“Paso Hito Cajon” the legendary Bolivia-Chile border cross
Bolivia is a unique country for me. Neither the whiteness of Uyuni, nor La Paz the highest capital in the world, nor the Death Road did catch my attention in this country.
The year 2010, at Khrog Valley at about 4000 m altitude in Tajikistan (the cyclists riding in Tajikistan mostly prefer the north road since it is relatively easier), we thought about whether entering the road or not for a long time. Some call this road as “the pilgrim’s road of the cyclists”. The phrase “if you ride on this road, you can ride everywhere in the world” is very famous. The up and downs made us suffer but the spectacular scenery made us calm down. I had asked Nathan the Canadian I met on the road in Uzbekistan:
- You are on a world tour, are there any other countries as tough as this one pushing you to your limits?
- (Smiling) There is a place but not as tough as this one.
- In Bolivia, South America. There the altitude is also high and there aren’t any roads.
Nine years had passed since then and I came to the Bolivian border gate. At first, I couldn’t recognize whether this was a border gate or a construction area? Walking around the building I saw that the entrance door was at the windless site. Many motorized travelers had posted their stickers on the glass window.
There were 2 guys inside. After crossing the Chilean border gate, you feel sad seeing this gate. I felt sorry for these guys working out in the middle of nowhere, the closest settlement is 325 km away. Seeing me riding on bike:
- Tough road, congratulations…
- Thank you. When did a cyclist cross this border lastly?
- I saw a cyclist last year, but other colleagues may have seen any other. Normally, we only give 30 days valid visa, but because that you are a cyclist, I’ll give you a 60 days valid visa. Whenever you want, you can extend your visa for another 30 days in any city.
- Thank you.
- Welcome to Bolivia.
That was a rather easy cross. I crossed the border and a dirt road started. I had read the road memories of other cyclists using this route. They called it a 12 days adventure till Uyuni. Those cyclists had rated the hardness of the route as 9 out of 10 (a very tough route)
1 – The name of this region is Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaro National park. While riding towards Jama Pass to Argentina starting from San Pedro Atacama, right on the left you can arrive to Bolivia crossing the Portezuelo del Cajon pass. The border cross is at 4690 m altitude!
2 – I paid 25 USD entrance fee for the national park after crossing the board. This was the second time I paid money just after a border cross in South America. The other was in Patagonia between Argentina and Chile.
3- There is no tarmac. Only dirt road. Besides this, due to rain the road was bulged at many points which harms the cars incredibly (the blogs and reviews are full of how crappy the road is).
4 – Since there aren’t any plants in most of the region, the sand moves to the road. Therefore, this road is hard for cyclists. Fat bike just fits the region. It is reasonable to use 2.3 or 2.4 inch tires (there are maniacs like me traveling with 1.75 or 2.0 inch tires). Furthermore, it is best to travel bike packing style but there are cyclists carrying 6 panniers who mostly are forced to push their bikes. I had to push my bike only for 3-4 km throughout this 221 km long route. By the way 221 km is the direct route, if you make detours, which I did, then the distance increases significantly.
5 – The distance between settlements….. Well, forget about settlements. Just continue to ride. The settlements are very small and the places where you can get food or other provision are rare. I had only 6 L of water and provision for 12 days leaving San Pedro Atacama. The food was enough till Uyuni. I filtered the water on the road from creeks and bought water bottles in a couple of tiny settlements.
6 – There are daily tours from San Pedro Atacama to Uyuni in this region. This is a frequently used road. If you happen to get short of water, you can always stop a car passing by.
7 – However, if you decide to exit the normal route (referring the touristic one) in this park and ride on alternative routes then you better carry enough water and provision (which I did). The road will take you to Uturunku a volcanic mountain.
8– The lowest altitude in this region is 4100 m and the highest 5000 m. If you want to climb Uturunku mountain then you’ll rich 5740 m altitude. While climbing Uturunku, I marked a camping site on I-overlander app. No one else had marked another camp site in 2019 yet.
9 – If you ride 40-50 km per day, you’ll climb around 750 m altitude every day (on dirt and sandy road). Well, this will change according the route you’ll choose (don’t say this is nothing: You’ll ride on your bicycle above 4000 m altitude; ride 50 km and climb 1000 m every day; not only through your mouth, nose, ears you’ll be astonished through which holes on your body you’ll breath
10 – It is possible to encounter minus degrees including summer nights. I was thinking to go out to take night photos. Together with wind the felt temperature was minus 6-8 °C. I said, forget about taking night photos, continue to sleep in your warm sleeping bag.
11 – There were four buildings in Laguna Chalviri en route. Three of them were stopovers. One of them offered bed and breakfast for 4 USD for cyclists. It was like an oasis in the middle of desert. On top of it, there was a thermal bath at 30 °C. I watched the flamingos while swimming in the thermal bath. Dude, that was fancy. It was a village near Quentena Grande Uturunku where a stayed for two nights. I wanted to climb to the summit of Uturunku mountain, 5 740 m. To be honest it was a very easy climb (after removing the load on my bike, the road takes you back to the village). But unfortunately, I got sick drinking the water I’d filtered where I set up my camp at 4 540 m altitude. I spent the whole night vomiting and shitting at various spots on the field. In the morning when I woke up, I didn’t have the power neither to finish the 9 km distance and a 1000 m ascend nor I’d enough water. Therefore, I returned, no reason to persist on continuing. Health comes first. What I do is a journey around the world and if something happens to me, there isn’t a second Gurkan Genc to continue the journey or the other projects.
12 – I have been riding for years around the world but rarely encountered such a crappy road. For goodness sake, I had suspension on my bike and not many panniers so that I hadn’t had to push my bike. But struggling in sand exhausted me. I kept asking this question to myself: Dude, those guys take 25 USD for entrance, what the hell they take this money for? If I was heading to La Paz, I would definitely visit the related ministries and talk about the bad condition of this road. Well, you don’t have to pave the road but could smooth, remove the sand! What for do you take this 25 USD fee?
Camino Al Sol De La Manana
13 – Why is the “death road” in Bolivia very famous? Either the cars fly off the road or hit each other. This is a man’s fault situation. Also, there is a road in this country at which the nature forces the human body to the limits. Even, it is said that this road is the most dangerous road in this continent: Camino al sol de la Manana. This road stretches between 4800 and 5000 m altitude continuing for kilometers at an area with 40% less oxygen. This area is not a pass, that is you won’t reach a summit and then descend. Therefore, people trusting on their lungs may test this road. The end of the road comes up to nice sceneries. At 4800 m altitude you may camp among very nice rock formations. The view of Uturunku mountain is spectacular early in the morning.
In short, the route is awesome with magnificent landscape, a legendary route for cyclists but tough as well. I have no doubt that cyclists with patience will ride on this route with a great pleasure. You make up new friendships as well. For example, a car came close to me:
- Riding this route on bike is pure madness, craziness but determination and a strong will makes it possible.
My “Fauna Andina Eduardo National Park” adventure from San Pedro Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia is shortly as such (These data can be found in detail on my Garmin page. I’ve been archiving all my road records for the last 7 years):
Day 1: 31.41 km, total gain 1371 m, maximum altitude 3691 m
Day 2: 27.65 km, total gain 1101 m, maximum altitude 4655 m
Day 3: 43.55 km, total gain 570 m, maximum altitude 5000 m
Day 4: 65.78 km, total gain 1251 m, maximum altitude 4975 m
Day 5: 11.24 km, total gain 130 m, maximum altitude 4447
Day 6: 19.64 km, total gain 1078 m, maximum altitude 4731 m
Day 7: 19.00 km, total gain 342 m, maximum altitude 4595 m
Day 8: 68.95 km, total gain 923 m, maximum altitude 4418 m
Day 9: 94.00 km, total gain 416 m, maximum altitude 4220 m
Day 10: 102.00 km, total gain 200 m, maximum altitude 4000 m
I had ridden every day at altitude changing between 4000 to 5000 m on dirt and sandy road on a 35 kg loaded bike for 10 days with an average of 738 m gain and 50 km per day. I arrived at Uyuni in the end.