So the last week... where to begin?! After leaving (the bankrupting) San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile and crossing the border into Bolivia on Jan 12th, we have spent the last seven days traversing one of the, if not the, most beautiful region of Bolivia. The destination of numerous guided tours, we started by working our way north from the volcano ringed Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (you can work out the colour of each lake... Blanca being White, Verde, Green...), through high mountain passes, past geysers and hot springs (so good after a day´s riding...) to the famous Laguna Colorada (this one is red) stuffed full of thousands of flamingoes (stunning, especially in flight, but they don´t half smell bad!). The first couple of days weren´t too bad, once I got the hang of riding on rutted gravel, the effects of the altitude aside.
The day to Laguna Colarado deserves special mention, however, as the hardest day so far... and completely unanticipated (see comments about maps and roads below...). After a terrible night´s sleep on the floor of a smelly room at a hostel at a place called Polques (ok, it might deserve a name, but there was just one building there...), the bread for breakfast was mould-infested, and then Lisa and Tom had their battery charger stolen. So we started riding uphill in good spirits... and I with a horrible headache from the altitude. Why does it take me so long to acclimitise?!
Its currently rainy season in Bolivia, and I suppose anyone with a brain might realise that rain at 4,800 metres is usually, er, snow. So as we climbed, we entered a blizzard, and got colder and colder as we climbed higher and higher. Especially as my expensive gloves proved unable to tolerate more than 5 minutes of snow before being soaked through. Unperturbed, we layered up and hunkered down, riding on one pedal stroke at a time. The worst was, with the poor weather, we couldn´t even admire the views which I´m sure were stupendous.
Then the tour groups started passing us... 4x4s driven at speed through the muddy puddles metres away, covering us from head to foot in mud and grime. I won´t bother to share my words for the drivers...
As we approached 5,000 metres, the highest point on our route, we were pretty tired and cold but still in reasonable spirits, happy in the thought that the weather was improving and that Laguna Colorado would be stunning, and most importantly, a lot lower at just 4,350 metres... Then Tom´s front gear cable snapped leaving him just the smallest gear. Seeing him spinning his pedals just to stay still would have been hilarious at any other time... In fact, it was hilarious. And we were very proud of our patch job, forcing his front mech into the position we wanted using an old inner tube (don´t ask!). We made a few metres of progess, and then Lisa punctured. Colder still and now covered in grease as well as mud and water, we slowly picked our way down towards the lake.
And the sun came out. We could see the red-tinged water and flamingoes and happily wondered about the location of the hostel we´d heard about... Assured that there was just "one" road leading to it, we negotiated about 53 junctions, heading in what we assumed was the right way (guaranteed by the fact that it was directly into the gale-force wind...) to find that the road petered out, leaving us in the middle of a sandy windswept plain. With no option but to get off and push (it was completely unridable), we staggered into the hostel an hour later, utterly exhausted. Described hilariously by a tourist we met there as "like death row without the 3 meals a day", for us it didn´t matter. It was heaven to be inside and out of the elements. And someone even kindly cooked our dinner for us!
From this point on, the sun shone, and things were much easier. Although I am now very wary of any route that goes close to a lake - they are usually unridable sandy bogs with no discernable roads as the drivers tend to go in whichever direction they feel like!
It took us two days, on "challenging" roads, but amidst amazing scenery to reach the metropolis of Villa Mar (did we really expect to be able to buy bread?!) where we enjoyed a beer looking over the remains of a crashed aeroplane, before the last leg to Uyuni via the strange mining town of San Christobal. The weather has held really well, and the roads got better and better as we approached Uyuni, the tourist hub for trips onto the salt flats. Unfortunately our plans to cycle onto the salt flats themselves have been foiled by the fact that they are deep in water, so we´ll have to go by car, but regardless, the trip hasn´t disappointed. It may have been hard at times, and I "may" have dwelt on a particularly hard day, but it has been fun and rewarding.
I will endeavour to share some photos to give a flavour of the scenery that we´ve been battling through, but suffice it to say, it has been phenominal, and there is no better way to cross it than by bike. The hard bits have just made it all the more enjoyable (over a pizza and beer afterwards...).
Next stop? Potosi. 8 hours by bus, although apparently the roads aren´t in great condition, so the bus journey is currently taking anything up to 15 hours...