November 5th, 2013
Ask a cyclist at the start of their trip what they are expecting from it, and they will probably be able to reel off a list of highlights to you – a mental collage of images, anecdotes and place names gathered from months of preparation reading cycling blogs, gazing at photos and scouring maps. Every classic cycle touring route has its iconic rides, and for anyone riding through South America then a crossing of the Bolivian salares (salt flats) is probably near the top of the list.
Of course, it’s usually a recipe for disappointment. By their nature, the most hyped rides are often just that: over-hyped. Chances are it will be the hidden gems, the rides that take you by surprise when you are expecting nothing that you will still be talking about years later. Certainly that has been our experience so far.
The salares, however, are – for us at least – a definite exception to this rule. Over the past two years we have crawled up a lot of beautiful passes. We have freewheeled down many stunning descents. We have seen amazing forests and rushing rivers. But so far we hadn’t yet cycled 120km across a crust of perfect, crystalised salt – and I’m pretty sure we won’t again. In a world where every competing attraction claims to be “unique”, the salares truly are something special – and the excitement of pedalling across them is hard to match, no matter how many photos you have seen before hand.
By way of introduction, the Bolivian salt flats were formed by the drying of a giant prehistoric lake, called Lake Minchin. As the lake dried, it left behind several salares, including the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat, covering an incredible 10,500km². The salar is covered by a crust of salt up to several metres thick, but far more valuable is the brine underneath, which is rich in lithium. The Salar de Uyuni alone is estimated to contain up to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves – that’s a lot of batteries. In keeping with Bolivia’s current policies against foreign exploitation of its natural resources, there is currently no mining on the salar. There are however plans to create a Bolivian-owned and operated pilot plant to begin lithium extraction – who knows what effects this will have on this fragile environment.
After a Chilean salar aperitif around the Salar de Surire, our Bolivian salar starter took us across the Salar de Coipasa, before moving on to the main course – a ride across its bigger and more famous brother, the Salar de Uyuni. Each of the three salares had their own character: the wildlife and hot springs of Surire; the complete solitude of Coipasa; and the sheer enormity of Uyuni.
October 31st, 2013
Joined by our friend Anna – who we have repeatedly bumped into over the last year but had never quite managed to cycle with so far – we set off together from La Paz. The aim was to leave Bolivia briefly and enter Chile, hunting for volcanoes, salars and thermal baths through the Vicuñas and Isluga national parks .
Two weeks of riding in little-visited corners of Bolivia and Chile covered a wide spectrum of physical discomforts and absolute pleasures. Scraped, chafed, burned, steamed, scratched, sore, parched, blistered, windswept – and yet at the same time mud-bathed, elated, relaxed and awed; we enjoyed every minute of cycling in this remote and epic landscape.
Anna also blogged about this section of our trip and you can read it here.
Route: La Paz – Patacamaya – Sajama – Tambo Quemado
- Reached Sajama via unpaved back road which loops to north of Volcán Sajama via Ojsani and Tomarapi – recommended. Turn off level with telecom towers on hill, towards rock forest.
- Last shopping opportunity in Tambo Quemado on Bolivian side – we didn’t see a shop again until we crossed back into Bolivia at Pisiga, 5 days later.
- No fresh fruit, veg, meat or dairy products into Chile – they scan your bags to check. Peanut butter OK, honey and jam not!
Route: Guallatire – Chilcaya – Enquelga – Isluga – Colchane
- From customs and immigration, back track a few hundred metres and take the turn on the bend signed to Guallatire – an unpaved, sandy road which climbs to a pass. 10km from customs to Chirigualla hot springs – we slept cosily inside the hut.
- Polloquere hot springs – approx 32km from Chilcaya. Follow dirt road around the east side of the Salar de Surire. At junction in corner of salar, keep right (left turn, uphill, goes back to Bolivia) – springs are on right after a couple of km.
- After springs, continue on this road to a well-signed junction – turn left towards Colchane.
- Food: roadside comedor 10km before Guallatire – also sells biscuits. Other than that, we saw no shops in Chile.
- Water: never carried more than a day’s supply – available from Customs post at border, carabinieri (police) at Guallatire and Chilcaya, and some freshwater springs on the pampa after the Cerro Capitán pass.
See our map for a route overview.
October 10th, 2013
Ah, Peru. How we loved you, and – just occasionally – how we loved to moan about you. Peru will stick in the memory as a real montaña rusa (rollercoaster) of a country, giving us some of our biggest highs – both literal and metaphorical – as well as some of our most grumpy lows of the trip so far.
In riding terms, it will be hard to beat this country for the sheer variety of its incredible landscapes. Peru has it all, often compressed into a single day’s ride: the lush gorges and hilltop fortresses of Chachapoyas; the arid, Star Wars-esque canyons of Cajamarca; the starkly beautiful altiplano and lakes of Junín and Titicaca; and of course the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. And we didn’t even scratch the surface of this enormous country – by sticking stubbornly to the central ranges of the Andes we bypassed the Peruvian Amazon, the pre-Incan ruins of the coast, and the deep canyons and high volcanoes of Arequipa. If you like to go slow like we do, then even four months on a bike in Peru will leave you feeling like you’ve missed out.
But if Peru was at the front of the queue on the day when the natural spoils of South America were awarded, then there were times when we couldn’t help thinking it was stuck at the back (or maybe just didn’t bother turning up) when the personal charm and warmth were handed out. It’s not that we didn’t meet friendly, hospitable people. As always, away from the main roads and tourist honey pots and out on the back roads of the campo, we were grateful to the many Peruvians who helped us on our way with gifts of food, drink or a spot to camp for the night.
Yet there was still something missing: that magical human element, so hard to put your finger on, but which has been at the heart of some of our best experiences of the trip so far. Call us spoilt, but in Peru we missed that irresistible Latin American lust for life that we had come to love from some of our favourite countries so far. The spontaneous roadside encounters that send you on your way with a grin on your face. The random chats with curious old men about everything from left-wing politics to this year’s potato harvest, via The Beatles and Mr Bean. That sense that however bad things get, the best way to deal with it is to laugh, joke and dance your cares away with closely-knit family and friends. We’d grown used to life in Latin America being lived in full colour, but at times in Peru it felt like someone had flicked the switch into shades of grey.
It’s always telling to hear how people describe their own countries to you. In Colombia, a country where the last 50 years of civil war have left an estimated 220,000 people dead and up to 5.5 million displaced, people still never tired of telling us how blessed they were to be living in “paradise”. In Ecuador, people proudly told us of the steps forward their country has taken in the last few years under the leadership of President Rafael Correa. And in Peru? “Watch out for the ratones“, they told us over and over again: “This country is full of thieves.”
And to be honest, you can hardly blame them. Of all the countries in Latin America, Peru’s mineral wealth has meant that it has perhaps suffered most from foreign pillaging – firstly at the brutal hands of the conquistadores, and then more recently at the more airbrushed (but ultimately no less brutal) hands of foreign mining companies. Peru is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, but of course the average Peruvian sees none of this wealth. After centuries of exploitation, life here remains undeniably tough. It’s no surprise then that most Peruvians are ambiguous at best about the most recent influx of foreign invaders, this time clutching digital cameras and sporting matching “I’ve been to Machu Picchu” hats. Tourism might have become a mainstay of the economy, but that doesn’t mean Peruvians are about to start receiving us with hugs and kisses.
Nevertheless, our four months in Peru will undoubtedly go down as some of the most memorable of our trip. Peru made our knees go weak with its climbs, our fists clench from time to time with its very un-Latin American miserablism, and our jaws regularly hit the floor at its amazing landscapes. Summing it all up is pretty much impossible, so in the spirit of our Mexico A-Z, here are some of our most memorable Peruvian moments in (sometimes highly dubious) alphabetical order.