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On the road . December 2009 . Bolivia and Chile

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Wifi point Eden Atacameno, San Pedro, Chile, 26-12-09

HOHOHO from San Pedro!
This is where we would have liked to put our latest update, but... Due to an untimely breakdown of Son's computer (which needs to be fixed in Santiago in a few weeks), we won't be able to let you know all the beautiful, disasterous, grotty, enduring and life changing details of this months cycle trip from La Paz to here just yet. But the photos are online (fantastic as usual ;-) and all the gritty little details like kilometres cycled, altimeters, punctures etc. have been updated as well. So still tonnes of info to read during the festive season.

So what happened?
Son's Acer Aspire One, bought in January 2009, doesn't want to start up anymore... We got in touch with Acer and they suggested flashing the bios. This means we loose all info on the hard drive... Since there is no-one here in San Pedro de Atacama to get stuff off the hard drive before we flash it, we have to wait untill we get to Santiago (or any other big city). And since we planned to take a bus from here to Valparaiso and spend New Year there, we are actually not that far from Santiago, two cycling days to be precise. So, hopefully we can get a backup of the hard drive in Santiago and update the bios and get the computer working again. Looks like a lot of people have had the same problem with this type of Acer...

We will try and get a bus on the 28th of December, which means we will be arriving in Valparaiso on the 29th (it is a 24 hour bus ride). Spend a few days there and then cycle to Santiago to meet up with Karsten (who we cycled with in Ecuador) and Natalia and Benjamin (who we met three years ago (!) in Istanbul).

And to finish off this short story:

tour wishes

Hostal Forestal [website] Santiago de Chile, 12-01-10
From a metropolis to absolutely nothing and on to tinsle town

La Paz - Bolivia to San Pedro - Chile (14 cycle days; 2 rest days; 1018km; 5842m)

La Paz to Tholar (73km; 776m)
Tholar to Oruro (157km; 562m)
Oruro to 1 km before Huancane (92km; 251m)
1 km before Huancane to 4 km after Quillacas (76km; 265m)
4 km after Quillacas to 31 km before Salinas (60km; 390m)
31 km before Salinas to 1 km after Irpani (49km; 286m)
1 km after Irpani to Isla Incahuasi (59km; 309m)
Isla Incahuasi to San Juan (87km; 355m)
San Juan to 18 km after Chiguana (49km; 189m)
18 km after Chiguana to 24 km after Ollagüe (44km; 244m)
24 km after Ollagüe to 1 km after Ascotán (48km; 592m)
1 km after Ascotán to 1 km after Chiu Chiu (91km; 239m)
1 km after Chiu Chiu to Calama (33km; 50m)
Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (100m; 1334m)

In a whiz of electrical cobwebs and colour
La Paz is a whizzing mix-master laboriously combining two worlds: "the have" and "the have nots". The partially blended, sway from one world to the other, depending on what suits them best. We are staying at Hotel Fuentes on Linares and close to the corner of Sagárnaga, right in the middle of tourist town; right at the hands of the money-makers; right in the heart of "the haves". Amongst the iridescent colour of woven fabric; the natural tones of knitted alpaca products; and the stalls of glittery silver and bizarre superstition, the occasional "have not" staggers past, holding out his hand for anything on offer.

Badly cobbled streets soar high into the sky, but never far enough away from the cobwebs of electrical wires to get a distinctive view of anything. I wander aimlessly for hours trying to find something clear to photograph. I end up buying two pieces of freshly baked banana bread from a vibrantly dressed woman no taller than my waist and snapping one decent shot of the ice cream man who almost pushed me down the stairs near the Iglesia de San Francisco. That too is surrounded by billboards and people and stall owners and their produce and its perfection cannot be captured in a single picture.

Pepe's Café around the corner on Jimenez 894 serves way better coffee than our hotel. I meet his acquaintance at least twice a day and he is always happy to see me. Our breakfast girl on the other hand is not, but I won't venture there yet because, at the moment I am heading towards the market area and that is far more interesting. Past the good luck llama fetuses and wacky medicines; up near the women sitting on the street corner selling six yucca flat bread for 1 soles; well away from the camping shops with fake North Face gear; and up even higher into the warren of streets, each one designated to a particular shopping theme. There are no tourists. Dawdling is easy, not just because of the vibrant mingling of obscure and normal products, but because of the traffic. Those on foot move slowly at the best of times; vehicles block lane ways and footpaths while others push, shove and honk their course through the crowded streets. You will undoubted get in the way at some stage.

I find everything we need for the next leg of our journey: industrial latex gloves; knitted woolen gloves; gaffer tape; batteries; toiletries; a small compass; sunglasses; dried fruit and nuts; biscuits; chocolate bars; pasta; rice; sauces; jam; fresh fruit and vegetables. Shopping is a success unlike some places where you can search for hours and still not find what you are looking for. I could have also filled my bags with traditional costumes; cheap toys; electrical goods and kitchenware too. I am charged local prices and everyone is polite and friendly. Just like the owners of the local vegetarian restaurant we visit on one occasion. A set menu of tea, bread, salad, soup and main costs 12 Bolivians per person: (7 Bolivianos is equal to $US1). The fact that we are welcomed so warmly makes up for the incredibly bland meal.

Chuquiago Café has the same hospitable atmosphere, but much better food. Upstairs on the corner of Sagárnaga and Linares (entrance at No 903), Cristian and Luisa are well in the thick of this buzzing metropolis, but still incredibly down-to-earth in their approach. As well as simple but tasty fare, there is the added bonus of inexpensive internet or wifi service and a very reasonably priced drinks list. It's a pleasure to spend time, other than in the confines of your hotel room without having to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege. We meet up with Kevin a couple of times here and for a fine pizza meal at Pizza la Mia on Calle Illampu 809 before we eventually part ways. He generously lets me keep his used Schwalbe Marathon XR that I still have on my bike. Thanks Kevin!

Ali and I both spend quite a bit of time at the Gravity Bolivia bike shop, way over the other side of town via a bumpy navigation of one-way streets. [Calle Victor Sanjinez 3050 B / Sopocachi / La Paz / Tel: 719 89239 / (ask for Gustavo or Fernando / e-mail: ]. First visit, we buy a new pump and then um and ahh about the $US30 price tag of a used Schwalbe Marathon XR. Fernando apparently has some 7-speed shifters with integrated brakes at his house, so we sleep on the tyre issue.

The day after next, a ride to Gravity Bolivia reveals a set of rapid fire shifters in practically new condition. Another $US30 later and I am clicking through the gears like I haven't been able to do for at least a year. They no longer require the tapping and pushing persuasion I've become accustomed to doing. Labour costs 5 dollars a session in the workshop at Gravity and they are pretty expert in their execution. Ali also finds this out the next day when changing the tyre on his front wheel and the axle breaks off in his hands.

What the dickens?
Hotel Fuentes is a mid-range hotel by Bolivian price standards, but their approach that of cheapskates. After asking them to clean our room, following three nights of sheet and towel use, they just pull the bed covers up and pick our crumpled wet towels up off the floor and hang them back over the rails again. When I ask for fresh towels, I get the creepy feeling I have somehow been transported to that immortal scene in Oliver Twist, where I am Oliver asking "Please Sir, may I have some more?" This sentiment runs over into the breakfast room too, where you could have set a camera up for a perfect shoot of the employee training video. Title: "What NOT to do in the hospitality industry."

The first morning we receive our complimentary breakfast rations with three bed rolls. There are two of us, so I'm wondering how the portion controlling goes for someone who walks in on their own. Does the grump behind the breakfast bar cut a roll in half? No, she doesn't. She gives him two bread rolls. So, I see no harm in asking for one extra roll. Within moments of the words leaving my lips I am back in Dicken's play. Apparently, I'll have to pay for it. I argue with the logic that we are two and that three doesn't divide easily between two without the use of a knife. Miss Gloom is adamant: I have to pay 50 centavos extra.

Let's put this in perspective: one bread roll in Bolivia costs 40 Centavos (4 euro cents) and at Hotel Fuentes you pay 80 Bolivianos per person (8 euros) per night. So that is a whopping 0.025% of our daily room rate. Might I also add here that the bread at this hotel is not fresh. The day after I complain to the manager and we get an extra bread roll but from then on in, the waitress doesn't acknowledge me and just continues to issue us with our 3 roll basket. I resort to doing something Oliver couldn't: I bring my own bread in.

False advertising
As far as we are concerned, the best way out of town with a loaded bike is using the main highway. There is another road but gradients are steeper and there are traffic lights and speed humps to navigate over. And even though the 13 kilometre stretch of highway comes with the obvious traffic, it is easy to get to from Iglesia de San Francisco and there's a solid wide shoulder for protection. The traffic leaves us alone for most of the journey. It's 441 metres of solid climbing to reach El Alto (4085m) and it does become a little crazy as we near the peak. In the town itself, taxis bank three deep on a four lane highway for hundreds of metres: dodging them and the people wandering in between is chaos, I loose Aaldrik for a few brief moments all together. Eventually we end up on the notorious La Paz to Oruro highway.

One guy in a tour shop had given me a thorough low-down on all the possible ways I could die in Bolivia. Quite a dark conversation to say the least and cycling on this section of road was up there on the list. So, I've been pre-warned and not only should I expect my leather boots to crack into a million pieces due to the salt covering they will get on the Salar de Uyuni, but if dark clouds come rolling in I'll need to immediately find a bus to get on. When I tell him we are quite experienced at this sort of thing, he says: that's what all the cyclists say that come here and two froze to death last year on the salt flats. I had to prompt him to tell me that this was in the middle of blinkin' winter when temperatures can get lower than -20° Celcius.

Anyway, back to the highway situation: it is no wonder it is notoriously dangerous, when there are only two lanes to carry the crazy driving antics of impatient noggins behind the wheels of massive trucks and 4-wheel drives. We have just a thin strip to balance on and even if the coast on the other side of the road is clear, they get pleasure out of coming way too close for comfort. Total jackass behaviour! According to all the billboards, Evo Morales (the soon to be new -and old- president) has promised to build a dual carriage along this section. I hope this isn't just false advertising to get a few extra votes.

The rolling terrain takes us up 335 alti-metres and down a few hundred too. The weather is perfect for cycling: not the slightest hint of rain but as per normal, the wind picks up in the afternoon. Calamarca comes after 60 kilometres and it is itsy bitsy, as are all the other villages we've cycled through today. We decide camping is our best option and move further afield. After 12 kilometres we are surprised with the town of Tholar (73km; 776m) accommodating two decent sized hotels. For such an out-of-the-way place, 100 Soles is a little steep. Still, we figure we'll be camping enough in the next three weeks, so why not spoil ourselves. Conveniently, they forget to mention that the television on top of the cupboard, connected to a cable line doesn't work. It never has. A perfect example of false advertising.

How to vote five times
There are two reasons why we are awake and packed before anyone has stirred in Hotel Gran Poder: its Sunday; and its Election-day. Rather grumpily the gates are opened for us and we glide out onto a car-free highway. We have witnessed a few elections during our travels: Malaysia; the US; and now Bolivia. All have been unique moments and today is not exempt. Besides the fact that cars are not allowed on the roads, alcohol has been banned since midnight on Friday evening. Mind you, by the amount of booze I've seen being consumed here, I doubt they'll be able to control this one. The car thing is easy though. Many towns and especially the provinces have toll-control gates. The reason for this is it stops someone from driving all over the country and voting at each polling station.

From our perspective: it is the perfect cycle day. Comes close to riding over the pass and out of Yosemite National Park when the road was blocked to traffic owing to recent snowfall. People seem very happy and we are not quite sure if it because we are well and truly in the country and away from the big city or because its a special day. Adding to the absolute bliss of it all is the amazing weather: the clear blue skies only cloud over with sheep like blossoms towards the end of the day.

Men and women are either cycling or walking to election booths and due to the long distances some of them have to travel, we are surprised to witness so many making the effort. Especially seeing as it is a forgone conclusion: Eva Morales will win.

We pass through Patacamaya (31 km); Sica Sica (52 km); Kokani; (78 km); and then Caracollo (119 km). All have accommodation, but due to the elections the only place open in Caracollo is something akin to a farmyard stable. Alright, it only costs 20 Soles, but then again there are no bathroom facilities at all and after inspecting the room with a saggy single bed, Ali suggests we would be better sleeping on a roadside curb. After a bit of deliberation, we decide to try and make Oruro resulting in one of our longest cycling days ever: only beaten by the 167 kilometre journey in Delhi. Like the Indian expedition; the last stretch is as flat as a pancake and the usual afternoon wind doesn't push against us the entire way. It remains with us, but keeps changing direction.

Just as we begin our entrance into Oruro (157km; 562m) headwinds of dynamic force try and prevent us from cycling through this very big city. We first struggle past the toll gate, making it easily five sectors we have cycled through today and demonstrating that: if you were really dedicated, by bike you could vote at least five times. We continue to push hard past the big metal hat and the characters lining the boulevard. Waldo, a local, befriends Ali and leads us into the centre of town. Finding a decent hotel proves a problem. The city might be full of people, but everything is shut up: no shops; restaurants and even hotels have their doors bolted. The residentials Ali steps inside are dumps and the other options are more than we usually pay. We settle for a 170 Bolivianos room at Hotel Repostero including breakfast. It turns out to be one the least enchanting places we have stayed in.

Besides the luke warm to icy cold water in our bathroom, breakfast wouldn't even qualify for a light snack on a budget airline. I estimate it costs the management no more than 1 Boliviano per person and don't forget we are paying 170 Bolivianos for our room. I wouldn't mind betting the wage cost is way below the usual 30%, judging the slovenly approach of the staff member in this department. Asking for another piece of bread produces the same results as in Hotel Fuentes in La Paz. We are told we will need to pay for it. Ali flips, but hotel staff refuse to listen to his complaints. He tries to address the "no hot water" issue as well, but the receptionist keeps telling him he is wrong and that there is hot water. Eventually someone enters our room and tries for 10 minutes to get the shower to produce a spurt of warmth. It doesn't: ah duuuh!

With such a pathetic attitude, we decide to go elsewhere. Upon booking out, Ali refuses to pay the full amount and after a bit of a confrontation he is asked what he wants to pay for the room: the suggested 100 Bolivians is eventually accepted and we leave. Ali has already found a place down the road: Residential Ideal which at 60 Bolivianos is a fraction of the price. It is bare basics, but it is clean with share facilities. Better than that, the family that run the place are incredibly friendly.

Most of my time in Ocuro is spent roaming around the markets for supplies. Normally, I enjoy this activity immensely - the smells and colours of food and culture: raw and in your face - but today, I would have much preferred the "everything under one roof" convenience of a large Hypermarket. The market area is bustling and bubbling over with buyers and sellers; diners and dawdlers; rural folk stocking up their large mesh sacks with a month's supply of food;and locals purchasing the necessary ingredients for the evening meal. It takes me a number of hours wandering the expanse of this shopping area and trying to find everything we require for the big adventure in store for us.

First taste of salt
Leaving Oruro is not as difficult as we thought, though our bikes are laden to the hilt with 5 days worth of supplies and two days worth of water. The directions given at the hostal are completely inaccurate, but streets are bustling at 9.00am so there is no shortage of people to ask. One local even wants to practice his English. The road leading out through the dusty, ramshackle outskirts is two lanes wide and no shoulder, though traffic isn't hectic enough to cause any dilemmas. The highway reduces to one lane and a very wide shoulder, while the landscape morphs from its remnants of society to nothing much more than salty puddles surrounding low lying shrubs. The sun is cruel, but people become friendlier as we encounter more abandonment. Truck drivers are notably impressed with our efforts and the thumbs go up and the hats come off in appreciation.

Besides a few gradual inclines, the journey is relatively flat. Cows and clover fields dominate the latter part of the day and water sources are plentiful: a river trickles after the town of Poópo, whose name has me chuckling for a little while; and a couple of shops with basic supplies are available in the village of Pazña. After topping up on bread, cookies and other energy rich snacks we cycle out with the intent on finding a camping spot. Something perfectly grassy and well from the road on our right comes after about 13 kilometres and 1 km before Huancane (92km; 251m).

Abandoned lifestyles
Huancane, just up the road from our campsite, feels abandoned until two young boys scoot past on their bikes. They make their way towards the school where a teacher is waiting outside and waving them hurriedly in. I presume they are a little late. We are too today: its almost 9.00am. Ten kilometres from Huancane we hit our first river. There’s enough of a trickle for us to feel safe about filtering it. Even so, it comes out a little green and quite earthy tasting. Another marginal flow of water appears after a further 8 kilometres. Just past it we make a a stop at Challapata which has plenty of small stores and today (Wednesday) a bustling market in the town’s plaza. Petrol is also obtainable straight out of the 44 gallon drums situated inside the convenience shops - so no smoking! We could have waited until the 40 kilometre point in the trip to purchase our supplies, though Huari doesn't have as diverse a selection. Not only is this the last town with any real selection of fresh supplies, but it marks the end of the 144 kilometres of bitumen since Oruro.

The rocky and sandy nature of the first section is quite a shock. While we expected bad road, we weren't quite prepared for this. Arriving at a small village the road forks in all directions and we choose what looks like the firmest path: a decision we will make on numerous occasions in the next few days. For a while we make quite a bit of ground coverage. The scenery is stunningly deserted with its salty flats and pom-pom grasses sparse as puberties signs of facial hair. Our only companions: hundreds of contently grazing llamas and a sole herder who is more scared of us than her flock are. She confirms that we are heading in the right direction.

The llama is Bolivia's national animal and belongs to the camelid family, which of course means it is related to a camel, though it doesn't sport a hump like they do. It is more closely related to the alpaca, vicuña and guanaco all of which we see in Bolivia, but in much lesser numbers.

The road continues to be patchy: washboard and sand hold us up a bit as we near Quillacas and begin with the 50 alti-metre climb into to town. The trip from Huari to here is just 32 kilometres and took us all afternoon. There are a few shops and an alojamiento, but not much life. We end up moving on another 5 kilometres and camp well off the road in the sand: 4 kilometres after Quillacas (76km; 265m).

Signs of things to come
Sleep is difficult for me due to a minor stomach upset and frequent visits outside during the night. Today, the roads are okay in parts, but horribly bad in others. Bridges are out; gravel; rocks; clay; sand. Every obstacle you can think of including impatient drivers and the spattering of rain. Luckily, the road is really quiet and the weather clears until late in the afternoon. There is not much around: a few small villages, but Vengalvinto (15 kilometres from Quillacas) is the only one with a well that we could see. A kilometre before Villa Esperanza there is also a small river that locals are using to fill up their water containers and interestingly enough everyone in the area travels with water containers in the back of their vehicles. A sign of things to come.

From Vengalvinto to Tambillo, the track climbs 390 alti-metres gradually. Coupled with the washboard surface, there's not much chance to lift your eyes from the road. By now though, we know pretty well what Volcan Thunapa looks like. It has been in constant view for the last couple of days and will remain so for another couple more. Progress is slow in these parts. Another sign of things to come.

Dark clouds have been hanging over the crater for the last few hours and as we are finding a spot to camp 31 kilometres before Salinas de Garci Mendoza (60km; 390m), lightning bolts through the sky. After pushing the bikes through sand for ten minutes towards a small wind break, we turn to see a dust storm brewing in the distance. It's Ali's first experience, but I know that the front can move faster than the recent flashes of light. All I have time for is "get the tent up quick". We both work fast, but not fast enough. As Ali is drumming the pegs in and I am collecting rocks for securing the snow flaps, it hits us. Like a sand blasting, it not only rips the pegs from the ground but manages to work its way into every crevice. Two mesh air vents are open on the inner tent: sand pours inside. It squeezes through zippers; builds up in the roll-tops on our Ortlieb bags; whips our faces; stings our eyes; and collects in our ears. Huddled in the tent with our unopened bags, we wait it out. A dirty black rain storm follows and an hour passes before we emerge to astonishingly clear sunny skies. Then the clean-up begins. You guessed it: A definite sign of things to come.

Sod's law
The morning begins with clear, blue skies and a very warm sun; the dirt path starts with road-blocks and confusing side tracks, which lead us way out whoop-whoop and along some of the worst washboard I have ever experienced. Yesterday, we ignored a few of these blocks and came to dead-ends, which meant doubling back on our path. Today, we decide to follow the detour and end up wishing we hadn't. Sod's law, I guess.

We weave our way back to the highway - well, the word highway being used very loosely here- actually, old riveted, stone speckled path, might be more apt. The promise of Salinas de Garci Mendoza - mentioned as being close on our map - doesn't come until just before lunchtime and after climbing a few hills.

The town is actually a subdued, sleepy village. The pleasantly shady plaza has a water tap with supposed drinking water: we still filter to be on the safe side. It also includes a hostal and a tourist information booth, that was empty at the time and I suspect remains that way since it would never really get any patronage. I wander the narrow streets lined with adobe huts in search of a decent shop. You can tell the house that sells produce apart from the others by the filled plastic bag hanging over door, or the chair or wheelbarrow parked against the wall next to it. I believe I visit every available store in the town - five in total - and manage only to scrounge up the last of the days bread; a few apples; and a handful of chocolate bars and biscuits. It will not be the last time I question what rural Bolivians eat in order to get nutrients in their bodies. I mean if beer can be shipped into these places - and it is in copious amounts - then a bag of vegetables can too.

We trundle out of town along the road leading to Tahua, but are stopped a kilometre on by a local who tells us the road is closed. Ali and I disagree about the next course of action, but he wins out. We proceed to get ourselves deeper and deeper into mud. Ali then decides we should cut across the mudflats, but I'm not so certain that's a clever move. The stop-start journey takes us roughly two hours of slipping and grunting and groaning and heaving our loaded bikes through sticky, compact mud. We stop regularly to clean it off during what is probably only a couple of kilometres in total. Sod's law, I guess.

The terrain we next face is unbelievably rocky, but at least we can stay upright and cycle nearly all of it. The turn-off to Tahua is unclear due to ambiguous signposting. Ali gets out the Sharpie permanent pen and draws the paths and town's names back in. A few hundred metres passed the turnoff, we reach a flat and grassy patch just beckoning us to camp at 1 kilometre after Irpani (49km; 286m). There's no objection from either of us. Besides, the clean-up job needs to begin: yesterday sand; today mud; and tomorrow salt.

Well and truly worth its salt
Ali becomes really ill during the course of the evening and is so weak the next morning, he can barely move: let alone eat breakfast. I make him digest finely sliced apple with sprinkled sugar. Thank goodness we managed to find them in Salinas yesterday. Apart from a few carrots, onions and a small cabbage, they are our only fresh produce left on board. I pack everything up, while Ali tries to gain strength for the next leg of this crazy journey: again washboard, rocks, boulders, sand, gravel carpets the steep climbs and falls. And when you are sick, that's no fun at all. Sod's Law, I guess. I know I'm rolling yesterday's theme over into today.

We stray from the electrical lines at one stage and realise we should have continued to follow them. Using this strategy, you are more likely to stay high. Even if the alternative road looks a little better, it will more than likely turn into a bumpy plunge followed by some 5 kilometre per hour strained pedalling uphill or even slower pushing.

We pass through a couple of tiny villages, the largest being Alianza about 10 kilometres from Irpani. We climb a difficult 152 alti-metres over this section. For such a big town, it is totally deserted: no life at all. Absolutely no-one. If there were pastures of any form around, I'd say they were all out in the fields working, but there is nothing: just sand and rock and even more sand.

Tahua never seems to come and our cursing the hills turns quickly to sarcasm and then laughter. It is ridiculous. These are not roads. They are not fit of the title. Even 4-wheel drives are crawling along this stretch. Upon reaching the peak of the final climb where gradients reach 17%, the salt flats can be viewed and Tahua is just below.

The town is quite undesirable and with its locals staggering their way around the town square sipping on something akin to methylated spirits in plastic bottles, you'd hardly be tempted to stay in the hostal on offer. Besides that, there are no shops open and the plaza itself is a rundown disgrace. On the positive side for cyclists, there are a couple of taps available for those wanting water, but if you are intending to stay on Isla Incahuasi then you can get your supplies there. The only thing running through my head as we pedal the 3 kilometre stretch to the nearest entrance to the Salar de Uyuni is; "these salt flats had better be good!"

And they do not disappoint. It is a powerfully charged feeling to be forever surrounded by blinding white honeycomb impressions; to hear the crack and feel the crunch of salt beneath your wheel; have the shavings fly up and hit you in the face as you rocket along at unbelievable speeds on an imaginary path. Well, it is a track of sorts, but not nearly as clear as we had expected. Still it doesn't matter. The 37 kilometre course from the start of the salar to Isla Incahuasi (59km; 309m) is obvious. The tiny protrusion floating above the horizon in a clear blue sky gets larger and less surreal as we near the salty shoreline. Honestly, there is no other experience like this one on earth.

And it is no wonder that this is Bolivia's main tourist attraction. Salar de Uyuni, also known as Salar de Tunupa is the world's largest salt flat at 10,582 km². It is also remarkably horizontal: almost staying at a constant elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level give or take a metre. Somewhere between 50 and 70% of the world's lithium reserves lie in the brine pool underneath the crusty salt surface. They are not yet being extracted, but the geography of the large area, the clear skies and level surface make it a perfect spot for calibrating the altimeters of the Earth observation satellites.

Since the salt flats are literally bereft of fauna and flora, then it is kind of special to see the giant cacti and rabbit-like viscachas that cover Isla Incahuasi. And if you happen to be in the area in November, its worth a visit to admire the three species of South American flamingos that flock to this area for breeding. Anyone wanting to stay over night, Isla Incahuasi offers a hostal and restaurant. Though for the more camping minded, the 15 Bolivianos entrance fee per person will get you a free camping spot anywhere on the island's perimetre. Anywhere else on the salt flats is yours to explore without a price tag, though remember getting the tent pegs into the salt could prove a bit of a problem.

All the hills are brown
It is a slow, easy start to the day with a few cacti pictures in between a couple of cups of coffee and then a quick cycle round to the reception area to filter our water for the next leg of the journey. If you are expecting to pick up supplies here: don't. They have little on offer, but rumour has it that the restaurant serves up pretty good tucker. By the time we are sailing at a rate of knots along the somewhat oilier path, it is 10 am. We stop to take a couple of silly pictures as you have to do on the Salar de Uyuni. The bizarre perspectiveless nature of the white salty surface makes for quite unique snapshots. Furthermore, it is probably the easiest 80 kilometres in all of Bolivia and possibly South America too. I so really don't want to leave when we reach the dismal sandy tracks on the other side.

As if the journey hasn't been gruelling enough, during the last 10 kilometres of today's grind a headwind picks up and we make our snail trail against a perpetual sand storm. Loosing the road has also been frequent today, which from your point of view may sound weird, but honestly, there is no true path. There is limited signposting along this stretch and an insurmountable series of tracks made solely by 4-wheel drive use. It is obvious from the random placement of these corridors and side roads that the drivers have become as frustrated as us with the bad condition. Luckily for them, they can simply press on the gas and move elsewhere in this vast nothingness. We, on the other hand dismount: push and pull our bicycle through deep sand. Consequently, it takes forever to find San Juan and it is way further than all our maps and kilometre references from other cyclists' blogs say it is.

Getting nowhere
The last moments of the day are the strongest in memory. I can see Ali's tyre tracks, though he is nowhere to be seen. A dust storm blankets us. Sometimes, I follow his etchings, but he makes mistakes too and ends up with his wheel sinking deep in the sand. I can see his footprints where he pulled himself out. I veer off to the nearest piece of limestone. The hard surface is such a relief. Exhaustion has my mind wandering into nowhere. I don't know how long I am at that place, before I'm jolted back to the present situation. I have hit a rock spinning my back wheel sideways. I rectify the consequence of my concentration lapse.

Now, I am awake again and feeling happy that this day long muscle against winds and bike dragging will soon be at an end. Another half and hour; Maybe a bit more. A sudden thought hits me as hard as the sand blasting my legs. Jenny Craig should be notified. This would have to be the perfect weight-loss programme. Upper body and ab work-out from pushing a loaded rig; thigh, calf and hamstring exercises from dirt road pedalling; and fat loss through constant corrugated vibrations. Six hours daily of these exertive activities, coupled with the overall lack of food in this region can only deliver the kind of weight loss results such a company would love to advertise. Its almost full proof; and for minimum outlay. Big profits could be made.

Where am I? Fourty-five minutes have passed since I last thought about the time. I can dwell no longer on my business plan. A herd of llamas has run away with my attention. Besides, it was going nowhere anyway. They however, are going home. I immediately relax. The day is finally over. I actually did get somewhere.

We arrive completely exhausted in San Juan (87km; 355m), as the sun is setting and welcome the warm shower and comfortable bed at Hospedaje Max. Clean and a little more refreshed, we ponder over maps and possible routes out of here. There are just two logical choices. Continue as planned through to Laguna Verde or head west and cross into Chile. Our decision is based on the following observations.

When the only part of the road that is suitable for riding on, is the washboard, then its time to seriously think about the route you have chosen. The most daunting prospect of it all, is we know from other blogs that this is not as bad as it will get. That's still to come and furthermore at elevations reaching close to 5000 metres. We are currently pedalling around the 4000 alti-metre mark. And here we are dragging our bikes through sand; jolting our bodies over bone rattling grooves; vying for any hardened surface section we see. This is no longer cycle touring. It is now an endurance sport. And I'm not really travelling by bike to say I've cycled a particular stretch of road notorious for its hardship. I'm travelling to experience a country: its landscape and its culture. If you lift your head to peruse your surroundings for just a second here, you are likely to hit a dust-hole or get your wheel wedged between a couple of rocks. Our eyes had been glued to the road all day today and all I can tell you is... all the hills are brown and my mood is grey.

The belly rules the mind ~ [Spanish proverb]
It is clear during the course of our conversation that Ali really has had enough. Although it takes a while for me to come to terms with not fulfilling my desire to get off the beaten track and experience the colour change of Laguna Verde; the redness of Laguna Colorado; the white misty geyser sprays; and the pinkest flamingoes on earth, I have to agree that 10 plus days top level endurance at 4500 plus metres above sea level, with very little food available and the added pressure of searching for water, is not a thought I relish.

Our proposed route will now take us directly west towards the Chilean crossing at Avaroa instead of south. The map we have promises tarmac as soon as we hit the border and we estimate a couple of days of cycling from here until Calama. Still, we are going to require stocking up with food and water for at least two days. To be on the safe side, I pack for 4 days as best I can in a town where there is no fresh produce at all. The closest I get to fruit is tinned peaches and juice crystals. Vegetables come in the form of canned peas; instant mashed potato and tomato puree. I end up begging a shop-owner to sell me five onions from her private stash for 2.5 times the normal price - after I have already spent a small fortune in her store. At least now we have a bit of flavour to add to our pasta dish.

The bread situation is also dire in San Juan. Surely the Spanish influence must have spread this far too and Bolivians are familiar with the age old saying: "With bread and wine you can walk your road”. I'm sure this extends to pedalling as well. Now wine, I cannot afford in rural Bolivia without an email to Mum and Dad for a bit of extra cash and anyway that's impossible, because they don't have internet anywhere here. Last cafe spied was in Huari. Besides, I can wait until I reach Chile and Argentina for the grape juice. But bread, please: "man cannot live on crackers alone". I know, I've tried it. There's little satisfaction in it at all. So, in my four attempts to wander the lengths of San Juan I came up with nothing each time. I tried different times of day; different stores; got sent to different houses - ones with white bricks (casa blanca) and ones with red bricks (casa roja) - but alas none of that delicious leavened product. And it was not Lent, I'm sure about that.

Porridge with kilos of dried fruit and nuts that I had thankfully stuffed into my Ortlieb panniers in La Paz has become our breakfast staple. This is not a bad thing, but at lunch time it is hard to get the satiety level up to anything close to midway. I find my stomach screaming: where's the bread? I'd do anything for a baguette. Crusty and golden on the outside; warm, soft whiteness on the inside; melting in my mouth... No wait, this is leading nowhere. Maybe I should be thinking of a proverb to help me out of this culinary dilemma. Talmud does believe: “A quotation at the right moment is like bread to the famished”.

In deep salt
The path out of town is not as promising as our San Juan host had suggested and exactly which track to choose becomes quite confusing at times. We head in the general direction of the large volcano in front of us: Volcán Ollagüe. By crossing into Chile, we will ride along the right side of it. After a decent stint of all the usual Bolivian road obstacles, the road hardens and cycling to the military base at Chiguana is easy. Headwinds though, have already started to pick-up, which is not particularly promising.

We cross over the train line and register at the base. In hindsight, this was not really necessary and probably would have saved us three hours of pushing, had we not ventured through the mud crafted fort entrance. The track we follow is that made by jeeps travelling close to the railway line. After three kilometres we pause at the turnoff to Laguna Colorado. Seeing the long climb ahead for those that take that road convinces me we are making the correct decision by veering right. Though after a further 3 kilometres, when our path ceases to exist, I begin to have my doubts.

Even though we didn't take the route from San Juan to San Pedro via Laguna Colorado, we have compiled an extensive map and up-to-date route description on the area using our friend James' recent experiences. Together with our route, this makes a really comprehensive cycling report on the area. See the cycling section on our Bolivia country information page for details.

What seems like hardened dirt actually breaks away beneath the bike sinking the wheel into collapsing powder. Salt weeps from the soil and attaches itself to the chain and cassette, deeming the thorough bike clean-up in San Juan totally useless. This is one time when sun, salt and sand is not a pleasurable experience. By the time the road winds its way back close to the railway track on the other side, its mid afternoon and the headwinds are at their strongest. We heave the bikes over the track and push through deep sand to reach the highway, but it is pointless trying to continue any further and we look for a place down a side track to set up camp 18 kilometres after Chiguana (49km; 189m). There is nowhere out of the wind and all the guy ropes are tethered.

Ali has been suffering from a sinus headache all day long, but I do believe he briefly refreshes while eating our dinner of instant mashed potato jazzed up with fried onions, garlic and mayonnaise and served with tinned peas and brazil nuts in a sweet tomato sauce. It is quite amazing what you can whip up out of a few packets you know. The pain soon comes back and he has an incredibly difficult night.

Pushing frontiers
Today marks the entry into country number 40. Certainly a surprise to us. We hadn't expected to add Chile to the list so soon, but it is a great sensation to be in control of where we travel and that we are not scared to make deviations from our route. Also a comfort is the delicious compensation of cycling on bitumen again. The Bolivian border is 32 kilometres from the military base we passed yesterday, so only 14 kilometres from our overnight camp spot. It takes us all morning. The road is of the same Bolivian standard, we have become accustomed too: practically zilch!

The border post is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. As of 2008, it costs 21 Bolivianos for a foreigner to exit the country. Procedure for exiting is simple enough and we cycle the next 5 kilometres in no-man's land. The official crossing is somewhere half way, denoted by a single column signpost with Bolivia on one side and Chile on the other.

The next signage we see is the large billboard letting us know that we can't take any animal products into the country. I remember that we still have an apple left and stop before the border to eat it. Getting the stamps in the passport takes a while since a bus load of travellers has pulled up just before us. The organisation of this post is a little lacking. No pens available; no information as to which form you should fill in; the grouch behind the glass window allows queue jumping and as far as we can tell, only capable of grunting. Not off to a good start.

The next step is to wheel your bikes over to the SAG hut and sign a declaration stating whether or not you are carrying food products. Ali signs his with a "No". I, on the other hand am carrying quite a bit of food. And coming from Australia, I am fully aware of the issues associated with fruit fly, so I have no problem doing the right thing and answering "Yes, I have food to declare". I expect them to then ask: What food items? I could tell them. Could you show them to me? I could open my bags and fish out the products or I could give them the two back panniers where I store my food. This approach would have been by far the most simple and effective method.

Unfortunately, the actual situation moves far from this scenario and we are both requested to empty every single one of our bags for inspection. Yes all 12 of them: sleeping bags, tent, clothes, the lot. They have no idea what they are asking. Packing everything back up again will take forever. Ali refuses, stating that he has no food, which is true. He opens the roll top of his bags and suggests they can unpack his luggage themselves, but then they can pack it again too. After all they open everyone else's suitcases and close them again afterwards.

They refuse. Breaking the stalemate is the colossally beefy: "Unpack your bags NOW!" from the equally beefy chap behind his desk. This doesn't go down well with Aaldrik and while he starts to yell back and argue his case. I proceed to unpack the bags that contain any food. Everything is in order, except the honey, which all inspectors come and hover over as excitedly as the little animals that made it in the first place. One of them then proudly fills the container with a blue poison and that's the end of that. I'm more upset about loosing the squeezey bottle. It was leak proof.

I then explain that I have no other food in my bags: they've been fortunate to see it all. This is not good enough and they want my clothing and other bags emptied as well. So, I do just that. The contents spill over the entire bench. Inspectors find nothing of course. They are however well educated as to what exactly a female cyclist stuffs into her front bags. Strange how the men seemed to keep their distance at this point. It takes about half an hour to put everything back in place.

In the meantime, Ali's bags have been inspected: totally against his will of course. They uncover nothing of environmental harm or interest, though one man finds a little box of our business cards intriguing enough to open up and flip through. Not sure what he thought he was going to find in there. And also by now, I have received and signed the "discovery" document concerning the honey and an "incident" report has been complied in Spanish in connection with Aaldrik's behaviour. Apparently he was extremely violent. Funny how I was in the room the entire time and I missed that bit. We both refuse to sign it of course.

Bikes fully loaded again, we push over another frontier.

Chile is said to be the most developed of any Latin American country, but our first observations of this far flung corner of desert are far from this. There are no money changers at the border for a start. A local tells us to ride around and ask for Victoria or Lola. We track down Victoria's son, who changes what he can and at a more than fabulous exchange rate. So, we enter the country with the impression that 1 Boliviano is 100 Chilean Pesos: no wonder I think everything is dirt cheap in the Hiper Lider Supermarket when we finally make it to Calama. 1 Boliviano is actually 70 Pesos.

Our expectations of two days of steady pedalling on the promised bitumen turn into 3 days of unforgettably hard slog and even then we are still not at our destination: the roads turn out to be fundamentally similar to Bolivia and towns marked on our map do not exist - lucky I stocked for a few extra days. Another reason to throw the damned thing in the rubbish bin.

Salt flats resembling a monster dish of frost covered cauliflower cheese lay for miles around us. The roads are more sand than washboard, though we are not exempt from that pleasure either. The hardest part of the day comes when the southwesterly winds whip past our bodies, stinging us with sand. At 4 pm we give up and perch ourselves in a sand quarry 24 km after Ollagüe (44km; 244m) next to a small ridge. It acts as a sort of windbreak but all the ropes are still necessary again tonight.

Sandy, salty thoughts
The early rise compensates the hour long tent repairs. Not only our lips, throats, sinuses and nasal passages are having a hard time with the dry atmosphere, but the tent material has shrunk in such proportions that we can no longer get the poles in without a two-man strong push-pull battle. During one of these grunt sessions yesterday the stitching from one of the pole holders straps completely broke free of the tent. While I do the stitching, Ali removes a long pole in each set and replaces it with a shorter one. It proves to be a successful operation. No more problems since this alteration.

We start a small climb up and around the last bend of Salar de Carcote. The road is ridable but not brilliant to the top and then worsens on the downhill. The town of Carcote never comes and it's a little worrying considering our low water situation. After 15 kilometres we hit bitumen and are lead into the false security of thinking it is going to be like this for the rest of the journey. For the first time since the Salar though, we can travel at a decent speed. Unfortunately, it stops just before the salt mining camp of Cerbolla and doesn't return.

Headwinds begin at 2 pm today, making progress really difficult. We pull into the Ascotán Miners Camp (22 kilometres from Cerbolla) and stock up on water. The following 4 kilometre and 230 alti-metre climb takes nearly an hour as we fight against the gale. Ali pedals slowly to the peak: Paso Fronterizo Ascotán (3966m), but I have to push. The 9 to 14% gradients get the better of me. One kilometre after Ascotán (48km; 592m) we find a large rock and a small, slightly slopey patch that just fits the tent. After the last three days, while we are pretty well sick of looking at sand and salt, the idea of lying under a palm tree on the beach is getting more and more inviting.

Absolutely nothing
Eager to miss the brunt of today's headwinds we rise at 5.15am. It is freezing outside and doing the dishes after breakfast reduces my fingers to a debilitating cramps. Ali lets me warm them up on his belly. Sometimes he is just so sweet!

There is nothing like a climb at 4000 metres above sea level, on corrugated track, in 6° Celsius temperatures first thing in the morning. Certainly wakes you and your lungs up. On top I get a flat tyre and by 11.00am the westerlies have begun, so our plan to avoid them by getting up with the flamingoes is foiled. There is absolutely nothing around us except stones and sand. No life: nothing grows here.

On a more positive note, the road is better than it has been for many, many days and the terrain, though slightly undulating, has a definite downhill trend. We can scoot along some stretches, but we are still not fast enough to make it further than Chui Chui today. At the little store with the "bread today" sign, we herald excitedly our faithful commitment to bakery products and in between the celebratory dance steps, I think a bit of drooling went on as well.

Besides our evening meal, we had eaten ourselves out of house and tent and an assortment of biscuits and chocolate bars are also added to the grocery bag. Winds are so bad when we start off, we get as far as 1 km after Chiu Chiu (91km; 239m) before we pull-off in some dunes and pitch the tent.

Blowing the budget
The ride into Calama (33km; 50m) is in such contrast to the last couple of weeks of cycling: it is dreamlike. Wind pushes us along perfectly laid highway until we hit the outskirts of town. Our hotel for 30,000 pesos is a little outlandish for our budget, but it is invitingly extravagant and because of the excellent exchange rate at the border, we actually think it is 30 euros instead of 43 euros per night. My visit to the Hiper Lider is also rather expensive in hindsight and also adds another dimension to the philosophy that you shouldn't go shopping on an empty stomach: you shouldn't go shopping after deprivation of luxury provisions for a long period of time either. I come back with bags full of palate pleasure.

Tinsel town
Getting to San Pedro de Atacama is one of those long irritating climbs of miniscule gradient. Sixty-two kilometres and 1102 alti-metres of it to be precise. We pass Saint Peter and Saint Paul and no I'm not having a revelation. It's a couple of volcanoes that have been hanging around our vista for the last couple of days. Nothingness surrounds us all the way to the top: Paso Barros Arana (3411m). The plunge against side winds below is followed by another short climb before the final drop into Valle Cordillera de la Sal where our scenic-starved gazes witness some pretty stunning rock formations. Red-pink tones against blue skies never cease to please the eyes.

San Pedro de Atacama (100m; 1334m) is quite a shock: a yuppy dessert town all tinselled up for the festive season. But at the same time, its the perfect place for us to rest after the last fortnight of bare minimum living in extreme conditions. Due to this destinations popularity with tourists, prices are steep and finding private accommodation with share facilities for under 7000 pesos per person is pretty well out of the question. A dorm room will cost you 6,000.

We wander around trying to look up a list of places Ali has researched, but without a map of the place, it proves difficult. After four attempts we decide to head back to Hostal Vilacoyo, the second lodgings we checked out and as we turn into a side street, who should come wandering towards us, but James . He is one of the main reasons we decided to come here in the first place: prior to leaving La Paz we had arranged to meet up for Christmas in San Pedro de Atacama.

The only way to describe seeing him is "damned good". Pizza followed by a few beers in the local pub give us enough time to chew over all that we have experienced in the last days. Hats off to James for completing the route south and from his accounts we are glad we took the road we did. It was still difficult, but much shorter and 1000 alti-metres lower. He looks exhausted from his efforts.

Unfortunately our hostal doesn't have wifi, so after two days we move to where James is staying. Hostal Eden Atacameño has a great courtyard area where you can swing in a hammock or sit quietly under the giant pink pepper tree, doing anything that tickles your fancy. And that's exactly what we do; everyday for a week. We spend exuberant amounts of money on achieving not too much at all. My computer crashes big time. There are just a few days left on the warranty, which is the only pleasing news about the whole situation, but it also confirms that we need to get to a big city to get it fixed. But which one?

Ali wants to head to Brazil and I want to go south. I especially want to go to Santiago to catch up with Benjamin and Natalia who we met in Istanbul almost three years ago, and Karsten, who we more recently cycled with in Colombia and Ecuador. I win this time, but our initial idea of heading to Valparaiso on the coast for New Year are dashed when we learn that a million people flock here and the price triples for the festivity. A dorm bed can set you back $US50: admittedly, you get beer all night for that and Ali is tempted. But in all honesty, we'd rather have a more low-key time.

In that week many, many guests come and go; Christmas does too. We celebrate the occasion in fine form with a grand dinner and with Marcus and Patricia . They too eventually leave. We are next, followed by James the day after us, but I'm sure tinsel town received a new flow of visitors to fill our spaces. Even though this tourist destination is in the middle of arid nothingness, its is sparkling with life all year round.

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Back to where we came from & on into New Year
(3 cycle days; 0 rest days; 1101km by bus; 153km; 1832m)

San Pedro de Atacama to La Serena (1101km by bus)
La Serena to Coquimbo (9km; 10m)
Coquimbo to 16 km. after Quebrada Seca (86km; 796m)
16 km. after Quebrada Seca to 16 km. after La Cebada (58km; 1026m)

It is a long, slow ride to the top of the pass and this time we are sitting in a bus. I almost need a rest contemplating the energy necessary to get there by bike. The headwinds are phenomenally strong and at times this powered vehicle is only doing 25 kilometres an hour. Better in this seat I reckon. The 17 hour, 1101 kilometre journey to La Serena costs 28,000 pesos each plus 6000 for both bikes. Mind you the bicycle thing is organised at the bus station with the driver. We get a receipt for 2000 pesos - so take a quick guess where the other 4,000 goes.

The trip is not the best bus journey I have endured and I'm extremely grateful Ali got us a spot at the front of the bus. The toilet at the back stinks so bad; there's no toilet paper; the breakfast they promised us is a little pack of cookies and 100ml of juice; and the second-shift conductor spends all his time snoring in the chair next to us. We are glad to get off in La Serena

We are also glad that we didn't journey this stretch ourselves. It is once again the same type of nothingness that we have experienced for almost a month now. And as well as undulating, the road is narrow and extremely busy. After finding a supermarket for supplies we head to Avenida de la Mar (coastal road) in search of Hipocampo . We don't find it, but instead cycle along the promenade, on the bike path when available, sniffing in the wonderful smell of the salty sea until Coquimbo (9km; 10m). Camping Sole di Mar is a little run down, but pleasant enough. It costs 12,000 pesos normally, but if you don't ask for a receipt, you'll get it for 10,000 pesos. A pleasant afternoon, relaxing and snoozing in the shade is just what is needed after an overnight bus trip.

The next two days of riding are so similar, its hard to distinguish them apart. Besides being completely zapped at the end of each day due to constant head and side winds, the highway rises and falls incessantly. Luckily there is a wide shoulder to feel safe in. The landscape is mostly a dry red dirt abyss filled with cacti and stone. Occasionally a patch of civilisation miraculously springs out of the earth in the form of olive groves. The goats cheese is delicious around these parts by the way and little stalls along the road selling this and processed papaya products break the boredom of such isolation.

But the greatest asset to the highway system has to be the Estacionamientos [parking bays]. We stop at everyone on our side of the road. They have amazing facilities: tables, benches and grass umbrellas; toilets, showers with toilet paper, soap and hot water; and of course we can fill up on that life saving liquid as well. The tap water in Chile is drinkable.

While it is a coastal route, we hardly ever get to see the ocean. The road runs a good distance inland and everything is fenced off with barbed wire, making wild camping nearly impossible. An accessible dirt track appears 16 kilometres after Quebrada Seca (86km; 796m) where we set up camp in a cactus garden and the next evening in desperation, we resort to dropping our bikes and gear down a deep enough slope near side-railing so we can't be seen from the highway at 16 kilometres after La Cebada (58km; 1026m).

It's in this exact spot that we commemorate New Year. Well, we are awake for the Dutch New Year at least. This is probably the most unpretentious calendar celebration we have ever had, but we make the most of it and raise a glass of Chilean red in toast, while preparing a well deserved pasta meal. Being the party animals we are, we are both asleep by 9.00pm.

II would have liked to have had a cascade of profundities follow, but this update is already so late you'll have to wait for another reflective moment in our travels to receive these thoughts. Instead, we both wish you a simple but heart-felt "Happy New Year".

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