Chile. Been here now for a few weeks, and it’s been a bit of an adjustment. To being in a wealthy country, around people and family like me. There’s this idea of beauty being found in extremes, from scorching deserts to freezing arctic tundra, and in that, Bolivia does not disappoint.
Press on further and further into the desert. Vegetation disappears entirely in places, llamas and their companions roam in larger and larger circles looking for food. When the winds come, they kick up mini-sandstorms. Duck behind the mini-dunes to hide, pull up the hood of your raincoat. Wait it out. Empty your pockets later and you’ll find you’ve since been carting around a few extra grams of dirt.
Bike and body washed clean of salt, leave Uyuni heading south. Washboard roads give way to faint tracks etched across the desert, road heads for the provincial capitol but that’s not to say it’s a highly trafficked destination. Aiming for the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, home to distinctly colored mineral lakes, and on the other side of that, Chile.
Skirting the edge of the altiplano, from pancake flat roads re-enter the mountainous border and once again start planning daily distances by how many passes are in the way. En route to the first pass, start to take breaks huddled against roadside rock walls, the only windbreaks around. Would have been a good day to set up camp early instead of fighting the daily late-afternoon winds, but lacking water to cook press on over the pass to the next village. Sleep there at the local hospital, am offered a bed in a room where a patient is sleeping but that seems a little questionable. Instead they put a mattress out in the entrance room and I’ll pass out there.
Salt flats, Bolivian cycling classic.
The smaller Salar de Coipasa to the north, ride off soft sand corrugations and all of a sudden the ground becomes flat, reflecting white everywhere, hard but the topmost layer away from the “highways” crunches as wheels turn over it. This southwest corner of Bolivia, nearby in Chile too, is full of salty ground. The Altiplano region is surrounded by mountains, and what little moisture there is has no way to drain away, instead evaporating and leaving behind salt. In such an environment, moisturizer (uses: human skin, and rubber o-rings on mechanical equipment) is a great thing to carry.
Switch to Bolivia.
Desolate and windswept, welcome to the country of sandy, corrugated roads. Route outlined to cycle the length of the country through the altiplano, that high altitude desert claiming the west. Solo. No other dirt riders here right now. In La Paz at the Casa de Ciclistas, the nine- nine!– other cyclists plan a parallel path on better roads. Consulting schedules upon leaving, there’s a possibility of all of us converging on the same spot on the same day, but ultimately I’ll be a half day ahead of one group and a half day behind another and will only catch up to some of them in the next town south.
Spend time in Huaraz and the trekkers flocking to the mountain city namedrop Huayhuash, that snowy peak filled range just to the south. The trekkers go out for a 10+ day hiking route there. Cyclists tend to spend some time kicking back and then setting out for Peru’s Great Divide route, a high altitude remote dirt road network effectively linking Huaraz to that other mountain capitol farther south, Cusco. But before you know it, you’ve spent a month staying put sleeping in a bed, resting from the exertions of the last leg and working on side projects.
A month off the bikes calls for a little something something special to get going again. Maps record a thin black line leading to a red one ending with a dotted black line offshoot. So theoretically a route exists, dirt roads to the start of the Huayhuash trek and after getting over a short section of trail, mining roads should link up the villages on the eastern side of the range before coming back west to the main Divide route. Uncommon sense says this would be a good idea, a bikepacking opportunity to test new bike setup iterations and a chance to explore even more of Peru’s back roads. The Divide route promises the latter too; in the mere year since the Pikes pioneered the route it’s well on its way to becoming a Panamerican classic. But the size and scope of Peru’s mountains means that however many cyclists ride through, there will always be more unexplored dirt roads taking you wherever you want to go. So Paul and I set off looking for some.