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?”
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). The water is green due to the presence of arsenic and copper.
Descending to the flooded Salar Capina. Miners collect the salt to extract lithium.
Morning ice on Laguna Blanca.
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.
Wonderful colours at Paso del Condor (4700m). And Paso Sol de Manana (4950m), the highest of the trip.
Volcanoes near Laguna Blanca.
Bubbling mud and fumaroles at Sol de Manana.
The strange Piedras del Dali in the Desierto del Dali.
Riding on what could be Mars at 4900m.
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.
Flamingos in flight on Laguna Colorada and a viscacha on some rocks near Villamar.
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. The whole building is made from blocks of salt.
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.
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 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 …
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!
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.