it’s conveniently situated half way across making it a good place to stop for a two day crossing of the salar or its the turning point to head south if they want to continue onto the Lagunas. However, it is not the only island out there. We rode to Isla Pescado, 23km west of Incahausi, where there are another couple islands nearby. These islands don’t seem to even be on the maps. We rounded the back side of the small island just north of Isla Pescado and found a little stone wall structure with a campfire ring and bags of firewood that looked like they have been abandoned as the bags were ripped and weathered but the wood was still good. We had an amazing camp with a campfire looking out to the vast open salar and the millions of stars overhead…and there was no one else around.

A nameless island not marked in our maps at sunset on the Salar de Uyuni

A nameless island not marked in our maps at sunset on the Salar de Uyuni

Anyways, these are just a couple thoughts from our experiences riding in Bolivia and Northern Chile. I’m sure the Lagunas route is rewarding and amazing but we found that it’s not the only spectacular journey avaliable. Our trip through Northern Chile and the salars was amazing, one of my favorite on this whole trip so far and I recommend it fully. You can even join up with the Lagunas Route as well if you like. I have written up my route notes below if you’re planning on riding this route and please feel free to email me (maggie.m.woo@gmail.com)  if you have any questions.

For me, my bicycle is freedom. Travelling is freedom. I think this Lemmings Effect is based off of a mentality of “Checklist Travelling” which is summed up in the phrase, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt”. It is travelling for the sake of bragging rights or for that photograph infront of an iconic place. I think this misses out on the true meaning of travelling, which is this desire to explore and experience the amazing world around us.

What are your thoughts? Did you do the Lagunas route or this alternative route through Northern Chile? What are your thoughts on travelling and getting off the beaten track? Comment below 🙂

Route Notes –

La Paz to Sajama National Park – about 300km

It is about 13km from downtown La Paz climbing to El Alto where the autopista out of La Paz continues into Hwy 1 to Oruro. The traffic is infamous and many cyclists opt to get a bus about 100km to the junction at Patacamaya. We took a taxi out of the city for 30 Bols and highway soon quiets down past the city. Highway is in construction (Nov 2014) so one side was always empty of traffic! Calamarca is a small village with nice paintings in the church about 50km from El Alto above La Paz. There is no hospedaje but ask at the “Eco-Pueblo” community center and library. We were able to camp in style there in their auditorium.

At Patacayama, turn off to Hwy 4 heading to Sajama and Chile. The highway is fairly quiet though there are some big trucks on the road heading to the border. It is 19km after junction to the first village of Canaviri and then more farms and life after that. Pomposillo Kellahuiri, where we camped in an abandoned house right at the turnoff to the dirt road leading to the community, is about 5km after Canaviri. The house was open but empty and clean when we passed through.

At about 40km after the junction, the road descends into scenic red hills and you see the first chulpas, funerary towers. There is a village with water 2.5km off the road by Puerto Japonese bridge (about 60km from the junction) but otherwise, this section is remote without towns and services. About 40km after the bridge (and 100km after the junction at Patacamaya), there is the town of Curahurara de Carangas about 5km off the road but there are restaurants and a couple little stores with snacks and water at the junction on the highway. After Curahurara de Carangas, there is a lovely ride through river canyon with lots of llamas grazing. It was a green valley with high tabletop mesas then 5km climb back out onto the Altiplano.

After the climb, there is a bit of descent which at the beginning, there are three dirt roads that lead towards the northern side of Volcan Sajama around the 120km marker. The northern route is supposed to have some amazing views but we found the southern route to be also very beautiful riding across the Altiplano in the shadow of the volcano. The turn off to Sajama is a little before Lagunas and the 11km road to the town is very sandy. There is a better road to Sajama just past Lagunas entering through a small construction site as shown in the picture below. We stayed at Hostel Sajama near the exit of town, which had very comfortable little hobbit style cabins and probably the best in town. 100 Bols per night with option of 25 Bols for dinner. Sajama has lots of great hiking from a couple day trek to alpine lakes, day hikes to hotsprings and gysers and even more technical hikes up the three 6000m plus mountains in the area for those with more experience. You can easily spend a couple days here.

Side trips from Sajama

Hotsprings – 3.5km walk on the main road north until a sign that says termales. From there, it is 2.5km down to a river and then up the other side. It is 30 Bols entrance to the hotsprings, which are nice and hot and stunning with the view of Volcan Sajama behind it.

hotsprings at Sahama

hotsprings at Sahama

Gysers – instead of walking north out of town, walk west behind the church and cross the bridge. The trail is straightforward and follow the road all the way to the gyser field. It is an 8km walk each way to the gyser field where you can walk around and check out all the bubbling pots of hot water and surreal colours. People don’t usually bathe at the gysers because they’re so hot (you can boil an egg in some of them) but a lovely little stream flows through the middle. I found great little soaking areas where the stream mixed with the hot water from the gysers.

Bubbling little gyser at Sajama National Park

Bubbling little gyser at Sajama National Park

Sajama to Sabbaya via Northern Chile – about 280km

Leave Sajama by the road from the football field as it’s less sandy than the main road.

Keep right and about 4.5km into the ride, you cross a fairly deep river fording. It is about 12km of flat dirt road from Sajama joining with the main highway just after Lagunas.

A deep riverfording 4.5km from Sajama town

A deep riverfording 4.5km from Sajama town

On Hwy 4, it is about 8km of uphill to Tambo and then about 6km up over the pass into Chile. Though Tambo is a dump, it has restaurants, small stores and basic accommodation. The wind really picks up in the afternoon so it might be good to spend the night here and do the pass in the morning as we had crazy headwind, which we also heard from other cyclists. Stock up in Tambo for 5 (at least) to 8 (if you want to spend extra days at each of the hotsprings on route in Chile) days as there are no stores on route in Chile. A tricky thing is that Chile does not allow you to bring in any fresh fruits, vegetables, meat or dairy products and x-rays your bags at customs. You are allowed to bring bread, nuts and any prepackaged foods. Email me at maggie.m.woo@gmail.com for further tips if you’re going on this route.

Though it seems to change names, you will be riding on Hwy 95 for the journey through Northern Chile. There is a sign turning off from the border. This is the sign from the termas

Though it seems to change names, you will be riding on Hwy 95 for the journey through Northern Chile. There is a sign turning off from the border. This is the sign from the termas

After the pass, which is the offical border, it is about 10km to immigration where you get stamped out for Bolivia and into Chile in the same area. Backtrack about 200m from the immigration office to the dirt Hwy A-95 signed for Termas Chirgualla (about 10km away up over a small sandy pass – watch for condors soaring above the pass) and Guallitire (about 41km away).

Termas Chirgualla – This hot spring is amazing because it has a small stone hot tub hut where there is a little space for you to sleep and stash your stuff beside the hot jacuzzi tub. The water is very hot straight from the spring but you can cool it down by plugging up the entrance tube from the outside with the bottle there.

Hot spring hut!

Hot spring hut!

From Termas Chirgualla, continue on the road for about 15km where you meet up with a larger dirt road from Putre. There are big trucks carrying salt going back and forth on this road but many (not most or all) of them are gracious to cyclists and slow down as they pass. There is some washboarding and sandy sections but overall the road is decent and ridable. From joining with the bigger road, it is 9km to a small hamlet with a couple families that live there but no services or stores and then 9km after that to Guallitire. Guallitire is the headquarters for the Reserva National de las Vicunas and has a very helpful CONAF ranger station there. There is a restaurant (1800 Chilean pesos for lunch) and a refugio (6000 Chilean pesos for a bed in a dorm style room). Water is avaliable at a tap by the church or at the police station or ranger station. From Guallitire, it is scenic downhill ride by the river with lots of vicunas about 10km to Puente Rio Lauca with about 30km of hilly sandy road left to Chilcaya. Chilcaya is right on the Salar de Surrire and is the next water stop after Guallitire. There is a very helpful and friendly police station there at the entrance to the east road around Salar de Surrire but no shops, no accommodation or restaurant. There is a refugio and ranger station on the west side of Salar de Surrire.

From Chilcaya, there is a wonderful 20km of riding around the east side of the Salar de Surrire (unlike the next two salars, you don’t actually ride on the salt pan because Salar de Surrire is very wet. On the plus side, this means LOTS of flamingos) with no cars and plenty of wildlife and gorgeous views. Junction at 12.5km past Chilcaya – stay on A-95 (keep right). At around 20km, there is deep sand (like half a foot deep) where you can’t even ride downhill. It seems really bad for about 5km (like pushing worthy except for the really fat tire bikes) but it is generally pretty sandy all the way to the junction at the south end of the salar. At the junction, keep right as the road to the left heads up and over the mountainside back into Bolivia. The hotsprings are about 3km past the junction on the right a little ways after the sign. You can’t miss it as they are beautiful and clearly seen from the road.

Polloquere Termas – Give yourself time to spend at these amazing hotsprings. These termas glow 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. There is a little picnic area walled on three sides that serves as a great little wind break to camp in. 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.

You can camp in the little picnic area with walls on three sides right beside the hotsprings

You can camp in the little picnic area with walls on three sides right beside the hotsprings

From Termas Polloquere, it is 10.5km continuing on the road around the salar to well signed junction and we turned left in the direction of Colchane. A few km after the junction, there are a few steep hills that are a jumble of boulders and are full of chinchillas living in them!

It is about 15km from the junction to the top of Cerro Capitan pass (sandy at top) and then about 11km of downhill until a junction with a road to the Bolivian border. A couple big trucks rumbled by heading in the direction of Bolivia. We want to continue in Chile towards Colchane so we turned right and started what would be for me a sandy, windy hell over the pampa flats. The road seems to vary from sand to small gravel but both seems to form washboard and sink beneath our tires. The landscape is desolate and the road diverges into many tracks as drivers try to find alternatives to the endless rumblestrip of the washboarded road. Some are a bit better, others are worst, often all options are terrible. It is about 5km to a hill (which we were hoping would block some of the wind) before a small salar with lots of llamas and alpacas. There are a couple homes off to the side where the llamas and their herders live (I think this corresponds to Virgen del Carmen on our maps but I’m not completely sure as the place names on our maps seem to rarely correspond to the small villages signposted in real life). There is hot spring fed warm stream on the plains (good for washing dishes so you don’t need to waste drinking water!) and on the hill are a three abandoned stone huts and a stacked stone llama corral. One of the huts was collapsed and unusuable, the second one had been used for animals but the droppings were hard and dry so they were easily cleared away for our tent and the structure made a good windblock and the third hut was really small, still had a roof on it and was clearly a little cooking hut, which we used as such.

Cooking in a little stone Aymara house

Cooking in a little stone Aymara house

2km after is some fresh water where we rode across a partially frozen stream and then 4km and 6km futher to two villages that seem deserted with many caved in roofs but nice white churches.

From the junction after the pass, it is about 20km across the sandy, windswept pampa until a junction where you keep straight to Enquegla (sign says 21km to Enquegla and it’s pretty accurate!). The landscape improves as you enter a bouldery river canyon after a short climb. Lots of water and some shelter from the wind but make sure to filter or boil the water as it’s also prime grazing area for llamas. The road rises out of the river canyon a few km later but the scenery and road has really improved from the pampa. There are still sandy patches but it is now a scenic ride through a bouldery landscape with stout, pygmy evergreen trees and smoking volcan Isluga in the bhen tackground.

At about 10km before Enquegla, you drop onto a large plain and then through one last scenic river canyon about 5km before the town. Water and lodgings are avaliable at the really friendly Conaf office in Enquegla (no stores in Enquegla though). However, there is also a free campsite at the nearby hot springs about 1km further down the road. The road splits and take the road to the right over a small hill that drops down to the termas.

Termas Enquegla – a big warm hot spring heated swimming pool hot springs with views of the smoking Volcan Isluga in the background. It is also apparently a place where condors can be often seen. It is listed as a free campsite but it’s more of a picnic area where you can set up your tent. When we were there, the front door to the abandoned refugio was unlocked and we set up for the night inside – no water but there was electricity and the warm swiming pool of the termas!

A lovely warm hotspring heated swimming pool by Enquegla

A lovely warm hotspring heated swimming pool by Enquegla

It is a good dirt road past Enquegla hot springs 9km to Isluga with about 5km of that a steady uphill before a descent into Isluga with salar de Coipasa glittering in the distance. After Isluga, it is still a good dirt road for another 7km until paved road last 4km to Colchane. At the end of the dirt road, turn left onto the paved highway to Colchane. The paved road is like a dream after the week of dirt tracks! There is a hostel and restaurant in Colchane but I think it’s cheaper for both on the other side of the border. Immigration for both to exit Chile and enter Bolivia are in the same building after the Welcome to Bolivia sign. There is food and lodging in Pisqua Bolivar while Pisqua Sucre is really small. There is a short cut to Salar de Coipasa from Pisqua Sucre if you can find enough to provision yourself for the next 5-6 days riding across the salars. Partly because we are excited to ride on the paved road again and partly because we need to provision better and want a rest day after 8 days of riding, we continue to Sabbaya. Sabbaya is about 46km from Colchane with about 10km of flat riding in the Bolivian Altiplano, then about 17km climbing up 350m to a pass around Cerro Tata Sabbaya (which looks to be an old cone of an extinct volcano) and then finally over the saddle between two old extinct volcanos were condors may be sighted (we saw 4 huge condors soaring at the top!) and then about 16km of brillant mainly downhill dropping the 350m down to Sabbaya. It was 16km with barely a pedal stroke or braking.

Sabbaya to Uyuni via Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni – about 300km

Camping on the Salar de Coipasa at sunset

Camping on the Salar de Coipasa at sunset

From Sabbaya, head west on highway towards Chile 2.5km from town center to turnoff to dirt road well marked for Salar de Coipasa. The dirt road was decent for the first 8km then got sandier but never too bad. 15Km to Buen Retiro and we stayed on the road around the salar (though found out after that you can head straight onto the salar and the island from here) and then about 7.5km more to Villa Vitalina where there is a small home based stores that sell cookies and pop. We started riding on the road on the salar, which is clearly marked, to Coipasa but then decided that the salar is hard and we rode directly to the point instead of heading to the sandy 4km road on the island to Coipasa. It was a little muddy around the point and around Coipasa town.

Everything south and southwest of Isla de Coipasa turns into a mud field, which we’re lucky in Nov 2014 when we crossed because it’s dry and flaky rather than mucky but it was still a trial to get through.

In the mud field, the salt buckled making for slow riding and then finally about 10km of pushing through the sand until the road again at Villa Victoria. Instead of our mudflat adventures, go southeast towards the mountain with the ragged top where you will find the ramp at Tres Cruces after about 40km. If in doubt, follow the tire tracks. They are a lot fewer and less established than in Salar de Uyuni but they do exist. From Tres Cruces, it is 26km to Villa Victoria. The main road both before Villa Victoria and after is really sandy but you can find an alternative parallel route on the pampa that is much better. From Villa Victoria, the pampa road was fantastic hard mud for about 7 km and then gets sandy again for the last 4 or so km until Challacollo. There is one little tienda selling pop out of a lady’s bedroom. Then it was 10km up and over a ridge into Llica. The road is still sandy and washboardy but more ridable than before. Llica is a bustling town that seemed better for stocking up supplies than Sabbaya. Fruits and veggies were avaliable and cheap – prices that rivaled La Paz! We even found plump, ripe mangos for sale there. There is water, accommodation, restaurants, stores…really anything you need. We stayed at a room in the government office/police station at the main square for free. Ask for Freddie.

9km from Llica to ramp onto salar and there was a turnoff to a lovely pampa side road with hard mud after 3km.

Riding on the Salar de Uyuni

Riding on the Salar de Uyuni

From ramp, it was about 50km to Isla Pescado.

We stopped at a little island just north of Isla Pescado, which 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 23km further east, which is an island in the middle of the salar and has a small settlement on it with water. However, it is also the place that all the tourist jeeps go to and judging from all the jeeps that passed us on route between Uyuni and Incahausi, I think there are many! As we passed the next day, the island looks a little worn from all the visitors though there does seem to be a cool cave on the east side of the island.

If you are continuing onto the Lagunas route and don’t need to stop in Uyuni, continue south from Incahausi. If you’re continuing to Uyuni, then head east from Incahausi on the numerous jeep tracks. It is about 65km to the old Salt Hotel where the owners will let you camp outside in the parking lot using the building as a windbreak.

From the old Salt Hotel, it is a bumpy ride on ridgy salt for about 8km then lots of water filled “salt” holes at the edge of the salar where they’re harvesting salt and then about 5km on a dirt road ramp into Colchani town. From Colchani, it is about 22km to Uyuni town. The main dirt road is just past the railway tracks but cyclists don’t need to take the sandy, washboardy road filled with jeeps driving way too fast because there is a paved road under construction – closed to traffic still but ridable for cyclists.

Uyuni is more expensive than expected but it is a tourist town. There are banks with ATMs avaliable. We treated ourselves to amazing pizza at Minuteman Pizza (which is in the Tonito Hotel and opens at 5pm).

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7 thoughts on “The Lemming Effect and a Potential Alternative Lagunas Route via Northern Chile

  1. Wow. You guys are amazing to do this. Even the times you are in a low spot you both bounce back and carry on. The lows can be just as much a learning experience as the highs and you both deserve a pat on the back and hugs. Just think how much stronger you are both becoming both spiritually and emotionally. Keep going and look forward to your safe return and listening to your stories of such an undertaking and experiences.

    xoxo

    Aunty Myrna

    Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail Emerson

    >

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