Lagunas route in the southwest of Bolivia is one of the toughest rides people mention in their blogs. It’s thanks to the sand, washboard, wind, altitude and the remoteness that will make you carry lots of food. We were actually considering not doing it and take the simple and easy route via Ollague in Chile. But then we agreed with Chris, our Swiss friend who’s been cycling from Alaska to Argentina that we’ll ride this together. And you know, there’s strength in numbers.
He waited for us in Uyuni (when he eventually managed to escape blocked and crazy La Paz) until we come back from Ruta de las Vicuñas and salt flats. Day before departure, two Colombian girls Viviana and Jenny decided to join us. There’s strength in numbers right? For somebody who normally tours on pavement, this is a very brave (and probably slightly misinformed) decision ;). But we’re talking two Colombians, so “tranquilo, no pasa nada”.
We baked 59 banana oats cookies (recipe on request ;)) in preparation in Casa de Ciclista Pingui in Uyuni and set off. There were two days on sort of “main road” awaiting before we hit the famous Lagunas route. It went well, Jenny managed to score us free accommodation under the roof for both nights as she normally travels solo so camping is limited and as a native speaker she can do miracles.
On the third day we started climbing on the main road towards Volcán Ollague. Just few kilometres before the Mirador we turned left and were on the official Lagunas route. Sand came to play its role, Tom was fighting through the narrow tracks with the trailer, Phoebe and Lolo were running around happy to be out of the trailer, I was in my element with the lightest bike in the group, Chris was laughing as always, Jenny fell suddenly and Vivi had a poker face. This will be interesting, certainly.
We had to come over the first pass that was quite rocky and steep. We showed the girls they needed to pressure down their tires to be able to sort of comfortably ride over the obstacles but with their loads it was not easy. Soon me, Tom and Chris were in front and we left them behind to wait for them at the first laguna. You could tell from Viviana’s face this is not her environment. We were discussing the strategy how to gently ask them if they’re sure what they were heading into. That evening we cycled to Laguna Hedionda with Ecolodge Los Flamingos where they offer 5 bed room for 30 BOB pp. The problem of Lagunas Route is that it’s very windy and there’s not a lot of wind shields so you’re destined to be indoors quite a bit. You can get water at the Ecolodge but it’s salty so they gave us bit of drinking water from the big canister.
Next morning we were cycling past few more lagunas that offered this beautiful scenery. Flamingos in each and every one of them, colourful mountains. Next pass was awaiting and the first climb was going well but after lunch when we met Chris and the girls, it all changed. Headwind picked up and we had to climb steep hill that altogether with the headwind took away all joy I had from the riding that day. In addition we lost the right track and instead of a downhill we had to climb more in the sand. There are tens of jeep tracks all around you because the tour jeeps don’t respect the original road and make new tracks all the time. And even though we’re in Reserva de Fauna Eduardo Avaroa and as a gringo you pay 150 BOB as entrance fee, there’s nobody to take care of some order in the area. It’s very similar situation as with national parks in Peru, they only charge money but you can’t really see where the money goes to.
We finished that day at Hotel del Desierto (4:1 for us all against Chris who wanted to carry on) where they were really nice, let us camp behind a building for free, gave us water, provided access to the toilets. The next day to Laguna Colorada was supposedly the hardest on the whole route (according to the sources we had) and we wanted to rest. In the evening one of the tour guides came to give us rest of the food from the tour group they hadn’t eaten during the day. It’s a common practice that cycle tourists get the leftovers (they can probably appreciate how crazy we must be to do the route they need 4×4 for by bicycle). We were pleasantly surprised there was only one bowl with quinoa pie with meat and the rest was all vegan friendly. Well done, Bolivia and Chile, for feeding the people with healthy (and really delicious) food. In the evening we spotted two foxes (zorros as they call them here) playing around.
Next day was filled with washboard cycling to the maximum. My spine could feel it. But overall the route wasn’t as bad as we expected. It was fairly rideable (not 99.9% as Pöndl’s guide for surviving Lagunas states but fairly rideable).
If you’re not sure what Pöndl’s guide for surviving Lagunas is, we can provide this valuable source of information and laughter by email. And greetings to Patrick P. who created this “guide” and helped us greatly with his insight :).
Tom, Chris and I had the lunchbreak at Piedra de Arbol, a characteristic stone shaped by the almost constant wind. Vivi and Jenny arrived when we were packing up and we headed for the last stint to Laguna Colorada together. Unsurprisingly washboard again and this time peppered with the most annoying downhill of this trip. You couldn’t let yourself fly down because of the neverending “ra-ta-ta-ta” of the washboarded sections. So those 7 kms of downhill took us 40 minutes and my sacral spine was saying “Enough”. We met Marcus from Switzerland in this settlement at Laguna Colorada who had been chilling there since the previous day. Vivi arrived soon after us, Jenny was lost for a while because she took alternative route.
We spent the night together in the hostel, with the earplugs in because of some Swiss “breathing” (no it wasn’t Marcus, he slept next door). In the morning the Swiss – Colombian group left first and as we were wheeling the bikes out of the door, we noticed the flat tire on the trailer. After some drone flying and with broken front rack, we arrived to the southern mirador right when our friends were leaving. So they were ahead of us for the good part of the day but thanks to being second we also met a tour group in the village of Huayajara. Tour group, really excited about how crazy people could be to cycle for years, agreed to take our water for the night to the geysers Sol de Mañana so we didn’t have to drag it uphill. And we were very happy as ever since we turned up the hill, such a strong headwind picked up it made it almost impossible to pedal.
We were dragging ourselves slowly uphill, fighting the wind. After some time we overtook Vivi who had clearly enough of this shit and was close to tears. We had enough of this shit. The wind was making it 50% harder.
At the brink of dusk we all met, Marcus decided to camp straight away, Chris and the girls continued for a bit and went to ask for a bed at the military base and we had to go all the way to the geysers in the dark. If you’re like me, the darkness brings all the ghosts and scares so it was really difficult for me to pass by a strong steam vent that I could only barely see but the sound was overwhelming. It took some convincing to make me pass next to it and then we headed to the abandoned house that provided some wind shelter. The water hidden somewhere by the geysers had to wait until the morning. We were frozen to the point it took me 2 hours to get warm wearing everything I owned and being cuddled in the sleeping bag.
We woke up before sunrise to the sound of the car engine. First tourists. As Pöndl’s guide for surviving Lagunas route points out, first tourists start coming at 6am. These were exceptionally early!! We grabbed the camera equipment to catch that magical early light through the fumes and vapour. This place was special.
When we were having breakfast, señor Chris joined us demanding second coffee of the morning. How can you say “no” if there’s only some 22 kilometres ahead of us, mainly downhill. We knew shit again. Because we took a wrong route initially, we soon ended up in pure sand. Few kms of pushing in the sand never killed anybody, right? And there’s strength in numbers, so Vivi and Jenny joined us in this quest of perseverance. But there was a reward after this. Proper downhill you could actually ride and at the end basically private thermal pool. There are official pools at Laguna Chalviri about 2 kms after these ones but to be honest, the view isn’t nearly as nice and you’re surrounded by other people. We camped there but the temperature overnight fell below zero and Jenny ended up under reflective emergency blanket as she couldn’t sleep because of the cold.
Our group split in the morning as we wanted last bath before leaving and they all went ahead. The ride was beautiful, mountains like from aquarel painting, vicuñas, Salvador Dali desert with weirdly shaped rocks and at the end one pass to get to the last two lagunas of the route.
Guess from which direction the wind was blowing. When we finally crawled over the pass, I could see in my rear mirror that Tom is really far. He was walking by the bike. With the chain on the handlebars… He snapped it. Again. We couldn’t get a new one in Uyuni after the problems on Ruta de las Vicuñas so he fixed it with links from another chain and it snapped first time the first day we left Uyuni and now again. During extended lunch break, dusted by the nearby driving jeeps, we fixed the chain and then carried through the sand and washboard under the eye of Licanbur volcano. This part was really bad. The tracks were deep and washboarded and it was hundreds of them. Finally we hit the turnoff for Lagunas Blanca and Verde and found our campsite for the night. Covered from all four sides, it was really important in the horrible wind.
Next morning it was only a short ride to the border (but again uphill with the headwind) where we got the exit stamp from Bolivia (for the third time) and headed on pavement to the Chilean border.
What to say in summary about the Lagunas route? Scenery is beautiful but the roads are shitty as shit. But you know what? If two Colombian girls who have never toured on dirt can do it and a trailer can do it (and our two French friends on tandem can do it)… why can’t you?