Dirt roads and vicunas in Chile

Crossing the national park Lauca-vicuna with wonderful places for camping, lots of animals, minimum of people and beautiful nature

The bus leaves and our bicycles with all luggage lie on a side road to a village Sajama. There’s nobody around but one barking dog protecting a adobe house. In front of us is the snow topped volcano Sajama which is with 6549m the highest peak of Bolivia. On opposite side another two white volcanoes with clouds spread to sides from them.

We request some water from the lady in the house and despite how late it is we take the dirt road to north. After 2km full of drifting in sand while the sun is setting we decide to build our tent between the bushes. Thanks to the dark green color of our portable house we are quite invisible even 20m from the road. The mountains are lit by the last rays of sun, everything is calm, group of lamas or alpacas are around and the light wind moves the branches of bushes – like a balm for soul … Something good for the stomach comes in the form of a tomato soup with pieces of bread (it looks like a food for chicken :D) and after observing the clear sky full of shining stars we get to sleeping bags.

The morning is slow which is a nice change from the stress in La Paz and we get on the road around noon. We buy some food and eat menu and the long long uphill to pass Chungara (4660m) begins. We pause in a canal at the side of the road and realize this is a perfect seat to have a rest. After 15min downhill from the top we pass lots of trucks waiting in 7km long line before the border crossing – nice feeling of satisfaction after all of them passed us on the way up.

Exit stamp from Bolivia, enter stamp to Chile and control of our luggage… really? You want us to put all the bags down from bicycles and put it to the scanner? …can we put there the while bicycle? … yes, yes, no. The procedure takes 15min but the guys are nice, funny and helpful. They take our garlic and pepper and we squeeze the limes to the water (it’s prohibited to take any seeds which can be used to plant something to Chile).

They advise us a route to the national park where should be a cottage with thermal pool – that sounds like a perfect camp spot :). We turn to a dirt road and after first meters we get off the bikes and start pushing through the sand – I hope it gets better, because we’ll end today without the bath. There is still a lot of sand, but it’s possible to bike. We go through a wide valley with lots of protected vicunas, low bushes, scattered houses without people and quiet. The sky on the horizon gets dark and in 15min we are dressed in rain gear. Cold rain and wind from front make this never-ending uphill even harder and demotivating. One hour passed and we made only 5km… and it starts to snow and rain together, gets colder, wind is stronger, it’s cloudy and foggy. Only the thought on the warm water pushes us further. Top! The weather gets better and we can see something again. During the downhill our hands and feet freeze and when we get to our destination, it’s difficult to get off the bikes.

Nobody around, just a steam around a small cottage with a pool inside … but the water is so hot! We need 10min to get slowly inside with our frozen body parts and even afterwards we have to cool down outside at the pool often. The sun sets and the clouds on the horizon become beautifully bloody red. We build the tent and prepare a good dinner inside of the cottage (it’s much warmer there) and get to sleep.

It’s cold in the night and ice floats in our water bottles in the morning. Right after waking up we go inside the water to warm up. After breakfast three local guys with dogs appear. Today is probably a cleaning day and they came to do laundry and to have a bath. We also wash our clothes in the water output from the pool and while are the pieces put everywhere around on the bunches of grass drying we go for a second round of thermal bath.

We get on bikes at 1:30pm and after being a little lost and making a side trip to refill water from a nice lady the road leads us through hilly country with few grass bushes to the main road.

The quality of the road doesn’t get better – there are lots of trucks which leave us in dust clouds and because of them the road is really bumpy and the wind is also against us. Tired, hungry and shaken we get to a village Ancata. We are lucky – there is a buffet with normal food. Refilled with energy we continue to the next village, because our map says there is a refugee of the national park where we can get more info and maybe even stay there for the night. Sun gets closer to the tops of the mountains and the temperature drops. Guallatiri is without people … all houses are closed and the police station looks empty also. We find a water tap next to one house, fill bottles and camp 800m after the village. On one side we have view to a smoking volcano Guallatire with pink clouds from the sunset, on the other side continues the valley.

Sky gets clear and we know that we should hide some water bottles inside of the tent if we don’t want to just lick ice instead of having warm tee in the morning. The night is cold – I freeze, the water freezes also – there was under zero inside the tent! But the sun warms us up, Jan changes his chain and the day full of bumping, front winds and uphills can start.

Around 100 trucks pass us today – they carry salt from the salar (even when it’s in national park, it’s allow to mine there). We breath dust which stays after them, push against the wind and shake on the bumps that left after the wheels of the trucks (riding on railway track can be more comfortable) and finally we reach the top of the hill and a white plane is under us … Salar de Suriri surrounded by red-coloured mountains.

Chilcaya is only a police station (on our map it looks like a village) where we request some water and and shelter for our tent. The young policeman needs to wait for his boss, but he invites us for tee, coffee and cookies. Also the captain is a nice guy and we build the tent inside of a hall. We can use the kitchen, bathroom, recharge batteries in our electronics and while the noisy generator runs, we watch with them movie to kill the time.

It’s really late and we ask how much longer will be the generator on. Till 2am … really? You’ve put us inside a room where you have to shout to hear anything and which is full of exhaust gasses? This situation is so unbelievable that it’s funny and without any further analyzing of the police logic we move our tent outside as far as possible from the sounds of the motor.

We wake up again on known “sounds” and after good breakfast while watching stupid US comedies in TV which runs here non-stop we return to our favorite activity – riding bicycle on dirt roads. Views to salar with lots of flamingos, vicunas and mountains around is perfect. We would like to go through it but after stories about liquid salt mud and how you can disappear there (their dog did) we will live without this experience.

There should be another thermal bath in 20km and it should be “well marked”. Even after 30km we don’t find it despite our “great” map (there is a lot of irony hidden this expression :D) and 1cm big compass on a key ring. Sometimes we push, drift and the feeling that maybe we are not going the correct way doesn’t add to our good mood. We turn to a good road going to a pass – long steep downhill. There are more roads on the top but without any signs so we choose the one going down to some small tower-sign.

Sand road, deep tracks from trucks, a while without paying attention and I fly … I fall on my arm … elbow … hip and after rolling over to the back I hit the helmet on the ground. Shock, scared Jan who is in couple of seconds by me, pain in the elbow and impossible breathing … my first thought is what we are going to do in this middle of nowhere where we haven’t met anybody the whole day if I won’t be able to continue?! Proof of functions: I can move my arm and other parts of body, helmet is from dust but the head is OK and except couple of scratches everything looks OK … except my breathing – which is not fun in 4400m! After 5min I’m able to breath normally and get up. The tower is a border marker Chile-Bolivia. We take a break to calm down, Jan disinfects and cleans the scratches, controls the bike which looks like it survived this acrobacy without any damage.

Slow downhill without much confidence follows while I get back my peace of mind and speed up – fast and furious again :). The next kilometers we fortunately don’t meet anybody (we don’t know how we would explain to Bolivian control that we are crossing their country without permission). Another border mark and we are again in Chile. After joining the road which is the official route 2 cars without license plates stop by us. First driver with silver teeth asks if we saw anybody at the border and after the no-answer he thanks and continues, second one offers us a ride to Salar de Uyuni … aaa, these are the car traffickers (they buy cars in tax-free zone in Chile and then bring them through mountains and salar to Bolivia).

There are many parallel roads here – they always make a new one when the old one is too bumpy … now they are all bumpy. Either we jump on the bumps or drive in deep sand. Strong side wind, empty villages with destroyed houses but newly painted white churches (why???). We cannot find anybody to get advise where are the thermal springs which are marked on our map. We go around a small salar but except lots of lamas and alpacas there is nobody. After a sign announcing big distances to closest villages and a talk with passing car we decide to camp here next to a spring. Storm clouds which were chasing us last 3 hours disappear and we can watch the colorful sky surrounded by mountains. After our traditional dinner – soup with pasta – we get to the sleeping bags and have a peaceful night without waking up once.

After breakfast we have to conclude that we don’t like oatmeal anymore! Jan changes his chain again (the first one was a 4USD try to use something which isn’t really meant for our bicycles). Today is easy because of many downhills. Again just lamas around but no human. We see some small tornadoes which lift dust and sand to tens of meters.

When we enter the village Enquelga we have a feeling like to enter a different world. Shop, paved road and sidewalks, electricity, perfect square … but no people again. After 1km we find a thermal pool (the water is not so warm, but enough to swim) and we wash ourselves after 3 days. Last 18km, another small salar, wild otrich (?!) and silence … new paved road without any holes :). After a while we reach border town Colchane, try the police station and we are allowed to stay there and eveen get a room.

We buy bread about which we were dreaming last 3 days and while talking with Jose and planning the best way to get to salar Uyuni we eat 5 pieces with pate each. Before sunset we fall to the bed and need to concentrate to not return the dinner back…


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