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I wouldn’t necessarily recommend two 6,000m peaks in two days, but the forecast is set fair and, after 3 days in Sajama, we have exhausted its manifold charms; ’tis time to bag a couple of peaks and move on.   

Acotango (around 40km to the south) beckons – not too difficult and quite an attractive looking mixture of reds and yellows with a cheeky little snow-cap on top.  I hire a driver (because, apparently, it takes two to Acotango) and head off at 3am towards the Chilean border.  A couple of turns, a steep hill and a sulphur mine later, the driver stops and points up the valley,  sending me on my way muttering “seis miles” and something about “mucho frio”.  I make a mental note to look this up later, as I am sure it’s important, but it is quite parky and I have a 6,000m peak to climb!  

Striding purposefully on, I’m pleased to discover that two weeks on a bike have worked wonders for the acclimatisation, if not my sense of direction, as I find myself below the summit ridge being accosted by penitentes.  I backtrack a few hundred metres and hop over the ridge (which I should have done in the first place) putting on my crampons and plodding over two false summits to the flat summit ridge.  The weather is good and I’m able to get some great summit shots from my drone (which is only supposed to work up to 4,000m – DJI, please take note!).  Incredible to think that, not so long ago, I would have been struggling to take a selfie, and now I have 4k video that could have been shot from a helicopter.

Fortified by my efforts, the following day I hire a guide to climb Parinacota.  This is a lovely “classic”-shaped mountain straight from the volcano jelly-mould.  We leave Sajama at 1.15am as, at 6,342m, it’s a very large jelly indeed, and the snow conditions can be challenging.  But the biggest challenge of the day proves to be negotiating the locked gate the authorities (in their infinite wisdom) have put across the road to stop people driving to the mountain <sigh>.  This is exacerbated by the 4×4’s tendency to stall and not restart <double sigh>.  

Once we get to the mountain, we park/stall outside a mountain hut before walking up to the col between Parinacota and Pomerape.  The path then zig-zags left, up to the snow-line at around 5,800m, followed by a further 400m of pestilential penitentes.  After flapping about among these joyous pinnacles of ice for a couple of hours, we yomp up the final 100m of scree to the crater rim.     I make myself unpopular with the guide by insisting we walk around to the true high point (after all, a summit is a summit) a further 20 minutes away.  It’s a bit blowy, so no drone shots this time.  Just a quick turnaround and back down through the field of fetid frost-flanges…

…a word about penitentes.  When it snows in the Andes (and this phenomena seems to be peculiar to this part of the world), the wind carves channels in the snow.  These channels get deeper leaving ridges that eventually form carved pinnacles of ice.  If you have been chewing too many coca leaves, these pinnacles might look like people kneeling in prayer – hence the name.   While IMHO a bit of penance is all well and good, there’s a time and place for this type of thing, the time being on Sundays and the place being in a church…

Safely back in Sajama, it’s time to restock our supplies of oats, noodles and tinned fish and head south.  It’s 200km, as the condor flies, to the Salar de Uyuni and we have a choice of taking the direct route through Bolivia or a detour via Lauca National Park in Chile.  We decide to stay on the Bolivian side (better the devil you know) and, with around 5 days of food, cross the main road and set a southward course on increasingly sandy roads.  The wind is picking up too (although mostly from the north which is good) but we have to reduce the pressure in our tyres to 0.7 bar to get any sort of traction.  Our Schwalbe Pickup tyres are the widest cargo tyres we could find, but 2.6 inches is at the narrow end of the tyre-width needed for this sort of work.

The scale of the landscape is deceptive.  Mountains that appear to be 5 miles away turn out to be 25 miles distant, and gentle slopes to high ground or a watershed can take half a day of constant grinding.  The roads are generally terrible with a mixture of sand, stones and corrugations (ripio) requiring us to pump our tyres up or let out air depending on the time of day.  Hitting rocks with soft tyres is a good way of mashing an inner tube, so we have to take particular care (we only have one spare tube each).

We’re making reasonable progress considering: around 50km a day, so we’re not overly concerned about running out of food.  There are also small villages where we can get water, with exciting names such as Sacabaya and Buena Vista.  However, in the most part, these are rather small, run down and dusty affairs with few facilities for tourists beyond an occasional small shop (tienda) and a tap to fill our water bottles.  Curiously, many of the villages have 3G masts and sports halls – presumably some sort of government-sponsored programme to encourage people to stay, but looking most incongruous.  As I have a Bolivian SIM card, I’m glad for the reception.

Equipment update!  We’re carrying a 3-man “MSR Mutha Hubba” tent, which is roomy and allegedly good in high winds.  It only weighs 2kg and packs down rather well.  But it’s billed as a 3-season item, as the top half of the inner-tent is mesh rather than nylon.  Most nights, so far, have been calm but, when the wind is blowing, a lot of the warmth inside is lost and the air can be filled with dust, coating everything including nostrils, eyes, throats and other useful surfaces.  Maybe a tent with a full liner would’ve been better for these conditions.

On day 4, we hit the first part of the Coipasa salt flat.  While salt flat does suggest “flat”, the surface ranges from smooth (nice) to lumpy (not nice) to soft, like icing sugar (unrideable).  Having hit 13mph for the first time in two weeks (on the smooth bit), we’re about to take a b-line to Coipasa pueblo on the other side of the flat when a local, in a 4×4, tells us to stick to the “coastline” for fear we will sink into the briny depths.  Following his advice, and three sides of a square later, we’re wondering if we should have taken our chances, who knows?  Halfway round, we bump into a French couple, Bruno and Sophie, who are cycling the length of South America – it’s surprising we’ve got this far without meeting any other adventure cyclists.  It must be a Covid thing.

From Coipasa, we have a similar choice.  The “road” on the map goes straight across the main part of the salt flat.  But the reality is that there’s little traffic and no clear path beyond an initial soup-like surface that threatens to coat us in salt and pickle us.  We opt for the coastal route again, planning to venture out onto the flats the following day once we’ve spied out what other vehicles are doing.  As there are no other vehicles to be spied, we pick a mountain on the other side of the flat around 25 miles away and head out into a blinding haze of Damascene white.  This proves to be a sound strategy, and we make as good progress as the lumpy surface allows (4-6mph).  After 3 hours we hit water (not a huge surprise as a lake is marked on the map) and decide to keep riding, as the lake is shallow and the reflections of the sky on the lake are mesmerising.  The colour of the surface changes to a darker green where the water is deeper allowing us to navigate the final couple of kms without taking an unscheduled bath.

The final two days to the Salar de Uyuni are a combination of smooth roads, around the final sections of the Coipasa salt flat, and a dusty climb between mountains over to Salinas, the biggest town in the area – not big at all, but good for lunch and a chat with a football team from Oruro, in town for a tournament.  After that, another climb over a pass and down into Tahua, ready for the next section of the journey.

In summary. Time: 7-days, distance: 200 miles, average speed: roughly the same as a hairy armadillo, calories burnt: 5 trillion, calories consumed: 4 trillion, highlight: er, cycling through a salty lake, low-point: sticking my foot into sulphurous gloop trying to take a picture of a flamingo (that flew off before I got close), amount of dust expelled from nostrils each day: 34gm.