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Cycling the Bolivian Altiplano II

If you have just landed here from a random part of the Internet, perhaps via Google, this is more likely to make sense if you read part 1 first, which is here.

Leaving Camp 1 and passing the Salar Chalivi

Leaving Camp 1 and passing the Salar Chalivi

The following day, we packed up and cycled past the Salar Chalviri and Laguna Salada (another salt lake, and a volcanic area with hot springs), and the famous "Dali Desert", so called because it is coloured orangey reds and browns and has isolated volcanic rocks dotted about at random in the sand and gravel. It looks very much like the backgrounds of many of his paintings, and one half expects to see the space elephants teetering along in the distance and St Anthony or someone looking a bit cheesed off in the foreground. He wasn’t there today though. After this, we began the climb of our second pass. This one was lower, about 4700 m, but it is one of my top ten worst climbs of all time. It might be called the Paso Condor (although it's unnamed on my map), but we gave it a completely unprintable name. High, very steep (>10%), sand-covered washboard and loose stones, and to top it off, a westerly (headwind) gale of 40-50 mph. We were all pushing by the time we got to the top.

Between Paso Bastard and the Laguna Verde

Between the unameable pass and the Laguna Verde

We set off down the other side, pedalling even though it was a descent to move through the loose gravel and wind, and arrived at the famous Laguna Verde area. Our guidebook mentioned a refugio at the Laguna Verde, so we set off down the very rough track to the lake. It is indeed very green (like most waters around here, it is volcanic. The Laguna Verde is so green because it is contaminated with arsenic). The volcano Licancabur was on the opposite shore...

Licancabur with the Laguna Verde in the foreground

Licancabur with the Laguna Verde in the foreground

But- no refugio. We got off and looked around. We used the long lens on Tom's camera as a telescope, and thought we could see some vehicles and buildings alongside the next door lake, the Laguna Blanca. Rather than go all the way round, we pushed our bikes over some stepping stones that formed a ford that joined the two lakes, and around to the area we'd seen. There were two refugios about a km apart, and we tried to get into the posher one, but it was shut and some park rangers (all of this area is the Eduardo Avaroa National Park) charged us 30 Bs (about 2 quid) each for a park permit and then told us to go to the other refugio. We said we were knackered and didn’t want to. They sent a bloke over there to check there was space for us (there was), so we went back and stayed there. The refugio had a great view across the Laguna Blanca to another volcano, water which we purified with iodine and vitamin C, but no food. That was ok though, as we were carrying ten days' food and had plenty. It does go to show though, that you need to be fairly self-sufficient in this part of the world.

Up the following morning, setting off for Quetena. This place is a bit more off the tourist track than the famous coloured lakes, so we asked around for local knowledge-the park rangers, people at the refugio and so on. There were two roads to Quetena (only one marked on my map), and the universal opinion was that the one marked on the map was awful and we should go via the Chalviri. So back up the unnameable pass, but this time it was a doddle as the same westerly gale pushed us up. We found the turnoff to Quetena with relatively little difficulty, using a combination of GPS waypoints that we knew were either before or after the turnoff, advice from a couple of locals travelling through, and compass bearings. We cycled for a bit, and passed a borax mine (this lake, again, is volcanic and contaminated with all sorts of odd stuff). Three borax miners came up and said hello, and then we rode on a couple more km and camped right beside the lake itself. An idyllic spot, except that the borax miners came back and watched while we pitched our tent and asked us for money. We told them where to go, but kept everything in the tent that night except for the bikes, which we locked together even though we were in the middle of nowhere. We had no more trouble from them though. This was our coldest night of the trip. At least -15 degrees C we guess, judging by what froze.

Sunset over the desert at our second camp near Chalviri

Sunset over the desert at our second camp near Chalviri

In the morning, we were able to wash a bit (first time since Uyuni) as Tom discovered that the spring leading into the lake beside us was lukewarm from volcanic action. Not exactly a proper bath though. After breakfast/washing/faffing/etc, we set off towards Quetena. We passed the Chalviri on our left, and briefly cycled on the oddest road in the world: a track of wheel-beaten borax by another mine at the end of the salar. It was quite smooth, and had the texture and colour of Kendal Mint Cake. We then left this last sign of civilisation and set off across the desert navigating by compass bearing to choose our road. This was the most "desert-like" desert I have ever cycled across, just a track through wide rolling hills of orange gravel. Quite a cool experience and you could see a long way.

Desert crossing by bicycle

Desert crossing by bicycle

A certain member of the party stopped for a crap, and of course one of only two jeeps we saw that day passed at that moment! Timing, mate. We climbed higher, over a pass marked by a stone cairn and left this classical desert for a high salt lake. We saw vicunas (high altitude deer) near a lake here. We passed another jeep, and the driver said we were only 20 km from Quetena. Were we hell. We climbed yet another pass, this one with lots of scrubby bushes rather than completely arid, and then went down the other side. Very steep and rough. I think this would be almost impossible to cycle the other way. You would have to push the entire climb, and would have to camp twice before reaching anywhere you could restock and so would have to carry three days' water. Luckily we were going down, and the scenery changed again. We entered a lovely valley, much greener, with a river running along the bottom of a canyon. After descending for a bit, we turned up at a collection of huts with chickens and lamas mooching about and spoke to an old bloke there. He was off his rocker and told us that we were in Quetena Grande (it was anything but) and that Quetena Chico (our destination) was about 5 km down the road. So we set off, just as it started to get darker. Damian went over a bump and one of his front panniers leapt off the bike. It turned out that the pannier frame had gone with it, breaking the boss off the frame and tearing the P-clip in half! So he had to finish the ride with one pannier bungeed on the back rack, and will have to get Dawes to fix the fork under warranty. (Which they will do, as the bike's only three months old). To be fair though, I think it is a fault with the design of front rack, and not the build quality of the bike. Obviously annoying, but if there is a weakness in anything, Bolivia will find it. We rode on. It got completely dark, and we put on head torches. Bloody useless for cycling along a pitch black dirt track at night, but they were all we had. Someone came up behind us in a jeep, and there we were in Quetena Grande proper (even had a village sign, and everything). We stayed that night in a refugio in the village, and they did us a plate of macaroni and a bottle of synthetic fruit drink. A long, hard day: 64 km with 613 m ascent (!)

Herdswoman near Quetena

Herdswoman near Quetena

The following morning, we pootled the 5 km into dusty Quetena Chico, stopping to look at the ice in the frozen river and so on (it was very cold at night; from our first camping night onwards we were consistently sleeping at about 4200-4500 m). In QC, we sorted ourselves out with another refugio for 20 Bs a night. Two rooms, with ensuite bogs that flushed once the village's water supply had heated enough to unfreeze, and a non-functional shower. No food, so we cooked our own food in our foyer bit on the camp stove. We arranged with the proprietor (Mr B., a man more full of cobblers than a shoemakers' convention) for a jeep to take us to the base of Uturuncu the following day, leaving at 7 am, and to pick us up from as high on the mountain as he could reach in the afternoon, and then we went for a pleasant spin on the bikes around Quetena, watching birds at the river and so on. A recovery day before our big event.

Mr B. offered us two vehicles for the morrow’s trip. One was a pickup truck that looked as if it had been on blocks since 1968, and so we paid the extra $10 for the "better" one-a decrepit old Landcruiser with only one front light. The following morning, we were up by 6 with everything still frozen, a breakfast of Bachelor's Supernoodles and tea, and the bikes set up for the climb. It got dark about 6, being winter, and we needed as much daylight as possible for the trip. So at 5 past 7 and no sign of Mr B., Damian and I went over to the yard where the Landcruiser had been the night before when we inspected it. It was gone, so back to the refugio. Mr B. and a couple of others were across the road, jump-starting the thing with someone else's battery. Hmmm. Great start. Lots of people here (well, competent people anyway), get their engines running in good time to set off because it is so cold. Loaded up and set off half an hour late for the "40 minutes" trip to the base of the mountain. After about 2 km, the car stopped with a steaming radiator. "Not enough antifreeze". ("What? You live in a place where -15 at night is par for the course and you're too cheap to stick antifreeze in the thing!?) Added water from the river and got going again. Fording a stream (one of the reasons why we didn’t want to cycle to the start was that there are no bridges over the frozen rivers near Quetena), he froze/flooded the engine and we stopped again and waited 20 minutes while they lit a fire under the car to warm the engine enough to get moving again. We finally made it to our start point at about 9:20 (we'd aimed for 8 am), and so we got dropped a little higher, at 4700 m on top of the first foothill of the mountain. Started cycling. Going ok, not fast, but it was a dirt track at altitude and getting higher and rougher. Drink: I’d discovered in the Himalayas that for me, when cycling high passes, the key was to drink as much as I could force down, so today I had over 4.5 litres of Isostar and water with me.

At about 5000 m on the ascent of Uturuncu

At about 5000 m on the ascent of Uturuncu. The higher peak of the mountain is the righthand (nearer) one in this picture.

At about 5200 m, the road deteriorated and we ended up pushing much of the way above this (Tom as well, even with his wider mountain bike tyres). We had lunch at about 5400 m, where the landslide that had closed the road above was supposed to be. Good view this high, but no sign of the landslide. We bashed on. Found the landslide at about 5550 m. Tom and Damian considered leaving their bikes here, but I pushed over the landslide and for a bit afterwards it was fine, actually cyclable, so they started cycling again as well. We all left our panniers at this point though so that we'd have less to carry. I reached the saddle (Uturuncu is a double-peaked mountain) at about 5700 m, and the track seemed to go straight over, which seemed odd, so I left my bike and went on on foot to explore. Lots of fumaroles steaming away and a strong smell of sulphur, but the track seemed to die and so could not be the one I was looking for, that went to an abandoned sulphur mine at 5900 m. But I could see the remnants of a track off to the left on a big scree slope, so picked up the bike again, and set off traversing the mountain. Tom turned up. We had an argument over whether this was the true saddle or not: after my investigation, I was inclined to think it was just a dip and that the peak to our right was not the higher NW peak of the mountain but just an outcrop. Tom thought that my path was sufficiently masochistic to not be the right one and that the saddle was the true saddle. Although a zigzag path was visible going up to the top, this was clearly undrivable or cyclable up or down at any time because it was so steep. So I carried on my way, and Tom decided to drop his bike at the fumaroley saddle and ascend the peak near us on foot. I climbed 20 m straight up the mountain and got back on what was obviously the right track, and followed it round the mountain. I reached a spur, quite steep and covered with lumps of pure crystalline sulphur and volcanic rock. I could also see a couple of things that might have been walls or other parts of the mine. I climbed higher, but time was getting on, and at 5800 m I decided to take a photo and come back down the way I had come, so that I could meet the others and get back to the vehicle before dark.

View from my high point on Uturuncu at 5800 m, looking approximately Eastwards towards Argentina

View from my high point on Uturuncu at 5800 m, looking approximately Eastwards towards Argentina

Therefore I didn't find the mine, but reckon I got pretty close. The mine is below the subsidiary peak and not the higher one that Tom climbed, so that it is not possible to cycle (or even drag one's bike) to more than 6000 m, at least on Uturuncu. People who think they have done so on this mountain are probably wrong! So although we didn't do it, we did solve the "World's Highest Road Problem” which was one of our objectives for the trip, at least to our own satisfaction. I think we give the nod to the Khardung La in the Himalayas: Although it is slightly lower at 5602 m, it has the advantage of being an actual road that is tractable the whole way to the summit on wheeled transport, whereas the Uturuncu mine “road” is more of a notional than actual entity. Moving carefully down the steep, loose surface, I came back down to the saddle, and saw Damian's and Tom's bikes there, and Damian was just descending from the higher peak. He was not feeling great. We waited for Tom, and just as we started to get worried about him and think that we'd have to go up to find him, he appeared and descended quickly. He actually reached the true higher peak summit at 6020 m, the only one of us to do so. It was getting on, well past 4, and so we jumped on the bikes and descended as fast as we could. Mr B. couldn't be bothered climbing as high as we had asked, and we found the jeep at 5300 m. At least he turned up though. Although I felt fine at 5800 m, by the time I reached the jeep I had an appalling headache because of the combination of headbanging on the rough track as I descended over the bumps, and the altitude. We loaded the jeep quickly and set off home. For reasons known only to himself, Mr B. took a different route back. We thought it might be to avoid fords after the morning's fiasco, but there seemed to be at least as many. His son and (I guess) three or four year old grandson were also in the car. Just as we got near Quetena Chico (we could see it across the river/swamp about a km away), we got a puncture. Of course, no spare tyre for the vehicle. He sent his son off to go and get one from the village (no idea what he would have done if it had happened at 5000 m on the mountain) and a bit later went off himself, leaving us in a crippled vehicle with the little kid in the dark. Brilliant. Eventually they came back, changed the wheel and we got home late. We docked him $10 for his rubbish service, and so he refused to take us to Uyuni the following day. But this worked out well: we arranged lifts with other people staying at the refugio, and so got to Uyuni for less money than he would have charged, going in decent Landcruisers with competent drivers.

At Uyuni, our first shave and wash in over a week felt truly great. I think a good rule of thumb for deciding if a trip is a true “Expedition”, rather than just a holiday or whatever, is to tot up how many days one spent in the same pair of keks.

Our Bolivian adventure counts.

Happy Christmas everyone.