Argentina: La Quiaca to Cafayate – crossing the Puna

It took us a while to get across the border into Argentina. There were no problems, just volume of people and thoroughness of paperwork.

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Within 18 hours of crossing the border we, unexpectedly, found ourselves crossing back in to Bolivia again. With it being a Sunday, banks were closed and the only place to change money was on the Bolivian side. Luckily the crossing went smoothly and we were soon back to the campsite in La Quiaca, after 2 hours and 4 new stamps in our passports. Our first night in Argentina boded well as there was a municipal campsite and friendly Argentinians.
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A wrong turn out of La Quiaca took us onto an eastwards trending road. Our tandem friends were having a bad day of punctures and broken spokes so we continued onwards, with the promise of catching up down the road. Unfortunately, we took a little longer than our Aussie friends to realise our mistake and our paths took very different journeys for a while. Catching up down the road ended up being a lot further south than anticipated.
Our journey took us back onto the dirt roads to try to correct our mistake and get us back to the right road. However, the dirt was so good and the scenery so beautiful we decided to keep on the dirt for as long as possible. There followed 6 days of quiet unpaved roads through the Puna.
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The flora and fauna must be so tough to survive in such a harsh, dry environment.
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Every late afternoon and night the clouds would gather and give us the most spectacular electrical storms. There would be ground shaking thunder claps and strobe-like lightening strikes all around us. The winds would gust from all directions.
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However, every morning would dawn peacefully and calmly, as if nothing had occurred during the night.
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Despite the ferocious storms, the area is very dry and we had to carry plenty of water and bang on the doors of random houses to ask for more. The high altitude sun is intense and we sought shade wherever we could.
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We arrived in San Antonio de los Cobres in a very dirty, dusty and tired state. The perfect celebration of making it to civilisation was our first Argentinian meal of steak and a lovely Malbec wine. After a day resting we were ready to tackle the highest mountain pass in Argentina, Abra del Acay, and then drop down off the Puna and head towards wine country. The climb was a steady ascent up a dirt road, with a stunning camping spot on the way.
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We felt jubilant at the top, little knowing the descent to come was going to be one of the most challenging of the trip so far.
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The road is closed to traffic for the rainy season as sections of it are washed away. It is not maintained until the dry season returns. It was lovely not to have to share the road, however, the road conditions were a bit bumpy.
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This was not the challenge though. We had to cross the main valley river 5 times, each time the river was bigger and stronger.
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Having survived the mighty torrent, we found ourselves in greenery.
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Cycling in the opposite direction were a group of local cyclists heading up the pass, with a pick up truck support wagon. They were very friendly and shared their Powerade, however, it seemed wrong to take this away from a 77 year old. Respect to the group, I hope I’m tackling such challenges when I reach that age.
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Part ways down the valley we finally reached wine country and treated ourselves to a night at a vineyard. What luxury after the wilds of the Puna.
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Thereafter followed three days of tough cycling through very sandy and pebbly road conditions. At times it was like pedaling through treacle or you were worried about being spat off your bike in a very soft patch. The landscape distracted us and the thought of reaching the heady delights of Cafayate kept us going.
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We were delighted to enter Cafayate and even more excited to be reunited with our Aussie tandem buddies. Celebrations were suitably Argentinian.
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Bolivia: La Paz to Villazon

Leaving La Paz was difficult for two reasons: one; we were leaving behind new and old friends and two; the traffic was frightening and it was a big hill out of the city.

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We had tarmac roads through to Huari and as we were on the altiplano they were mainly flat. However, we did encounter some wind and rain that kept us on our toes.

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We stayed in a mixture of hospedajes and random camping spots. A highlight being the thermal baths at Poopo (schoolboy giggle!).
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After Huari we hit the dirt roads. The road between Huari and Uyuni is currently under construction so we had the delight of our very own tarmac bike lane for some sections. This, however, was interspersed with sections of sandy, muddy and wet so we didn’t become complacent.

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When we reached Colchani we found a salt hostel where everything is made from salt and there are even salt granules as the floor covering. There were a couple of different room options but we couldn’t resist the room with eight beds ready for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Thus followed a discussion on who was Grumpy, Sleepy etc. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who was who…
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From Colchani it was a 5k ride to the Salar to Uyuni. As it is the rainy season the salt flats are covered in a layer of water. Although disappointed that we could not ride the bikes on the Salar, the views and reflections on the water made up for it.
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The road from Uyuni to Tupiza was four days of tough riding. The road condition was variable from ripio (washboard) to deep sand to sticky mud. We had strong head and cross winds. Several hills had to be climbed and descended. It truly tested us and found us wanting. Nevertheless, the scenery was stunning and it was some of the most spectacular riding of the trip.
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This was the country of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You could really see how they could have hidden out and ‘disappeared’. Being a huge fan of the film, riding through this area was a highlight for me. We had been following the railway for most of our journey and I am sure that it has not changed much (if at all!) since they were busy robbing the trains. We contemplated it as a way to fund our trip further but decided that our skills sets were not quite up to the job.
A final blast of tarmac and we were at the border to Argentina.
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Bolivia has a unique beauty that takes a while for a cyclist to appreciate. However, the stark landscape and rugged environment soon seeps in and the wonder of your surroundings takes over. It has been the best of times and the worst of times. Bolivia – we shall be back. Only not in the rainy season and next time with a fat bike!