Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Climax

South America is home to some of the worlds most awe-inspiring places.  It’s also home to some of the worlds hardest bicycle riding.  We feel that both of these things came to a peak in our journey through the famous Lagunas region of Southwestern Bolivia.

This part of Bolivia is famous for its harsh beauty.  The whole area is located between 4000m and 5000m above sea level.  Coloured lagoons stand out against the bleak landscape to make incredible scenes.  We repeatedly found ourselves rounding a corner to exclaim: “Wow, look at that!  Are you kidding me?”

Descending to Laguna Colorada, Southwestern Bolivia.  Flamingoes at 4300m on Laguna Colorada, Southwestern Bolivia.

Laguna Colorada blew us away with its red colour and abundance of flamingos.  The colour comes from a special type of algae in the water.  We have no idea what the flamingos are doing there.

Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur (5900m), Southwestern Bolivia.

Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur (5900m).  The water is green due to the presence of arsenic and copper.

Salar Capina, Southwestern Bolivia.

Descending to the flooded Salar Capina. Miners collect the salt to extract lithium.

Frozen Laguna Blanca, Southwestern Bolivia.

Morning ice on Laguna Blanca.

Laguna Chalviri, Southwestern Bolivia.

Laguna Chalviri at 4400m.

The landscape was harsh, barren, and windy. The area is filled with high passes and endless sandy deserts. Also, there are many volcanoes and much activity.  Minerals in the hills and clear air make for some beautiful sights.

Paso Condor (4700m) in Southwestern Bolivia.  At Paso Sol de Manana, Southwestern Bolivia.  Our highest pass of the trip at 4950m.

Wonderful colours at Paso del Condor (4700m). And Paso Sol de Manana (4950m), the highest of the trip.

Volcanoes near Laguna Blanca, Southwestern Bolivia.

Volcanoes near Laguna Blanca.

Bubbling mudpits at Sol de Manana, Southwestern Bolivia.

Bubbling mud and fumaroles at Sol de Manana.

Piedras del Dali, Southwestern Bolivia.

The strange Piedras del Dali in the Desierto del Dali.

Riding through what could be a Martian landscape at 4900m in Southwestern Bolivia.

Riding on what could be Mars at 4900m.

Unreal sunset at Laguna Blanca, Southwestern Bolivia.

Even the sunsets seemed more colourful.

Surprisingly, there was also a lot of wildlife to keep us interested. The area is famous for flamingos. But in addition, we saw viscachas (rabbit like things with long tails), suris (small ostriches), zorro andinos (Andean foxes), and lots of vicunas.

Flamingoes in flight on Laguna Colorada, Southwestern Bolivia.  Viscacha in the rocks near Villamar, Southwestern Bolivia.

Flamingos in flight on Laguna Colorada and a viscacha on some rocks near Villamar.

Zorro Andino (Andean Fox) near Susques, AR.  Vicunas and mountains in Southwestern Bolivia. 

An Andean fox we scared from his lunch and Vicunas in the Desierto del Dali.

We were anticipating that we would camp most of the time.  But due to the wind we found ourselves searching for shelter at the end of the day.  There wasn’t much accommodation, but we managed to find some pretty spectacular places to sleep:

Staying in a salt hotel in San Juan, Southwestern Bolivia.

Staying in a salt hotel in San Juan.  The whole building is made from blocks of salt.

After an enriching experience staying at a lithium mining camp near Salar Capina, Southwestern Bolivia.

A lithium mining camp near Salar Capina.  The boss found us a place to sleep and we had some pretty interesting conversations with the miners.

Setting up camp at 4900m in 60km/hr winds near geyser Sol de Manana, Southwestern Bolivia.

Camping in the wind at 4900m at geyser Sol de Manana.  During the night we could hear the geyser whistling and feel the ground rumbling.

Soaking in thermales and watching flamingoes at 4400m, Laguna Chalviri, Southwestern Bolivia.

Soaking in some hot springs at 4400m while watching the flamingos on Laguna Chalviri.  The owners of the restaurant across the road let cyclists sleep on the floor.

As for the riding …

Stream crossing alongside Laguna Verde, Southwestern Bolivia.

We’ve been fortunate heading South that the riding has gotten steadily more difficult as the trip went on.  The US prepared us for the heat and wind of Central America, which prepared us for the steep hills of Colombia, which prepared us for the deserts and 4000m climbs of Peru, which prepared us for the altitude of Bolivia.  Each time we met a new challenge, we felt ready and were able to tackle it with confidence.  This section was definitely the hardest.

This route is famous for bad roads.  There were sandy roads, washboard roads, rocky roads, and every combination, including our personal favourite: rocky, washboard roads covered in sand. 

But the most difficult part was the howling winds, sometimes upwards of 80km/hr!

Walking the bike through harsh winds and a duststorm near San Juan, Southwestern Bolivia.

Pushing the bikes through debilitating winds and a dust storm near San Juan. This day we covered 22km in 4 hours!

It’s pretty safe to say that pushing a 50kg bicycle uphill through loose rocks and sand in 60km/hr winds and subzero temperatures at 5000m is going to be the hardest experience of the trip.

Our bicycles took a beating too.  Dave’s front rack broke due to the bouncing.  We had to tighten all the screws each day and we still lost some.  Jenn even lost a screw from the bottom of her shoe, twice!  The dry air and dust made any plastic brittle, so all the zippers on our clothes and tent stopped working and we broke a few buckles on bags.

… but looking back, the hardships melt away.  Instead we remember the unforgettable experience in one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen.

Laguna Verde, Southwestern Bolivia.


  1. Amazing and mind blowing. Those colors are unreal. What's left for an encore? haha.

  2. Incredible weather. At this rate of difficulty=>adaptation=>enjoyment soon all that will be left is Antartica! It's been almost a year now since you were in Flagstaff, and what an amazing trip it's been with you. Thanks for your work keeping up the blog! Take Care ... JPP/Vicki

    1. Haha we'll just have to keep riding south! The sand here will have prepared us for the snow there :) Thanks for all the comments and encouragement! We still look back very fondly on our time in Flagstaff and we have been experimenting with baking banana bread on the campstove, but nothing compares to Vicki's!

  3. Congratulations for finishing your adventure. We met you in Dominical,Costa Rica. A couple of guys on motorcycles.

    1. Hey guys! Thanks for the photo! However, I believe that was in Puerto Jiminez. Kind of a memorable place for us as it was the only place we had something stolen; a backpack on the beach :( I hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip!