- Tim Notier
Looking for an epic motorcycle route through some of the most remote landscapes of South America? Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile via Lagunas Route is the route for you and should be on every Adventure Motorcyclist’s bucket list!
It is known to be difficult, especially for large motorcycles, and there are no gas stations, towns, restaurants, or any other amenities for over 400 miles of desert landscapes. The route is rugged, cold, beautiful, and will surely test your limits. But some of the most rewarding memories are earned after pushing your limits, the bike’s limits, and overcoming the challenges that you face along the way.
There are a few options to choose from to traverse the remote southwest region of Bolivia: an eastern track said to be easier with less sand, and a western route that was more difficult, but also believed to be more picturesque. Of course, we chose to take the western route. The last outpost before the Lagunas Route was a town called Culpina K, a good place to stock up with several days’ worth of food, water, and as much gasoline that you can carry. A five-liter plastic bottle filled with gas along with a matching five liters of water was strapped to the bike, as they are both equally important for the 3 days it takes to ‘comfortably’ cross the Lagunas Route.
The first day started with compacted dirt roads, but after a few hours of easy riding, we turned off the main gravel road to head south and started to ascend. Our new route turned into a rutted passage filled with large rocks I had to dodge while keeping enough momentum to crawl up the steep hills. It was definitely a high-clearance vehicle path, and my bash plate kept grinding against massive stones which I didn’t avoid in time. But we steadily made our way up the terrain and onto a high-elevation altiplano where we found ourselves staring out at snow-capped mountains in the distance.
From our vantage point on top of the altiplano, it seemed like we were looking down at an aerial map in a fantasy book. As I spun around 360 degrees, I saw different terrain, from mountains and lagoons to deserts and canyons. I envisioned titles in a large papyrus font hovering above the land, reading, “The Marshes of Madness” or “Canyons of Solitude,” with small towns that spread across the domain with names like “Broken Shield” and “Widow’s Keep.”
It was as if we were living out our own Choose Your Own Adventurebook, and I was quite satisfied with my choices so far. I had successfully managed to avoid the page that read: “You chose wrong. Your adventure ends here.” We continued down the corrugated road that cut through a flat desert with ten miniature Mount Fuji lookalike mountains surrounding us. We passed a pink lagoon and breathed in the strong sulfuric air that overwhelmed our noses and stung our eyes. It felt as if we were on one of the moons of Saturn, exploring its exotic alien surface on our lunar rovers, complete in our astronaut-like suits of gear.
The only negative of our amazing ride were the sandy washboard roads that shook me to my bones. It wasn’t the most difficult road we had been on but riding for hours on bumpy corrugations of slippery sand was uncomfortable, plus it was terrible for the bikes. I imagined all the bolts on my motorcycle slowly turning counterclockwise from the never-ending vibrations. The only way to avoid the worst of the corrugations in the center of the road was to ride along the very edges, but that was where the sand was the loosest, causing me to fishtail uncontrollably in complete fear. All I could do was concentrate on staying upright and try not to wipe out in a cloud of dust and sand.
That night, we pitched our tents next to the lagoon with flamingoes in what was extremely barren and hostile terrain. At an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet, the wind was so intense that strong gusts nearly upended my tent while constantly blowing sand into my eyes. As I sat down shivering over the stove to make hot water for tea and coffee, I could barely flex my fingers and saw that the skin around my nails was bleeding because they were so dry.
But the extreme weather came with an exceptionally beautiful panorama. Massive mountains and volcanic rocks encased the strangely colored lagoon where we camped. Far in the distance was Cerro Tomasamil, just one of many perfectly cone-shaped mountains that surrounded us. But this particular mountain had a flat-disked lenticular cloud hovering above its peak like a giant UFO. It out of this world landscape couldn’t have been more fitting. After a hot meal, we into our tent to get out of the wind to retain enough body heat to go to sleep comfortably.
Day two of the Lagunas Route started off with more of the same washboard roads for hours on end, but after successfully navigating through another bout of ruts and rocks, we bumped our way along windswept valleys of sand between colorful mountains. The terrain was becoming more desert-like the farther south we went, and we passed more lagoons of pink and blue amid the reds and grays of the rocky wilds. In the middle of the afternoon, we entered the Valle de las Rocas, or Valley of the Rocks, and twisted through what seemed to be an art exhibit of sandstone sculptures created solely by nature. The large stones had eroded into strange shapes carved by wind, sand, and time. The results were like Magic Eye illusions, in that if you stared at them long enough, a full sailboat or an M4 Sherman tank would materialize, or one of the simpler formations like the Árbol de Piedra; a sandstone pillar with a wide top that resembled a 22-foot tall, deep-fried elm tree.
It was a stunning landscape that we could have taken in for hours, but there was a fairly strict schedule to keep to based on the limited amount of food and water that we were able to carry. After lunch, Marisa and I slowly made our way towards the campsite pinned on our maps. That was when we hit the worst stretch of sand of the entire route. It was a mixture of deep sand and finely crushed volcanic rock, and it was impossible to distinguish visually between the firmer, compact sections and the loose, bike-swallowing segments. It looked like the soil in a farmer’s field that’s just been turned by a gigantic plow, leaving behind two-foot-tall trenches on the sides of narrow paths. I had to pick a channel and hope it wouldn’t turn into fine dust that would make me wipe out, and changing “lanes” was nearly impossible because of the height of the mounds on either side.
It was a stimulating ride through fantastic scenery as we continued through the endless stretch of madness. I kept dropping the bike as it flipped from side to side like a fish out of water, and it was beginning to take a physical and mental toll on me. What was only supposed to take us four hours took us over six, and we all knew that we needed to get to the wild campsite before the sun set.
Finally, we pulled off the road and into an isolated canyon just south of Laguna Colorada and went to sleep early in order to give ourselves as much time as possible to make it to the border the following day. The night was cold, silent, and dark, as if time itself had frozen on our remote moon of Saturn.
The third day was to be our last on the Lagunas Route, and the day that we would cross into Chile. But we knew that there were still major challenges ahead. The usual morning chitchat was replaced by solemn silence as I decided between using the last of our water to make coffee or saving it for later. I figured we deserved a hot cup of coffee before filling up my tank with the last of the gas that I had.
It was slow progress, but we made our way towards the Chilean border. Sulfuric steam drifted out of mud pits and caverns as we passed the Sol de la Mañana geysers. The colorful earth was just as cracked and scarred by the dry air as our lips and faces
But the closer we got to the border, the more intense the winds became. It was brutal up there, and the wind cut straight through the layers of my jacket, causing me to shiver the entire ride. Our spirits and hopes rose to new levels when we saw the Chilean customs office. I pulled into the building, which was shaped like an airport hangar, and knew that we had made it through the worst of it.
Marisa and I looked at each other, both of our faces red from sunburn and with flaky skin, and I noticed that bits of moisture around our watery eyes and running noses had dried into white crusts. We looked like we had just been through the pits of hell.
It was a surreal experience that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. The memories made in a land full of volcanos, canyons, and colorful lakes will not soon be forgotten.
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