Uyuni/Bolivia – San Pedro de Atacama/Chile

The lagoon route – allegedly one of the hardest dirt roads in South America. Such superlatives are usually not worth much, but the reported difficulties would not allow us to expect an easy ride – the total length of the dirt road after Uyuni including the section already travelled is almost 700km, very bad dirt road, poor supply even of drinking water, mainly over 4000m.a.s.l., maximum altitude almost 5000m.a.s.l., extreme weather such as storms, possibly snow, fog, possible lowest temperature -20°C, difficult navigation.
On the bright side it is a unique landscape, salt lakes, lagoons – lakes in different colours, flamingos, geysers, rock formations, high desert. But step by step.

In Uyuni we hoard food. Later we have e.g., more than 5kg of spaghetti on board for the planned 10-day-trip,. And we need to have sufficient fuel for our stove. Coincidentally, the petrol station was running out of all petrol. A pick-up driver chauffeurs me to his home, where he sells me hoarded petrol for cost price, and back again. Extremely complaisant fellow.

We ride to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake on earth. We cylcle onto a rigid, flat surface, white until the horizon. It seems that one hardly moves. A new visual experience, a whole new impression gained while cycling (see video). We head towards a rocky island in the middle of the lake to spend the night there. What is special about it is that you cycle in a certain direction for ages without orientation before you can perceive the island from a distance of about 30km, which previously was hidden behind the curvature of the earth. Only very slowly this destination is coming closer and closer. We had bought a compass in order not to miss the island. It is not recommended to spend the night outside the island in the middle of the lake because supposedly vehicles are rushing over the lake at night as well, which in a worst case scenario end up in your tent.
After all though, the compass would not have been necessary since the numerous tourist 4×4-vehicles, which also head to the island, leave clearly visible traces on the salt. You only need to follow the right one.
As the salar the Island Incahuasi is also a surreal place. Centuries old, sometimes more than 10m high cacti grow amidst a white plain, which looks as if it had snowed, like cacti at the poles.

Back ashore. Lunch break. We cook something. Wind rises in the sandy landscape. Sahara-style we named this inevitable crunching variation of cuisine in Egypt last year. We continue our journey despite the wind becoming stronger and stronger on the silted Salar de Chiguana. Instead of having to cope with soft subsoil, for once we face a hard surface. But the head wind only allowes a speed of about 7km/h. Better than pushing through soft sand at 3km/h. What we already experience as uncomfortable, is only the tired prelude of what we might not easily forget. The whole thing turns into a sizeable sandstorm. We can’t see anything, lie on the ground behind our bikes which are hit by sand, more gravel,. We are hooded but the sand accumulates behind the sunglasses. The salty soil burns in the eyes and it well sticks to our
face masks turned damp through the humidity of our breaths. We get little air. We are exposed to natural phenomenon – powerless with the only option to wait (see video).
As visibility slightly improves, ducking behind our bikes we try to reach the edge of the large plain . We try to arrive to the lee of a mountain. This mountain provides fewer protection against the wind, but the bombardment of sand is less. With great effort, we managed to set up our tent. On one’s own it would have been impossible. With everything we have, we anchor the tent to the ground, shrubs, and the bicycles. Throughout night strong winds are tearing on the tent, which is already extremely sandy inside. And we are glad that it withstands.

It’s windy up here every day, an icy wind. At least every day the sun warms at a clear blue sky. As soon as it sets the temperature drops to two-figure-minus degrees. We hide away and don’t come back out before the sun is shining the next day.
What is annoying is the fact that the wind is mainly coming from the side, so that theoretically there could be a narrow lane on the runway, but the wind impedes to stay on it.

In the coming days we continue along the dirt road, which virtually is the worst of all runways I’ve ever driven on – the soft sand and flour like dust in the Sahara, rocky sections in Kenya, the mountain slopes in Ethiopia, the thin air of Tibet,. Pushing, road trail, pushing, road trail, falling down because of sandy cleat pedals. There are steeper increases with soft sand, where the speedometer stays at 2.5 km/h. The soft sand is the worst, and what adds to the agony is that our bikes are overloaded – food for 10 days, sometimes water for 3 days. Around 70kg weighs my bike.
There is a passage that is so rocky, that even the tourists from the four-wheel vehicles must get out of the car. While the tourists are walking, the car is toiling over the stones tumbling back and forth.
At one increase we push the bikes up one by one, 2 people for every bike. Although we have no problems with the altitude, for weeks we have not been below 3500m.a.s.l., pushing such heavy bikes through soft sand up a slope at 4500m.a.s.l., makes the air get thin..

Although we cycle focused, constantly searching for a drivable track and constantly busy with wind-and–soft-sand-balancing maneuvers, the question of meaning comes to our mind. While Denise is sometimes cursing and can’t find an answer, I consider whether it excites me to accomplish something not everybody is able to accomplish – so sporting ambition. After all we have only once met people who gave it a try. But they swapped their bikes for a pickup. Since this option seems to be pointless for me I don’t want to accept it. To explore your own limits is just so satisfying. On the other hand it gives me endurance to overcome such hurdles. Ultimately, one’s psyche decides.
At the end ambition gets hold of Denise, too. And on day 8 and 9 we decline to accept offered lifts.

At least we hardly have problems with the navigation. There are neither roads nor signposts and the car tracks lead criss-crossed through an infinitely wide landscape. Everyone looks for the best way. Because we always have a good view, we are able to orientate ourselves at the cruising four-wheel vehicles.

The reason for undergoing such drudgery is the magnificent landscape. As the name suggests the lagoon route leads along numerous lagoons, small, mineral lakes in various colours. Among others, there are a red lagoon, a turquoise, and blue ones. Some lagoons are populated by pink flamingos – pink flamingos in coloured water with white salt rim in front of high, barren, sometimes snowy mountains. It’s not like Florida or Miami Vice what comes to my mind when I think about flamingos.
The landscape is a barren high desert but also very colourful.
There are many volcanoes. So we pass the highest geyser field on earth – Sol de Mañana, 4840m.a.s.l. – where we set up our tent overlooking the fountains. Here in the area is almost everything „the highest in the world“ – the highest city in the world, the world’s highest yacht club, the world’s highest ski resort, the highest capital in the world (La Paz), which is not even the capital (Sucre is Bolivia’s capital).

After 10 days of hard work, where we accomplish about 40km a day after the very drivable salt lake, we reach the border of Chile. The checkpoint is already closed but we have already had the exit stamp in our passports since Uyuni, for the last 1.5 weeks. 5km later after 676km of dirt road we are back on asphalt.

Actually, we intended to continue left to Argentina but our supplies are exhausted. So we turn right, descend 2,000 meters to the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama in the homonymous driest desert on earth. Only a few curves are on that descent. Only the spoilsport wind prevented new speed records. Damn, again the 100km/h not cracked yet! Yes, there is the addiction to records. But how often is the average speed for half an hour of cycling over 50km/h? What we slaved away during an whole day in the past week, we roll now almost without pedalling within one hour.

Compared to Peru and Bolivia, Chile is a completely different world. There is everything, people are customer-oriented, relaxed, and open. In only 2 days we experience more positive behaviour than from the withdrawn Bolivians. But it is also much more expensive. Gone are the times when there was a lunch menu for less than 1,-EUR .
Yet a first Chilean experience makes it into the recent collection of so-called services. At the ATMs and in some currency exchange offices there is no money available. In Bolivia we were in a shop – with a notice written in two languages – in which they preferred to keep sale items for themselves rather than selling them to us – we wanted to acquire the entire stock of spaghetti – 4 packages. As mentioned, in Uyuni at the petrol station there was no petrol and in a restaurant there was no cutlery for a meat dish, only a spoon.

Two day break, at least in cycling. We are so unspeakably dusty and dirty. Also all the equipment needs to be cleaned. After 10 days we come into contact with water for first time in the Atacama desert.


translated by Denise and Tom, corrected by Kirsten – Thank you!

pictures for this article: Uyuni/Bolivien – San Pedro de Atacama/Chile : Fotos
video for this article: Radfahren auf dem Salar de Uyuni/Bolivien : Video
video for this article: Sandsturm auf dem Salar de Chiguana/Bolivien : Video

15. September 2008 - Tom | english texts | Kommentare :: comments :: comentarios | Inhalt drucken

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