12 November 2014

La Paz to Pisiga via Sajama and Northern Chile: the route of the volcanos

After a restful week off in La Paz, we set off to visit Bolivia´s highest mountain (actually a volcano, Sajama, at 6542 m) before crossing the western border into Chile, for a visit to some of Chile´s most remote national parks. After all the worry about reaching Bolivia in the dry season, we were treated to warm, stable weather which allowed us to take in the scenery all around. That is, when we were able to look up from the horribly sandy and washboard road conditions. Riding in the Bolivian (and Chilean) altiplano was totally different to what had come before it -- and totally spectacular.   

Our brief stint on the main road north of La Paz had taught us that highway riding in Bolivia is not for us. So we took a bus to Patacamayo, about two hours by car south of La Paz, where our route would turn off of Bolivia´s main highway and onto a road mainly used by trucks headed for the port in Arica, Chile. We left La Paz with Michael, from the US, and rode with him for the first few days.
The road was mainly quiet, apart from a few peak truck times everyday, and we were treated to views of the volcano Sajama, Bolivia´s highest peak, almost all the way. 
The road took us past many chulpas, or precolombian burial structures -- this one still had bones inside!
We pedalled on, over the river Desaguadero...
...and at camp o´clock diverted onto a footpath to find the first of many perfectly flat camping spots.

Although the main road is not busy by any stretch of the imagination, we grew tired of checking our rear-view mirror for trucks, so said goodbye to Michael as we diverted off of the main road onto a dirt (read: sand) road that would take us around the perimeter of  Sajama.
The following morning, we pass the village of Tomarapi

We quickly learned that desert riding means taking advantage of every opportunity to fill up with water. This well in the tiny village of Osjani did the trick.
We set up camp for the night in the wide open altiplano, hoping the slightly-higher-than-average bushes will provide some sort of wind shelter.

We pass through the village of Tomarapi (house to a very fancy hotel, at Bs 550 a night) the next day, and eat lunch in the shelter of the beautiful church.


An afternoon wind requires we find a sheltered spot, which we finally do in the pampa next to a slightly thermal river. As ever, Sajama looms in the background.


The road is sandy, but all rideable...

...and soon enough we are dumped back onto to main highway, just before the border town of Tambo Quemado.

A short climb to the Chungara pass (at almost 4700 m) and we enter our fifth country of the trip - Chile!

Before we even reach the border post in Chile we spot our first flamencos at the famous laguna Chungara.
After the border formalities, we turn up a sandy track which has us pushing almost immediately. In the background, the text book volcano-shape Parinacota (on the left, at 6348 m) and its neighbour Pomerape (at 6222 m)


Fortunately, the beautiful views of the volcanoes distract us from what a slog it is. 

Finally, after taking 2.5 hours to cover the 10km from the border, we arrive at the Termas Chirigualla. The hot springs create a wonderful heated temperature inside, and just about fit two sleeping cyclists (we reckon it was well below -10C at night outside).

But the termales were way too hot for our liking...until in the morning, a nice Bolivian shepherd showed us the trick to make them more beareable. Simply block the hot water input to the pool with the pictured bottle and rock,and wait for it to cool down.

In the morning, we are treated to our first views of the fumarole of the volcano Guallatiri.
Having gone through the village of Guallatiri, where the kind carabineros gave us much needed water, we cycled past another stunning river valley. We then followed what we believed was the tyre tracks of fellow cyclists Carwyn and Mark (yes, we cyclists know each other tyre tracks), and found a great sheltered campspot.

Then it was only another 20 km on corrugated and sandy surfaces (with plenty of mining trucks, of the very kind Chilean variety!) to the Salar de Surire. This was the first salar we've ever seen, and surely the most impressive with its wildife

In Chile things are a little different. Not only did we find signs showing distances to every village en route, but also, they suggest where you can take pictures!
Vicuñas were a common sight chilling out on the salar.
As were flamencos...apparently more than one species can be found here...but being no biologists, we had no clue which ones were they...help!?

We went the East way around the salar, occasionally pushing on sand, until we found one of the most incredible campsites of our journey...

...a flat, sheltered spot, overlooking the salar. All was left was an ideal sunset, which we also got.
The following morning we carried on and briefly entered Bolivia, before heading back to Chile. We knew Michael, plusSpaniards Quique and Alicia (and Michael) were a few hours ahead of us, so we pressed on....

First we caught up with Michael...and cycle past more abandoned villages, with their immaculate churches

Then sandboarded with our bikes through thick sand. Fat bikes came to our minds.

A few km ahead, we caught up with Quique and Alicia, from Las Palmas (Canary Islands) and Ferrol (Galicia), and a mini-peloton of 5 was formed.

With the afternoon winds picking up, we were lucky to find the abandoned settlement of Aravilla...

...and a building which fitted our three tents just perfectly. 

In the morning, we pressed on to the Chilean border town of Colchani, but first was Enquelga. We were surprised by its brand new plaza.
Just before Colchani, the washboard and sand ended and were treated to some km of fine pavement...so we just chilled out to the border.
Once in the Bolivian town of Pisiga Bolivar, we had no choice but to stock up with some junk...

Before crashing down in an ambiente that the villagers lent us. Back in Bolivia, for now...
Route notes:
- La Paz to Tambo Quemado:
We took the bus to Patacamayo for Bs. 20 from the terminal in La Paz (Bs. 2 terminal fee also). We were told to negotiate an extra fee for the bikes with the driver, but he didn't ask us for anything. Prom Patacamayo the main highway is excellent pavement with a good shoulder. The truck traffic was not too bad but compared to the quiet roads we got accustomed to we found it bothersome. Note that our map shows both Callapa and Curahuara de Carangas as on the main road, but in fact both would require a few km's detour. However there are shops and restaurants on the main road at the turnoff to Curahuara, known as 'Curva'.

We followed Big Sur's route notes and turned off of the main highway not too long after Curva to take the dirt road looping around the Volcano and into the town of Sajama. This added almost no distance to the route but added about a day's cycling due to the road being much slower. The town of Sajama has accommodation and (expensive) shops. This road dumps you back onto the main highway close to Tambo Quemado, which has restaurants, shops, and accommodation. Nathan (Velo Freedom) also has useful notes on this route.

- Tambo Quemado to Pisiga Bolivar:
We again followed Big Sur's notes to cross into Chile (no fresh fruit, veg, meat or dairy allowed). We expected there to be no shops or accommodation en route but were told that there is a restaurant with basic shop selling cookies and the like in Guallatiri, as well as accommodation there. The notes on where to get water from Big Sur are spot on. There is a fair amount of truck traffic from shortly after the hot springs all the way until Chilcaya / Salar de Surire. The drivers are without exception courteous, passing with plenty of room and usually giving a wave as they do so. But the sandy road creates plenty of unpleasant dust each time they pass.

 We took the shortcut that Quique found from the Salar de Surire to save about 25km and a couple hundred meters of climbing, turning left uphill about 3/4ths of the way around the Salar (this misses out Polloquere hot springs). The uphill is steep (pushing required), but overall we recommend it, especially as it cuts short the time until the next water source (a freshwater stream on the pampa once you have descended the other side). Carabineri at both Guallatiri and Chilcaya were familiar with this alternative should you have questions - if you mention the road that briefly goes into Bolivia and then back out they will know what you're talking about.

There are shops and accommodation in Colchane, on the Chilean side of the border, but you might as well cross to Pisiga where things are cheaper.

We did this route in 4 days/ 4 nights, including taking things a bit easy the last two days once we met up with the rest of the group. It could quite easily be done in 4 days / 3 nights if you cross the border in the morning and don't camp at the Termas Chirigualla. We carried food for 5 days just to be sure.


La Paz: surely the most scenic big city in the world?

South America is not known for its cities, save for a few cute colonial ones like Cartagena in Colombia. Surely, they are not as filled with sights as most European capitals and capital provinces, but the location of some of them, and the incredible ethnic mix, makes them so interesting.

Until now, Quito had won all our awards for the best city in South America. Its surreal location, perched on the side of the volcano Pichincha, with its old colonial town and its more Western-like new town, made it so appealing to us that we spent almost a month in the vicinity of it, exploring as much as we could. On our last days in town, we even got to see Pichincha with a fresh blanket of snow, and were once again wowed when looking at it from Santiago's casa de ciclistas.

Then we entered Bogota, a city of 10 million plus, with its chaotic transport infrastructure, but miles of bike lanes. Having some local contacts there, we enjoyed the city more than we had initially thought...probably because also, it is in Colombia, one of the most wonderful countries in the world, with the warmest people we've met to date in our trip. Then it was time to see a bit of Lima...with its horrible reputation amongst tourists...which of course, to us, felt completely unfair. Even though it is also as chaotic, if not more, than Bogota, its old town was fantastic, there's amazing ruins and museums, and the food of the more fancy Peruvian restaurants has to be sampled to be believed...

But then, our sights were on La Paz. Again, a stop for lots of tourists heading to the better known Salares in the South, or the Cordillera Real in the North, it does not get a lot of credit amongst international tourists. Also, with its reputation for being a bit dodgy (of course, also undeserved), lots of tourists spend as little time as possible there. But for us, it is by far our most favourite city, and somewhere we could come back to and spend a long amount of time. After just over a week there, it almost started to feel like home, and we had to get out before we got stuck there for much longer.

We discovered api (a sweet drink) and pastel (fried dough with cheese inside) on our first morning in La Paz and never looked back.



We find everything about downtown La Paz to be charming...
...from its grand plazas...

...to its tiny alleys.

There are some great re-purposed schoolbuses rolling around these streets...

...and we never cease to be impressed with the way that South American electricity is delivered.
We make a visit (via cable car) to the Thursday Market in El Alto, high above central La Paz. A visit to La Paz isn't complete without a visit to El Alto and its Thursday and Sunday markets.
You can find literally everything here, from car motors, doors and windows, to ipods.

We go in search of a few bike parts, as the fancy shop in La Paz wants to charge three times US prices.
...and of course Alberto can't neglect the chance to try the local fish dish (ipsi, a tiny deep fried fish akin to boquerones fritos but much smaller).

On the way back down, we catch views of the towering buildings of the Zona Sur, La Paz's newer and wealthier neighbourhoods.
...as well as the gigantic cemetery, where thousands of niches store the ashes of La Paz's dead.

One evening, we ride the red line cable car up to another part of El Alto...

... where we are treated to stunning sunset views of the city...

... and the mountains that surround it.

The volcano Illampu towers above the city.
Of course, the Casa de Ciclistas was also a comfortable place to hang out with fellow cyclists...It's always great to meet so many nationalities with similar interests. From left to right: Lee (US/Canada), Laura (Germany), Leo (Brazil), Quique (Spain), Thomas (Germany), Alicia (Spain), Michael (USA), and the machacas you are used to...

...and get organised for some hard riding in the Bolivian altiplano.