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BOLIVIA/CHILE: LA PAZ — CALAMARCA — PATACAMAYA — CALLAPA — SAJAMA — TAMBO QUEMADO — SALAR DE SURIRE — ISLUGA — COLCHANE

Recently, in a somewhat self-indulgent moment, on somebody else’s blog, I was bemoaning my lack of inclusion in any ‘tribe’. But, really, one of the best – and perhaps most unexpected – things about long term cycle touring is meeting, and becoming friends with, the ragtag, foot-loose, free-wheeling tribe of cycle tourists doing their thing around the globe. Some of my best friends, now, are people I have met on the road.

I first spotted Sarah and James during my time in Santa Catalina in Panama where sighting a couple of people on touring bikes had me running down the road after them shouting, “Stop! Stop!” somewhat hysterically. Once they decided I wasn’t a lunatic, or a dangerous one, at any rate, they accepted my invitation to dinner. Since then we have leap-frogged each other down the countries of South America, crossing paths again first in Quito and then in Huaraz, until finally in La Paz we are heading in the same direction at the same time and agree to ride together for a while.

Riding with Sarah and James involves a lot of time spent in talking about food, thinking about food, cooking food and eating food. This is a good thing because when I ride on my own I can sometimes forget to eat.

Our route - which James has taken the trouble to thoroughly research, leaving me with nothing much to do but turn my pedals - once we turn off the busy highway leading south from La Paz takes us through the desert towards the Sajama National Park. On the road between Patacamaya and Sajama crumbling chullpas (pre-Colombian burial towers constructed by the indigenous Aymara people) dot the arid plain.

The river beds are mostly dry...

... and villages relatively sparse. This village, however, boasts a few relatively well stocked shops, which is very important when eating is a primary concern. One shop doubles as a restaurant...

... and has us all gazing in awe, while waiting for our menu lunch, at a diverse but consistently bizarre range of posters adorning the walls. Many of the posters feature prize llamas; the one of distressed babies in flowerpots is something of a wildcard.

Outside the aesthetic is a little more restrained and austere. A whitewashed adobe church dominates the village square with its simple lines...

... and subtle details.

Local industry revolves around the llama, the alpaca, and various related handicrafts.

A rocky canyon enlivens the terrain...

... and the dry river beds provide some fine sites for wild camping - always assuming, of course, that there is no sudden rainfall to cause a flash flood.

...

Everything occurs under the majestic presence of Sajama, Bolivia's highest peak, which edges closer...

... as we pedal our way to the village of the same name.

Turning off the asphalt highway, we take an unpaved alternative road. It passes by a small, all but deserted, tumble down hamlet which...

... nonetheless...

... is home to ...

... a beautiful and well maintained church, full of gorgeous colourful details.

We pass by Sajama, the mountain,...

... and continue riding towards the Twins: Parinacota and Pomerata.

Our leisurely pace allows for plenty of pauses on the road...

... but the afternoon breeze can whip up a dust storm...

... making it an inconvenient time for the second flat of the day.

Despite momentary setbacks, however, sunset sees us in Sajama, the village...

... where our unassuming hotel...

... provide us with the perfect place to cook up a storm of our own creation. Chorizo, carried all the way from La Paz, makes for the basis of a delicious pasta dinner and the leftovers fried up with potatoes, a magnificent breakfast,...

...especially combined with a good coffee. Sarah and James carry an Italian coffee maker with them as an essential and much prized piece of camp equipment and it does make a very fine cup of coffee.

Not a lot is happens in Sajama... but the surrounding peaks...

...give it an undeniable presence...

... and make ...

...even the most boring of daily tasks a real pleasure. Running water doesn't appears to be guaranteed at our lodgings despite the vain promise of a shower and so our much needed laundry session takes place at the river...

... under the enthusiastic guidance of Luz Maria, one of Sajama's very few youthful residents.

Sajama, the volcano, is always there...

... and provides us with just about the only company to be had in Sajama, the village, with its deserted streets...

... with resolutely closed doors. After a day of eating, washing and basic bike maintenance, we set off again.

The same themes are repeated. Tumble down settlements, no matter how small, all have a tiny chapel. This slowly disintegrating exterior...

...hides...

...an evocative and...

...and haunting tableau within.

...

A third puncture frames one of the Twins...

... but we are soon on the way again...

... to rejoin the main highway where we cycle past a kilometres long queues..

... of trucks waiting to cross the border...

... into Chile...

... and a distinctly unwelcoming Chilean snowstorm.

Our chilly reception, however, is quickly tempered by a sunset arrival at some very very hot springs and there is nothing like a hot bath to thaw out frozen fingers and toes.

The bath-house offers cosy, if slightly humid, shelter for the night and it is warmer happier cyclists who set off in morning sunshine...

... to peruse maps...

... and seek out food. It is not long before our three fine steeds are lined up outside a roadside restaurant...

... where we partake in our first and only truly successful Chilean food experience - fried egg sandwiches.

Regrettably, Chilean customs confiscate just about all foodstuffs - the list includes fresh fruit and vegetables, meat products, dairy products, nuts and just about anything else you can think of - on entry to the country. Forewarned is forearmed but we are still on distinctly spartan rations for the moment so we enjoy this unexpected bounty while we can. It transpires that we don't come across another restaurant or shop until we are just about to cross the border back into Bolivia.

Back on the road, spaceship clouds grace the sky.

It's a big...

... big landscape - a beautiful...

... and unforgiving environment...

...in which two tiny cyclists can easily disappear.

The wind picks up again in the afternoon...

... and it's a long sandy push to find a sheltered campsite.

Once we do, old stone walls provide the perfect refuge where tired cyclists...

...can rest...

... before the long push back to the highway...

... in the morning.

Our foray into Chile, provides us with a first glimpse of the salares, the Andean altiplano's famous salt flats,...

... home to a multitude of vicunas and flamingoes.

Blue sky, white salt, and the occasional splash of green vegetation provide a stark and vivid landscape...

...

... for our contemplation.

Luckily, Chilean customs don't confiscate chocolate and we had thought to stock up at Tambo Quemado, the last town we passed through before crossing the border. It is chocolate...

... that gives us strength to face the sandy stretches of road that skirt the salar...

... until we arrive, finally, ...

... at more hot springs...

...bubbling away...

... in the midst of it all.

It is bitterly cold and windy as night falls but...

... the sinuous tendrils of vapour rising in the still chilly morning air...

... quickly invite us to re-enter the steaming pond...

... and while away a warm and super relaxed morning.

The shy vicunas creep a little closer (but I still don't have a hope in hell of a decent wildlife shot without a long lens).

Soon it's time to ride again and we start to climb away from the salar towards a pass.

Some abandoned houses provide another more or less sheltered campsite - even so, the soil was so sandy here and wind fierce enough that I decided to sleep in the thatched shelter instead of attempting to pitch my tent.

Villages marked on the map are often long dead. The abandoned communities in these parts have mostly simply run out of sufficient water to survive and it pays to know where your next water is coming from as a cycle tourist here. We ask to replenish our supplies at the various police posts which exist to keep an eye on any potential illegal activity taking place across the nearby border and find an unexpected fresh water spring on route which allows us to make an early camp rather than plough on further to the expected river.

As across the border in Bolivia, each settlement, even those that otherwise appear abandoned have a freshly white washed church...

...overlooking derelict adobe buildings.

This village, it transpires...

... is not entirely devoid of life. A truck full of llamas and alpacas is there to provide an otherwise absent welcome...

... before we head back out into the wilderness to ride...

...rest...

... and ride again.

The village square of Enquelga boasts some surprisingly modern civic architecture to contrast with the typical (but untypically unkempt) church...

... and provide some modest shade for a lunch break.

Another village. Another church.

...

And so it goes until after five days in Chile we reach the border and re-enter Bolivia where appropriately we are welcomed, once again, by llamas when the owner of the grocery (yay, groceries!) store allows us camp in the yard where he keeps his baby llamas.

The llamitas are curious and shy in equal measure.

The Bolivian border town of Pisiga can only be described, politely, as desolate and windswept.

The market, which sits across the road from a huge, modern - but unused and already decaying - edifice built to house it, looks like refugee camp...

... but thankfully provides us with much needed fruit and vegetables.

On the highway, trucks wait for whatever it is trucks wait for at border towns...

... while back at camp the llamas watch our every move.

For Sarah and James’ version of this story, with lots of spectacular photography, check out their blog here.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Neil | November 29, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I’d forgotten how pretty all those little altiplano churches were.
    Love the dust storm photos near Sajama!

    Neil

  2. anna | November 29, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Glad to remind you! I considered a church post, all of its own – they are gorgeous.

  3. Sarah's Mum | November 29, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    This is lovely Anna. Great to get another angle on the long and fascinating trip. Keep safe.

  4. anna | November 29, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Sarah’s Mum. It was great to share some time with those guys.

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  1. […] Anna also blogged about this section of our trip and you can read it here. […]

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