At some point in the previous few days, we entered the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina de Eduardo Avaroa, named after one of the “heroes” of the War of the Pacific in the 19th century (which Bolivia lost, along with its pacific coast). This national park includes lagunas full of borax, arsenic and cyanobacteria which, apart from being catnip to the local flamingos, create a waterscape of blues, greens, whites and reds.
Rising from 4,200m to 4,900m, with sunny days and freezing nights, this is a harsh environment and a dense coat of fur or feathers, and a strong stomach, is highly recommended if you wish to make this your home. Fortunately, we’re well acclimatised and have more down on us than Grandma’s feather bed. Our stomachs are resilient having been on a diet of porridge, couscous and noodles for the past 3 weeks, although we resist the temptation to drink from the lagoons, preferring instead the life-affirming properties of the Coca Cola Corporation and the flasks of hot water that are ubiquitous at the hostelries in this part of the world.
Having handed over 150 Bolivianos, in honour of our brave (if unsuccessful) comrade Eduardo, we find ourselves in the unusual position of being well-fed, relatively warm, in a place of great beauty and with a relatively short day ahead of us. Feeling a little uncertain on the protocols for such times, we sit down, relax and enjoy a quiet couple of hours soaking up the magnificence of Laguna Colorada, taking photos and terrorising the gulls with my drone (or possibly the other way around). It’s a very special time after the privations of the last 5 days and it’s with some reluctance that we haul ourselves back onto our bikes for the 600m climb to the Sol de Manana, a geothermal area 25km away.
As the steam vents, mud pools and geysers are at their steamiest, muddiest and geyseriest first thing in the morning, we plan to camp in the least squishy place we can find, staving off the cold with stiff upper lips and cups of coffee. As usual, the forces of evil hamper our progress with knavish crosswinds and terpitudinous road surfaces. But as the sundial approaches 6pm we finally sail into port, weighing anchor and securing a temporary home as best we can with rocks that have, in all likelihood, only recently emerged from magma pools deep below the surface.
For comedic effect, our tent is located 400m from the noisiest steam vent this side of the moons of Jupiter. We dream of babbling brooks, tinkling waterfalls and jet-engine rigs, before waking to a dawn chorus of 4×4 engines and camera shutters. Those blinking tourists don’t half start early!, as we chisel the ice off our sleeping bags, fire up the drone engines and wipe the porridge from our mouths.
Once the glut of tourists subsides, we strike camp, adopt a morally superior manner and begin the long freewheel down to Lake Chalviri, looking forward to the oxygen-fest 500m below us. We are not disappointed, although the thermal baths on the lake shoreline are a few degrees too cold to tempt us in, and seem redundant as we have both washed in the previous fortnight.
From Chalviri it is another climb, this time through the Desierto Salvador Dali which, according to the brochure, is a surrealist landscape of rocks and, er, desert. At the top of the climb, having been pounded by the wind most of the way, we imagine a road-sign saying “Pain, suffering and disappointment ahead”, the reward for our efforts being even stronger headwinds and bottomless sand wherever the eye can see. After deploying our emergency bucket and spade, we find a rock to shelter behind for a feast of eggs, tuna, mayonnaise and crackers. When it comes to feasts, it’s a low bar.
By mid-afternoon, the wind has turned again and all is forgiven, as Laguna Blanca and then Laguna Verde are upon us. The place is deserted but, even if a Costa Coffee would be welcome, we don’t mind the solitude and the wild camping allows us to enjoy these moments in complete tranquility (well, apart from the howling wind).
At first light, Laguna Verde is decidedly blue, making the early arrivals, the following day, scratch their heads and check their cameras settings. At other times both Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde live up to their billing big-time, delivering in a way only lakes full of toxic chemicals can.
The conditions are often nice in the morning, and we enjoy a pleasant 10km cycling along the shore of Laguna Blanca, past Bolivian customs and up the rise that eventually leads to the border post. Predictably the wind picks up, willing us to stay in Bolivia for a few hours longer. But we can smell Chilean wine in the air and push on. An hour later, we have our exit stamps and are looking forward to the 2,000m descent to San Pedro. Unfortunately, owing to a map-reading error, we discover we have to climb for another 4km before reaching the main road. Additionally, due to a tarmac-laying error, the beautifully smooth asphalt roads have not made it as far as the Bolivian border, and we have to postpone the tarmac-kissing photo I had wittily intended to take when the opportunity arose.
After a short interval we spot the Chilean border post, in a building modelled after the place in Arizona where the aliens are kept. The garage doors are opened by unseen hands and we’re invited to leave half an onion and a pot of honey before emerging, blinking, on the other side. Tarmac duly kissed, we turn right, release the brakes and start the epic descent to San Pedro, 42km distant and 2,200m below.
San Pedro is where Andy and I depart company, Andy heading north to Peru and I heading southeast into Argentina. It’s the end of phase 1 for sure, although a great adventure in and of itself. 720 miles, mostly on dirt roads, mostly wind affected, mostly cold, but mostly through some of the most awesome and other-worldly scenery this planet has to offer. Not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not many people’s idea of fun, but something of which memories are made with the good bits enduring while the less good bits fade.
As the border post in San Pedro has been closed, options for getting to Argentina are much reduced, meaning a change of plans for me starting with a bus to Salta and onwards. As things are up in the air a bit, it may be while before my next post so, until then, Buen Viaje!