Monday, February 11, 2013

Bolivia to Chile via the Lagunas Route: Day 3

Day 110 (February 1, 2013)
Laguna Colorada, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Day's Ride: 114 Miles

Turns out that staying at the Hotel was a bad idea. For some reason, some of the tour operators who were staying there with their truck loads of tourists started mean mugging us. Then, as Mike and I were trying to sleep, these two Chilean chicks kept coming into the big communal bedroom, turning on the lights, and talking to each other. At one point they even came in, took out a guitar, and tuned it right there in the room as four people were trying to sleep! I don't know if they were drunk, or high, or just simply assholes, but I was getting really steamed. Eventually, at around midnight, I asked them politely if they could turn off the light and close the door. They gave me a fairly dismissive response, told me that they would be done in five minutes, then continued to chat it up. I started drumming my fingers on my chest and was about to get up and have some words with them when they finally shut up and went to bed.

The next morning when we got up at 6:00 AM, I made a point of turning the lights on and off a few times and talking to Mike in my best obnoxious American voice. Payback's a b*tch. We packed up our stuff and convinced one of the tour operators to give us some of their food. We were on the road by 7:30 AM.

Riding down the western shore of Laguna Colorada, I was mesmerized by the view.

It's hard to tell from the picture, but Laguna Colorada is actually a dark red color and has massive islands of salt sticking up out of it.

About six miles down the road we came to the Hotel where our gas was supposed to be cached. I pulled into the courtyard and immediately saw our jug setting in small closet. I told the workers that it was mine, then we pulled it out and got to work. When I had bought the jug, there had been some water in it and I hadn't had time to dry it out. Mike assured me that the water would settle to the bottom and that we could just siphon off the top to avoid the H2O.

Mike was up first on siphoning duty; he drew a little too hard and got a face full and mouthful of gasoline. It was burning his face so bad that eventually he went over to the hotel and asked for a some soap to clean himself up.

Since we couldn't get the 30 liter jug high enough, we ended up siphoning everything into a cut up two liter water bottle and then pouring it directly into the tank.

At some point we lost the suction in the siphon and I had to restart it. Despite Mike's warning, I too ended up with a mouthful of gas. Not the most pleasant tasting substance in the world, I can assure you.

With the bikes refueled, we got back on the road. Thankfully the road was relatively well graded and initially we didn't have any problems with the little ridges of sand that we had been dealing with the day before. The scenery continued to be amazing.

Lots of small groups of vicuña lined the road, barely even bothering to look at us as we rode by.

The road continued climbing and soon we were well above 15,000 feet. We soon reached a turnoff where Mike told me that we needed to leave the main road and go up into the hills to find the Bolivian Aduana (Customs Office) so that we could do the check out paper work for our bikes. I didn't quite believe that they would stick the aduana miles from anywhere out in the Altiplano, but I went along with him to the top of the road. At the end of the road I found a chemical plant making acid (of all things) behind a locked gate. And no Aduana. Unfortunately, the Aduana WAS up there somewhere, I just missed it and didn't know. That would come back to bite us in the ass later..... I happened to glance down at my GPS as I was looking around near the chemical plant and found that we had passed 16,500 feet in elevation. Surprisingly, my bike was still breathing. But barely.

Meanwhile, just a few meters away from the gate Mike was riding around on what appeared to be a soccer field. Who in their right mind puts a soccer field at 16,500 feet? Surely this is one of the highest playing fields in the world. We snapped a few pictures with our bikes on the field.

After playing soccer for a few minutes, we got back on the road and started heading south again. Mike had a waypoint saved on his GPS that indicated some nearby thermal geysers, so we decided to go take a look. Sure enough, there were several large pits of boiling mud, a few fumeroles, and one fairly potent steam geyser.

Unlike Yellowstone, these geysers aren't fenced off and there's nothing preventing you from riding right into them if you want. According to some of the tire tracks nearby, it appeared that a few people had tried just that. After we had finished side trip number two, we got back on the road.

We eventually reached a hot springs in vicinity of a rather large laguna. Unfortunately, all my pictures of the hot springs were corrupted by my crappy Guatemalan laptop, so I can't post them. Suffice to say, jumping in the hot springs after riding around above 15,000 feet all morning was sublime. About 10 minutes after we had gotten in, hundreds of Land Cruisers began pulling up and disgorging hoards of water seeking tourists.

Our relaxed reverie interrupted, Mike and I decided to scram. On our way out, we ran into a Dutch rider on an old Honda Transalp.

Since he didn't feel like riding the route alone and hadn't been able to find someone to ride with him, he had signed up for one of the Land Cruiser tours and simply had them haul most of his gear while he rode along behind. Smart guy.

Soon after the hot springs, the road turned to crap again and I began to go off in the sand in search of untracked routes.

Eventually we came upon the Dali Rocks. Apparently Salvador Dali drew some of his inspiration from these rocks out in the middle of the nowhere Bolivia. I think I can see why. We didn't get close enough to get really good pictures, but even from a distance, the view was incredible.

Just to the north of the Dali Rocks was a broad expanse of untracked sand. I had a great time blasting around and carving some nice turns through the tierra.

As I was horsing around, I saw a Land Cruiser streaking up the road from the east. I turned my bike around and raced back towards the road, then turned in and ran parallel with the truck as it hauled ass down the road. I stayed even with him, 100 yards off the road in the sand, doing 60 MPH. It was awesome! The tourists in the back of the truck rolled down their windows and took some pictures of me. I felt like a celebrity.

After racing the Land Cruiser, we continued south and soon reached Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde.

Laguna Verde was filled with silt from runoff, so we decided to skip it and just look at Laguna Blanca.

At the end of Laguna Blanca we exited the Bolivian National Park and continued up the road a few miles to the Bolivian-Chilean Border and the Bolivian Immigration office.

This is where missing the Aduana would come back to bite us. Mike walked in first and got stamped out of Bolivia. Then the customs official asked him for his Aduana paperwork; after seeing that it wasn't stamped out, he looked surprised and told us that we would have to backtrack 80 kilometers to the Aduana and have it filled out properly before we could leave Bolivia. We were both really tired at this point and had no intention of riding back that far. Furthermore, we didn't have enough gas to make it all the way back. We pointed this out to the immigration official and he simply shrugged his shoulders and told us that it wasn't his problem. We were both frustrated and I was kicking myself for not looking around that chemical plant a little more to find the damn Aduana.

I knew there was a way to get around this little problem, but I really didn't want to go down that road. Still, after a little more talking with the official, I realized that we were at an impasse. Remembering that famous line from the Snickers commercial (not going anywhere for a while?), I searched my pockets for a candy bar and came up empty. Damn! That was my last option before resorting to bribery. So I pulled out the trump question:

"Isn't there a way that we can take care of this here?", I asked.

"Well, now that you mention it, my friend the policeman here is heading down to the Aduana in the morning; he could take your papers down with him. Of course, I'm sure he would appreciate a little tip for his trouble.", he said. He actually used the word "propina", which means tip.

"Claro (Of course). Cuantos (How much)?"

"Whatever you think is fair."

I didn't really want to deal with the hassle of further argument and a possible 100 mile round-trip back through the sandy roads that we had ridden earlier, so I slapped down 100 Bolivianos, Mike slapped down 60, and the immigration official stamped our passports, allowing us to cross the border. That was the first time I've actually had to bribe someone on this trip.

We crossed the border line and were immediately in Chile.

A few hundred yards down the road, we linked up with the asphalt. After hundreds of miles of trying to steer his pig through sand and loose gravel, Mike was ecstatic enough to kiss the tarmac.

The final 20 miles or so were all downhill on nice pavement into the town of San Pedro de Atacama. I suppose that if you were out of gas at this point you could coast all the way into town.

We pulled into San Pedro, took care of our immigration and customs paperwork and hunted down a Hotel. San Pedro reminds me of something out of a Western movie. Dirt roads, desert heat, and adobe buildings. Unfortunately, it's also slammed with tourists.

And that's it. What a ride. I think that the past three days have been the highlight of my trip so far. If anyone is interested in getting GPS waypoints for this route, hit me up via PM and I'll send them your way.


  1. Bryce this is totally awesome! What a ride! I'm in La Serena for the next three days and heading of to the Elqui Valley before turning back to Santiago. Where are you headed next? Stay safe man!

  2. Hi Bryce,

    impressive ride despite the difficult road conditions.
    Thanks for your detailled report and the great pics.

    I would be very interested in your GPS waypoints since I will do a similar trip in September.

    Thanks in advance.