09.18.2003-10.10.2003       La Paz, Bolivia to Calama, Chile
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In La Paz I found myself in a most undesirable position. For the first time on the trip I was unable to execute on my travel plans. With nationwide protests just days away the Swiss and I decided to sit tight and do some information gathering in La Paz. There were many protesting groups and their demands were diverse but they all rallied around a single cause: preventing the government from exporting the country’s natural gas to the United States and Mexico. They were particularly upset by the government’s intention to export the gas through a Chilean port. Bolivia lost its sea access to Chile in the War of the Pacific in the late 1800s and has yet to recognize the loss. Fortunately the protests, though largely attended, passed relatively peacefully. Nonetheless, the situation remained tense. We planned a beautiful detour through the Yungas region of Bolivia, and then had to scrap it for fear of more hostile encounters with campesinos. We even forewent a descent down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”, hoping that the time saved would give us a better of arriving in the south of the country before the next round of protests.

After nearly a week we departed La Paz and cycled south to Patacamaya. The route was peaceful but there remained much evidence of blockades. From Patacamaya we set out for Oruro. We didn’t get far. On the outskirts of town a concerned citizen waived us down. She said blockades (and people) were assembling on the way to Oruro. She said it would be dangerous and that we should be very careful. She also said that Bolivia was such a beautiful country when everything was peaceful. She then told us we’d best go directly to Chile and come back to Bolivia and visit another time. Given our previous experiences with blockades we ruled out continuing on the highway to Oruro. Another highway led directly to Chile. After a day of riding along it we would have the option of continuing west to Chile or turning south and continuing through Bolivia on secondary roads. The monotonous landscapes of the altiplano gave us ample opportunity to ponder our options. The remnants of several road blocks did little to calm our nerves but soon we were distracted by the changing geography, as the altiplano gave way to a rockier, semi-desert landscape. In Curahuara de Carangas we weighed our options over a candlelight ( no electricity) dinner. We decided that we were still intent on reaching and cycling across one of Bolivia’s gems, the Salar de Uyuni.

The following day we embarked on what will be remembered as “The Detour of Bolivia”or, “Dodging the Bloqueos.” It was a memorable day because it was the first day on this trip when I did not encounter a single vehicle. The next section was a bit more trafficked and therefore contained a lot more washboard. I played the usual washboard game, switching from one side of the road to the other, always looking for the smoothest track. The bicycle is a major mode of transport in these parts so we often found good alternative paths to the road. That night was also memorable. I woke in the middle night and reached out of my sleeping bag for my water bottle. It was frozen solid. A few hours later, the sun shining, I was in shorts. We followed the “main” highway to Huachacalla and turned south on another remote “road.” We were told the next good water was several days away so we filled up the ballasts. I rode with a personal record 15 liters of liquids. Normally the extra weight wouldn’t scare me but I’d recently noticed a disturbing crack in my rear hub. It measured nearly three-quarters of the circumference. We spent three days riding to Salinas de Mendoza. We didn’t see any vehicles on this route but without any bridges and often without any road this wasn’t a surprise. Just before Salinas the route joined the highway and met the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salt lake in the world. The lake provided a better riding surface than the washboarded highway so we traveled on it as long as we could. In Salinas we had a chance to wash up, replenish our food supplies and take on more water.

From Salinas we rode back on to the salar. After several miles of crusty salt we broke through to the hard-packed stuff and the salar of our expectations. We had arrived. High-fives were given all around. We passed several salt mines before breaking out into the wide open. By early afternoon our position on the lake and a slightly hazy sky gave the impression of an endless expanse. Our goal for the day was the Isla de Pescado but we rode “freestyle” and at the end of the day found ourselves at the Isla de Incahuasi, one of several cactus-studded islands on the lake. We were fortunate for this island was equipped with a good restaurant. We celebrated our arrival with a fine dinner as we watched the sun set across the lake. There was only one other tourist present and he was, not surprisingly, a cyclist. We camped on the lake that night and the next morning our tranquil little island assumed its alter-ego, a stopping point for the numerous jeep tours that cross the salar. We departed for Uyuni, this time choosing to cycle on a “road.” The slick surface and a tailwind combined for our fastest average speed in weeks. Uyuni, the starting point for jeep tours into Southwest Bolivia, is a town of wide boulevards (space is not a constraint) and Toyota Land Cruisers(the vehicle of choice for jeep tours). It was also my last major Bolivian town. I had wanted to spend more time in Bolivia but the current political situation would not allow. With a nationwide shutdown planned in three days our thoughts shifted to Chile, just several days by bike to the west.

We followed the Uyuni-Calama railroad, often utilizing a bike path alongside it, sometimes riding the railway bed and occasionally riding on the tracks themselves. It seemed a forgotten piece of Bolivia, with several ghost towns and others well on their way to that status. We passed through another salar before approaching the frontier, marked by the active volcano Ollague. We were passing from the poorest South American country to one of the richest but in this remote section of the continent I didn’t expect the change to be dramatic. And yet it was. In the Chilean border town of Ollague there were road signs, paint on the buildings, electrical lines and cars on the street. With three more days of no services ahead we again re-supplied before setting out. From Ollague we passed through a beautiful desert landscape of volcanos and salt lakes. We passed another frigid night on the Salar de Ascotan(frozen water bottles all around) before climbing out and into the more typical lunar-like scenery of the Atacama desert. After a more mild night we set out for Calama, our first major Chilean city. After days of headwinds we enjoyed a stiff tailwind and the best road surface in weeks. We sped into Calama, with little to distract us but the world’s largest open-air copper mine in the distance.
DistanceElevation GainFlat Tires
Leg718 mi/1155 km18370 ft/6026 m
Trip15555 mi/25033 km172 mi/278 km17
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