Fat Bike Heaven; the Lagunas Route, Bolivia.

San Pedro – Laguna Verde – Polques – Laguna Colorada – Arbol de Piedra – Laguna Hedionda – San Juan

It’s been my dream to cycle across the Bolivian Altiplano for almost as long as I can remember – inspired first by travels through South America as a teenager, then by photographs taken by bike touring compadres I’ve met over the years.

Probably because of this, crossing the border from Chile into this rugged, landlocked country had an especially powerful and emotional resonance: it may have been a couple of decades in the making, but I’d made it, at last…

In fact, the chance to experience the Altiplano – the Andean high plateaux – was one of my underlying reasons for planning this journey across the Americas. And I know I’m not the only one to feel its allure; the same is true for Miguel, my riding partner these last few months. For both of us, the sense of simply being here in this beautiful country, after so much anticipation and expectation, after so many kilometres under our tyres, has proved overwhelmingly strong. When it becomes too much… when the emotion needs a release, we pump our fists into the sky, and yell out our battle cry: Bo-li-via!!!

And so far, Bolivia hasn’t disappointed. This is indeed an incredible, extreme land. One where an intense sun beats down, cracking dry everything beneath it. Where strong winds blast restlessly across the open plateaux. Where even everyday living is hard. At 4000m in altitude, breathing is often laboured. Hands darken and crease. The lines around my eyes collect, and my nose reddens and peels. Water stop are few and far between. What liquids we find are often ladled out from dubious, icy vats. And where there are taps, pipes are frozen come morning. At night, I sleep in everything I own, bundled up in multicoloured layers like a Russian doll, my sleeping bag pulled snug around me, my warm breath wafting out like a smoke signal into the cold air.

But as is often the case in such fringe environments, the scenery is without parallel. Volcanoes tower high. Minerals saturate mountains and lend the panoramas a Mars-like hue. Bandy-legged, pink flamingos pick their way through pungent sulphur deposits. A bleached winter light instills a sense of otherworldliness, especially when crossing the salar – the salt lakes – that scrunch under tyre, handlebars free to turn in any one of the 360 degree that surround us. It’s an environment that’s shaped those who live here, both physically and emotionally: Bolivians are inevitably short, squat and strong. And while not naturally as quick to engage as their effervescent Argentinian neighbours, given a short charm offensive, a genuine warmness emerges, along with gummy and gold-toothed smiles.

As for the Altiplano’s ‘roads’… Well, more often than not, the lines that look so premeditated on a map are little more than a series of interlocking, ever-shifting sandy tracks, shaped into brain-rattling corrugation by the fleets of tourist jeeps that barrel across them.

Yep… after all these years, and despite its hardships, South West Bolivia is definitely a dreamy slice of heaven. Fat Bike Heaven.

Bike stuff:

Given our relatively light setups, we decided to tackle the classic Lagunas Route in its entirety, rather than attempting to avoid the worst parts of its sand and corrugation. Certainly, this is a tough road, especially give the altitude – and as a result, most heavily laden tourers push for sizeable sections of the ride. On the Pugs, however, I had no issue riding everything, and thoroughly enjoyed it all: fat tyres glide over sand, snake-like, leaving barely a trace. Mike’s Surly Ogre, shod with 29×2.3 tyres, fared very well too, even if it was a little slower going for him given his ‘skinnier’ tyres. Whatever bike you have, I’d recommend running the fattest tyres you can. Assuming you’re carrying a medium-ish load, you should be fine, perhaps just pushing the odd section.

Thanks as usual to the Andes By Bike for their excellent route notes, which we combined with Tour.Tk’s excellent cycling guide to SW Bolivia, both of which proved extremely handy – even if actual road conditions are constantly changing. Given the time of year and the associated frigid temperatures, we kept camping to a minimum, kipping out on floors or in cheap refugios. Winds tended to be in our favour.

A suggested itinerary, if you’re travelling lightish:

Note that the conditions are really variable, depending on whether the grader has been through. For instance, the section from Laguna Colorado to Laguna Santa Cruz was very, very corrugated and sandy. Otherwise have described it as smooth and fast! Wind conditions and directions can really vary too. 

Day 1: San Pedro to Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve refugio - big day, with a long paved climb.

Day 2: Reserve refugio to Polques hot springs – shorter day, allowing maximum soaking time, and a detour to Laguna Verde and the Dali rocks.

Day 3: Polques to Laguna Colorado – medium day, up and over Sol de Mañana.

Day 4: Laguna Colorado to protected campsite (20km past Arbol de Piedra) – decent day

Day 5: Campsite to Laguna Canapa protected campsite – medium day

Day 6: Laguna Canapa to San Juan de Rosario – long day

If you would like to keep up with where I am between blog entries, I try and keep my While Out Riding Facebook page regularly updated – along with posting extra photos and gear ponderings. You can find it here. Occasionally, I pop some pictures up on Instagram too. 

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20 years in the making… and I’m finally cycling in Bolivia!

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Not all jeep drivers are bad… though it’s hard not to get a little upset by how much their vehicles, shutting tourists to and fro, has trashed the roads.

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Like sand? Like corrugation? Then come ride on the Bolivian Altiplano.

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The Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. 150 Bolivianos well spent.

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Compadre Joe.

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Compadre Miguel.

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Bo-li-via!!  We just can’t contain ourselves…

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Bolivia is a cycling mecca. Compadre Neil and his skinny tyres struggle on the Lagunas Route though…

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As does everyone, given the gale force winds that are scooping up sand, slinging it into our eyes, and shattering vehicle windows like grapeshot.

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Thanks, jeeps.

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Negotiating a salty, icy stream crossing.

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Given the conditions, we decide an about turn is best, seeking shelter from the howling wind in a refugio.

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Glad to be indoors again…

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The Bolivian Altiplano: guaranteed to age you. (photo by Yorkshireman Miguel)

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Freestyling it on the Altiplano.

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Who needs roads.

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Omniterra: my Surly Pugsley. SW Bolivia is Fat Bike Heaven.

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Joe ponders the incongruously placed Piedras de Dali.

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Mineral hues.

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With ambient temperatures plummeting at night, we soak for 3 hours straight in the hot springs at Polques, emerging prune-like to jump into our sleeping bags.

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Morning steam, as we head up towards Sol de Mañana, 4944m.

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Even during the daytime, water bottles freeze just by riding.

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Laguna Colorada.

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More freestyling. Stones are far nicer than corrugation.

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Fatbikes may hail from Alaska, but Bolivia is surely their surrogate home.

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Come evening, we bargain ourselves a free night on the floor of a refugio. It doesn’t feel much warmer than being outside…

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A Russian doll.

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In search of flamingos.

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A bandy-legged take-off.

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Have I shown you my new leggings?

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Sweet singletrack around Laguna Colorada.

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The Surly Boyz: Troll, Ogre, Pugsley.

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We cross paths with Tom, a Frenchman. His bike is weighty and his tyres are all but slick; he reckons he’s been pushing for the better part of 27km.

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No wonder… the jeeps have been wreaking havoc. Soft sand collects in the grooves of corrugation, deepening as they belt by.

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Luckily, light bikes and fat tyres make relatively easy work for us.

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The fabled Piedra del Arbol, hewn by wind and sand. Popular with the jeep brigade.

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We prefer this suntrap round the corner. A perfect spot for an afternoon snooze.

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Beyond lies the valley floor, stretching several kilometres wide, and etched with corrugated jeep tracks…

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… despite what the sign reads: Responsible tourism, follow one track. Hmm…

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That night, we tuck out of the wind, camping at 4600m. Temperatures plummet. At least -15c, we reckon. Cold enough to freeze our cojones, that’s for sure.

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And cold enough to freeze honey… So it’s Orios and porridge on Miguel’s breakfast menu.

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Twister!!

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Laguna Honda…

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… and Laguna Hedionda. As the name suggests, this route is marked by a series of shallow salt lakes.

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On our last day, we cross paths with a Japanese cyclist travelling south from Alaska. His bike is slick-tyred and overladen. He’s also pushing…

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Vegetation!

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Water in these parts is limited and invariably saline, needing a quick blast of UV.

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Dust, dust and more dust.

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Finally it’s time to descend, via a wonderfully rugged trail, to a pancake flat salt pan…

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… for a furious 50km sprint to San Juan, before sunset.

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Scrunch.

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A night in a hotel made of salt cures all ills. Dinner is an eye-poppingly extravagant three course affair, for less than $5. It even includes roasted chicken and vegetables. Minerals and vitamins… what a treat.

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More riding across the Salar to come…

39 thoughts on “Fat Bike Heaven; the Lagunas Route, Bolivia.

  1. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Thanks! Headed that way for sure. Heard great things.

    First though, we’re going to loop back and ride/climb Uturuncu. Apparently, you can pedal all the way up to 5760m!

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hey Neil,

      Well, the ‘roads’ that came next were definitely skinny-tyre unfriendly… A Fatty isn’t ideal for everything, but for SW Bolivia, it’s the business! See you in La Paz??

      Reply
  2. Matt

    Wow wow wow. I have serious wanderlust right now. Magnificent pics. We were up that way a couple of years ago, sadly sans bike (madness!), but your images have me itching to head back astride a Pugs. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Peter Mac

    Hello mate,

    good to see your fab photo’s and note that the Pugs is pulling it’s weight in a perfect environment. Amazing landscape…!!!
    I’m off to Australia early 2015 and have been toying with using an ECR setup, but the Pugs appears to continue to claim itself as the better option.
    Take it easy man and best wishes to you and your travel companions.
    Peter Mac

    Reply
    1. Marc

      Hey Peter,
      let me know where you are heading to as I live in Australia. I also happen to go on a 3 months trip starting at the end of January. Anyway, if you need anything just let me know.
      Cheers
      Marc

      Reply
  4. Anna

    Ah, Bolivia, the beautiful!

    Nice photos, nice leggings.

    (I have to mention, in passing, that I didn’t find myself pushing that much on 26x 2.25 inch tires… just saying… I don’t want to dis fat bikes, or anything, and maybe I didn’t float across with effortless cool but I wasn’t pushing either ; -) )

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Completely. I believe almost any kind of bike can tackle almost any kind of terrain (within reason). 26×2.25 with a relatively light setup, as you have, is a case in point. It’s a great middle ground.

      But… a fat bike makes riding challenging terrain an incredibly fun endeavour, rather than a potential chore. I found myself seeking sand just for the smile factor, and taking side trips I might not have otherwise bothered with. Rocky descents become joyful. Undoubtedly, in this environment, a fat bike leaves you a lot fresher at the end of the day too.

      Leggings are from Cafayate. My favourites in a while (-:

      Reply
      1. Anna

        Yeah, I’m just jealous really. I’m contemplating the Uruguayan coast right now. There’s some nice looking beach riding to be done. I’ll be thinking of fat bikes and effortless cool, I’m sure ;- )

        Reply
  5. Neal

    Brilliant post and photos. The Bolivian Altiplano is an incredible place. Brought back some great memories of being there last year. Big respect for tackling it on 2 wheels though!

    Reply
  6. Joe Cruz

    That place, Cass! Definitely was a highlight for me, even with the sandy corrugated roads testing the fat tires. Incredible wonderful evocative images as always, my friend.

    Joe

    Reply
  7. Eric

    Fantastic Cass. – Img 7417 – I camped in that exact same spot! cool out outcrop in the middle of nothing.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Cheers Eric. For sure, this place has worked itself under my skin and even fingernails. In fact, Bolivian dust gets pretty much everywhere, as well you know… and I love it!

      Reply
  8. Neil

    You’re killing me, you really are. If it’s not Bolivia jealousy, it’s leggings jealousy…gotta be content with my one Huaraz pair I guess…
    Have fun dancing up Uturuncu!

    Reply
  9. gypsybytrade

    As ever, more great places to ride bikes.

    New seatpack from Scott, with support? Tell me more!

    Good to see the fatbike put to good use. It isn’t always fatbike terrain, but when you find it, it sure it sweet and makes it all worth it.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      The seat pack is a proto design – the finished version is due to go into production any day I believe, dubbed Mr Fusion… Check out Scott’s Instagram page – http://instagram.com/porcelainrocket.

      I really like it. Super stable. Easy to remove and load. And light too. I’ve had mine for several months, and have failed miserably to break it.

      Reply
  10. Carsten

    Very nice reading and great pictures. Thank you for refeshing the memories. I did this trip in October last year solo per bicycle. Seems that a fat bike is a nice alternative.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Fat Biking Bolivia’s Altiplano | Fat Bike Brigade

  12. Oliver

    Holy moly, I was already craving for some impressions on your blog, but this is a sheer avalanche of goodness Cass! Seriously, exceptional photography as usual and I can only vaguely imagine what a feeling it must have been for you to make this dream come true after all those years… I hope you did celebrate in style and at least once fell on your knees and kissed the dusty ground!?? ;)
    Btw, your new leggings perfectly blend into the scenery!

    Reply
  13. Peter Mac

    Mate,
    con-under-them…!!!….ride-over-them…???
    Thou shal-st take-st what thou’st have-st…..and do the bestest one can.
    i’m not making any sense because the images you leave here, as usual, are too much for my little brain to manage. if ever there was a heaven, where you are now perhaps, would be a wonderful example. And a heavenly act of just riding is all the more devout on something comfy. Inbred to ECR conversion under way.
    Take it easy man and best wishes.

    Reply
  14. José Pereira

    Hello,

    Do you think a 700c bike with 700×47 tires could handle that terrain? Or should one just go with a conventional 26×2.0 or similar tire? I am trying to choose my next bike setup, and generally have a preference for the bigger wheels.
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hey Jose,

      The conditions on the Lagunas route apparently change a lot, year to year – largely dependant on when the grader goes through and smooths out the road, and the volume of tourist traffic in between. 700c by 47 (1.85in, right?) would probably be fine, though I think 2×2.25 (or more) might be a bit better. Just don’t go with a slick tyre!

      This said, most other Bolivian roads in the area are absolutely fine. Corrugated and sandy in places, but not for such prolonged periods. For extra comfort though, I’d go with the widest tyre you can fit.

      Reply
      1. José Pereira

        Thank you very much for your help!

        My worries are also with the availability/reliability of the 700c wheels in South America. I know 29er are starting to pop out in some places, but most of them turn out to be to big for the 700c frame… I’m also on a budget, so I’d like to avoid having to post order new parts to some remote place.

        Reply
  15. Marc

    Hi Cass!
    So good to see your pictures 6 months after coming back to “normal” life (i.e. office life).
    The Ruta de las Lagunas remains one of my strongest memories of my year spend travelling.
    You went there at a cold cold cold season!!! In december 2013, the lowest temperature I had was -8°C one night at Laguna Colorada, and most of the time 20°C during the day. Big difference obviously.
    Riding a fat bike seems to help a lot and saved you easily 1 or 2 days with less food to carry. Definitely a good idea! Fat bike seems to be a “non return” choice for you :)
    Always good to read you.
    Take care,
    Marc

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Great to hear from you Marc. We did indeed hit the Lagunas almost in mid winter, but I loved it nonetheless. And after all the asphalt in Argentina, those fat tyres worked great on the sandy roads and corrugation. My next touring bike might ‘only’ have 3in tyres though!

      Reply
  16. Pingback: To Love or to Loathe?.. Wrestling with the Lagunas | Velo Freedom - Cycling South

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