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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Bienvenidos A Bolivia

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

Cycling the altiplano of Southern Bolivia would probably have been a prospect that daunted me a few months previously, but my confidence was running high after Nathan and myself had completed a 1313KM traverse of North Argentinas high Puna. I felt more comfortable with the remoteness, scarcity of resources and demanding nature of such routes. I spent just over two weeks in the dusty Chilean town of San Pedro De Atacama. Here I fell into a relaxed routine, enjoying the laid back vibe of my hostel and sampling just about every cake on offer in the local bakery. I was too comfortable - it was time to hit the road again.

Between me and the Bolivian border lay a 2000M climb, mostly on tarmac. As I pedalled out of town and started the ascent, my ever pesky bottom bracket groaned under the weight of the load and my mind groaned in unison. In the early afternoon I saw a few dots ahead on the roadside, getting nearer I quickly realised they were more cyclists. Three Frenchies - Florian, Sabrina and Wilie. I joined them for lunch and feeling revitalised we headed off up the pass together. Soon though I wanted to push on to camp high and they felt that it was a good idea to camp lower for their acclimatisation, so we bid farewell and “Suerte!”. Up I went past the 4000M mark. There wasn’t much cover from the increasingly strong wind and I told myself the next spot, any spot, I would take. I discovered a dried out stream, the Western bank offering a little shelter. Once I’d pitched camp I struggled to force down some pasta and lentils - I think psychologically I was fed up of the same meal I’d been eating for about 2 months on the road, I gagged and battled with the food, managing to eat a decent amount.

The morning was cold, but I warmed up quickly as the gradient steepened. Close to the top of the pass a couple of truck drivers stopped me to take photos and cheer me on. With this encouragement I reached Chilean customs. I refiled my bottles and got my stamp out of the country - for the final time - before the Cabineros raised the large hanger style door and the full force of the icy Bolvian wind hit me. Riding down towards the Bolivian customs I had donned almost all my clothes but it still felt as though the wind was cutting right through me.

Entering Bolivia felt like a significant milestone in my journey, the third country after months of zigzagging between the giants Chile and Argentina, also from all I’d heard a more traditional South American cultural experience. With excitement and some trepidation I reached the customs building - a sorry looking little shack, dilapidated and under constant assault by the elements. The place was deserted. I knocked countless times, peered through every window, but no response. A sign on the door said it should be open, but my two hour wait suggested otherwise.

As I sat against the shack, cowering from the wind, loosing hope and wondering what to do a cloud of dust appeared. Sure enough two pickup trucks came tearing up to the customs building and out piled the border security. They’d been having a long lunch down at a nearby Refugio. I got stamped into the country, my requests for a 90 day visa falling on deaf ears. But as I coasted down towards Laguna Blanca flanked by volcanos and rolling mountains, I didn’t really care, I was just excited to be in a new country. The first thing I noticed about this region of Bolivia is that - yes the roads are awful - in fact you can’t even really call them roads, just a mire of washboard, boulders, ruts and sand. Even downhill progress was slow, finding a good line almost impossible. Nonetheless I reached the aduana and signed a final customs document.

Now I was faced with two choices; find somewhere to camp for the night close to the Laguna, or pay for a bed in the Refugio. As the wind shook the roof of the aduana building and I felt the temperature dropping, I headed straight for the Refugio - maybe I was growing soft. As I shut the door of the Refugio, sealing out the howling wind, and was greeted by the warm smiles of the owner Oscar and a guest Olivia, I knew I’d made the right choice. The place was basic, but a warm bed, company and even a cooked dinner and breakfast were priceless. I spent the afternoon getting acquainted with Olivia from the USA, and her Finnish travelling buddy Elina, these two girls were very inspiring; traveling on their own terms and planning to climb the 5920M Volcan Licancabur in the morning. As we sat around sipping steaming hot tea and chatting, three familiar faces showed up - it was the Frenchies. They entered and made themselves comfortable, that evening we all shared dinner and a few games of cards before wrapping up in all our layers for bed. Listening to the storm blasting through the rafters and lifting roofing panels, I drifted off to sleep pleased with my choice of accommodation.

After a hearty breakfast, gobbling up other tourists leftovers and several cups of strong dark coffee I cycled towards the Lagunas. As most tourist jeeps appeared to be blazing dust trails to the East of Laguna Blanca, I opted for the quieter track between this and Laguna Verde. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, flamingos waded the lagunas and happily not even a breeze blowing. I enjoyed a beautiful morning exploring the area. As I rejoined the main road through the area, I saw more jeeps and would periodically be left eating their dust. Climbing a pass to the next valley I again bumped into my French friends - they had started earlier in the morning and ridden a slightly different route. We rode the pass together, I admired their grit, riding the Lagunas route with heavy loads and skinny tyres.

It wasn’t a long cycle to the next Refugio, so I took time to enjoy the altiplano landscape. The reds, browns and beiges painting the mountains reminded me of Northern Argentina, it was again a dry and otherworldly landscape. The road surface had improved marginally, there was a gentle slope that took us to Termas Los Polques. Another evening and another Refugio - I was feeling spoiled. We tucked into a nice warm dinner which was surpassed the next morning by the giant breakfast we ended up having - vast quantities of leftover pancakes and dulce de leche washed down with coffee.

Waving goodbye to the Frenchies I turned Eastward on a smaller track, leaving the tour jeeps behind. My sights set on a +6000M volcano - Volcan Uturuncu. I worked my way past crystalline salars, up and over sandy dunes and wobbled my way through more rutted jeep tracks.

Arriving at the top of a 4700M pass I stopped to eat and from here I received my first glimpse of the volcano I wanted to scale. I was intimidated. It looked gigantic and already I had been struggling with the thin air atop of this pass. To further compound my anxieties it looked as though there was a large quantity of snow and ice atop the mountain - something I had not anticipated.

The other side of the pass dropped me down into some beautiful valleys, I cruised past collections of Bolivian farming communities and rode through large flocks of fluffy llamas. The gavel road took me to the dusty little town of Quenta Chico, which would serve as a basecamp of sorts for my volcano climb. The town initially seemed deserted, but I found a basic hopedaje and negotiated a room, tea, dinner and breakfast for 50 Bolivianos.

In the morning I left all unnecessary gear here and headed off early to the volcano. I waved to a couple of farmers herding their llamas and crossed a frozen river, these were the last people I’d see for the next two days on the mountain.

Volcan Uturuncu is a unique mountain in the fact that it possesses the worlds highest “road”, an old mining track that goes up to 5800M. My plan was to ride my bicycle as high as possible and when the going got too tough, to abandon the bike and continue on foot to the summit.

Riding without my panniers and all unnecessary weight was a true pleasure. The bike felt nimble and fun, more like a proper mountain bike than the tank I’d been riding lately.

Despite climbing I was able to make a decent pace for much of the day. Slowly I got more remote and closer to the volcano, it loomed over me, and soon I found myself pedalling up its lower slopes. The track meandered up the mountains northern flank. I could still see a large snow and ice field covering the last few hundred meters of the mountaintop. Wearing only some non-waterproof trail runners and not having any crampons for climbing ice, I wondered if I may have to turn back further up the climb, but that was a problem for later.

In the meantime I pushed on, noticing the air getting thinner and my breathing more laboured. The track also deteriorated, more rutted, rocky and often steeper. Pausing to hoover up some cookies and nuts I took a moment to take in the vista. Awe inspiring views off in all directions, the town Quenta Chico now just a dot, off to the East a succession of peaks and shimmering lagunas.

After another hours cycling I called it a day. Not wanting to camp too high for fear of the freezing night and altitude, the 5000M mark seemed like enough climbing for a day. I camped behind a few large boulders and bolstered my wind defences building a high rock wall. As the sun was still high in its arc across the blue sky I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading, snoozing and listening to podcasts.

A violent and surprisingly rapid drop in temperature occurred when the sun set. I threw on all my clothes and tucked tightly into my sleeping bag, pulling the baffle secure. It was going to be a cold night, as darkness came on the temperature continued plummeting. Managing to get some sleep, I awoke in the early hours, shivering, tossing and turning. The conditions were arctic, ice coated the inside of my tent, the wind whistled through the gaps in my rock wall. It was the coldest night of my life. I’d estimate the temperature at somewhere close to -20C. I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t choose to camp higher up the volcano and laid there longing for the sun to rise.

When the suns rays first hit my tent the change in temperature was almost as rapid as the preceding evening. I laid for some time like a cat in the sun and defrosted. Breakfast was especially dry as all water - even the bottle I had against my body - was frozen solid. Continuing, a section of switchbacks gained altitude quickly. Soon though the track was too steep and the atmosphere too thin to cycle. I pushed my bike, feeling my body struggling with the altitude. Breathing was raspy and laboured, I felt weak. The breaks I took were essential, and they were frequent. Up and up I went, each turn in the trail revealing yet more switchbacks or steep sections. Higher than I’d ever before been in my life, my lungs gasped for oxygen. Now under the shadow of the peaks summit, it seemed somehow less attainable than it had from thousands of meters lower.

Gradually I started to notice some other wide bicycle tracks at certain intervals in the trail, someone had been here recently; a sneaking suspicion told me it was my good buddy Nathan. Feeling almost totally spent, a shadow of doubt growing ever larger, it felt as though I’d soon be forced to turn back, retreat. Gazing off into the hazy altiplano below I suddenly felt very exposed and alone. A mere spec up here on this ancient volcano, isolated in a sea of cold and wind. I was running on autopilot and pushed on regardless.

As I came around another bend in the trail a psychological shift occured, I could see where the col between the volcanos two summits lay, and this revitalised me. Checking my map confirmed my suspicions; 5700M - not far now. Clouds of sulphurous gas billowed in plumes out of the toxic coloured ground. I held my breath and rushed by. Just a few more switchbacks and I emerged on the col. Not wanting to take a break here for long due to the amount of sulphur blowing around I hastily dumped my bike and started climbing the final few hundred meters.

These were the toughest steps. Both psychically and mentally in my fatigued state. I had to constantly sit down straining for air. But each time I sat down and took in the view it was hard to comprehend where I was. A grim determination fell over me. I reached the top of a loose scree slope. Down below me my bicycle a spec amongst the sulphur fumes and beyond that the dusty altiplano fading to a blue haze on the horizon.

Just an ice field separated me from the summit. This was what I’d seen on previous days and the section I had worried about. Fortunately it wasn’t wet or loose now as I had feared. I stepped out onto the solid ice. Going slowly I double checked each footing. A slip here could be fatal. I thought how nice crampons would be. Fortunately I didn’t have to travel far on the steep section and soon found myself traversing safer ground.

At the summit cairn I was ecstatic, a tear slid down my dusty cheek. The feeling of getting up this majestic volcano under my own steam was incredibly fulfilling, overcoming the physical challenge of the altitude and my own mental doubts. For how exposed the summit was, conditions were relatively calm. I sat there taking it all in.

Perhaps one of the most glorious views I’ve seen, from my vantage point it felt as if I was the only soul on the altiplano. Off to the Southwest I could see the Lagunas I’d cycled past days ago and dropping away below the track I’d followed up the mountain. Unbelievably up here at 6008M a mouse was scurrying about between the rocks! What did it eat? How did it survive the brutally cold nights? Perhaps it was just a figment of my oxygen deprived brain.

Cautiously descending the ice field, the rest of my journey back to Quenta Chico passed by in a flash. I bounded down the steep scree slope in minutes, clambering onto my bike I ripped down the 2000M downhill into town, stopping only to let my brakes cool off or to stare at a couple of Condors in the East. The ribbon of rocky trail cut through the undulating foothills of Volcan Uturuncu and I zipped past startled llamas.

Arriving back at the hospedaje the owner could hardly believe where I’d been when she heard. Sitting covered in dirt at the rickety wooden table I slurped my soup with a greedy enthusiasm before retiring to bed. It had been quite the entrance to Bolivia.


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