THE LAGUNAS ROUTE DETOURING FOR VOLCANO UTURUNCU on THE ALTIPLANO OF SOUTH WEST BOLIVIA
Uyuni – San Juan – Laguna Hedionda – Laguna Colorada – Quetena Chico – Volcano Uturuncu – Quentena Chico – Polques – San Pedro de Atacama
Cycling the sandy corrugated 4000+metre high desert roads of Southwest Bolivia for hundreds of kilometres is undoubtedly tough. I agree with my friend Scott, you have three riding options: ride standing up off the seat and exhaust your legs, ride seated at an excessively slow speed or ride normally and have your backside mercilessly pounded by your seat (perhaps fun for some?). I’d maybe add one more…go off road into the deep soft sand…
A place has to be very special to put oneself through ten days of this type of riding. And Southwest Bolivia is indeed very special: hundreds of kilometres of spectacular desert landscapes peppered with flamingo-filled salt flat lakes set to an impressive volcanic backdrop; camping in the some of the clearest star-filled night skies planet Earth has to offer. It’s understandably popular among bike tourers and has been on my radar since well before this trip began.
It requires a fair amount of preparation due to the fact that, well, you’re in a freaking 4000 to 6000 metre high altitude desert in the middle of the mighty Andes miles from civilisation: there are limited water and food re-supply options and various climatic hardships to deal with; relentless sun, gale force afternoon winds, below freezing at night, occasional (quite nasty) sandstorms etc.
Miles from civilisation? Well if you exclude the occasional jeep tour that flies by without regard for human life coating you in sand and dust. The jeeps totally change the dynamics of the experience since rescue would only be a matter of waiting a few hours for one of ‘them’ to pass. Although, ironically, the way they drive they’re probably the biggest hazard out there by a considerable margin. I heard of a cyclist who sadly came to grief by their hands.
The conditions significantly favour a lightweight fat tyre bike setup but the notoriety of this place repeatedly lures in those with 50 kilograms or more who end up arduously hauling their thin tyre beasts through the sand at an unbearably slow rate for days on end. Not that appealing: go as light as possible.
Here’s a photo diary of my ten days in the desert from Uyuni (Bolivia) to San Pedro de Atama (Chile) via the main Lagunas route. It includes my 150 kilometre detour to ride another 60 kilometres up and down one of the highest roads in the world on the 6008 metre volcanic beast known as Uturuncu. This volcano side trip sits high in the hall of fame experiences for the entire trip; if you’ve got the energy, don’t miss it!
After stocking up on dry food (oats, rice, pasta, bread etc), the owner of a grocery store in San Juan lets me sleep on her floor upstairs. When a huge sandstorm violently smashes through the village for half an hour just after sunset I am extremely thankful to not be camping outside.
The next morning I start on the main laguna route but utterly gormlessly go the wrong way for several kilometres. After a certain amount of self-flagellation I get on the right route and cross the Salar de Chinguana after filling up with water at the military basecamp.
– Is that the same one we saw in Laguna Canapa?
– I think it is… Yeah it is.
The types of conversations I overhear from tourists talking about me as if I’m not there.
With my spirit rejuvenated I decide to detour to climb Volcán Uturuncu. A decision I haven’t taken lightly since this will add on 210 kilometers and an unknown number of days to the trip. Not to mention a huge climb up to over 6000 metres. I ponder my sanity as I elevate myself incredibly slowly up a solid 500 metres of altitude over the pass towards ‘basecamp’ (aka the windswept dusty town of Quetena Chico). The road isn’t perfect but it’s virtually a motorway compared to the previous few days of the trip.
In Quetena Chico I reach a low point when I discover it is not a town full of delicious authentic Bolivian restaurants serving freshly cooked meals. There seems to be only wind and sand on offer and no one seems to give a damn about me.
I am far too excited to sleep properly but try to bed down at 8pm anyway. At 11.45pm I’ve hardly slept a second and my alarm goes off. I jump to action ducking out to the desert for the first of many ‘bathroom’ visits that plague me throughout the climb. I set off at 12.40am from 4150 metre Quetena Chico passing a ‘guides obligatory’ sign which serves to confirm the start of the trail.
For the first time ever I am able to cycle with my down jacket on and not overheat, it’s a cold night; in fact I’m cold the whole time, making inconvenient ‘bathroom’ visits rather uncomfortable. And with no moon, everything is pitch black except the huge array of stars. I pause after half an hour to put on my alpaca gloves to protect my freezing fingers. Suddenly, I am startled by the sound of a bell very close. I put my torch in its direction and see nothing. I continue and it follows me which I find slightly unsettling! Some kind of farm animal, a llama perhaps? I then see a light 500 metres to the side where there should be no one with some kind of water reflection; this stays in view for the next two hours as I climb the volcano. I never discover what it is (even the light of the day offers no explanation; I only see empty desert where the light was).
And then a three or four hour hair raisingly fast and rocky descent sees me back at basecamp for biscuits and sardines at 4pm. I celebrate with an orange that I’ve carried since Uyuni.
(NB: Some speculation based on my purely one off anecdotal experience: it makes sense that Laguna Colorada to San Pedro would hold the worst traffic, alternative routes seem to all converge for this section. The time of day also makes a difference, they seem to move in herds.)
Note: I plotted this route after my ride using a mix of other people’s gpxs, it is a rough guide to what I did. It does not include the exact route to the top of Uturuncu, this should be downloaded separately.
From Uyuni to San Pedro I took ten days going a reasonable distance each day. The required deviation to Quetena Chico / Uturuncu (between Laguna Colorada and Polques) had some pretty good road surfaces most of the time and were definitely better than the main route. It only adds two or three days to the trip but includes two 500 metre pass, 2000 metres of climbing to Uturuncu and 210 kms so obviously a fair bit extra to do. In my opinion though, WORTH IT.
Overall itinerary (suitable for a reasonably lightweight setup, I never needed more than two days of water)
Day 1 to 2: Uyuni to San Juan along railway (good supplies available in San Juan but no cooked meals)
Day 3 to 5: To Laguna Colorada (supplies available) water available halfway at Laguna Hedionda)
Day 6: To Quetena Chico ‘basecamp’ – basic food supplies here
Day 7: Climb up and down Uturuncu (full day)
Day 8 To Kollpa Laguna (all the way to Polques would be possible if you leave early) – bring three days of food from Quetena Chico (two if going fast)
Day 9: To Polques (was less than half a day)
Day 10: To San Pedro.
My estimated Uturuncu itinerary: some people camp halfway up doing it in two days from Quetena Chico but it’s perfectly doable as a ‘day’ trip which is what I did. I wouldn’t leave later than 2 or 3 am. I left at 12.40am because I wanted to ensure that I’d arrive at the summit before midday as poor weather risk seems to increase after this time. I was sick and I hung around at the top for a while so my time is OK but not super fast. I was able to cycle entire thing pushing only a matter of a few metres in total.
– 12.40am leave Quetena Chico
– 3.15am (13.1km mark) – start the relentless climbing.
– 4.40am 4700 metres
– 6.30am 5200 metres
– 9am 5760 metres – at the col.
– 10.30 to 11 am – at the summit.
– 12.10 pm – start descending
– 4pm back in Quetena Chico.
– Full document on Lagunas Route (with food / water / camping locations etc): TourTK
– GPX of the main lagunas route from San Juan to San Pedro: Medium.com
– GPX and notes for: Uturuncu (bikepacking.com by the Pikes; also see their notes on AndesbyBike)