Once again, I was questioning the wisdom of traveling the high Atacama desert in winter. Six months into my Ushuaia to Alaska tour I found myself stuck at the border crossing of Paso de Jama, Argentina; unable to pass into Chile due to too much snow, From the seemingly misnamed Paso Seco, “Dry Pass,” I cycled two days across ice and snow just to arrive at my present location and yet another closed border. In this strange pueblito of crumbling buildings, I was waiting for a path towards Bolivia.
Riding the weeks before I had wondered what I was getting into. Solo in the Puna de Atacama region of Northern Argentina, I had traveled halfway through the high desert before gaining confidence I would survive my winter trip. Lack of water and cold temperatures had made me nervous. I hadn’t begun my trip with winter gear and had realized as much during some long cold nights.
A friend in Patagonia had advised me to go to a “tienda de telas” (fabric store), and ask for “Polar” (fleece), as to make up for my lack of a warm sleeping bag – when will I learn that this is not the proper place to save weight? You must appreciate the ingenuity of the South American adventurer, for whom import taxes make even common gear prohibitively expensive. From then on, each night in the desert I began a ritual of heating 14 liters of water and placing the bottles in my sleeping bag. Surrounded by warm water, fleece, and wearing all my clothes I began each night warm.
This high Atacama desert has been inhabited by some of the oldest cultures in the world and is home to older mummies than those found in Egypt! Thoughts of these ancient cultures were not far from my mind as I reached a tiny village every 2 – 3 days and was greeted by men herding alpaca, the animals descendant from the wild vicuna still roaming the area. These stops would be accompanied by a visit to the local tienda, oftentimes little more than the house of the leading matriarch in the small town. She would help me find what I needed, donning a green smile betraying the large clump of Coca leaves in her mouth. Timidly at first, I had asked to buy some of this leaf criminalized in the western world. When chewing the leaves or used in a tea, I found the “buzz” to be somewhere between a cup of coffee and a cup of mate, the typical Argentinian tea; no wonder locals didn’t treat it as a hard drug. The Coca leaves also help with high altitude and contain vitamins, according to locals. My mind opened to something which had been marked as “potentially bad” before the trip, I wouldn’t cycle without Coca leaves in my snack bag until reaching the border of Colombia and Ecuador five months later.
The next day the border was still closed. I wandered around to see all that Paso Jama had to offer, which wasn’t much. Even by South American border town standards this was pretty bleak. In comparison to the tiny self-sufficient villages every 2-3 days apart in the Puna, this place depended on the large stream of truckers driving across the border. I ended up getting locked in my tiny guest house for ~3 hours. Not a very pleasant experience which further motivated me to GTFO. A stranded man dealing with the effects of Hypoxia (altitude sickness) didn’t add to the ambiance of the place.
Day 3 and itching to get a move on, I was first in line to get through the border if it opened. I waited painfully as the scheduled hour came and went. I hoped to move quickly and avoid camping at the 18,000 ft elevation of the pass, which it crosses twice, and therefore would need to cover about 100 miles (160 km). 1 hour behind schedule, it was finally announced the border would open so I rushed to the office, received my much anticipated stamp and was on my way! The road was paved and this boosted my confidence since I’d last placed my tire to asphalt almost a month ago. Crazy how fast bicycles can move when you aren’t riding through sand!
Favorable morning winds helped a good pace given the altitude and I made my way passing salt flats and lakes of the area. After using up all of my daylight hours I arrived at the second 18,000 ft (5,490 m) pass. I bundled up and prepared for a descent to the 7,900 ft (2,400 m) of San Pedro de Atacama. After some time of flying down the steep gradient in the dark I realized it was a recipe for disaster and pitched my tent at higher elevation than I had originally wanted. A quick and fast descent followed the next morning into the town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. There I would wait for a compatriot and longtime friend, John, to arrive by bus carrying supplies for the mission we had laid out ahead (a feat in it’s own).
Whether it be Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which I had “marketed” as the logical place to take a first time bikepacker, and now Bolivia for a mountaineering bikepacking sufferfest, I sure had made a habit of dragging friends through some of the hardest parts of my trip.
Now Bolivia, a country I had looked forward to with such anticipation, would be no different. Not that Argentina and Chile hadn’t been treating me well, just after 5 months of riding I was looking forward to the mysteries Bolivia held. The small indigenous villages of Northern Argentina had given me a taste and I was ready to dive in. Our goal was to carry mountaineering gear on our bicycles, film our trip across the high Altiplano of Bolivia, and summit some of the highest peaks in the region.
After a quick reunion in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile we added a front rack to my bicycle and started on our way to the Bolivian Border. After two days with wind and snow picking up, we arrived after it had closed for the night. Knocking on a random door we asked if there was a place we might stay. This seemed reasonable to me as I had stayed at an Argentinian border station previously, only to wake up and be told that the crossing had closed overnight (Paso Seco).
Clearly not cycle tourists, the Chilean Gendarmeria (border guards) were not incredibly understanding and told us to turn around and descend back to San Pedro. I explained, we had tents and would gladly camp outside. Maybe “Gladly” was an overstatement, snow blowing sideways this was not going to be a great night but we would handle it alright even at 14,698 ft (4,480m) elevation. As The wind picked up we looked around outside for places to put the tent finding no real wind protection except for the side of the border station apparently full of guys who didn’t want us there.
As we were starting to unpack a young guy in uniform motioned for us to come inside for soup and tea. Throughout conversation in his small living quarters, we learned that he was freshly out of school and early in his career as a police officer, a separate department from the border guards. He spent long periods of time away from home working the distant border station so was happy to meet and learn about bicycle travel. After seconds of tea and soup and more conversation about home and families he offered us a place to sleep under a desk in his office. Heated and out of the wind we were more than happy to oblige.
The morning involved some stamps and a ride down to Bolivian immigration. Despite having done research and trying desperately to have all documents, photos, and immunizations in order they pointed to a list of documents I had never seen before. And of course we were missing a copy of an obscure form. But for an exorbitant fee they informed us that they would gladly print it out for us! “I’ve never paid a bribe at a border station but Bolivia is not going to disappoint!” I thought to myself. With a little negotiating the bribe was cut to a 1/5th of what it had originally been and we were on our way.
The remoteness of the route we were about to take was quickly evident. We separated from the main set of jeep tracks through sand, which evidently counts as a road through these parts, and headed into even more rugged territory. A few ruts occasionally covered by a patch of snow marked our trail and the mountains ahead of us made it clear we would soon climb even higher. The bikes loaded down by four panniers packed with our climbing gear weren’t helping matters either. Occasionally a tire would sink through the sand, a push, and momentum were needed to stay on top. This would foreshadow how the majority of Bolivia would be traversed. Joy when rolling, cursing when sinking, dark humor when dragging the bikes through sand, and the hope it would soon get better. “Todo Arena” (All sand), would be the common response when inquiring into road conditions ahead.
Shortly after reaching the base of the large mountains, I realized we had zero chance of reaching the top of the next pass at 15,850 ft (4,830 m) before dark. I had made the mistake of getting stuck at the top of a pass before and didn’t care to repeat the experience. The plan was made to climb a short distance to what was apparently an abandoned military camp and setup nearby. Upon reaching the eerie base an open door welcomed us. Abandoned in what seemed like a frantic hurry; medications, propaganda, and other odds and ends offered a glimpse into Bolivian military life. A small scale diorama of the surrounding landscape gave us a new perspective on the ground we were cycling. Later while I was cooking I heard some excited Spanish speaking outside and rushed out to see three unusually tall Bolivian Military men questioning John. I hurriedly explained that we were cycling over the pass. With amusement they looked over our gear and sleeping setup inside the hut. Apparently satisfied with my answers and in a genuinely friendly manner they wished us luck for the next day’s climb and disappeared into the darkness in their 4×4.
The morning’s climb involved equal amounts of pushing and riding. After some clever map bending I had managed to get us to the height of our pass but unfortunately the only thing that lay in front of us was more climbing. I stopped and upon careful inspection realized we had missed a turn. With a knot in my stomach I admitted that I had led us off track. John recommended we take a break, eat lunch, and drink a mate to recoup.
Upon backtracking, I realized the reason I had missed our turn was that the track was filled with snow, elevation can also cause reduced cognition. It was up for debate whether the snow or sand was a better path ahead but we pushed our bikes uphill all the same. Upon reaching the top we were welcomed by more howling wind and the highest elevation of the trip yet by bicycle!
Four days later this would be topped by a “ride”, a euphemism at these elevations, up Uturuncu on the world’s highest “road” (also a Euphemism) to 18,923 ft (5,768 m) followed by a short climb to the 19,711 ft (6,008 m) summit. The two month long crossing would involve too much sand, friendly locals, the world’s largest Salt flat (Salar de Uyuni), and 3 more 6,000m+ peaks including Sajama at 21,463 ft (6,542 m) the tallest mountain in Bolivia. Even more so than the harshness of the landscapes, the kindness of the people who live there contrasting it would make a greater impression upon us. The anticipation of Bolivia hadn’t been unwarranted.