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las lagunas: (or – exactly when does ‘classic’ really just mean ‘past its time’?)

BOLIVIA/CHILE: SAN AUGUSTIN — ALOTA — LAGUNA HEDIONDA — LAGUNA COLORADA — SOL DE MAÑANA — LAGUNA CHALVIRI — LAGUNA BLANCA — SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

The good, the beautiful, the bad, the sad, the ugly. Ah, life.

The road from San Augustin to Alota is a beauty: great surface, no traffic and, as the terrain starts to undulate, some lovely desert views.

...

From Alota it is about 35 kilometres on the main 'international road' to the turnoff to Laguna Hedionda. It is a pleasant ride through an intriguing rock forest. The rock formations provide plenty of opportunities for a sheltered campsite as the afternoon wind picks up.

SOLITUDE:

I have exchanged the pleasures of company and shared meals for the more austere joys of a return to solo travel. I have learnt something of both restraint and indulgence from travelling with Sarah and James: that it is OK to buy chocolate by the box but better not to eat it all at once.

A pasta dinner of salami, sauteed with onions and garlic and finely diced carrot and enriched with tomato paste is sometimes subtly less tasty when you have no-one to discuss its merits with.

Since there is no-one to press the point with, for the first time ever, I break the spaghetti in half, with an apologetic nod to my fictional imaginary Italian mama’s hand-ringing and histrionics, while noting that Sarah is right – it is way more convenient – and, further, that an Italian mama would never be seen dead out in the Bolivian desert cooking a meal for one over an alcohol burner in a 1 litre pot.

There is a euphoric sense of freedom in being alone in a vast landscape; in watching the sun set and the full moon-rise over the desert and knowing there is not a soul to disturb your perfect solitude.

The road between the highway and Laguna Canapa is also a joy to ride, with a decent surface and almost no traffic - I only saw one other vehicle. But I soon arrive at Laguna Hedionda and the main Lagunas route where everything changes. The Lagunas route is a Bolivia tourism 'must see' and firmly on Lonely Planet's beaten track. Three day jeep tours of the Salar de Uyuni and the lagunas are an essential part of the South America back-packers experience.

Flamingoes, the most famous of the local wildlife, calmly continue with their relentless task of filtering micro-organisms out of the chemical stew that is Laguna Hedionda while an equal number of tourists (including me, of course) line the shore snapping pics of them.

PEOPLE WATCHING:

A French woman is trying to buy coupons which will enable her and her travel companions to use the toilet at Lake Hediona. French tourists don’t appear much inclined to learn foreign languages and this woman doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. She is angry, although it is not clear why. She curses and harangues the Bolivian girl attending the ‘information’ booth where toilet coupons are purchased and everything but her incomprehensible fury is unintelligible. I watch as the transaction draws to a labourious and painful close.

Finally, the offended French woman and her companion stalk off to perform their indignant bowel movements without ever learning that the girl’s name is Stephanie, that she is nineteen years old, that she has a two year old daughter who lives with her mother in Uyuni. They do not pause to contemplate the possibility that Stephanie is lonely and sad here in the middle of the desert and that her youthful dreams might have already slipped between her fingers like so much altiplano dust.

I ride on past a series of smaller lagunas, pausing to replace a frayed gear cable, before seeking out a camp site as the sun starts to set. The trees here have given up any attempt to fight the altiplano wind and simply lie down.

Others plant life clings to precarious footholds.

Night fall. Moon rise.

...

A BREAK:

A sixty second water break. Time to the note the seams of ice that run along the mountain peaks; the tiny pink flowers growing among the stones and the dust; the silence; a fly buzz. The colours are gold, grey, warming to browns, a russet tinge. A trail of dust. A jeep approaching. Two scraps of cloud in the sky.

...

TOURISM:

Hmmm, tourism. (Sigh.)

People want to go to beautiful places. Of course they do.

But if enough people go, and some  – perhaps most – are careless, or selfish, or thoughtless, or uniformed then it’s not long before those places aren’t quite so beautiful any more.

There is money to be made. A place becomes a product, a resource to be exploited. Add poverty, inequality, lack of education and opportunity, greed.

Sometimes the most beautiful of places can also be very very ugly.

The tour jeeps operate under a tight schedule and a tight budget. The drivers choose the quickest, most expedient path across the fragile plain with no regard to environmental impact. Fifty or a hundred speeding jeeps a day make for corrugated roads and so the drivers fan out across the valley seeking a smoother ride so that they can go faster...

...raising clouds of dust...

... and churning up the deep sand.

Someone (perhaps the National Park authorities..?) has erected hand painted signs made from rocks. The hopeless plea is, "Responsible tourism; one lane!"

Rubbish not permitted: who would have thought it even needed saying...

...but quite clearly it does. The evidence is everywhere, including just a few feet away.

And for those of you who might just still think that organic rubbish doesn't matter that much, just look here! It takes a minimum of six months for citrus peel to biodegrade and far, far longer in this arid environment.

A viscacha, a small rodenty animal, somewhere between a rabbit, a squirrel, and a wallaby (that I normally refer to as a rock hoppy) scavenges what titbits it can from the mess.

The day draws to a close...

... and the last few jeeps hurtle by as I set up my tent in an abandoned house that is described by a cyclist who passed this way in 2009 as a perfect campsite. Now it seems to be a preferred toilet area for the passing hordes and requires considerable clean up before I can bring myself to shelter behind the windbreak provided by its crumbling walls.

I contemplate these sad facts as the sun sets.

Morning sees me pass a rock formation singled out for special attention by this dubious industry. Jeeps speed up to the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree) and people - an astonishing quantity of them - pile out of each vehicle, approach a few metres towards the rock, take a photo...

... and then leap back into the cars to roar off in chaotic convoy. It is worth mentioning here that in the wide open dead flat expanse of the Salar de Uyuni two jeeps had a head on collision that caused 13 fatalities in 2008. A Gooogle search can quickly reveal a disturbing number of fatal jeep accidents that have taken place in this area since then. *

THE WONDERS OF NATURE:

The planet we live on is astonishing. Glorious.

Just when I am about to give up on this whole lagunas caper, I come to Laguna Colorada and I'm won over again.

This is the lake that definitively answers the question, "Why are flamingoes pink?"

I slow down, find a shelter and spend the afternoon...

...watching the colours change...

... and then the full moon rise.

In the morning I take a leisurely ride around the shore...

... of this incredible place.

Around 35 kilometres away and a few hundred metres in altitude higher I arrive at Sol de Mañana, a geothermal field of boiling mud pools and steam vents emitting towering hissing plumes of sulphurous vapor.

On the other side of the pass I drop down into some real desert...

... before arriving at the Polques Hot Springs at Laguna Chalviri. This rock pool is a couple of hundred metres before the developed one where all the tour jeeps stop and it is totally deserted. I decline to take a dip because it isn't quite as hot as I would like but it would make an excellent campsite later in the day.

After a very necessary wash in the slightly hotter pool in front of the restaurants, my passage through the desert continues.

...

It s the same story with jeep tracks here and I wonder if there has ever been any suggestion of paving this route. Much as I love riding dirt, I, for one, would support such an idea for the reduction in negative impact on the area: paving would mean a single lane, less dust and hopefully a safer more comfortable trip for the punters.

The last 'stop' is Laguna Verde. Same story. A car park. Jeeps. Aimless tourists with a camera in their hand.

A straggle of buildings above Languna Blanca are reminiscent of an industrial accident on a building site.

...

A final climb...

... brings me to the border between Bolivia and Chile. The Bolivian border control must be a cold and lonely posting - the border guards try to lure me in with the promise of chicken for lunch but I decline.

Then a 45 kilometre 2500 metre descent to San Pedro de Atacama, a tourist town, sitting in the middle of the Antofagasta desert - one of the driest places in the world. Check the sign out: nice welcome.

*See here for a horrific description of one such accident by an eye witness, who bravely attempted to help the survivors.

{ 10 } Comments

  1. Kellie Stapleton | December 3, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for your posts Anna. I have been following you for awhile now. I think of you often as my daughter plans her 2,500 mile tour along a southern route of the US this coming Feb.
    DummyDiva

  2. Tony | December 3, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Journeying, that is all life really is. I really enjoy it when more than just photos are posted by you. You have something that most people don’t find time to stop for, time. Time to really think, to read your thoughts, no matter how sad or tragic they are, is wonderful. Also some of your latest photos convey such amazing sense of time and space. Absolute great use of spatatial awareness. Thanks for always instilling something extra into my day. Love from us all.

  3. Sarah | December 6, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    The irony being that we now have long discussions about whether we should take the time and effort to keep the spaghetti whole! We have clearly had a long-term psychological impact on each other’s pasta cooking techniques…
    Beautiful writing and stunning photos – obviously really interesting to see your experiences as we should have been there with you…oh well, we’ll save that route for the next time in Bolivia, or perhaps avoid it altogether based on your conclusions….
    As for restraining yourself with the chocolate, I don’t know how you got on but we had our last Bolivian Sublime yesterday…yes, seriously! Should have munched them sooner though as by the time we got to the final one, it was liquid.
    Abrazos…S xxx

  4. anna | December 6, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    I arrived in San Pedro with two Sublimes and two peanut bars in hand, so I think I was speedier that you guys. But that’s no real surprise, is it? I learnt something of restraint but not a whole lot ;- )

    As for the Lagunas route… well, there is a lot that is beautiful but I’d take a leaf out of the Pikes book and look for alternative routes in the area if I was going to do it – or something like it – again.

    I hope your tummy bugs are behaving themselves again now. I’m about to mount a renewed assault on mine – they are just too noisy for polite social interactions.

    Abrazos to you both. xxx

  5. anna | December 6, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tony, glad to have you drop by again and thanks for your considered (and flattering) comments. Cesca says you are all going on a camper-van tour in Tasmania soon for some journeying of your own so have a great holiday!

  6. TJC | December 9, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I am the least restrained person I have ever met, except for a pitbull I know named Rocco.

    Once in a moment of rare insight I (having just overheard the phrase “self-centered” in a conversation I was eavesdropping on) decided to finish my beer and to never again consider myself first. I immediately employed my new-found saintliness by engaging the girl-bartender in conversation and asking personal questions and a half hour later I was involved in a friendship that lasts lo unto this very day, some ten (fifteen?) years later. We are not close; we are friends.

    Breaking the pasta in half makes me look over my shoulder every time I do it, even when I am alone. Why? Why is pasta the length it is? Is it the same length all the world over? (for that matter, is it measured metrically or, uh, englishlly? (Why don’t I know what non-metric measurement standards are called? Good Lord.) Spaghetti-O’s? Please.

    Gypsy Nick turned me on to lentils and I tried, Anna, really, I tried. But they led to so much intestinal adventurism that I finally stopped and tried to feed them to my porch squirrels, who went on strike and are only just now talking to me again. I confessed my failure to Nicholas who said “oh, I gave up on lentils way back…they messed up my stomach.”

    Lentils are not apropos of your post but I had to tell that story sooner or later. Sorry.

    Madonna Stephanie will forget the French broad but she will remember Anna. Stephanie will remember Anna and maybe, probably, you will become a tiny piece of lore and hope in that corner of the small planet (and endless universe) where you did it just right.

    yer pal, Old Tim Joe

  7. anna | December 11, 2013 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    Hi tj, you’re reminding me of my old friend WSmart. He hasn’t showed up around here for ages.

    I don’t find lentils cause me much intestinal grief but my amoebae certainly do. I wish they would go away.

    Hope all is well out there in the Trailer Park. Been out riding recently?

    -A-

  8. Cesca | December 15, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna. Over some chilled beer with Jodie on a recent Northcote evening we mused “Wouldn’t it be great if Anna popped back to Australia for a visit?”. Don’t mean to interrupt your travel plans or anything, but just thought I should let you know where our thoughts about you wandered. Jodie and I are near neighbours now, by the way. That Bolivian altiplano looks a harsh but beautiful place. What a pity that tourism is carving it up and trashing it like that. I never imagined there were flamingos in South America – you are continuing to open our eyes and minds with your photo essays.

  9. anna | December 16, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    You never know, Cesc, it might happen… sooner or later…

  10. Steve Tober | December 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Merry ho ho ho Ana! I envy your xmas solitude. You make me want to get on my bike and……ride away…………..

{ 2 } Trackbacks

  1. […] The parasites of course had other ideas, and just two days into what was supposed to be an “epic ride”, I am not capable of continuing and we return reluctantly to Uyuni, leaving our friend Anna to carry on. […]

  2. […] Most of my information during route research came from Neil and Harriet, Tom and Sarah, Cass, Mike, Anna and from the ‘Cycling South West Bolivia’ […]

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