10th to 18th March

Monday 10 March

We get up at 6h30. It’s still dark outside. We have breakfast in the patio of the hostel, and we get ready to leave. In the end, we only stayed one night in San Pedro, and we did not take time to visit the wonders of nature around! but all was so expensive, and it looks totally a city for tourists. So we’re not unhappy to leave for Bolivia today. It’s good to know that the border with Bolivia is some 50km away, uphill, but the Chilean customs office is in San Pedro (while the Bolivian one is at the border). So we get our passport stamped, and we leave towards the East, around 9h30.

We see the road going to Bolivia far away, the climb does not seem really high nor so long. First, there are 10km of flat road, and then the climb starts. We pass next to a mined field, that Chile had prepared in the 80s, when there was going to be a war with Argentina, and Chile was afraid Peru and Bolivia would enjoy the occasion to attack also Chile.

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There are many lorries, and buses, passing us this morning. We start the climb at a good rhythm, but we have to take into account that we are at nearly 3000m, so we get out of breath fast.

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The kilometres pass by slowly, very slowly. And as we go up, the climb gets harder and harder. Not steeper, but we have less oxygen.

The landscape around us is impressive, especially the perfect cone of the Licancabur, a volcano 5920m high that we leave on our left. Everything is mineral, with only a few grass here and there. However, we see much more life here that in Aconcagua at the same altitude.

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In the afternoon, we continue going up. Now, we have to stop every 500m to get back our breath, to drink and rest. The altitude goes up slowly by slowly. 3600m, 4000m, 4300m, ! We arrive near a place selling cheese. Ok, let’s go to see what they have and we have a few extra pesos to spend. In the end, it’s a Bolivian family leaving in a very poor house. They are shepherd, for goats and llamas. The cheese is from goat milk, it’s fresh cheese. Quite good. We are amazed by a couple of llama coming to drink near the house.

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After half an hour, we have to leave, to keep going up. We are not that far from Bolivia, maybe 10-15 more kilometres, but it’s getting really hard now with the altitude.

A little before sunset, we arrive to a fork: strait for going to Argentina, and left for Bolivia. There are 5km left for the border, but the Sun is disappearing, and the dust road to go there seems quite strong for tonight. So we go to find a place to put the tent. As soon as the Sun is not here anymore, the temperature drops impressively. For sure this night will be very cold, maybe -5ºC. We mount the tent, with the company of the wind, which results in one corner broken. We quickly cook dinner, and then go to sleep. Let’s hope we can sleep at 4600m tonight!

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Today fully in images, just here:

Tuesday 11 March

We get up at 9h, when finally the Sun starts to warm a little the atmosphere. We had a pretty bad night. It was so cold! For breakfast, we have some rice we cooked yesterday, with olive jam! it’s really bad. We are not so motivated this morning, we start cycling only around 12h!

After a few kilometres on a dirt road, we arrive at the Bolivian customs. We are the only ones (the buses of tourists have passed early this morning). The officer is pretty nice. Welcome to Bolivia! Just as we pass the barrier, there is a fox crossing the road, absolutely calm. And soon after, we see the first vicuñas. These animals are very similar to the llamas, but with a thinner neck.

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We enter the natural park Eduardo Avaroa. Here, we are lucky to have changed money in San Pedro. Because you need to buy an entrance to the park, of 150 bolivianos per person (around 20€), and they only accept the local money! During the day, the landscapes are breath-taking (well not only the landscape, but also the altitude).

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The road we have today is totally in dirt. And with sand on it. Dozens of times, the bike sinks into the sand. And we use all the strength to prevent it from lying down (it’s 60kg!). Sometimes, every 50m, we have this problem. And pushing the bike in these conditions is not only the only thing we can do, but also super exhausting.

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We pass by several lagunas, with colours between sky blue, white, green, yellow! And with the reddish-brown volcanoes in the back! Also, we cross a few lorries, who create clouds of dust on their way.

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In the last part of the day, we head down towards Termas de Polques, and the road becomes full of bumps. But natural ones, spaced by one meter or less! nothing better to break the back.

Finally, we arrive to the place we had scheduled, Termas de Polques. It’s a few buildings near a laguna, with a naturally heated swimming pool. The owner allows us to sleep on the floor, but inside the buildings. And we are even invited to the dinner. There are many tourists here, most of them British or German (and also some llamas). After dinner, we enjoy the swimming pool. The temperature is perfect, just like a bath at home, but we have the wonderful night sky just above us.

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Wednesday 12 March

We get up around 7. We have breakfast in the buildings, after the tourists have left. We leave today at 8h45.

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As we are in Bolivia, the time has changed, it’s one hour less here. Today, we plan to arrive to the Laguna Colorada. According to the GPS, it’s less than 50km away, but the guides tell us it’s at least 100km. Let’s hope the GPS is right!

After following the shore of the laguna, the road goes up. The road conditions are still the same as yesterday.

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Very often, there is a layer of several centimetres of sand, preventing us from continuing pedalling, so we have to push the bike. The road keeps going up, slowly by slowly. We are regularly passed by 4×4, full of tourists. Despite the encouragements they may give us, we curse these cars that generally pass very fast and create a cloud of dust. In fact, we spend most of our day climbing, till nearly 5000m. I think we got a record of difficulties today: with the road going up, the lack of oxygen due to the altitude, the dirt or sand on the road slowing you even more, and some front wind! what else can be added?

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We arrive at a wonderful active spot: there are some smokes, some small geysers, holes with boiling water or mud, sulphur crystals on the floor, ! It’s totally unreal to see this mixture of green, blue, yellow coming from the sulphur, in the middle of the red stones of the mountain.

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On the way down, the fixation of the back pannier of Ju gets broken. He’ll finish the day with this pannier roped to the bike, and the backpack on the back. Why did we choose Vaude? But fortunately, we see far away a reddish lake. It is the Laguna Colorada. The descent towards it is enjoyable, especially after the suffering we had climbing today. The accommodation place is a few kilometres away from the laguna. These last kilometres are particularly difficult. The way is little marked, with a lot of sands, and stones! like a potato field. Don’t think, just push the bike. We will sleep tonight in the hostel San Marcelo. The price of the room is quite low compared to what was to be expected in a touristic place. So we’ll stay here tonight, and also tomorrow night, like this, we can rest one day here, and that will be very much appreciated by our body.

Thursday 13 March

We get up at 7, in a comfortable bed. All the tourists that were here, mainly Koreans, have left already. After breakfast, we go to the Laguna Colorada, nearby. Since we have removed the panniers today, the way seems nicer, although full of stones, and with sandy parts.

The Laguna is surrounding the mirador. On the shore, the stones suddenly give place to some green grass. And there are some white stains, from the salt when the water has evaporated. At the beginning, the water looks very pure, and after a few metres, it becomes red. This red colour comes from red sediments and also the pigmentation of some algae.

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This laguna, along with the many others of this region, is a paradise for the flamingos. Of the 5 species of flamingos in the world, 3 reside here! There are hundreds of flamingos in the laguna, looking for food in the very shallow water. And when they move, they are a group of a dozen birds, and form a queue! very organised.

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We come back to the hostel for lunch. In the afternoon, we rest here. There is a couple of young llamas in a house nearby that are very funny. Despite annoying them, Mick has not been spit at yet. Other groups of tourists arrive in the evening: also many Koreans.

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And here comes the videos we made these last days, inside the park:

Friday 14 March

We get up at 6h30 for breakfast, and we leave quite soon. Today, we plan to go to Hotel del Desierto, that is some 60km away. In a shop near the hostel, we manage to change some dollars for bolivianos. We leave around 8. During a couple of hours, we follow the shore of the Laguna Colorada, till we arrive to another small hamlet: Campamento Ende. There, we take a second breakfast.

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And we keep going. As the previous days, the weather is good, with changing wind. The road soon becomes very sandy. The road is quite wide, allowing two vehicles to cross easily, so we navigate from left to right in order to find the places with less sand. But very often, it’s not enough, and pedalling is useless. In fact, we spend half of the day pushing the bicycles. How to stay optimistic in these conditions, when every time you try to ride the bike again, you are stopped 50m later by the sand?

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There were less vehicles passing us today, but one Fangio nearly crashed with Ju and just after with Mick. In the afternoon, we pass by the Arbol de Piedra: a rock carved by the wind and the sand, that now looks like a tree. It’s impressive to see how little the base is. Of course, this place is full of tourists.

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At 18h, we are still 20km to the hotel, and only one hour of Sun is left. So we take the decision to stop where we are, in the middle of nowhere, and build the tent, because we cannot arrive to the hotel before night. And at 19h30, we are ready to sleep, with many layers of clothes because the night is going to be very cold.

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Saturday 15 March

We get up at 7h, when the Sun is finally up, above the mountains. The night has been long and very cold, especially at the end. After breakfast, we pack everything and leave around 9. Our first destination is the Hotel del Desierto, in Ojo de Perdiz, 18km away. It takes us nearly three hours to arrive there. It would have been very difficult if we had continued yesterday.

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At the hotel, we eat a second breakfast, it will be our lunch. And we start again. We want to reach Laguna Hedionda tonight, 40km away, where there is a hotel. After a few kilometres up, with still a lot of sand, we finally start to go down. Even though there still is sand on the trail, it’s easier now. The wind is mainly coming from our back, but with many gusts. And every time there is a gust, we are displaced from our ideal trajectory, and go again in the sand. We pass by a few lagunas just before arriving to Laguna Hedionda. This time, we arrived like one hour before sunset! We take a room in the Hotel Los Flamencos, even though it’s quite expensive, to have a better rest than in the tent. We have a good dinner (a wonderful quinoa soup), but little quantity.

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Sunday 16 March

We get up at 6h and prepare our stuff. We leave around 8, when finally the Sun has risen above the mountains. Today, we will go to Chiguana military base, and if possible, continue further to San Juan. There is still a lot of sand on the trail, so that we have to push the bikes many times. After 25km (and 4 hours), we have the good surprise to arrive on a paved road. We finally can go a little faster than 6km/h, without problems from the sand, or the natural bumpers, or the rocks.

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But after only ten kilometres on this road, we have to leave it again. There comes a never-ending succession of small hills, with much sand on the road. Many times, the bike becomes uncontrollable in the sand, turning or breaking as it wants! and finally falling.

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When we start to lose hope, we see far away a big white area, corresponding to the Salar de Chiguana. One more descent to arrive to the Salar, full of sands, and finally we leave the bad trails. Hopefully forever.

Pedalling on the Salar is absolutely wonderful. All around us, it’s flat. The road is a hard layer of salt, sometimes white, other times more brown. And there is very little resistance from the salt. So with the back wind, we reach easily the speed of 30km/h. We cross the Salar to arrive to the military base of Chiguana, situated near an abandoned village.

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In the base, we are received by the sergeant Paz very warmly. They clean a bubble house for us, and then we take tea with the sergeant. We have interesting discussion about the army of Bolivia, their lack of resources. The base we are in looks abandoned, with many things broken. In fact, only 5 people stay here now. They don’t have electricity, nor phone coverage, and the water is brought by the train. Of course, they don’t have any vehicle, although they have to fight against the traffics. We have dinner with the sergeant, and then go to sleep.

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Monday 17 March

We take breakfast with the sergeant at 7. After checking the maps he has of the region, we decide that we will sleep in Rio Grande tonight, a village half way to Uyuni. We leave the military camp at 8, at our regret, for the great welcome we received. First, we cross the Salar de Chiguana. Again, it’s a pleasure to drive on this new surface, we are full of energy to reach the maximum speed we can.

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As we are in the middle of the Salar, we get the impression that we are surrounded by water. Everywhere, some water separes us from the shore! in fact it’s a mirage, due to the heat emanating from the ground and creating a reflection of the sky.

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After these exhilarating first two hours, we reach the village of San Juan del Rosario. Unfortunately, there is no restaurant of bar here! we take a second breakfast with cookies we find in a wonderfully decorated shop. We bought some pito de quinua (a flour of quinua, that is drunk diluted in water and with sugar) also. And we continue towards Julaca. The road we take is a dirt road, but in much better state than what we used to take in the desert. On both sides of the road, we see plantations of quinua, sometimes yellow, red or green.

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As we arrive to Julaca, we have the impression to enter a ghost town. Many constructions seem to be abandoned, and there is nearly no one in the streets! a little like in the Far West movies. Here, there is nowhere to eat either. So we continue our day, until the next village, Rio Grande. The 30km road to go there is quite boring, although we have to keep concentrated to avoid the many natural bumpers. Also, some vicuñas observe us passing by, with some suspicion.

Finally, we arrive in Rio Grande, and reach the only hotel of the town. We have lunch in a restaurant nearby, a piece of beef with rice and French fries. And we take hot shower, and find electricity to recharge our batteries. It’s so good to be back to the civilization!

Tuesday 18 March

We leave the hotel after sunrise and go to have breakfast in the same restaurant as yesterday. Here in Bolivia, the people are very nice, always trying to help us. And also very calm. Now that we reach more inhabited areas, we start to see very often the typical Bolivian costume, of the Cholitas. The women (mainly old women, the young ones wear “normal” Western clothes) wear woollen tights, skirt, apron, and on top shirt and woollen cardigan. Their hair is very long, with two braids, and they wear very funny hats.

Today, we had the choice between two ways: a direct “road”, with many holes, bumpers, and sand of 60km long. Or a detour to arrive to a bigger road, that is hard and clean, but 90km long. After some discussion between us, Julien wins, and we’ll take the longer but better road. Our bodies will not suffer so much, or at least we hope so. On the first part, we see many herds of llamas and vicuñas grazing around, and casting at us inquisitive glances.

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On the big road, we finally have the promised hard layer. And 10km later, to our deception, it’s again with bumpers. And also some sand. In the end, maybe it would have been better to go by the shortest way.

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We arrive in Uyuni in the middle of the afternoon. Finally we reach the goal, after ten days of suffering. The first lunch with pasta and pizza is divine. Then we rest in the hotel. For dinner, we go to a typical restaurant for locals. We are surrounded by Bolivian people coming here to eat the only thing you can have in the restaurant: chicken with French fries. It’s not so good but very cheap. And everyone is watching the TV, showing a football match of the Copa de Libertadores. I don’t know how it could be more local!

And here comes the video of this last part: