Crossing The Bolivian Desert

Route: Uyuni – Calama (Via San Juan and Ollague)

Olivia and I had debated for a number of days the merits of cycling this section. We knew that the scenery would be beautiful and wild camping abundant, but we also knew that the roads wouldn’t be paved and that there was the possibility we’d have to push our bikes at some point. There are essentially two options from Uyuni — going South through the lagunas to San Pedro de Atacama or cutting West out of Bolivia into Chile. Some research told us that there would be a ratio of 70:30 (cycling:pushing) if we went the lagunas route, not to mention a few climbs.

Before we left Uyuni, we met a French cyclist who had just cycled the route from Chile. He reported decent, hard-packed dirt roads with worthwhile scenery. He pushed his bike for 20 miles along the railroad tracks to take a “short-cut” but reassured us there would be no pushing if we stuck to the road. His advice had us finally decided — we would take the more direct road to the border with Chile – or what we thought would be direct…

The road started out quite well, it was a hard surface and very flat. The scenery didn’t disappoint either. As expected, the road conditions deteriorated the further we went – alternating between wash board and large quantities of rubble and sand. What we didn’t expect was that the three maps we had all contradicted one another (Map With Me, GPS on our camera, and a crude printed map we picked up in La Paz) which made navigation difficult to say the least. We had to ask locals for directions and guess at their responses (we could’ve maybe used a few more Spanish lessons!) However, we finally made it to San Juan – the only major town on this stretch. We soon set about trying to find some food supplies and petrol to sustain our camp stove for the next three days to the Chilean border. There was no petrol station in town, but every time we asked a local they would point to another house down the street. We knocked on doors but they only pointed us to the next. We finally gave up on trying to find any, resolving to eat oats with cold water for breakfast. Just as we were leaving town, having changed our minds for the third time on the route, we asked the very last house on the edge of town. The family was very friendly and the man actually syphoned gas from his tank, wanting to give it to us for free. We insisted on giving him some money and set off again with a renewed sense of optimism. (Olivia: It’s always reassuring when cycling toward the middle of nowhere on a dirt track to at least have ample supplies of water, food, and gas to cook it with!)

We cycled across a salar (dried up salt lake) for ten miles until we got to some train tracks. On our camera’s GPS there was a road that ran parallel with the track to the border, but there was no road to be found. Unperturbed, we set off along the tracks hoping that the ground would stay firm. Unfortunately it didn’t take long before we were pushing our bikes through deep sand – 10 miles of pushing a heavily laden bike is not fun! – with only a horrible head wind for company. We had plenty of aching muscles climbing into our tent at the end of the day. (Olivia: It’s hard to really put into words how difficult this stretch was. Pushing bikes through sand/mud and wind is not fun, but the direct sun throughout the day had made me slightly dehydrated and I had horrible cramps. By the end of the day, we were literally in the middle of nowhere without a road or decent campsite (with a windbreak) in sight. Every step took all the energy I had within me and the only thing I could distract myself with was shutting my eyes and imaging myself rollerblading with my sister at the local park back home. Happy thoughts! It was a huge relief when Simon finally pointed out a potential campsite, and he even constructed a rock wall to provide a windbreak.)

The next morning, Olivia’s bike had a flat tire, my pump stopped working (luckily we had a spare), and our water purifier was out of batteries — all before we even set off for the day! We had to use our chlorine tablets, which make our water taste like swimming pool because we don’t have neutralising tablets. (Olivia: Bad timing too because I was further dehydrated from having diareah all night!) We did find a firm track and thought things were looking up, but just as we asked for directions from some locals – the only people we had seen in two days – Olivia cycled through some deep sand. When she put her foot down to stop herself from falling over, she rolled her ankle. Luckily it was not badly injured but looking back I think this was one of the low points of the whole trip for her. (Olivia: I thought so too as I lay on the ground screaming and crying! I kept thinking, we’re trapped in the Bolivian desert! I popped a couple Ibuprofen, Simon wrapped my ankle and we kept going. It was sore, but cycling was actually easier than walking on it. Hopefully third time’s a charm, and that will be the last of my ankle issues this trip.)

Thankfully we made it to the border that day and with our limited money (we only had 30 dollars) booked into a hostel ($15) in the Chilean town of Ollague for the night and stocked up on some supplies with our remaining cash – bread, lots of bread, along with a few eggs and some tomatoes.

We also met another cyclist in the hostel. A very friendly Russian, who is cycling from Alaska to Ushuala (most southernly point in the Americas), accompanied us for the next two days of cycling to Chiu Chiu. This section was also tough going. There were nice stretches of pavement, but the strongest afternoon headwinds we’ve encountered thus far. Strong winds are probably the worst thing you can encounter as a cyclist. With steep inclines you at least have an end, an eventual flat or descent that relieves your legs from the strain. Winds on the other hand are a constant struggle no matter what the terrain is like. At one point we were almost blown off the road as a strong gust hit us from the side!

After sixty miles of cycling Olivia and I decided to stop for the night in Chiu Chiu, only 20 miles from Calama. We had zero money and hoped to find a quiet spot out of the wind to sleep for the night. The night before we slept next to a church, so we decided to try the church in Calama. This one however looked more like a historical monument (turns out it’s the oldest church in Chile), so went into a walled in property across the street thinking it would be a good windbreak. Turns out it was a monastery. Luckily, the nuns took pity on us and gave us a bed to sleep in for the night – not to mention food, tea and some snacks the next morning. Someone was watching out for us no doubt!

Arriving into Calama was a culture shock to say the least. It was like cycling into a major American city with all the Malls (shopping centres), banks, restaurants and people in trendy clothes. Something tells me that while Chile is one of the more expensive countries in South America we are going to really enjoy our time cycling here.

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