From the beaches of Arica, I debated endlessly whether I should ride or bus back up the 13,000 feet to the mountains in Putre. Our gravel route, Ruta de las Vicuñas, started in Putre, which would either be a 2.5 day all-uphill grind with dubious water sources, or a 2 hr bus ride. I read about one cyclist who had done it, but his water sources might not be there now (road workers). I don’t mind riding uphill but hauling water and running out had me nervous. From the window of the bus, I wondered if I had made the right decision when the landscape turned to something like Star Wars and moon like. Both Brian and I are not bus takers, choosing to stubbornly pedal all the miles however unpleasant. But this time that stark rock and steep climb had us feeling just fine about it. We hadn’t wanted to descend to the coast anyway, but had to due to Bolivia’s political situation.
We were in Putre to resupply for a day then we were off! Our first day riding together included A take-your-breath-away heev-ho steep climb out of town, a detour to Parinacota for the oldest church in Chile that also had an ancient bell tower that we climbed up and rang. I was happy to be on the road in our new country, and with company. I’d say my mindset was mostly “yay. This is fun.”
We finally got to chilly Lake Chungara in late afternoon and could see Volcano Sajama in Bolivia across the lake. It was gorgeous!! and we had it all to ourselves. The CONAF office (sort of like US forest service) was closed but there were little structures sheltering us from the wind which was just lovely while the icy wind spread out.
Just before bed, three cyclists roll up, the first one talking a mile a minute with a British accent. The other two, from Colombia, scurried to set up their tent before dark. The Brit, Rosanna, had been in Bolivia when things got hairy and had ridden through the road blocks (see my previous post about my abandoned “plan B”). Apparently things were okay at first, but then they turned bad as she started to get harassed and surrounded by men with pitch forks and shovels at the road blocks. The ATMs also ran out of cash and resupply was difficult to come by. I couldn’t believe the harrowing experience this woman had just been through! My feet were numb and teeth chattering while she was still steaming from riding, so I retreated to my tent. But I gave her some chocolate for condolences which might sound weird but that’s what I would have wanted in that situation. She didn’t want to ride alone so she decided to join Brian and I on our route. She didn’t have enough food for the remote five days, but we thought we could find her some eggs and bread to buy at a house, which has been true in all my travels thus far. That night was super chilly but good sleep.
The next morning was sunny and slowly warmed up. The Colombian cyclists went to Putre for resupply and we were now rolling three deep. The first day was GLORIOUS GRAVEL that we mostly had to ourselves, then a rustic hot spring that was so scenic it could have been in a magazine. I wanted to pinch myself I couldn’t believe my luck. Traveling with friends in huge gorgeous remote valleys with views, flamingos, vicuñas, salt flats and hot springs felt like a dream come true and with great weather was utter joy. We all agreed on the magical beauty of this route, good company, and sore smiling muscles.
Our little team fell into a rhythm of who was ready to leave first and who was ready last but was faster and could catch up later. I’m pretty good at packing and unpacking since I camp so often, while Brian was still drinking coffee in his sleeping bag but would catch us before lunch.
Over the next days, we camped in the desert near an abandoned truck stop, saw tons of wildlife, and visited another other-worldly hot spring in the form of a huge steaming turquoise pool on the edge of a salt flat. The landscape was all rolling hills and sunny desert but got increasingly dry with less and less vegetation. We got water at another CONAF office, where the officers are real gentlemen and have friendly and generous eyes and demeanors. We battled an intense headwind, and climbed a huge mountain in the late afternoon sun. We rationed out our salami and got to know each other chatting while riding. There were still plenty of llamas, seemingly better groomed than Peru, and though it was dry there were green scrubby shrubs softening the landscape. There was tons of Llareta (Azorella compacta), a plant I had been looking forward to seeing! It is a strange, bright green, flowering plant that looks like soft moss but is actually very spiky. It grows in mounds mostly at higher elevations and can grow in places 17,000ft high! Some of these plants are thousands of years old and it’s amazing to think how hardy these unassuming plant friends have to be in order to survive in this dry and windy environment. It’s also considered one of the world’s most primitive plants.
We camped near a saline river in a nice valley and rode past active volcanoes that were ACTUALLY STEAMING. I cooked dinners while listening to jazz music and the ruffles of my friends’ nylon tents nearby made me feel part of a little neighborhood but free to roam at the same time. We caught a few sunrises and star gazing nights. Tucked into the folds of this desert route we passed through one lush and green canyon that I named “llama valley” because they were all congregated there and one was even spotted which for some reason really delighted me. There were old mission churches throughout the whole route, which connect the dots for the old silver trade route all the way from Potosí in Bolivia to Arica in Chile. I can’t imagine riding horses all that way with silver! We eventually rolled into Colchane at the Chile/Bolivia border on a short stretch of pavement.
We had hoped for a bigger town and resupply, especially Rosanna. Turns out northern Chile does not have random houses selling food staples like the rest of Latin America and instead sturdy but kind women saying “no negocio aquí – no business here” We shared our food with her of course- good thing I overpack food (mostly due to my moms influence/fear of running out of food)! But by the end I didn’t have anything more to share. Colchane is a pretty nothing town but we stayed at a lovely little hostel and regrouped via laundry, phone calls, and what food items we could find- pasta, cookies, and tuna are almost always available.
We would cross into Bolivia the next morning and were excited to reach the salt flats. ¡Vamos a Bolivia!
Hot springs #2. Dreamy turquoise.