The standard question: Where to

"Go and impoverish yourself. Who knows when you'll be able to do this again", said my girlfriend. She could be right, as our first offspring was on it's way...

I didn't ask her again. I grabbed my bicycle and tent and flew to South America to take in part of the Altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni under the wheels. I ignored that fact the "season" was over. The rainy season was imminent and I took my chances that it might get wet from above and muddy from below.

And from where to where should I go? Spontaneously, I thought that it would be best to fly into La Paz (about 4,000m high) and from there "roll" down to the Pacific. That would be the easiest, but I was all to aware of altitude sickness. I wouldn't have time to acclimatize and therefore I chose the hard way to start at 0 meters and work my way up to 6,000 meters.

To "warm up" in the Atacama Desert

Monumento Natural La Portada
Antofagasta: Monumento Natural La Portada
Setting off in mid-October, I flew to Antofagasta, Chile. From a tourist point of view, a rather uninteresting town on the Pacific Ocean. But it was a perfect starting point, owing to it's airport and location on the edge of the Atacama desert.

After arriving at the airport, I put my bike together, rode into town, checked into a hotel, explored the city a bit and most importantly, bought groceries, water and gasoline for the next few days.

The next morning I finally started. At first I past the port of Antofagasta. I was lucky as the fish market was in full swing-to the delight of pelicans and seals who got some residues that were eaten joyfully.

Soon after, I rode out of town and straight up the first steep mountains. No problem, because early in the morning the temperatures were not too high. But when I pushed deeper into the Atacama Desert, this changed and a short time later I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and was now officially in the tropics. The tropics, in combination with the desert, meant that it was getting hotter and hotter. The thermometer on my bike showed 40 degrees Celsius in the shade. But where is shade in the driest desert on earth? Nowhere! And since I still had no tan and despite putting on sun protection factor 50+, I had to put on a hat, gloves, long pants and a light jacket. As the result my water consumption increased to 10 litres a day.

Atacama desert
Endless Atacama desert - Drabness and boredom for the eye
But the heat was not the worst thing. I had already been in some deserts on this planet and I can say that I love deserts. There is always something to discover. Not so on this route through the Atacama desert though. There was just nothing, except maybe boredom for the eye. In addition to the notorious hot headwind, cycling was simply no fun.

Laguna de Chaxa
Laguna de Chaxa
After three days and an unexpected (maybe I should had prepared myself at least a little bit) pass of 3,300m, I came to the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama (2,450m) with its 2,000 inhabitants. A surreal place on the edge of the desert. I had been here 10 years ago. Even then, it already had been quite touristy, but no comparison to what's going on nowadays.

However, San Pedro is an ideal base to explore the area. For example, the Laguna de Chaxa is not far away. Here I shot my first flamingos-at least with my camera. They formed a perfect photo setting with the lagoon, the Atacama Desert and the foothills of the Cordillera Occidental as the grand finale in the background. Just awesome.

On dizzy height: The Altiplano

On the way to the Jama Pass
Steep road on the way to the Jama Pass
And then it turned into hard, hard work. Within only 30km the road climbed from about 2,500m height up to the Hito Cajon Pass at 4,650m. On top of that, my bike was fully loaded. I had 15 litre of water and tons of food on me. As it turned out later, it was completely unnecessary, as nowadays there are sporadic supply options on the Bolivian Altiplano. And at these heights, every kilogram hurts in the your legs and lungs. Especially if you are not fully acclimatized and on top of that, I had to fight a taut head wind.

Despite the ordeal, it was a brilliant part of the tour. The well-maintained asphalt road runs along continuously next to the Volcán Licancábur (5,916m), a perfect looking volcano with symmetrical tapering slopes and white snow cover. The panorama is constantly changing and looking back on the pass you can see the great expanse of the Atacama Desert.

Onwards from the Hito Cajon Pass, the border with Bolivia, I should remain constantly at an altitude between 3,500 and 5,000m. And that would be also reflected in the temperatures. From then on, I had to contend with the cold, rather than the heat. On the first night on the Altiplano it was minus -15 degrees Celsius inside my tent. Yes, even in the tropics it can be rather "chilly". But a look into the stunning landscape and the twinkling stars in the night made up for all the hardships and frosty temperatures.

Altiplano: Vast emptiness
The daily routine was always the same for the next few days. To avoid the wind a bit, the alarm clock rang before the first ray of sunshine heralded the day. Then I packed up the tent, fired the gasoline stove and had breakfast. I was on my bike just as it became bright and tried to make as much distance as possible before it was 11 clock. At that time a switch was flipped and suddenly a strong wind blew for the rest of the day and only disappeared at night again. The term "wind" is an understatement for it. It was so strong, that you are not able to set up a tent and you need to find a natural windbreak before sunset. Then it is time to pitch the tent, cook and crawl into the sleeping bag. As soon as the last rays of the sun were gone, it was bitter, bitter cold, and I hoped that I would not have to go out throughout the night.

The Bolivian Altiplano is a very special place. Not only that it is very high. It is outside the rainy season also very, very dry and there is therefore only a limited flora and fauna. But exactly this dry landscape in combination with the colourful volcanic mountains and the unspoiled scenery is the attraction for me. As I said, I love deserts. And as the mentioned landscape were not enough, numerous colourful lagoons with more or less large flamingo populations can be found, too. I do not know a similar place like this one on the planet. Absolutely stunning!

Laguna Blanca
On sandy tracks towards the Laguna Blanca
But back to the track. Shortly after the pass I saw asphalt for the last time and wouldn't again until La Paz. From now on, I cycled on the infamous lagoon route "Ruta de las Joyas" consisting only of gravel and sand slopes. Despite the maximum daily temperature of 8-10 degrees it was a sweaty affair.

The track passed the Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (which unfortunately didn't turn green) and over a 4.926m pass to the Sol de Mañana Geysers. Here the smell of sulphur was in the air and it was bubbling and hissing anywhere. It was nice but in my opinion it can not withstand a comparison to the geysers of Iceland. And than the track went on to the Laguna Colorada (4.278m). The name says it all. It lights up bright red in the sun due to the high mineral content and algae in the water. As the consequence the flamingos are strongly coloured red. Definitely one of the highlights of the route.

Laguna Colorada
A hightlight of the trip is the Laguna Colorada with its red water, salt and many flamingos
The track went on and passed the Arbol de Piedra (4.575m) and a few smaller lagoons stocked with flamingos, before reaching the Laguna Hedionda (4.121m). Actually, a lagoon similar to the previous ones, but for some reason,
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Hedionda
the flamingos here are not shy and you can get within a few meters of them. But that is fatal to them. At night Laguna Hedionda freezes over including the flamingos. Normally this is not a problem because due to the height the flamingos have no natural enemies here. But if people scare them, they want to follow their reflexes and fly away. But that's just what they can not do when the lagoon is frozen. As a result, the flamingos break their thin, delicate legs. This is similar to a death sentence. Alarmingly, many tourists seemingly don't care and do whatever it takes to shoot a "successful" photo.

My next destination on the Altiplano was the active Volcán Ollagüe with its perpetual cloud of smoke. Speaking Altiplano. Does anybody know why it is called "Plano"? Whoever invented the name has probably never been here. It certainly is not flat. Instead, it goes up and down constantly. In a nice posh 4WD it might be a thrilling thing. With a bike it is still beautiful, but very tiring as well.

And then I took the first Salar, specifically the Salar de Chiguana, under the tires. A Salar is a large salt lake, which is completely surrounded by high mountains and has no drainage. Therefore they dry out just by evaporation. As a result various salts are left behind.

The Salar de Chiguana was only a appetizer of what was to come: the Salar de Uyuni.

Void until the horizon: The Salar de Uyuni

And then it finally came closer: The Salar de Uyuni (3.656m). I had dreamt about it for such a long time. I was here on my around-the-world-trip years ago. I feel a little bit ashamed by admitting that I "did" it in one of those nice posh 4WDs. However since then, I wanted to come back with a bike and tent. And here I am! Another absolute highlight.

The Salar, with its incredible size of approximately 12,000 square kilometres, is as big as Lower Bavaria, or a whopping 4 times larger than the country of Luxembourg or 22 times as large as Lake Constance. It covers a stretch of 60km in length and 135km in width. Depending on the viewing direction you cannot see the opposite "shore" despite crystal clear air. And that's what makes it so exciting. When you simply head toward "nothing" as I didn't have GPS or a compass on me. This is pure freedom. And if you can not make it to the other side, you just stop somewhere and pitch your tent. Enough space is indeed available.

Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni
Riding on the Salar de Uyuni was not as easy as I hoped for. When I was pushing my bike on the deep sandy tracks on the Altiplano, I had been dreaming of the Salar, with its absolute flatness, so much so, even satellites are calibrated to it. So the level was not the issue. But the salt. I was there just before the rainy season started and the Salar had almost dried up. The evaporation of the water had left deep craters and waves in the surface. As the result, the "runway" was as hard as concrete (you cannot get an ordinary tent peg in) and wavy like a washboard. To ride on it was terrible and I was glad when I arrived in the middle of the salt plate on a small island called Isla del Pescado. Finally I had a much needed rest for my battered wrists and forearms. I was lucky to be able to stay in a small room in one of the only restaurants. In the evening, when all the tourists were gone, I was alone on the island with only five locals.

Isla del Pescado
Isla del Pescado
When I came back from exploring the island the next morning, the first tourists arrived in their Jeeps. Good timing as I had my photos in the box and about at that time, it had gotten really crowded. Well, on the island anyway. Once I left there and had salt under the tires, the loneliness returned.
At the Volcán Tunupa I was back to the mainland and there I met a group of French scientists with three Jeeps in Jirira. They looked at me in such disbelief as if I'd come from another planet. You could see the questions directly in their faces: "What is he doing here all by himself and even with a bicycle?". I probably looked so pathetic that they invited me to a sumptuous meal with all the bells and whistles. And since I was now acclimatized, I could also have a drink or two and the red wine went perfectly together with the French cheese...

From there on the track was rather unspectacular and except for my first flat tire, just an anecdote about camping is to be told. I had already heard the same from other bikers, but could not quite believe it. Now it also happened to me. Due to the extremely dry air at that altitude, my tent started to shrink. It was now so small that I could not put it up it normally, even though it wasn't a cheap tent. So I had to improvise in order not to sleep under the open sky. However after I returned to a "normal" altitude, the size of the tent went back to normal.

Jayu Quata
Kaboom: Impact crater at Jayu Quata
About 200km before La Paz I came to Oruro, for Bolivian standards a large-scale city. From here on, the highway to La Paz is just one big construction site. The cars, buses and trucks drove fast as hell and all over the place (even over the grass section). For cyclists it was absolutely no fun and just plain dangerous. So I threw the bike in a bus and took the simple -but safe- option to get to La Paz.

As a reward, I treated myself to a wellness program in La Paz and for the first time on this trip, I woke up without an alarm clock, wind and cold weather. And even better: food, food, food. As a biker you are always hungry...

Touching the sky: Sajama

Parque Nacional Sajama
Parque Nacional Sajama
Because I arrived in La Paz earlier than expected, the question was what to do with the remaining time left. Sure, I could have stayed and spoilt myself a little more. But I got the order from my government back home to impoverish myself. So I threw my bike on a bus and went to the Chilean border. There, the Sajama perched with its 6.542m as the highest mountain in Bolivia and one of the highest volcanoes in the world. The initial plan was to bike through the attached National Park and finally ride back to La Paz. But I was lucky to find a great deal to climb that giant hill. Whether this would work out was completely written in the stars. The season was already over and the locals said it would probably not be possible. But that cannot stop a real Travelnerd. So I went alone to the base camp but my confidence in the Sajama vanished with each step. On the entire summit region was a massive thunderstorm with plenty of new snow and many, many flashes. Something in which you do not want to get stuck in.

Luckily I reached the base camp without any problems and when I started pitching my tent, I saw three moving dots in the distance. An hour later they arrived at the base camp and were pale. They were two guides with a customer from New Zealand and were taken by surprise by the thunderstorm and got caught right in the middle of it. They were scared to death and said that even tiny bolts of lightning jumped between their earring and the dental fillings. Naturally that was the least of their problems, as they had heaps of metal equipment on them. They were just lucky to get out of it alive. In a situation like that, many climbers have had less luck and paid the price of their passion with their life.

Later the weather cleared up and I decided to stay the night and see what the weather had to offer the next day. A decision to abort the ascent attempt completely without even trying to start, was totally dependent on it.

High camp at Sajama
Apart from a few avalanches, which I heard go off at a safe distance, I had a quiet and uneventful night. The weather was beautiful the next day. In the early morning the mountain guide came and we were on our way to High Camp at 5.620m. In this case "Camp" meant the only mini site that looked like a little plateau and we were able to pitch our tent. But as usual at such heights, we were on a fairly exposed position and at night an icy storm whirled the tent wildly. In this storm it would be insane even trying to attempt the summit.

Typical for climbing (high) mountains we also headed off in the middle of the night. The thermometer showed crisp minus degrees. Shortly before departure at two clock, the wind ceased abruptly. The stars sparkled and lit up the mountains in a magical light. Perfect conditions! So let's try it!

Ice at the Sajama
Ice penitents at the Sajama meant final stop
We worked our way up well above 6,000m. Then it was time for the bitter realization that the locals in the village were right and the climb was no longer possible. There were extensive areas of penitents. They were not even excessively high with a good meter. But with the sizes of the extensive fields, it simply would have taken too long to climb over each of them. We would have exceeded the reversal time of reaching the summit by far. So we had to bite the bitter pill and cancel the unsuccessful summit attempt. What a frustrating moment. Quasi continuously running, we stormed down the mountain again.

Camping at its best
Camping at its best
Back in the village I loaded my bike right away and to reduce the frustration level, I rode a few hours on the dirt road.

Two days later I returned empty-handed back to La Paz.

The sea in the mountains: Lake Titicaca

After a day in the big city I craved to be back to peace and nature. At the Casa de Ciclista some other long-term cyclists told me about Lake Titicaca with its gigantic dimensions of 230km by 97km. I also had good memories about it from my first visit years ago. So the next morning I sat in a local bus (this time without the bike) to Copacabana, the namesake of the famous neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro.
Yumani-Isla del Sol
Traditional farming on the Isla del Sol
I reached it just in time to get on the ferry to the idyllic Isla del Sol, in the south of the "lake". The inhabitants have more or less voluntarily opted to live traditionally. Thus, for example, there are no cars or motorbikes on the island. The fields are processed and ordered by hand.

This originality makes for the special charm of the island. In addition, this is where the culture of the Incas started and is still visible everywhere. Just the ubiquitous stone terrace fields alone are already quite impressive. What a feat when you consider that they were built by hand over hundreds of years.

Hell ride on the Death Road

The crowning glory of the South America adventure was a bike ride down the "Death Road", the Camino de la muerte. It goes from the chilly Altiplano down to the tropical rain forest within a few kilometres. For a long time it was the only road from La Paz down to the lowlands. Countless cars, trucks and even buses crashed and fell down several hundred metres. This earned it the record as a road with the most fatal accidents in the world. But a new road was built and in 2006, the death road was closed to normal traffic. Fortunately since then, there have only been a few deaths to mourn. Today, the Camino de la muerte has become a famous tourist attraction and various tour operators from La Paz provide organized bike tours along it.

Camino de la Muerte
Camino de la Muerte
I took a bus (of course this time with my bike) from La Paz up to the La Cumbre Pass on 4.650m. I arrived just as an organized bike tour was leaving. It quickly became clear on the very first kilometres, that some tourists misjudge their abilities on a bicycle. Some of them thundered over 60, 70km/h down the road and had their wheels barely under control. They underestimated the disc brakes and any small braking manoeuvres could lock the wheels and they would flew over the handlebars. A miracle that nothing happened. And as the road turned off into the old dirt road, it was even scarier. When the old death road was still used by truck drivers etc, overconfidence could result in them plunging several hundred metres down the vertical walls into the abyss. Sadly nowadays they are tourist-cyclists.

I quickly got away from the tourist group and was alone and could enjoy the slopes. Even though it quickly went down fast and bumpy the road doesn't really require driving skills and is actually not very challenging. But the combination of speed and bumping dismantled my bike and after only a few kilometres the first parts flew off my bike. It turned difficult when a screw from the front calliper waved goodbye and passed into nirvana. From thereon I had to make it down without a front brake. But let's put it this way. It was that extra kick to cap off a fantastic tour through South America.

I am very much looking forward to your questions and comments in the guestbook.

More photos of the South American adventure can be found here.

Laguna de Chaxa
RSS Facebook Twitter Flickr Fotolia iStock Shutterstock DE EN

From 0 up to 6.000m