Lauca, Isluga, y Coipasa

Bikepacking through the remote, desolate northern corner of Chile, via the Lauca and Volcan Isluga national parks, and on into southwest Bolivia via the Salar de Coipasa.

During my time in Putre I got to know a group of engineers from all the way down south near Concepción. They were in town for a couple of weeks doing solar panel installations to power a new network of cellular antennae up on the altiplano. We drank beer and played pool. Making their acquaintance proved to be most fortuitous as it is a long, 20km+ climb from Putre back up to the altiplano at 4600m / 15,091ft. The day I hit the road one of the guys slung my bike in the back of his pickup and gave me a quick shuttle 10km up the road to the 4000m mark before he returned for breakfast. Saved me an hour and half of climbing, and as I crested the summit a while later they all came past on their way to work with a big cheer and a wave. A super way to start a new leg of the journey.

I got out of my tent in the early hours to water some dust and could hear a whispering noise; slushy ice floes were jostling their way downstream. Dawn brought silence, the river had frozen all the way across overnight.

It has been quite a wonderful journey too, taking me south through Lauca national park, into Volcan Isluga park and then back into Bolivia and across the Salar de Coipasa. Utterly spectacular, suitably remote, and featuring high winds, bitter cold, an abundance of soft sand, and some super wildlife encounters. Only about 600km or so but in terms of ‘value’ I can think of few rides that come close. The area is also one of the primary reasons I came back to this part of the world, not having had time, or even perhaps an an entirely suitable bicycle last time around. Plus-size tyres really are the way to go, in my opinion, for trails like these…

I’ll tell the story with photos as usual, it’s just easier. There are quite a few so apologies if what follows is a bit slow to load.

The road into Lauca national park starts off looking like this, a decent, wide track across the altiplano that barely hints at the delights to come. It sees some truck traffic from a nearby mine so is well maintained. The trucks were infrequent so the dust clouds were not particulary onerous, the drivers are all a decent bunch of folk, in many cases slowing right down to try and minimise my coating of dust. It’s only for a few km really however. Not a big deal.
Early views of the Guallatiri volcano (6071m / 19,918ft), gently smouldering away.
The whole area is very saline with few fresh water sources.
Guallatiri again. I watched condors soaring here. Too far away to photograph however.
Crossing the Rio Lauca…
Feeling pretty well done in after a long day I parked my tent by the river. It turned out to be one of the coldest nights I’ve spent in a tent since I used to spend Canadian winter weekends camped out in the wilderness; right at the limits of my gear for this trip. At dusk the river was flowing freely. I got out of my tent in the early hours to water some dust and could hear a whispering noise; slushy ice floes were jostling their way downstream. Dawn brought silence, the river had frozen all the way across overnight. Partly due to the cold and dust I think my chesty cough returned and got a lot worse. It stayed with me all the way to the Chilean border when I dropped back below 4000m and things warmed up slightly. It was rather ‘testing’ at times; it takes my chest a long time to settle down after a cold.
Morning temperatures remained frigid, even in the sun. The landscape is suitably harsh… the local residents do well despite the lack of nutrition and bitter cold; they’re fantastic machines for converting rubbish grasses into a renewable resource – i.e. wool.
Fine views over the Rio Lauca.
The road ahead. Shame photos can’t do wind. It was absolutely howling.
“Wot you looking at..”. Llamas are intelligent creatures and always seem more interested than fearful of a lonely cyclist. Love them.
The Salar de Surire, a fabulous salt lake sitting at an altitude of 4270m / 14,009ft about 120km from Putre. There are no water sources nearby suitable for filtering but there is a police station of all things, lost in the wilderness. Proximity to the Bolivian border and the network of dirt tracks make it a popular smuggling route. I scrounged 6 litres from the Carabineros to see me through to the following day. I walked in just as they had finished a roast lunch, it smelled delicious but sadly I was not invited to stay for dessert..
Flamingos. Love them. Tough birds, they thrive in the ultra-saline, frigid environment.
I was lucky, the wind dropped briefly as I arrived at the salar, the reflections were perfect.
More usually however the gale force winds strip great clouds of salt off the surface of the salar…
Creating ‘salt devils’ that march across the landscape. They’re fierce if caught in one…
The salar and surrounding area is also home to large numbers of vicuña.
Salar de Surire
Roads like these… heading around the eastern side of the salar into the teeth of a gale. It was a slow business.
before returning to the southern shore on a soft track.
Late afternoon and a large, natural hot spring. I’d not seen a soul all day, apart from at the police station, and figuring proximity to a large body of very hot water might make for a slightly warmer night, I parked myself on the shore and eased myself into the waters for a long soak. Just the job for coaxing the nuts back down after the bollock-shrinkingly bitter night by the Rio Lauca.
CONAF, the park service had very thoughtfully provided a mud brick windbreak and a picnic table. Most luxurious campsite for a long time. I was right too, nighttime temperatures were much more comfortable at the expense of some increased humidity, and probable inhalation of trivial quantities of hydrogen sulphide.
Also a super opportunity to air some stinky boots while I enjoyed the luxury of padding around barefoot on the salt without having to worry about thorns and razor sharp pumice.
Terrific late afternoon light.
The vicuña seemed to be enjoying the salt too, rolling around in it in between periods of grazing.
Following morning, 10km of easy riding before the long climb to the pass at 4735m / 15,535ft that forms the boundary between Lauca and Volcan Isluga national park.
It’s not a desperately onerous or steep climb, taking about 3hrs to reach the pass, and it is very scenic..
The pass is deliciously bleak…
.. and windswept.
I lunched at the top with my back to a large boulder by way of shelter from the chill wind. The descent looked like it was going to be a good one…
… and it was, bouncing over rocks and ploughing through deep powder traps with great billowing clouds of dust, all with some fabulous views of the road ahead. I forgot my fatigue for a while, until the track turned west and the wind was in my face again.
Water stop. There was generally water once a day, pretty handy. No need to carry more than 4-6 litres at a time.
The roads are not busy, on average I saw one vehicle per day.
More yareta, stalking their way imperceptibly across the landscape in search of their next victim… (ref previous post)
Such great riding.
Tiny adobe church in a near abandoned village. The village was absolutely littered with smashed wine and beer bottles. Not much else to do of an evening I imagine.


Beautiful church interior.
This village however was abandoned. The crumbling buildings made a handy windbreak for an overnight stop, and at night they also slowly release warmth accumulated during the day; camp was a definitely a few degrees warmer than the surrounding plains. I found a crate in one of the partially collapsed cottages on which to sit. Luxury. There was a time when I would have thought twice about camping in such a place because, you know.. ghosts and things. Too many episodes of the X-files watched in my youth. One could imagine waking up surrounded by hungry yareta moist with digestive juices….
The village did however have this beautiful old Jesuit mission church. Clearly maintained in good order it was unfortunately locked.
From there another half day or so of riding to the Chile/Bolivia border at Colchane (the pic above). Mostly downhill although it did feature some soul-destroyingly bleak headwind stretches through a jagged, black volcanic landscape. I didn’t take pictures, I was too tired. I stopped a couple of nights in Colchane to rest and let my chest settle down a bit. Like most remote border towns it was a desolate place, but it did have one place to stay which turned out to be super friendly and with good food. Chile is more expensive than Bolivia but I chose to stay  that side of the border figuring the food would be better. I congratulated myself heartily on my decision when I did finally cross; the town on the Bolivian side turned out to be a bit of a toilet. Not unexpectedly.
Back in Bolivia and on the track to Coipasa. At this point I was dreaming of riding through lush, green landscapes with the touch of a light mist on my skin and perhaps the smell of a forest after rain, instead of the perpetual flinty smell of the desert and, with a relative humidity around 10% or less, the dessicating, dust-laden winds.
This mostly deserted village sits on the shore of the salar de Coipasa. I stopped in the desolate, sand-filled plaza to eat a lunch of bread and remnants of peanut butter from La Paz. I’d failed to find cheese or any kind of fresh fruit or vegetable either side of the border. A young chap spotted me and came over to talk. He did tell me the name of the place but I can’t remember, and can’t find any mention of it on the map.
There was a really cool old truck however.
The track to Coipasa village. It’s just so verdant around these parts…
Coipasa village was an interesting place, again seemingly deserted the streets are ruled by dust devils, the afternoon gales driving sand and grit into every crevice. Life here is hard, water epecially is in such short supply there appear to be no toilets in the place. People just pee in the streets or wander out to the surrounding scrub for a crap when the need arises. I imagine pit toilets might simply collapse when dug out of the sand, or pollute what water table there is in the porous ground; better to let a turd simply turn to dust in the desiccating climate.
The village did however have the usual complement of vehicle carcasses and fire-consumed old trucks.
The grapevine had said that asking around for Flora would turn up a bed for the night… and sure enough I found myself staying with a local family in their storeroom, bedstead in one corner and lovingly decorated with posters of Sly Stallone, Bruce Lee, Jean Claude van Damme, Shakira, and of course Jesus Christ and the virgin Mary. The sand and mouse shit was swept out and a fresh blanket laid on the grubby old mattress. I slept really well, falling asleep to the sound of the wind raging outside after a pleasant afternoon hanging out with the old couple in their yard with it’s dung-fired bread oven.
Heading out onto the Salar de Coipasa to continue the journey east… I met flamingos.
The Salar de Coipasa is much less well known than its more famous cousin, the Salar de Uyuni, to the east. As such it is pristine, there is no tourism here at all. Perfect.
Although anyone that tells you that riding across one of these things does not involve periods of mind-numbing tedium is being somewhat economical with the truth. Especially when the wind is in your face and the salt is soft , bumpy, and wet such that flat out is around 10-12km/hr. A good playlist is essential. A mere 60km or so to go to the shore here.
The Salar de Coipasa is smaller than the Salar de Uyuni – that one took me almost two days to cross. Most of the crossing of the Salar de Coipasa looked like this, with some wet stretches, with the just the final 5km or so being under an inch of super concentrated brine. It stung on my bare legs and I stressed about what it was doing to my bike… Shortly after leaving the salar I stumbled across a ‘seep’ of stagnant but non-saline water so dumped a load of that over my bike to help mitigate the effects of the salt until I could give it some proper attention.
A poignant memorial. Vehicles do cross the Salar de Coipasa from time to time. Where the salt is hard it’s tempting to put one’s foot down, but there are invisible soft spots and ‘holes’ with brine below a thin crust. Hit one of those at speed and this could happen presumably. There is quite a strong trade in stolen vehicles being brought across the border from Chile, I suspect this may be one of those…
Off the salar after six hours of salt, and back to slogging through soft sand. In need of water I detoured to the tiny adobe peublo of Tres Cruces and knocked on a few doors until an old lady answered one and pointed me to the standpipe in her yard. The water was so sweet.
The wind was howling, and that combined with the deep sand of the track meant I was grovelling along at a mere 6km/hr. By 3.30pm I decided it was a waste of energy, mental and physical, so dropped my tent in the dust and made a brew.
The best shelter from the wind I could find was a small depression by some bushes. I still needed to anchor my tent to my bike… As usual the dust and grit was in everything within moments. Tea and biscuits was good.
Dawn brought a rather wonderful view across the southern fringes of the salar. I was making breakfast at the time and almost didn’t bother with a picture. It’s hard sometimes to stop and appreciate where you are when the wind is howling, you’re tired, and the temperatures are well below freezing. Necessary to do so however.
Dawn over the salar.
Continuing east…
This section of track alternated between deep sand and a hardpacked saline mud. The saline mud was much nicer for riding..
Beautiful church at Challocollo; another one of those part-ruined, almost deserted villages that dot the altiplano.
… pushing through sand again…. one gets the impression this track is little used…
The village of Llica sits on the western shore of the Salar de Uyuni, between the two salars. I found it a friendly little place that even had fresh fruit for sale, heaven. Purely by accident I met Ricardo, the pastor of the local evangelical church; a super chap he took me to his house where he had a hosepipe and a compressor. We cleaned the salt off my bike, ate fruit and talked about life before I went off to find a place to crash for the night.
Llica. All the time riding here I’d been thinking about whether I could be bothered with the near 150km, two day ride across the salt to Uyuni. Having done it once already I saw no compelling need to do it again, just two days of tedium…
… so I slung my bike on a crappy old bus at 5am this morning. We flew across the salt at dawn rattling like the old sack of scrap the bus mostly was. I was happy with my decision, tourism on the salar seems to hve exploded since I was last here. The bus stopped at Incahuasi, the quiet, cactus-covered atoll on which I’d camped previously. At 6am there were already 22 tour vehicles in the new parking lot. It looked built on too, and apparently there’s a charge to camp there now. Oh well… uncontrolled mass tourism as usual ends up trashing the very reasons for its existence in the first place.

That’s it really. Uyuni has changed too, for the worse. I’m quite tired and need to start making my way down to Argentina. No bad thing, I invariably loved my time there on previous visits, and I need to start thinking about making sure I have time to catch up with friends before flying out of Buenos Aires at the beginning of December. It sounds a long time away, but it’s a long way, and there is much to do enroute. I’m quite tired too and quite fancy the idea of beer and icecream in pretty much every village….

8 thoughts on “Lauca, Isluga, y Coipasa

    • haha, I see pics from home, yours included, and can’t get over how green everything is. It’s a colour of which I’m starved.

  • Hi Mike
    Great photo story-telling! My partner and i are setting off on a year long bike trip through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina but like you i have asthma and am vulnerable to chest problems. Did you find it easy to get new inhalers over the counter without a local prescription? I will have my prescription and a letter from my GP but wondering how easy it is as obviously don’t want to run out.
    Any tips or advise?
    Thanks for taking the time to share your photos and experiences with everyone even at testing times and great fatigue!

    • hey, great to hear from you. You’ll have an awesome time! I’ve been able to buy salbutamol over the counter in Peru and Bolivia without any kind of prescription. Cannot comment on Argentina and Chile but I honestly can’t imagine it being any kind of problem. I’ve had a powder inhaler on prescription in Peru, but pretty sure if you have your own prescription with you the pharmacies will sell you what you need without question. Failing that, if you find you need to see a local doctor for paperwork it’s usually really cheap, a lot of places have walk-in health clinics that might cost $10 or $20 for a consultation, and they’ll usually see you same day.
      Hope that helps. Have an super trip!

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