Monday, November 21, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds: Northern Argentina and South-west Bolivia (Villazon – Cafayete and Uyuni – San Pedro de Atacami: 16th Oct - 13th Nov '11)

Our last few weeks of riding have been almost polar opposite... easy cycling surrounded by great food and wine in Argentina and then some tough cycling in the middle-of-nowhere Bolivia with limited supplies! First up was our little foray into Northern Argentina with mum and Lacey. From the border with Bolivia we rode our bikes while mum and Lace took the bus (we couldn't quite convince them to get on the bikes yet) and we met them at interesting little towns along the way.
Coming out of Bolivia, where the majority of roads are dirt, and rough, we were suprised to find ourselves on asphalt roads in amazingly good condition, with very little traffic. The first day of riding in Northern Argentina was up on the altiplano and was frustratingly windy (headwinds.. grrr) but after this we started to drop in altitude, down through a multi-coloured Quebrada (canyon) scattered with little adobe villages. After a couple of days we dropped into warmer climes, which even had vegetation. After a long time in the high grasslands all the greenery was sensory overload! We moseyed through some nice towns, with Tilcara, Salta and Cafayete being our favourites.
Coming into Argentina after spending months in Peru and Bolivia was quite a culture-shock. Argentina is a lot more developed (and expensive) and in Argentina the public toilets are clean, have toilet paper and even toilet seats!!
Argentinians also camp, which meant finding the first official campsites we have seen in a long time. Our second night in Argentina we enjoyed delicious red wine, good cheese and great bread in the garden of the hostel where we had camped. Hmmm we could get used to this life.
The wine and food in Argentina was amazing... helped by the fact that these are two of mum and Lacey's favourite things and they spoiled us silly. We were quite happy to please them by eating as much food and drinking as much wine as we could! A couple of our highlights of this section were a great night out with Argentinean barbeque accompanied by some excellent Argentinean guitar and song, plus a day of wine-tasting around the vineyards in picturesque Cafayete. We felt like we were on holiday.
Of course all this wallowing around in Argentinean steaks and wine did not help us when it came time to say goodbye to mum and Lace and to get back to the bare-bones, camping in random spots, eating porridge/pasta on the camp-stove -kind of lifestyle that we were used to. Our ride through Northern Argentina was kind of like a little sidetrip as we planned to head back up to Uyuni in Bolivia to continue our ride through south-west Bolivia.
I was missing the more rough and tumble of Bolivia, the chaos and the interesting backroads. However, I could see Jules resolve to head back to Bolivia waver the more bottles of wine we consumed. We also knew we were going back to some pretty tough riding. South-west Bolivia (Sud Lipez) is an area that tour-cyclists have been riding (and talking up) as a real challenge. Basically it was supposed to be like mountain biking 450+km on 4-wheel drive tracks in terrible condition, with fully-loaded touring bikes, plus food for 10 days and up to 10 litres of water, with a lot of pushing the bike through sand, in high altitude conditions (all above 4300m), in extreme cold (-15 to -20 in the night) and with extreme wind. So its bad press wasn't helping me to motivate a wine-sodden Jules. Luckily I had some help when we met our friends Melissa and Justin in Salta who managed to convince Jules to give it a go and told us that it wasn't as bad as we had been led to believe. Besides this, we were also supposed to be meeting Jurgen back in Uyuni... so we bade goodbye to the friendly Argentineans with their delicious foods and drinks and caught the bus back up.
We had a nice surprise back in Uyuni – another cycling party. Somehow cyclists have a knack for finding one another - it's quite uncanny since there aren't that many cyclists, and we are on a big continent. We met up with many of our friends from Cusco, plus a few new ones, for a dinner the night before we took off for the lagunas of south-west Bolivia.
Unfortunately Jurgen was ill and couldn't come with us on this section, which was a real bummer.... but we traded him in for three new cycling friends, Karin and Martin from the Netherlands, and Rasmus from Sweden. We ended up spending the next nine days (and beyond) with these guys, and having a lot of fun, whilst sharing the pain of the hard riding. None of them were originally doing the Lagunas route, but I'm pretty sure it was our fantastic company that helped them change their mind (and once they were on the Lagunas route and actually got to know us by then it was too late, they were kind of stuck with us!).
Jules was dragged along with all us, convinced only at my promise that we had enough food and that I would continue feeding her well (we had to carry all our food for the whole route). Luckily for my domestic happiness the Lagunas route was actually a little easier than we were expecting, and it was well-worth it. Jules of course managed the tough riding fine, while I was the one struggling behind, falling off my bike and feeling like I pushed more than I rode, all the while Jules was happily bouncing around up the front calling out “ohh I'm so glad we came this way, how beautiful is this!”.
We spent nine days riding through some amazing countryside, high up in the altiplano, where we were riding past snow-capped volcanoes, beautiful lagunas of different colours and through some fascinating rock formations. My favourite part of this riding was the camping in fantastic locations. There is nothing like the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, with the altiplano spread out around you and the broad spread of stars above. Our favourite night was one we spent luxuriating in a natural hotspring and watching the full moon rise over a lagoon filled with flamingos.
At the end of our 9 days, by the time we got to the little hut perched high amongst the volcanoes, the remote Bolivian immigration post, we were smelly, dusty, tired and ready for a serious chocolate hit. But we were also very sad to leave the fantastically beautiful and otherworldly landscape that was the Lagunas route and the amazing country that was Bolivia. It was a bit of a shock to cross into Chile, hit asphalt and zoom down into the super touristy town of San Pedro. We were back in a different world! But at least they had chocolate.

Notes for Other Cyclists
Northern Argentina
Mostly the riding in Northern Argentina will seem like a dream after Bolivia – the only problem we had were the headwinds that started late-morning so we tried to get most of our riding done as soon as possible (might be seasonal?? we were there late Oct). Our first day out from the border was tough in the wind, and if you are wild camping you will need to find a protected spot – we camped behind a church that was about 101 kms from the border.
In Tilcara there is a hostel called Wairu Hostal, and the owner is lovely and a cycling enthusiast! We camped here, it had wifi and we could fix the bikes in the garden. We can definitely recommend.
From San Salvador de Jujuy to Salta you can take a small back road (its the number 9 through 'El Carmen'). A great day riding, you have to climb a little, it goes up through the hills and past the dams, but its a tiny road (really only one lane) with very little traffic. It was so relaxed and easy it felt like a Sunday ride in the hills.
We got a lot of our information on cycling south-west Bolivia from the Tour-tk website and pdf (see, plus some updated information from friends who had just done it. The pdf is very useful for information, such as water points, possible campsites, distances etc. We found some of the road surfaces quite different from what we were expecting, - the tracks change so much its hard to know what you are going to get! Time of year, amount of jeep traffic, finding the right track and many other factors can impact the track conditions. For example, one day we passed a grader which meant that we had half a day of riding on a recently graded sandy track – but a few days later the same track would probably be back to washboard!
The pdf doesn't include information on getting to the lagunas from Uyuni – so here is a little info: Head out of Uyuni on the “international road” in the direction of San Cristobal. This road is in surprisingly good condition in 2011(I think it was built by a mining company, and it is in far better condition that most of the roads in Bolivia that we rode on). It is pretty hardpacked with some areas of pseudo-pavement, and if you can avoid the potholes you can get a pretty smooth ride. It is 90kms of fairly unexciting riding (flat altiplano) to San Cristobal where you can get extra food and water that you may need. San Cristobal has a market so there is food, but it is more expensive that Uyuni and it is limited- there was no bread or cheese in town when we were there. I think there were some hospedajes, but we camped outside of town so didn't pay much attention.
The next day we really enjoyed the riding, the scenery got a little more exciting and we started to see volcanoes- a few more ups and downs to make things more interesting too. 60Km from San Cristobal is the town of Villa Alota, which has a few shop-houses.. you will just need to go around peering in windows and knocking on doors to be able to find them! You can buy the basics here, biscuits, soft-drink etcetc. Nothing fresh when we were there. We camped about 16kms or so past Villa Alota in the “Valley of the Rocks' , which is very picturesque and offers lots of great camping opportunities out of the wind.
Around 28 - 30kms after Villa Alota is the first track that comes off the International Rd which you can take to join up with the Lagunas Route. The track heads south of the international road and was marked by a cairn of stones and is at the top of a slight rise, in in front of Volcano Caquella. If you continue on the international road past this turnoff and go around this volcano on the north side you will see the other turn-off from the road that heads to the lagunas, this is the route described in the Tour-TK pdf.
We took the first turnoff (before the volcano) and loved it – hardly any of the tourist jeeps go this way and we really enjoyed the scenery. It was one of our favourite parts, although the riding was pretty tough and we heard another cyclist that had tried it recommended NOT doing it..... The road is rocky, sandy in parts and with some deep ruts and will require some pushing but is mainly rideable. The track actually heads towards Laguna Colorada, so in order to visit the other northern lagunas you need to turn off at the first track to the right (very easy to miss, quite faint) that goes around the side and back of Volcano Caquella. If you miss this one you can continue on until you reach a small laguna and there is another track to the right (somewhere). The track you are looking for is the one that heads west between Volcanoes Caquella and Tapaquillcha (the one south of Caquella). We camped around the back of Volcano Caquella at a river crossing which had running water.
On our fourth morning out from Uyuni the track we were on joined up with the Lagunas Route, as described in the Tour-tk pdf ,at Laguna Helionda.
We took 9 days to ride from Uyuni to San Pedro, but we took it fairly easy most days – we only did one pretty long tough day.
Other tips: try and start riding early in the morning as the wind picks up by late morning and it can be STRONG – I got blown off the road a number of times.
Try and be at the hotsprings at night, all the tourist jeeps are gone, and wallowing in the hotsprings after a hard days riding has got to be of lifes great joys! If you don't want to sleep on the floor of the restaurant (we heard it was noisy as they start cooking early in the morning) you can camp 100m or so up the road in a corral.
Most people seemed to have had to pay an “exit tax” to leave Bolivia at this border. But we didn't have to. Not sure if it is dependent on your nationality but we had an Australian, a Canadian and some Euro passports and none of us paid. The immigration guys saw that we already exited Bolivia at another border so maybe they realised that we had never paid an exit tax before and decided not to try it on us.... or alternatively we had told them how much we loved Bolivia so maybe they just liked us :) Also, a big difference from the pdf is that the park entrance fee is now 150 Bolivianos (not 30). Expensive!
The Lagunas route is tough – most of the tracks are in terrible condition, and there are hardly any services so you do need to carry lots of food and water, but it was definitely not as hard as we were expecting, and wasn't our hardest riding of the trip. The worst aspect for me was all the tourist jeeps – most are really nice and friendly, and we chatted to lots but there were a few that zoomed past us too close on the bad roads. The only good thing is that generally all the tourist jeeps go to the same places at around the same time, so you get times where quite a few jeeps go past but then you will get long stretches with no-one.
We had a number of different maps that we had collected from different sources and they all have different tracks and information, so I would recommend getting as many as you can (especially one with the locations of the volcanoes because that can help you work out where you are!) so you can try and put them all together and work out what is correct! The tourist offices in Uyuni sometimes have maps.
Expect lots of sand, lots of washboard, lots of pushing and tough riding.... but gorgeous views!


  1. You girls are absolutely amazing.
    - Billy A

  2. I love your stories and the photos are amazing

  3. Wow, you guys are nearly there!! We have continued to follow your travels all the way from Colombia. So impressed at your hardcoreness......keep on truckin' (Your photos bring back incredible memories for us)

    Helen & Mike (Cartagena)