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.
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.