We wanted to go from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia by taking a road through a special national park
(Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina 'Eduardo Avaroa') and over the largest salt lake in the world, salar de Uyuni. The first
time we heard that anyone had crossed this part was in January, in the south of Chile on the Camino Austral. In Puerto
Tranquilo, on a campsite which was filled with cyclists and cherry trees, we met
a Swiss who cycled from Alaska to Fire land. A night full with stars and
a bottle of Pisco (donated by the four other Swiss
because Tore repaired their gears)
made him talk about this beautiful but also very difficult border crossing. Difficult because it is high, there is a lack
of water (Stefan and his friend traded self made bread for water with militaries) and the roads are very soft (they pushed
30 km). Tore immediately knew he also wanted to cross this area, Iris was
San Pedro de Atacama
In San Pedro we did some preparations. A Dutch guide from Ashraf tours was willing to drop two 5-liter water bottles
for us along the route (new bottles because in our Paso Jama adventure the old ones were dropped in Perú). The route
through the national park over the salt lake is a very popular tourist attraction and every day many 4WD´s start from
San Pedro or Uyuni a three day tour. One of the tour operators helped us explore the map and together we located the
spots where we might needed extra water. He explained us also that because of the heavy snowfall of last month, a
certain part was still inaccessible. Therefore, we would unfortunately not be able to cycle along a couple of lakes
and a special rock in the shape of a tree.
Because of the that same snow we stayed much longer in the village then intended. All days waiting until
we finally could visit the Tatio Geysers with a tour. Cleaning of the roads towards the attraction was apparently a
lot more work then expected. After one week we ultimately took the conclusion that San Pedro is a nice village but if
we would stay longer we would be in danger of becoming as weird as the other gringos that had stayed here. We picked our
bikes and headed east, the same way back as we came. It was crowded at the Chilean customs which is located at the border
of San Pedro. Many truckers, several tourists and even two French cyclists that wanted to go up the Paso Jama by car and
downhill on the other side (?) by bicycle. However, all of them couldn´t go to the mountains because it had snowed again
during the night and the road was closed for another unknown period. Looking up we saw that the mountain range was still
covered in heavy clouds. Not a pretty sight for us! A man next to us also gazed nervously towards the invisible mountain
tops. It was a Dutch originated tour operator who had a car up there. He knew it would not be the first time that tourists
had frozen inside a car in that area. We decided to start cycling, because we knew it would take us about two days to reach
the Bolivian customs and things could be very different then.
It actually took us one and a half day to get back at an altitude of 4500m. And that was a lot considering we needed
only one hour to descend this slope. So, this day we had time and light enough to admire the volcano and see the Atacama
valley with its salt dessert, Valle de la Luna, salt mountains, and several small lakes. Still not that far from San Pedro
we were stopped by a Chilean family that had been up "just to touch the snow". The family members were completely excited
to see us and desperately wanted us on a photograph with them. We lost track of the number of pictures and films we are
captured on. This time we were rewarded for our smile and patience with a nice bag of pastry.
The green lake
At kilometer point 45 we left the international road and entered a labyrinth of tenths of roads, some recently created
to avoid snow fields. We followed the path marked by yellow sulfuric stones to get at the Bolivian custom office,
which serves as park entrance too (30Bs = 4US$). We only got a one month visa, but we can prolong it up to three in
Potosí. A few kilometers further was a refuge next to the first attraction of the park: Laguna Verde. Not much green
water was to be seen because the little lake was almost completely covered by a layer of ice. There was just enough water
for several pink flamingos.
There were quite a lot of (altitude sick) tourists in the refuge. One group had just started their tour, but couldn't
proceed because their car collapsed. Another group came from Uyuni and were the first to cross the lagunas area after
the last snowfall. They guessed it would be rather complicated for us to cross this part by bike. However, after their
crossing a truck with minerals used the same road and a bulldozer removed parts of the snow for it. So, in the mean time,
the road could be much more accessible. On the other hand, wind might blow most of the snow back in just a single night.
We didn't knew what to expect. Fortunately, the guide of the last group was very helpful to us. We were using a map that
points out the mountains quite well, but shows some antique roads that are not used anymore. He updated our chart by drawing
the roads the tours use and he did this with an extreme accuracy, as would turn out. He was only wrong by telling us that we
had to cycle over an 5000m pass.
We crossed in one day Paso Condor from Verde to the hot springs. We noticed that this is a popular park because in one
day about 30 Jeeps passed us. It is not strange so many people want to visit 'Eduardo Avaroa' because it is a spectacular
area. Mountain tops are painted colorful with pigments made by minerals provided by the mountain itself. Peculiar shaped dark
brown rocks appear to be positioned carefully on a light grey green colored ground: a never ending exposition in the so-called
Dali dessert. The road was indeed filled with snow and because there was less of it in the fields next to the road the 4WD's
simply created new tracks on the rocky ground. We didn´t go fast.
Near the termas we found the two containers which were put there by the Dutch tour. The frozen water melted quickly in a
30C pool. The grounds around the hot springs were also a bit warm and served good as under layer for our tent. At about 2:00
AM we were awaked by the sound of car engines and voices. Five Chileans were driving through the park in the middle of the
night! People can do strange things when it is full moon. In the morning while we were still packing the first tourists
already arrived, anxious to take a hot bath.
The termas are located next to a partially dry salt lake. We were advised to cross it towards the east in order to
avoid a difficult stretch. It would however, be a shame to skip the laguna Colorada part and therefore we continued
north-west. Like before, also here the road had disappeared under the snow and we had to go over the stones again. Uphill
to a 4800m pass with head wind wasn't much of a success either. Tore, who doesn't push bikes out of principle could cycle
50 meters before he had to hang over his steer, catching breath for 50 seconds. After one hour this didn't work anymore and
he understood that this wasn't a good place to stick to your principles. We pushed for hours and in the evening we had only
Our main concern was possible new snowfall. Therefore we continued until late in the afternoon to reach a small
geyser field: a good heat source. About 100m from the road stood a small cabin. We carried our bicycles to it through
a snowfield: the heaviest part of our whole South-America trip up to now. We failed to break into the container and
instead had to cut away the pile of ice on the lee side of the container, to get some protection. An altitude record
for the bikes, but especially for the tent: 4789m
Not far from the small geyser were the impressive large geyser fields. It is located about 1 km from the road.
In an area of about 100 by 100 meters you can see steam popping out of the ground and many boiling pools that spit
large and small bubble of colored mud into the air.
The red lake
The road oscillates around the height of 4800m for 16km through a hilly white landscape surrounded by tops that now
didn't look that high anymore, because we nearly cycled over them. The 4WD´s had difficulties finding the road, because
its course had changed so drastically by the snow. Finally, after passing a big volcano we could see laguna Colorada, the
weird red colored lake and descend towards it. It was already late and the refuge was unfortunately on the other side of
the lake. We definitely wanted to reach that place because another cold night was very unattractive. Numerous soft sand roads
ran parallel, every one worse than the other. It became dark and we had to walk. It was already the second night after full
moon, so it took a while before the moon rose and we could cycle again. When we reached one of the refuges, we received an
unexpected warm welcome. A big applause from a French group, hot chocolate and they even shared their dinner with us
(after we begged for it).
We were exhausted and it took us two days to recover. Every night many tours stopped at that place, all in a
hurry because there were not enough beds for all the tours. We also saw again our guide who had made that great map
for us. Even inside it was quite cold, the toilet pots were frozen, but now and then a fire was made by soaking (protected)
moss in diesel. Outside, flamingos were standing as frozen in the red water.
After Laguna Colorada it was impossible to go further north, the road was blocked by snow for both cars and bikes.
Instead we took a small path, inaccessible for cars, along the lake towards the east. This was one of the best places
in the park. Steaming streams fill the lake, there were little green plants, birds, flamingos, llamas looked at us with
a surprised face and we looked surprised at the kangaroo type of rabbit that hopped around us: the
The further we got north-east the surroundings became less hostile. At the same time the sky became clouded, not a
good sign. In front of us walked a man with a typical Bolivian colored bag. He looked drowsy but spoke remarkable clear.
After we gave him an aspirin, which he said he desperately needed, he pointed to his little house in the distance as an
invitation. However, even further in the distance we saw a campamento which had nice warm beds for us, so we went there.
The mountain tops are covered with a fresh layer of snow. After climbing another pass we entered a different area.
The color green was more present then the last days. There were little bushes. When we went down a man was running
fast downhill through the fields to catch up with us because he got afraid of the clouds. He was carrying a disassembled
bed on his back. All his llamas were already killed in the previous snow period and there was no reason to stay in the
little farm high in the mountains. Now he was fleeing to the nearest village, Villamar. His wife and child were running
200 meters after him. He was nervously happy that he had reached the road, because he thought that now a car would bring
him to the village which was still far away. Running to a tour car he even fell with his bed and everything.
We didn't see him pass us in a car that day.
Finally we reached a our first village in Bolivia. Good to reach a village. It smelled sweet because of the fires
that are used in the houses. The little bushes we saw the whole day are used here as fire wood. We were now out of
the park but the surroundings remained impressive. We cycled through the Valle de Rocas, a valley with typical rocks.
Unfortunately, the road was filled with maybe the worse calaminas (washboard) we have seen, but this wasn't the reason
that the rear tire of Tore collapsed. The Schwalbe Marathon XR didn't do even 9.000 km and the others didn't look too
good either. Maybe too much gravel roads? New ones will be sent to Santa Cruz. Now we used our spare foldable one.
It was smaller then expected (1.75 instead of 1.90), but this is not so bad. In Calafate we had met someone who carried
a spare tire for about 10.000km and when he had to use it, he found out it was 28" what doesn't fit very well on a 26" wheel.
From now on the villages were close enough to be reached in one day. On the road from Villamar to Alota, a little girl
with llamas waved to us. Alota, a strange village with a broad ´avenue´. We said there another hello to our guide who
had helped us. We wanted to get bread and received instructions from a villager: Go to that little mud house with the
green door, stick your head through the broken window and shout "Quiero
pan!". It worked. In the middle of
the night we woke up by a soft fairy-like sound of little bells. Later it was accompanied by a soft mumbling, a sort of
praying. Looking outside we saw four persons sitting in the bitterly cold around a small coal fire on the patio of the
hostal. They seemed to be in some kind of trance. It was the first of August and that had to be celebrated, we heard the
From village to village we went. From Alota to San Augustín, and from Julaca to Colcha "K". The locals also use
the bicycle frequently and therefore there are many small cycling paths through the bushes. Perfect for us because
the regular roads are too soft and bumpy. Colcha "K" sounds like Calcha "K", but is a completely different village
as we found out. Colcha "K" is the port to the Salar de Uyuni, and there we were heading to. We made a second mistake
that day by taking the wrong road near Colcha. This road also brings you to the village but runs first over
the camp of the Bolivian army. Two cyclists are a good source of distraction for the officer who is training
his soldiers. After 15 minutes of investigations of our document and many bad jokes we were allowed to continue.
The next day another officer arrived in our hotel, but he was very kind. He wanted to practice his English and
together with him Tore searched the village for charque (dried llama ! meat) and
a very nutritious grain.
Then we crossed the magnificent Salar de Tunupa (Salar de Uyuni), with a beautiful night on the island Inkawasi
followed by a very cold night on the salt lake, to finally reach civilization again.
See also the map
and more info of this area.
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This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011