Monday, December 26, 2011

Segment 48: Salinas de Garcia Mendoza, Bolivia to Calama, Chile (November 27, 2011 to December 9, 2011)

vicuñas seen on the mud flats while leaving Salinas

Tom on the mud flats with Volcán Tunupa in the background.  We are heading to climb this one.

this is the nearly-abandoned village where we stopped to climb Tunupa (on its north side), looking pretty sorry... we wandered around for 20 minutes before we actually found a human being (there were actually two around at the time). 

like much of Bolivia, totally Mad Max style.  Post-apocalyptic: abandoned houses, ghost towns, empty villages, old trucks and motors everywhere, the world run down.  This is the yard where we left our bikes to go climb Tunupa.

...dusk scenes on the lower slopes of Tunupa...

the beautiful summit area of Tunupa (5432m, or about 17,800ft), early morning, seen from the north side

... bizarre bright green lichens smothering entire boulders...

the lichens seen up close

yes, that is Tom (sideways) giving himself a nice challenge.  This whole climb - very steep, no trail, at times talus and others scrambling - featured an array of fun, but was extremely tough, physically-speaking.

the view from near the top.  We didnt reach the true summit as the last approx. 75 meters up featured some seriously exposed rock, which was also flaky and of terrible quality for those without climbing gear, like us.

the views up here were surreal with the Salar de Uyuni opening up on all sides

Tom and Jeff backed by the Salar de Uyuni, which we would cycle across the following day

... beautiful cactus seen on the descent...

near Jirira in the evening, we ran into this herd of llamas, which completely pulverized our road with their hooves and forced us to push thru sand...

the unmistakeable Tunupa the following morning, seen from the south side, while about to enter the Salar de Uyuni

the famous surface, early morning, of the Salar de Uyuni, largest salt flat in the world.  This honeycomb salt formation is nearly unique to the Salar de Uyuni, amazing.

... arrived at Isla Incahuasi after a 40km-or-so ride across the salar.  This time we avoided the midday heat and relaxed all day here...
the island is famous for its thousands of cacti

surreal scene on the salar.  this is the water truck coming to Incahuasi.

salt slab table

some more cactus

ancient coral fossils on Incahuasi

Tom plucks ukelele while tour driver describes road ahead and old lady (has lived here 25 years on Incahuasi in the middle of salt flats in temperature extremes that are unbelievable) eagerly hangs around.

this plate has a slab of llama meat on it

leaving Incahuasi (midground) in the early evening with Tunupa now far in the distance

...we were treated to this kind of evening colors...

swallowed up by the salt flat immensity (that is a bicycle seen lower center right)

waning moon rising over the salar as we prepare to camp in the middle of all of this!

breaking up our camp at dawn

interesting salt formations as we are exiting the salar

heading to San Juan we hit some horrible deep sand, moderate pushing here

arrived at San Juan well after dark

Jeff's lower lip not showing much healing progress while resting in San Juan.  Aside from the lips/ dry skin/ sunburn, both of us fell sick during this whole stretch (2-3 weeks), with dry coughs, sore throats, runny noses, fatigue, light fevers, lost voice, etc..  This complicated the riding horribly, as we couldn't ever properly rest in such desert conditions and high altitudes.  We did go to the Centro de Salud in San Juan, where they sold us some antibiotics which later didn't work at all!

vicuña tracks leaving San Juan

... more great riding as we approach the Salar de Ciguana...

a tough climb on loose, sandy, pebbly and steep surfaces up out of Ciguana

our campsite behind a windbreak (too bad photos can't depict wind because it nearly never stops out here, wreaking havoc on your pedaling and on your camping as well, really no rest at all)

llamas backed by high volcano

checking out Volcán Ollague

fun stuff in between sandy stretches
drop the bikes, get on the rocks!

we had to carry a lot of water out here

minor eruptions on Volcán Ollague

morbid llama remains at a roadside abandoned house

a live one nearby

sunset on the altiplano, invisible wind ripping like mad

...the road as we head towards the famous lagunas of southwest Bolivia...

... flamingoes at Laguna Cañapa, the first of a series of salt lakes along this stretch...

nearly arrived at Laguna Hedionda, beautiful landscapes in total wilderness, but this is actually terrible cycling with a stiff headwind and in loose sand.  When crosswind gusts would come they would push us off our narrow lane and into deep sand, over and over and over.  Torture, really.

...Laguna Hedionda...

...flamingoes abound here as well...

more tough cycling around Hedionda.  We ran out of water here and drank from the laguna, not recommended, as we ended up with serious apathy and nausea for several days!  This on top of our pre-existing illnesses...

another look at Laguna Hedionda (4150m) at dusk, ringed by numerous high volcanoes all over 5500m or so

...we stayed in the ruins of a hotel bordering the laguna, but as ever, the days are scorching and the nights are freezing.  we would awake with our water bottles frozen... and then hide from the sun all day...
our somewhat comfortable lodging

leaving Hedionda and heading south towards Laguna Colorada

unfortunately after 32,000km Jeff's saddle rail snapped out here in the middle of nowhere on terrible washboard roads.  Tough decision, but seeing that we are still quite far from L. Colorada (with the roads supposedly in even worse shape) and further still Laguna Verde and the descent to Chile, and sick as dogs on top of it all, we decide to turn around and head to Chile via Ollague.  Torture as well, since we would have to repeat this tough stretch back out of the hinterlands.

... two haggard riders at the moment of turning back, beaten mercilessly by the wind, dehydrated, hungry...

roadside house (inhabited) where we stayed en route towards the border of Bolivia/Chile

... fascinating construction techniques utilizing mud-based roofs...

...this house raises llamas for fur and meat, there were literally hundreds about...

the dark side of llama raising... tons of llama shit everywhere

this is Volcán Ollague again, from the northwest side.  This mountain dominates the whole area.

nearing the border

the Bolivian border post is hardly mentionable; here we are still in Bolivia but this is true no-man's-land and armageddon

arrived in Chile at Ollague, a very small town.  The border police housed us, fed us, and aided us innumerably, all the more so as it was Jeff's birthday (December 5) and we arrived dirty, hungry, browbeaten, desperate and without money!  The first thing they did in fact, was start giving us apples, bananas, peaches, coffee and tea, etc. etc..  Incredible after so much rugged desert wilderness.

Note: we went to the paramedics here in Ollague, and were told that the antibiotics that they had sold us in San Juan, Bolivia were actually for stomach ailments!!  (Just one more anecdote from the mystifying and puzzling world of Bolivia). Then we were diagnosed with pharo-laryngitis (complete torture in high altitude desert wilderness, trust us!  Jeff lost his voice for over two weeks.) and provided with different antibiotics altogether. 
unfortunately, there is nowhere to get money at either border.  We arrived with NOTHING, and facing 190km of pure desert riding with no food and no way to get any without money (big dilemma), not to mention the broken saddle and no replacements available in Ollague, we were forced to hitch with these trucks to Calama and the nearest bank machines.  (Note: had we been able to complete the lagunas route, we would have had enough money and food to reach San Pedro de Atacama, Chile without a problem).  Those are our bikes in the cargo hold above the oil tanks, one on each truck.  The border police arranged these rides for us, thank you!!!