Ruta de las Lagunas

From 14 upto 29 july 2014: Uyuni – Salar de Uyuni – Ruta des las Lagunas

Did you ever try to cycle for two weeks in a sand box? Or to sleep in a freezer with open door and a ventilator in front of it? And all of this on an elevation which surpasses the one of the Matterhorn or the Mont Blanc?
Well, this is how it is…

At the beginning everything is easy.
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We enter the Salar through Colchani, 20km away and even dustier than Uyuni.
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It´s not possible to enter the Salar everywhere since the edges are not completely dry and too soft for cycling. The village is just a few houses, a salt mine and a police checkpoint. After the control of our passports the officer shows us a small pile of money and it´s clear, we have to pay to go on. For the first time we encounter such a situation and it doesn´t feel good. Not for the money, but for the knowledge that we don´t have a choice even if it´s not justified.
Then we´re on the Salar and the first thought is: It´s not white! There is salt and the typical geometrical pattern, but over the whole area lies a fine layer of brownish dust.
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But it´s still something special and as we cycle on and get away from the edge, we get also the feeling to be in the middle of nowhere.
We cycle and cycle and don´t know, if we really move forward. Some far away mountains indicate the direction we have to take but otherwise there is nothing around us except passing jeeps.
Our destination for the day is the Isla Inca Huasi, an island more or less in the middle of the salt sea and the only possibility to pitch our tent.
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In late afternoon we can see the first shadow of it but it´s impossible to estimate the distance without any references and we have to cycle for two hours more before we finally reach it with the last light of the day.
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Three houses, a handful of lamas and thousands of cacti await us and luckily, we can sleep in an empty meeting room instead of camping.
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Luckily, because it´s out of the wind but also because the next morning, already at sunrise, the first tour-jeeps arrive and a lot of people start swarming around the island. It wouldn´t have been too nice to awake and get out of the tent under the views of curious tourists.
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The first day we crossed the saltsea from east to west, now we head down South, back to the mainland.
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Arriving there we make our first experience with offroad cycling and guessing the right way out of hundreds of different jeep tracks. Both not easy and we end up several times in long uncycable sand stretches before we reach something similar to a road.
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Not easy either, made out of stones in all sizes but at least we can cycle and get to San Juan the next day.
Once a small lively village, it became just a stopover for the jeeps with a few hostals and kioscos and somewhat of a ghost village.
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No people on the streets, no street sellers, no food. We stay in a salt hostal and luckily, the owner invites us for lunch, otherwise it would have been cold kitchen for two days.
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A couple from Poland, travelling by motorbikes, obviously encounters the same problem. As we meet the first evening in the hostal, they have the same shopping results for dinner in their hands as we have: Joghurt and granola (very sweet, popped cereals).
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Days five and six bring us finally to the entrance of the real lagoon area. But first we have to cross the Salar de Chiguana, an only half-dry and therefore very sticky saltsea (feels like cycling in chewing gum), pass along the majestic Vulcano Ollague (12km pushing through deep sand tracks) and climb from 3600 to 4200hm (600 heightmeters on a bad stoney path).
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At the military outpost of Chiguana they have a strange way of playing football, as one can see 🙂
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It would certainly have been easier traveling by train, but we found another way of using the tracks 🙂
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Two and a half days of real hard work, then we reach the first lagoon (Laguna Canapa) and it´s simple beautiful! Dark blue, surrounded by a white salt edge and sprenkled with pink flamingoes. What a sight!
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We take a small break and are soon something like a small attraction.
A group of jeeps take their break here as well and as they see our bicycles the curiousity is big. We are invited to share lunch and get many compliments for doing the tour by bicycle. Very good for our self-esteem 😉
The second lagoon (Laguna Hedionda) awaits us 15km further, is as beautiful as the first one and has a sweet water source while the lagoons themselves are all salty. For us a very welcome possibility to refill our drinking water and also the only one on the whole stretch from San Juan (90km from here) to the Laguna Colorado (80km further).
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We pitch our tent at the edge and spend the second night above 4200hm.
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Before we started the lagoon-tour, we were already for some weeks between 3000 and 4000hm, so we are well acclimatised to the height. But what really matters is the cold. We already adapted our daily rhythm to the waxing and wading of the sun and know the big difference in temperature with and without it. We get out of our tent when the first sunrays come over the surrounding mountain tops, then enjoy the slow increase of warmth during the day (of course with the necessary skin protection) and stop cycling between 4 and 5pm to pitch the tent and let it warm up a little bit through the last sunrays.
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One hour more for cooking and eating, then it´s 6pm, dark and temperature decreases to near zero. The only warm place now is inside our sleeping bags, lying on two isolation mats each (we bought additional ones in Potosi) in the tent. During the night temperature sinks far below zero, each morning our water bottles are frozen, although we keep them with us inside the tent.
And now, above 4000hm, we enter a new dimension of cold.
Day and sun don´t bring warmth anymore, we have to keep on several layers of clothes the whole day and very often wind comes up around midday and makes it even colder. In the morning there is a layer of ice inside the tent and as well on our sleeping bags and the frozen water in our bottles doesn´t melt anymore in the sun. On the contrary, we have to melt it manually and then shake the bottles regularly to avoid that it freezes again while cycling. The result is something like “water sorbet” and we have to force ourselves to drink it, although we know we need the liquid.

Two more days and we move on little by little. Although we are not in the saltsea anymore, it still feels very often like being in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by enormous mountains and volcanoes it´s impossible to estimate distances and the only signs of civilisation are the endless jeep tracks which point the direction we have to go and at the same time nearly prevent us from moving forward because they turn the whole area into a big sandbox.
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Hours of pushing (at least a good way of getting warm!) bring us 26km further and near a 4700hm pass where we spend the night in company of some curious Viscachas.
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The following day we make 28km and pitch the tent between the remains of a small cabin along the way to get a little bit of shelter from the strong wind.
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Nice try, but senseless. It comes from all directions and doesn´t stop at night as usually but torments our tent until the next morning. As we start cycling we have it in the back and at first are really happy about it. Then it starts to whirl sand around us and became a sand storm within half an hour and we are not happy anymore.
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The wind still in our back we are thrown forward more or less without any control over the bicycles. At a certain point we are doing around 40km/h without even having to pedal, uphill and in deep sand… a good speed and also scary
The sight is merely 5m, we pass the “Arbol de Piedra”, big rock formations and can see them just as shadows.
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We could have sought shelter, but than we would have had to go against the wind, and that was not possible. The sand hitting our backs, legs and arms hurt, even though all the layers of clothes, so we weren´t going to let it hit us full in the face without any cover.
The upside: We reach the Laguna Colorado the same day and find there a refugio. Not more than a stone house with a roof, but out of the wind and we even get food in the evening: Hot soup and spagetthi, delicious!!!
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The lagoon is the biggest one and gets its name from algeas which turn red in the afternoon. It lies “only” at 4300hm but as the people tell us, is the coldest place on the whole tour.
We stay one day in the refugio to recover and watch the water change its color from morning to afternoon. Besides the cold an idyllic day: the lagoon, surrounded by colored mountains and inhabited by flamingoes, at the edges lamas and vicunas strolling around and searching for food, and a big silence overall.
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A little bit over two thirds of the tour are done, 380km in 10 days. 120km are left and we start out somehow optimistic for the next part up to the Sol de Manana, a geysir field at 4900hm.
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It takes us two days to reach it, and on the day we get there, we make our low-record for cycled km in a day: only 18 out of the same reasons as always: sand, wind and climb.
On our arrival at the Geysirs, all turns well: there are a lot of jeeps, the people admire us for our efforts, and we are offered all kinds of food and drinks, from sweets to Pasta with Lamameat. Very welcome presents! We pitch our tent and savour them, especially the Pasta, since cooking would have been impossible with the hard wind 🙂
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And than the hardest part was over, from here on it´s mainly downhill and relaxed since there is even a cyclable road and we can enjoy the spectacular view.
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Around noonish we reach the Termas de Chalviri, a natural hot spring pool, where we spend our most beautiful day of the whole tour, relaxing in the hot water for the larger part of the day. We didn´t feel a warmth like that for weeks now and just enjoy the glow from head to toe 🙂 🙂 🙂
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Getting out of the water is not that easy: it is freezing cold and one must put on as many clothes as quickly as he can before freezing 😉
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For our night there we get a nice surprise as well: the people owning the local restaurant invite us to sleep in the dining room, where they make space by putting aside some tables after closing hour.
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Then it´s the last day and it brings a false flat past the Desierto del Dali – a field filled with rocks, a sight which could have been designed by the maestro – and than another long downhill to the last two lagoons: Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca.
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Lying side by side at the foot of the vulcano Licancabur they give first a great final impression and then a little going-away present before we reach the Refugio Blanco where we spend the 15th and last night: We get to go bare-foot through the half-frozen river which connects the Lagunas, what a feeling 🙂
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At the refugio then we get another kind of special treat: A french couple who just started their jeep-tour from Chile has a Salami with them and shares it with us. Yummy 🙂

At night, lying in bed we then realize: We just did it!
There were moments of frustration when Bram threw his bicycle away (or something similar because throwing a bicycle with a total weight of 50kg isn´t easy) and I just wanted to sit down and cry instead of pushing and dragging my 50kg bicycle further, but there were as many moments of happiness and pride and joy, surrounded by this unique scenery.
And we know: Whatever else will happen, we will never forget these 15days!
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