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Peter Van Glabbeek (Netherland)
7 years of bicycle touring experience including a 4-year long journey around the world
Cycled through 40 countries
Time of Visit
June, August-October 2008
Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, don’t need a visa for a stay up to 30 days. South American and most European citizens don’t need a visa for a stay for up to 90 days, you get an entry stamp at the border or airport. US citizens have to pay 135 USD for a visa on arrival. At some border crossings, like the Laguna Verde one near San Pedro de Atacama, you are charged a small fee and they will give everyone 30 days. I am not sure if this is legal.
I entered once from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazón and once from Lago Chungará, Chile to Tambo Quemado. I left from Laguna Verde and from Copacabana (Lago Titicaca)
I remember that the distances on my map were generally too short for this stretch, the following numbers are estimations. The whole section can be done by train.
After the sleeping villages of Argentina’s north, Villazón is surprisingly busy with vendors selling all kinds of stuff for almost nothing in the street, welcome to Bolivia! To go to Tupiza you have to cycle north out of town and turn left after roughly 30km. Soon you reach the village of Mojo where you can get water. It is another 70 km to Tupiza on a bad dirt road. No big climbs, wild camping very easy, for water: you pass some small villages and cross a few creeks and a big river closer to Tupiza (I always drank the tap water in Bolivia and never got sick in 4 months).
The canyon lands surrounding Tupiza offer excellent hiking possibilities. Also cycling out in the direction of Uyuni you will pass some crazy rock formations. After Mojoncasa (or Salo?) (25km from Tupiza), when the road bends west, a huge climb follows. It is another extremely mountainous 80km to Atocha, a surprisingly pretty village clinging to a steep hillside above a river. You find a good market here. Don’t expect to make it in one day from Tupiza to Atocha, it is really hard. You will find some water on your way; there are some tricky forks in the road without signs, try to ask someone for directions. Atocha-Uyuni (120km) is a lot flatter, wind might be a problem and the road is bad. You are on the altiplano now with wide views, cold nights, great camping. Every now and then you pass a village where you can get water and buy some biscuits. Uyuni is just there for the tourists that want to visit the famous salt flats. If you like meeting fellow travelers this is your place.
Uyuni-San Pedro de Atacama: 550km
Visiting the salt flats and going back to Uyuni is one thing, continuing to San Pedro is another. Only very experienced cyclists that are 100% self-sufficient should attempt this crossing. It is not far, but roads are non-existent in the area and you will cycle on extremely bad tracks made by 4-wheel drives. One of the main problems is water. There is no drinkable water, only some of the hotels have water that has been trucked in. I cycled it in 9 days, but was very lucky with the wind. Take food and fuel for 10 days if you are extremely fit. Count on extra fuel, if you get snowed in you’ll need to melt snow. The most basic stuff, like galletas and pasta you will still find in San Juan, but the rest you have to take from Uyuni. I found water on the big island in the middle of the salt flats, Colcha K, Mañica, San Juan, Chiguana (army base), Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Colorado (entrance to the nature reserve), Termas de Chalviri, Laguna Blanca (exit national park) and at the border. I believe that the crossing is easier from north to south, as you will have probably have a tail wind in the Siloli desert to the Arbol de Piedra, the most difficult part.
The following two homepages have a sketch and route description in English and in German. I took a picture of it and used the camera as a map.
Drawing of the route Uyuni-San Pedro de Atacama
Description of the route Uyuni-San Pedro de Atacama
Tambo Quemado-Cochabamba-Santa Cruz: 1000km all paved!
For some notes about Arica to Lago Chungará, see my Chile article. If you enter Bolivia at Tambo Quemado you will stay high for a long time. The riding around Volcán Sajama (with 6542m the highest mountain in Bolivia) is fantastic. About 20km from the border you come to the village of Lagunas with a guesthouse. You can turn left to Sajama village, mountaineers climb the volcano from here. You stay high on a beautiful new and quiet road with fantastic views, until Patacamaya (225km, 3800m). Free camping is easy, water and food can be found in some of the villages like Curahuara de Carangas (123km).
In the crazy busy town of Patacamaya you can turn left to La Paz, only about 110km from here (There are many busses, minivans and taxi’s to the capital from here.) I turned right to Oruro and Cochabamba. The road is a lot busier now, but not as bad as you would expect from Patacamaya. The villages become bigger and most of them have a nice market. In Caracollo (80km) you choose right for Oruro or left for Chochabamba. I went left. A very long uphill takes you to 4500m and then you go down to Cochabamba (2560m). The scenery is not as great as around Sajama, and the city is disappointing.
From Cochabamba there are two main roads to Santa Cruz. The northern one, Ruta 7, is the newest, all paved and very quiet. It takes you first up a couple of long climbs, with the last high point (3500m) just after Colomi (50km), and then drops an incredible 3000m to Villa Tunari (160km, 330m) the Amazon Basin. This is a fairly touristy village, because it is mentioned in Lonely Planet. From there it is a sweaty, flat ride to Santa Cruz (480km). You can fill up water and buy food in Chimoré (195km), Rio Itschilo (288km), San Carlos (355km) and Montero (430km). Free camping is still easy, but you can also ask a farmer. The closer you get to Santa Cruz, the more cultivated the land. You will not see much of the original rainforest, except for the great downhill to Villa Tunari. Santa Cruz is the biggest and richest city of Bolivia. Be aware of thief’s.
The old road between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Ruta 4, stays a lot higher and is longer. Due to my map it has a 130km stretch that is not paved yet. I expect it is harder for terrain, but easier for the climate.
Santa Cruz-Trinidad: 555km all paved
The only bridge over the Rio Grande is in Pailon, 50km east of Santa Cruz. Here you can go straight to Brazil or north to Los Troncos (126km) where you have to turn right for Trinidad. San Ramon (185km) is an important village, where you can turn right to all the famous Jesuit missions (and to Picacho, see below). Stay on Highway 9 to Trinidad. The land becomes less cultivated now, but still don’t expect too much nature. You pass several villages, of which Ascencion de Guarayos and San Pablo (320km) are a bit bigger. Just follow the paved highway to Trinidad (555km). Days are very hot, nights almost equally hot. Take insect repellent, think about protection against malaria. Drink a lot! You will find lots of fantastic fresh fruits everywhere next to the highway. Free camping is possible, but uncomfortable. Trinidad is a small city.
Trinidad-Caranavi: 460km unpaved
West of Trinidad you cross the Rio Ichilo by boat and suddenly you are in the middle of nowhere. The dirt road is ok in dry conditions, but impossible when it rains. Traffic is almost non-existent and villages very small. San Ignacio de Moxos (100km) is a lovely place where you can buy food. San Borja (250km) is the biggest town between Trinidad and La Paz. In Yacumo (300km) you have to turn right for Rurrenabaque or continue straight for La Paz. After all the flat riding and terribly hot and humid climate it is refreshing to enter the foothills of the Andes. Out of Yacumo (250m) the scnery becomes better and better. You climb three times to about a 1000m before reaching Sapecho (390km). After Sapecho you cross the huge Rio Beni. After that a hard climb to 2200m and great downhill takes you to Caranavi (460km, 600m). From here you can continue to Coroico and La Paz. This would include climbing the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ that has become a real tourist attraction (the downhill of course). But I turned right to Guanay and Mapiri.
The section that follows here is very beautiful and very hard. There is an enormous amount of climbing involved, on sometimes very bad roads. The scenery is fantastic and offers rain forests, deep valleys with wild rivers, some of Bolivia’s highest mountains, glaciers and finally lake Titicaca. Except for Sorata, you will meet no other tourists; local people are very friendly, especially in Mapiri. I used the notes on the route Caranavi-Mapiri-Sorata-Lago Titicaca from Iris and Tore
. They took a boat from Guanay to Mapiri. I cycled that stretch. It took me two days to cover the 105km and I estimated a stunning 3500 altimeters.
I found the notes to be still very accurate. From Sorata to La Paz or Lago Titicaca is all paved now.
Uschi, a Swiss woman, runs an organic farm in the Beni, not far from Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado. You can take a bus from Santa Cruz (at least 30 hours.) She is a member of couchsurfing and of WWOOFing. It is a fantastic experience to visit her and stay for some weeks to work on the farm. In the dry season you can also cycle to the farm. It is about 750km from Santa Cruz and 600km from Trinidad. Expect a lot of insects, sweaty days and nights, take food for the whole stretch and a water filter. The sand roads are surprisingly good in the dry season. See "useful links below".
From Santa Cruz you have to cycle to San Ramon (see the description to Trinidad). Here you take road 502 to San Javier and continue until Santa Rosa de la Roca (385km from Santa Cruz). From here it gets very remote and navigating tricky, you can only try this if you have very good directions, which I can’t give you because I took the bus. In Santa Rosa: buy food for 4 or 5 days, turn north and keep going to La Junta, El Infierno, Picaflor and San Simon. In San Simon you can ask for Picacho.
I cycled out of Picacho to Trinidad with a sketch made by locals. I took food for 4 days and just made it to Yuguayu, near Ascencion de Guarayos. It was amazing to be 400km long on a sand road in the wilderness. It was the only time I saw some real big old trees and so much wild life! Unfortunately the sketch got lost. But I know that without it would have been impossible to find my way.
The BEST route
Uyuni-San Pedro de Atacama is very adventurous and offers some of the best scenery in South America. Cycling around Sajama is also amazing. The Mapiri-Sorata loop shows a completely different Bolivia. Cycling through real jungle in the Reserva Nacional de Rio Blanco y Rio Negro, between Picacho and Trinidad.
The WORST Route
Cycling to Santa Cruz you would expect Amazon jungle, but it is only farmland. Not much jungle left. You have to cycle remoter roads to see some big old trees.
I haven’t been to La Paz. The best shops I saw in Santa Cruz, but it was not much. You will find some Shimano parts.
Bicycle Touring Gear Shops
I haven’t seen any panniers, racks or touring rims and tires in Bolivia. Of course you can buy normal mountain bike tires.
Camping Gear Shops
I don’t know
For the Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama it is best to go in June or later. The later you go, the lower the chance on snow. The Amazon jungle is very wet from October to May, with a peak in December to February. All the dirt roads become impassable, but boat traffic is always possible.
The so-called Bolivian winter (January-March) is not a good time to be on the altiplano. Occasional snowstorms are very dangerous.
Reise Know How: useful for the main roads, useless in the jungle. Some distances are wrong (usually too short).
Spanish is useful
Average for Cheap Lodging
Locals' Average Salary
100USD per month
Transport your Bike
I transported my bike only in a bus. The driver put it on the roof for a small fee. Hitchhiking is not very common, as almost every car passing is a shared taxi, bus or truck. The last option is the cheapest. You will share the truck with many others. In extremely remote areas a passing car will probably take you.
Organic farm in the Beni