Uyuni, Dreadwinds and an Unexpected Ride Through the Laguna Route

uyuni street

Uyuni itself is a combination of typical Bolivian antiplano town and tourist hive, depending on which streets you walk. We spent a few days relaxing and letting Philipp’s stomach and my chaffed behind recover from our travails through the salars.

pizza
At Minutemen, a restaurant hidden at the back of a hotel like a speakeasy, we ate what was comfortably the best pizza I’ve ever had in South America. Philipp agreed.
statue
In all the towns on the Dakar rally route, which passes through much of Bolivia, there are these cool metal statues.

We decided to skip cycling the beautiful but notoriously difficult laguna route. Philipp still had some nagging stomach issues and, with August being the coldest month of the year round these parts, our gear was struggling to keep us warm in the -5 nights at 3600m. The very idea of camping at 4500m+ in reported temperatures of -20 was giving me anxiety. Instead we would set off on the more direct route to the Chilean border and cycle south down from there to the desert Shangri La of San Pedro de Atacama. It wouldn’t be as spectacular but it would spare us a week of pushing our bikes through thick sand and freezing our toes off.

train cem
We paid a quick visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery on the way out of town.

train cem 3

train cem 2

road
From there the two days of cycling south weren’t too memorable – the most notable event being the loss of my blanket which fell off the back of my bike and was gone by the time I noticed its abscence and backtracked to the scene.

me!

sunset
Without my blanket the nights were chilly but some spectacular sunsets and fireside drinking made up for it.
hobo life
Embracing the hobo life.
gate
After the extravagantly gated town of San Cristobal the road turned west…
view
…and we were hit with some impressive views and a brutal headwind.
fire!
To shelter from the wind we camped in a little gully.
hobo life 2
Embracing the hobo life II: it was a bloody cold night and the little stream froze. Luckily the land was rife with dry wood for burning.
pre wind
A very windy valley.

 

Experience dictates that the wind is strongest in the afternoon so we set off early in hope of avoiding it. However, the rebel wind wasn’t playing by the rules and decided
to start up at daybreak. We struggled onwards for 20km but then things got wild. The mountain in the distance disappeared in a huge duststorm and we were forced to take refuge from the strongest wind I’ve ever felt in my life. It was difficult to stand still, let alone cycle, and we resorted to pushing forward at about 2kmph, frequently stopping to
shield our faces from the onslaught of dust and rocks. When a truck drove past, without word we both stuck our thumbs out…

 

truck
…and a minute later we were crouched in the back
among rolls of barbed wire and building materials.
classroom
The truck took us 20km to Alota, a deserted grid, and we headed towards the school where the caretaker told us we could sleep is one of the old unused classroom.
school 1
Hurrah!
school dinner
It was only 1.30 but cycling was off the cards so we settled down to wait out the wind…
school dinner 2
…spending the last of our Bolivianos on munch and having a candlelit feast.

The next morning the wind was even stronger. The birds couldn’t take off, comically veering from side to side at every attempt, and even the locals told us this wind was highly unusual:  one guide describing it as some of the worst he’d ever experienced. We tried to cycle but gave up after 30 seconds and installed ourselves on the side of the road. The bus wouldn’t take us and a jeep driver quoted us a ludicrous price of 1000 Bolivianos ($130+ dollars) for the 80km drive.

stranded
We were stranded in Alota, reduced to playing the waiting game with this Dreadwind that showed no signs of letting up…
jeep
That is, until the modern day saints Charlie and Josh showed up in their Toyota jeep. Philipp went over to ask them if they could help us and they instantly offered to take us with them through the Laguna Route.
dusty bikes
We strapped our bikes to the roof and before long we were cruising south…
back of car
…me and Philipp lounging in the bed in the back, amazed at our luck.
rock forest
We stopped by a labrynth of rocks which stretched for miles.

rock forest 2

colorada
Then the appropriatedly named Laguna Colorada, the red colour caused by sediments and the pigmentation of the algae.

colorada 2

salar
It was still incredibly windy outside and we were so glad we hadn’t tried to tackle this stretch on 2 wheels, which would’ve taken at least a week.
snow road
After traversing some very bumpy, ice covered tracks…
termales
…we spent the night at a refugio alongside these thermal springs. Charlie and Josh taught us the ways of “charky” and The Ramen Bomb and we cooked up some stews and before enjoying a long soak the following morning.
verde
Up at almost 5000m we passed by Laguna Verde…
border
…before crossing from dirt to asphalt…
border 2
…and entering country no.5. HOLA CHILE!

Notes/Observations on Bolivia:

– The first things I noticed on crossing the border was the quality of bread. The Peruvians favour these little circular rolls, almost like flatbreads, while the Bolivians make all different types, including proper crusty bread rolls. In some restaurants they even serve these with the soup, something we take for granted in Europe, but rarely seen elsewhere in South America.

red bricks
Why?

– On the outskirts of many Bolivian towns and cities there are entire neighbourhoods of shoddily built, unfinished redbrick houses. Sometimes these ghost suburbs go on for miles and miles; the majority of the houses too small to house an alpaca, let alone a family of Bolivians. Whether they’re built as a land grab with an eye to future completion or as some kind of tax break loophole, I never found out for sure. If anyone can enlighten me please comment below as I’d be fascinated to know.

– Among many travellers the Bolivian people have a reputation for being rude and unfriendly to foreigners. Like most stereotypes I found this to be reductive but with a
hint of truth. It’s true that most Bolivia doesn’t have a sterling service culture. Shopkeepers and waiters rarely made any extra effort but to me this came across as indifference rather than outright rudeness and after months in rural Peru I was already so used to it that if someone had asked me if I was enjoying my meal I would’ve died of shock. Aside from one miserable hotel owner who gleefully closed the door in our faces when we tried to haggle, no-one stood out as particularly nasty and one very poor old lady in Viacha, after a chat about my trip and my family, even insisted that I take 10 Bolivianos from her despite my protestations. “I know how it feels to have my children away from home. You must eat!”.

mar para bolivia

– In the 1870s Bolivia lost the Atacama desert in a war with Chile, and with it their only link to the sea. To this day this is a contentious issue and is often blamed for Bolivia’s
economic struggles. #MarparaBolivia (sea for Bolivia) can be seen on the side of cable cars in La Paz and the kids of Alota made it the subject of the only poster in our abandoned classroom abode. In La Paz me and Carol visited the “Museo de Litoral” (Museum of the Coast) which was dedicated to this conflict. One of the rooms, labelled “Introduction” simply had two giant wall projections of the lost beaches, set to the sound of waves crashing. It with simultaneously hilarious and tragic. The whole thing reminded me of the South Korean dispute with the Japanese over the island of Dokdo. Photos of Dokdo could be seen on the walls of banks, bus stations and over the course of the stay my students regaled me with questions, and gave presentations on the “colonalist Japanese dogs”, shouting “DOKDO IS OURS!” and waving their fists in the air. During the day of Independence parades we heard similar anti-Chilean sentiments being shouted and word has it that if you bring a car with Chilean number plates into Bolivia it won’t last the night.

marching band

– For some reason the nation has collectively fetishised marching bands and a brassy racket has haunted much of my waking life this past month. I’m indifferent to their charms but when they start directly outside of my window at 6.00am as was the case in Uyuni my feelings harden somewhat. Then when a soldier tries to stop me entering my hotel as it’s in the path of the parade, the prospect of defecating out of the window into a passing tuba suddenly becomes much more appealing.

Tunes: Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface , Into The Wild OST – Eddie Vedder, Drive OST, Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

Reads: Jonathan Franzen – Freedom, Into The Wild – John Krakauer

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