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La Paz, Bolivia to Iquique, Chile

posted Apr 13, 2011, 7:27 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated May 3, 2011, 10:23 AM ]
Hi all! It feels like I was in La Paz a long, long time ago. Since leaving I've had some incredibly scenic riding through very remote areas. I started with more "Big Sky" country on my way out of Bolivia before reaching a number of active and inactive volcanoes along the border of Chile and Bolivia. Heading south along the border, I passed through many all-but-abandoned villages in the mountains of Chile, before crossing back to Bolivia which I'll have to say was the biggest mistake of the trip. For the better part of five days I had to push my bike through horribly sandy roads, across the salt desert of Coipasa, and finally over a pass to get to the coast of Chile. Since reaching the coast, I've been taking some time off here to rest my knees, which had been doing better until the five days of pushing, and generally, just to enjoy the better climate and the beach, which is just across the street from the hostel here.

My time in La Paz was pretty boring. There wasn't much in the city that interested me, and since it's a very hilly place and I was trying to rest my knees, I didn't get to go out walking much. I tried to see the "Valley of the Moon" at the south end of the city, but since my guidebook had the wrong times for the tourist bus, I missed my chance. I did get to meet up with another bike traveler named Andy, who is heading north through South America. It turned out that he grew up in the town next to where I lived, and we spent the afternoon talking about our trips and plans.

There is a big climb out of La Paz and I took it slowly, not wanting to stress my knees very much. After that the road is pretty flat and boring, with a lot of truck traffic, and I rode until just before Patacamaya, where there were a couple hotels on the side of the road. The "Gran Poder" is a little more expensive than the one across the street, but I could get a ground floor room, which saved me from carrying all my stuff up three flights of stairs. After a day of riding, it's worth a few bucks to be able to roll my bike right into the room. They also have a nicely stocked store, and they even sell maps of Bolivia, which I had been hearing are impossible to find since I started my planning. 

The road from there towards Sajama National Park was still relatively boring for the most part. It's generally just long, straight and flat, and there isn't much to look at. There were a few small villages, and at least two seemed to have simple stores. The first town of any size is Curuhuara, but it's off route and I didn't go there. Shortly after the turnoff the landscape totally transformed and all of a sudden I was riding through a landscape that could have been taken from Utah or Arizona - lots of great red rock and interesting formations. I was also getting closer to Sajama, the volcano which is the highest peak in Bolivia, and occasionally I had a good view of it. There were also quite a few burial Chullpas along the way, where mummies used to be kept.

I decided to take the back road around Volcano Sajama and through the park (30 Bs fee). I'm not sure if I took the right road, since I ended up in some enormous plains with little clusters of adobe houses scattered around. I stopped for water at what turned out to be a school, where the teacher came out to introduce himself. He spoke very clear, excellent spanish, which was a real surprise given where we were. Unfortunately, he didn't know about the back road to Sajama even though there are only two roads in the area, but he could at least tell me how to get to another village that was on my map. So, I followed a series of roads and paths to Ojsani, where there is no store, but I was able to trade a pair of extra gloves i had been carrying for two cups of pasta and a cup of rice. There were signs for Sajama from there, so I finally knew I was heading in the right direction. Since from that point on the signs were pretty good, I assume that if I wasn't actually on the right road before Ojsani, the correct one would probably have been equally well signed.

The next day I rode to a great campsite at Huaynacota Lake and walked around for a little while there. There were vicunas grazing around the lake and flamingos, which I had been seeing in the mountains since Peru. Unfortunately they would always fly away if I got too close, so trying to get a good picture of them was a challenge. 

The highest forest in the world is around Sajama and before leaving the next day I walked up a hill to take a closer look. Afterwards I rode to the town of Sajama, where I made a side trip to the geysers and bought some more food. I also wanted to go to some hot springs, but got some confusing information about where they were and what they cost (apparently some in the area are free). The ones I found cost about 10x more than the hot springs I went to last in Peru, and on principle, I refused to pay... I have a real problem with putting a fence around something natural and charging admission (which made me think for a while if parks are very different, but I decided since they protect and improve beautiful places, paying the fees is acceptable). That night I camped in the valley next to the Sajama river (not much creativity in the names around here). There were snowcapped volcanoes and mountains in every direction and one of the most incredible sunsets of the trip. I was spinning around so many times trying to take it all in, I was surprised I didn't make myself dizzy. After that show was over, the full moon came out and I walked through the valley looking for the other hot springs. Since I couldn't find them I ended up back at the first place, where one of the other things the fee wasn't used for was 24 hour security, and since no one was around I hopped into one of the pools and relaxed, with the full moon overhead, and the imposing peak of Sajama in front of me. Totally incredible experience.

The next day I rode across the border to Chile. There was rain around, but I stopped a few times until it crossed the road ahead of me and I managed to stay dry. Before the border I stopped to buy some gasoline for my stove, which ended up being free since they're used to filling up the passing trucks and didn't have change for my 30 cent fillup. There was a big climb before crossing border, with a pretty boring summit that you wouldn't want to hang around at anyway, due to all the land mines in the area. 

Shortly after the immigration station for Chile (where everything is searched so that fruits and vegetables aren't brought into the country) I came across an actual campground in the park, with bathrooms, tables and water. It was the first park campground I've seen since the US, if I remember correctly. The area was beautiful, with Parinacota lake and volcanoes all around, and a lot of birds (140 types in the park). The guy who ran the campsite said it would cost 6000 pesos ($12) to stay there, but after I said it was too expensive, he changed his mind and decided the price was 2000 pesos ($4). I almost always say "wow, that's expensive" after hearing the price for just about everything, and most times I end up getting a significant discount just by asking.

The next day I looked for food in two towns, but there was no one around at either. I rode to Las Cuevas next where there are more hot springs and caves (not surprisingly). I camped there and went into the hot springs before making my dinner. Just like the ranger station in Parinacota, there was no one around. I had been pretty fortunate during the day and got lots of free food from a guy making the documentary "Travestia del Norte" and from four archaologists who passed. 

I woke up with a headache that lasted the next four days. Since I hadn't been able to find any food, I had to go to the town of Putre, which is 3000 feet lower and a good place to recover since I attributed the headache to the altitude - Chungara is at about 4600 meters (15,000 feet). While I was in Putre, I drank as much "mate de coca" (coca tea) as possible, which is supposed to help with altitude sickness. While I was there I met a guy named Ciro who is doing engineering work on the roads in the area, and making plans to build tourism around Putre. I was running out of sunblock and had to go to the six stores in town to finally find some more. I also saw firsthand how expensive Chile is compared to the other countries I've been in. Most things cost 4-5x more than in Bolivia, where I had my cheapest Coke to date for 14 cents (200ml). The next day Ciro and his crew gave me a ride back to Las Cuevas and I was glad to see that my bike was still locked behind the ranger station. 

My plan was to follow the "Ruta Altiplanico" at least as far as Colchane, where i'd be able to get more info about my options. I knew there wasn't much on the way, so I carried enough food for four and a half days. On the first day I rode to near Guallatire, but id recommend going through town for water (and maybe food from the hotel) and camping in the valley beyond it where there is a small river. It was a cold night as always and the water bottle that I left on bike was nearly frozen solid in the morning. There was also a lot of frost on everything - including my tent. I could smell sulfer in the morning and I guessed it must have been from active Guallatire volcano nearby.

In Guallatire there is only a police station, park office and park hotel (7000 per night w breakfast), and all the adobe homes had been abandoned. The woman at the hotel said everyone had left but comes back occasionally for reunions.

I expected another easy day to the ranger station at Surire, but it was longer than expected due to the hills, sand, and wind. I also had my first broken chain of the trip, which I'd normally be able to fix, but my chain breaker also broke so I had to put my backup chain on. Fortunately, my backup was a tool-less SRAM - I'll never buy anything else. I finally reached the ranger station a little after sunset and camped there for free. (It's possible to get a room there for 5500 pesos.) I got to cook and eat in the heated lodge, which was a real treat. 

I took a wrong turn the next morning, shortly after leaving. It was partly my fault, and partly my map's. Just like the turn onto the backroad to Sajama, my map only had one road in the area, so when i got to a road that seemed "map worthy", I took it. If I had looked closer to the free tourism map of the area, I could have figured out that I wanted the second one, but that map ended just south of Surire so it wasn't obvious. There are always many more roads than are on my map, and many towns are missing. I usually have two maps to get as much info as possible, but different maps show different towns and different roads and I have to compare maps looking for a town that happens to be on both, to figure out which road is which.

The wrong road was over a steep, bad hill. I had a little doubt if it was the right way to go, but couldn't see another road farther on. I realized my mistake on the other side of the hill unfortunately and started riding back on the same road, which was steeper and in worse condition than the climb on the other side. I had great luck though because a group of people restoring the old churches in the area passed and took me back to the "main" road, at the junction I had turned off of in the morning, but I had still lost more than half a day. Next, my map said I could pass through the town of Surire to continue south, but nope, it's a dead end and I had to backtrack to an unsigned road that I had passed before Surire that I guessed would lead to the next town on my map, but that town didn't seem to exist at all. I followed the road to what seemed like the "main" road i was looking for, but there was no sign at the junction. Just to be sure that I was finally in the right place, I rode all the way back to the salt desert (Surire) to where the signs were. It was the right road after all, but I lost more time going to check. The day ended with a long, deceiving climb that was hardly noticeable to my eyes, but not to my legs. 

The next day I finished riding over the pass (4800 meters) and down through more huge plains. The road was pretty bad, and drivers make their own alternate roads parrallel to the official road - sometimes there are up to four roads. I camped before the town of Enquelga in a strange stone fenced area, which, like some other ones I had seen before, didn't have a doorway. Luckily, this one had a collapsed corner and I could get my stuff in through that. Throughout the day I passed through more villages that were either partly or totally abandoned. I always had to stop at each to explore, and the highlight was finding a bulge in the earth that pure, spring water was flowing from.

I reached Colchane finally next day. I was a momentary celebrity as a bus full of women passed and gave me a lot of attention - yelling and taking my picture through the bus windows. When I reached the only hotel/restaurant in town where they were staying, they were much more reserved - maybe it was because I hadn't showered in nearly a week, or maybe it was because I hadn't shaved in almost two months. :) A few were nice enough to talk to me, and since I had three options at that point, I wanted all the information I could get. I was very interested in continuing along the Ruta Altiplanico, but the police had told me the road had been damaged in two places and that while it might have been possible to pass by bike, if I had a problem there would be no cars around to help me. The police were missing the map for the most important section of road, and the women told me that the road that was on my map wasn't the best to take. All of that combined with the fact that they told me the two salt deserts were dry (and flat) made me choose to go that way. 

I had a short border crossing day next. I had to buy more food and either buy a chain tool or get my broken link removed at the bike shop in Pisiga (Bolivian side). Since I crossed on Sunday, I had to wait for Monday for the bike shop to open.

I hoped to be able to provide details on the back road route to Coipasa, but there is a confusing web of roads and I guessed my way through it. Generally, you want to aim between the largest pointy peak on land, and the mountains in the direction of Coipasa (which are Coipasa Island). It wasn't a very good road with mud in one place and quite a bit of sand. Some people gave me a landmark to aim at to cross the salt desert to the town of Coipasa, on Coipasa Island. Since it was flooded, I couldn't cross it, but I still got some good pictures before backtracking to the road. Once I reached the island, there was a lot of deep sand on road to Coipasa town. When I arrived, I saw a lot of water in the direction I was going. Someone I met in town said it was waist deep and I couldn't cross there, but that Uyuni was dry and I could cross Coipasa on the other side where there was just surface water, then follow the roads to Uyuni.

So... I backtracked on the sandy road to cross the drier, narrower side of Coipasa to a road that would take me to the town of Llica. From there I could cross Uyuni. The salt on Coipasa varied from mostly dry to having up to 2-3 inches, but it was almost always soft enough that it was easier to push than pedal and I spent most of the day pushing. Where the water was deepest I pedaled anyway to keep my feet dry. When I reached Irpa, the first town on the "coast", I decided I had had enough for the day and set up camp there. Like most of the villages I had been passing through, Irpa had a remaining population of two people. 

I might have been a little euphoric from all the pushing, or just extremely happy to be done with it, but to me the the village seemed like paradise. there were maybe two dozen homes, and on the edge of the hill behind them were the stone walled areas where crops were still being grown. There were large, shady trees in the farming area, and farther up the hill there were huge barrel cacti that seemed to be glowing as the sun set behind them. Some of the homes had stone walls around their "yards", and later it surprised me that my idea of a eutopian paradise would include barriers around personal property.

I left the next morning thinking that the worst was behind me, and for the first half of the day that seemed to be the case. Unfortunately the road slowly and continuously deteriorated until I was spending more time off my bike pushing, than pedalling it. 

I had heard from a few people who passed that Uyuni was flooded too, and that it would only be possible for me to cross by bus. This didn't really fit into my plans since after crossing by bus I wouldn't be in a place that I wanted to be (at least for now) but Llica was the only place to buy food and from there I could try to get more information. Once I arrived, the rumors were confirmed and I decided the best thing to to would be to cross back into Chile and head to the coast, since this is what i would have done if the people I had talked to in Colchane hadn't told me the salt deserts were dry. I stayed at the Hostal Central, which looked like a nice enough hotel on the outside, but only had one shared room from what I could see. The woman who works/lives there said the price would be 30 Bs, and as is my habit now, my first response was "wow, that's expensive!". She then said 25, and before I could even answer, she decided 20 was more fair. I agreed. In Colombia, I could save 20-25 percent on every hotel by doing this, but different places allow diferent levels of negotiation.

Since I wasn't going to be crossing Uyuni either, the next day I backtracked on the ridiculously sandy road that I had come from, knowing the junction for the road to the border wasn't far. That road ended up not being in much better condition - alternating between ridable sections and sections with enough sand that i'd come to an abrupt stop and have to push for a few meters/yards to get through it. Amazingly, half way through the day a French family passed in a Range Rover and offered to give me a ride to the border. The road seemed to improve after then, but the perspective was a bit different from the cushy back seat of the truck than it would have been from my bike. 

We all had to "stamp out" of bolivia at a small military outpost which, incidentally, didn't even have a stamp. We had to look around at first to find someone to help us, before being brought to a small room that contained a DC radio at one end, along with a small table with a bolivian flag on the corner. The back corner of the room had two military models, one of the base, and the other of the surrounding area - both complete with pastic army guys in all the strategic locations. If I had to imagine what a remote Bolivian military base would look like, this would be it. The guy who had to hand write our exit stamp was all military from the waist down and from there up, he looked like he was about to head out for a night of clubbing. He was wearing black boots and fatigue pants, along with a designer shirt, sunglasses and slick hair.

The Chilean immigration office was relatively far from there, over a hill and an incredibly bad, narrow road that didn't look like it had been used in quite some time. This ended up being not far from the truth, since we were informed that it was a "pedestrian" crossing only and that cars couldn't cross there - I wondered how many pedestrians had crossed there, if any. A few minutes later though, they changed their minds and said the family could cross with their car, but they'd have to go to another office on the coast within a day or two to finish the process. Possibly to make up for the confusion, the officers there made us dinner and offered to let us stay in the guest house. The family had to keep going, but I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and have a good night's sleep. They also fed me again in the morning, and let me use their WiFi to check my mail!

Thinking that finally, the worst MUST have been behind me, and that i'd be going downhill more or less all the way to the coast, I headed out the next day towards the oasis town of Pica, where I thought I'd arrive in two days. As you've probably already guessed, the road wasn't in much better condition, and on top of that there was the steepest climb that I've seen on this entire trip. Steep, sandy climbs and heavily loaded touring bikes don't mix, so once again I was pushing. I camped that night next to a small stream, which was great since I had plenty of water for cooking and my dishes. The water was even a little on the warm side, but I didn't look around upstream for hot springs.

I passed the salt desert Huasco the next day after riding through huge, totally deserted areas with almost no plant or animal life. Just like many other times after leaving La Paz and passing through these remote areas, the silence was deafening. Once in a while you hear a bird or a buzzing fly, but generally there is just - nothing. If there is a breeze and there are bushes around you can hear that as well, and other times even if it is calm, you can hear what sounds like very strong wind very close, although you can't see it, as one of the many dust devils (whirlwinds) passes by. Many times, when I would stop to rest, I could see up to 3 or four of these around, kicking up dust in the distance. 

There was a surprisingly steep and long climb after Huasco, and I didn't reach Pica as I had hoped. I finished the climb the following day, before the starting HUGE descent to Pica. There is about a 10,000 foot drop in about 30 miles, which is incredibly steep and I have to think it would be impossible to bike it in the other direction. The water bottles in my tent froze during the previous night (making it by far the coldest night of the trip), and when I reached Pica there were people walking around in shorts. 

Pica is described by my guidebook as a "beautiful oasis" (I only agree with the second word) and is pretty touristy - although seemingly more for Chileans than foreigners. There are hot springs and pools, but i wasn't interested in swimming and spent a pretty boring afternoon there. The most notable part of town was the campground that I stayed at, since I haven't seen a non-park campground since the Mexican coast! It was nothing special but there were individual sites, bathrooms with showers, and even a table and bench.

I decided I'd take a slightly indirect route to Iquique on the coast, first passing by some geoglyphs (pictures drawn on the side of mountains) and through a "forest" in the Atacama desert, which is one of the driest places on earth. The forest was almost entirely cut down during the nitrate mining boom, and this section of it has been protected and also has a campground where I planned to spend the night. The hard light along with the angle of the geoglyphs made most of them impossible to see, but there was a nice shady area and tables at the park entrance, so i spent quite a while there waiting for the heat of the day to pass. I've been in cold places for a long time - the heat wasn't easy to deal with!

I passed the abandoned mining town of Humberstone on the way to Iquique, which is now a world heritage site. Like many of the other abandoned mining towns in the area, it appeared during the "nitrate boom", which collapsed with the advent of artificial fertalizers. It was a pretty interesting place, being a completely "planned" town to house the mine workers and their families. It cost about $4 to enter, and I spent a few hours there thinking that since I had about 30 miles left to the coast, and it was about 3000 feet lower, that I'd have a pretty easy ride ahead of me. 

No, I never learn... and I had what seemed like a mostly uphill, upwind ride to the coast. It defies the laws of physics, but I swear it's true. It seemed more like a 25 mile uphill with a final 5 mile descent to the coast. I still arrived early enough and found the hostel here pretty easily. It wasn't my plan to stay here for long, but my knees, which had been slowly improving since leaving La Paz, were sore once again - no doubt from all the difficult riding and pushing I had been doing over the past week. I spent a day walking around town and to the "tax free mall", which left my knees feeling worse than before. So I've spent the rest of my time here doing as little as possible - resting, doing short walks along the beach, etc. If I remember correctly, Iquique is Aymara for "place of rest and tranquility" (which sounds more like something the tourism department would have come up with), and it's been that for me (except for all the construction happening at the hostel). Iquique is a popular place for surfing, and I got in the water quickly to do some body surfing, but it's too cold to stay in for long. Parapenting (paragliding) and sand boarding are also popular, but $70 for 30 mins of parapenting is a little ridiculous, and I haven't met anyone who is going or has been sandboarding, so I haven't tried that either.

Next I'll spend a few days riding along the coast to Tocopilla before heading inland again to the supposedly beautiful "San Pedro de Atacama". After that I haven't decided yet, but I'll probably cross into Bolivia to the lakes area, and while people do cycle the roads here, they're mostly in the same condition that I saw before coming to the coast so I might spend a couple days hiking there instead. After that I'll most likely head to Argentina and do a small loop in the northwestern corner before going back to Bolivia for the fourth time (good thing the $135 visa is good for 5 years). If the salt desert is dry by then, ill give it another shot, but either way, ill head east through the colonial towns of Potosi and Sucre on my way to Paraguay and Iguazu falls in Argentina.

Most importantly, since I left Bolivia originally to avoid the rain, I should mention that there has been almost NONE since I left La Paz. After having rain for most of the 10 months prior, it's been a great change.