This is a day by day description of the exceptionally beautiful Lagunas route from San Juan in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
The route from San Juan to San Pedro de Atacama
We rode this route over eight days in early October 2016. We were on 50mm (2 inch) Schwalbe Mondial 29er tyres with a fairly light load (about 30kg for bike and gear).
At most we carried 4 days food and 2 days water. There are good water sources at least every second day and good shops near Laguna Colorada which is about 4 or 5 days from San Juan.
The riding is best in the morning as a strong SW wind tends to blow from about midday (and sometimes earlier).
Days 5 – 8 from Laguna Colorada to San Pedro de Atacama are fairly easy, and could be done in 3 days as opposed 4.
Wait, aren’t the tour jeeps terrible? No, on the whole they’re not too bad at all. Mostly they wave and give encouragement. We were also given fruit, chocolate, and offered water.
During the second half from Laguna Colorada onwards there seemed to be more of them. This is mostly because there is often only one road as opposed to 20 different tracks, meaning they’re closer to you.
Riding the wonderful stretch of road from San Juan to Laguna Hedionda
There are many other excellent resources online that also cover this area: Tour.tk Southwest Bolivia PDF, Fat Cycling blogpost, Pikes route description (an alternative), many others Google will let you in on.
I’ve made the notes below as some of the above are a few years old and the state of the villages, shops and roads have changed a little bit. And of course they will continue to change!
The campsites we used are found at the end of the GPX file for each day.
The altitude from San Juan to San Pedro de Atacama (Thanks to trails.io app for nicely graphing it)
Day 1: 53km, 439m up, 105m down
From San Juan to camp at 4034m, below the first pass.
Take two days water from San Juan. The first part of the day is a little sandy, but there was no more than a few hundred meters of pushing.
The climb to the campsite is fairly gradual, a bit sandy and rocky, and can be tough if the wind is blowing. It’s 95% rideable though. The camp spot has a nice stone wall windbreak, level ground and great views.
The ride took us 5:30 (riding time) into a strong SW wind.
San Juan has well stocked shops, but no restaurant. We bought tuna, pasta, pasta sauce, tomatoes, onion, pumpkin, chocolate bars, cookies, olives, canned peaches, canned mushrooms, jam, porridge oats, instant mash potato flakes, milk powder, butter, beer, wine and chips.
A perfect wind break on the first night after leaving San Juan
Day 2: 46.6km, 565m up, 469m down
From our camp at 4034m below the pass to Laguna Hedionda.
About 2.7km after you leave camp is another campsite / shelter on your right, which is another option for night one.
The ride to Laguna Cañapa is beautiful and rocky. It’s all rideable minus some very small sections where you need to push from one trail to another. The road from Laguna Cañapa to Laguna Hedionda is pretty good.
We stayed at the Ecolodge Los Flamingos on Laguna Hedionda for 50 Bolivanos per person. They had comfortable beds and sell beer and dinner. Dinner was 40 Bolivanos, and a big Huari beer was 35.
The ride took us 5:45 hours (riding time).
Sandy roads winding through the Lagunas
Day 3: 44.5km, 811m up, 345m down.
From Laguna Hedionda to a sheltered camp at 4595m, 9km past the turn off to Hotel Del Desierto.
Take two days water from Laguna Hedionda. The road in the first part of the day through the Lagunas is good. It’s all rideable and not too sandy. The road in the second half of the day is pretty sandy. The tracks we took were still 90% rideable however, but slow going into the wind.
The ride took us 7 hours(riding time) into a strong SW wind.
A good wind break after the turn off to Hotel Del Desierto
Day 4: 38km, 119m up, 429m down
From camp 9km past the turn off to Hotel Del Desierto to Laguna Colorada.
The first 20km of road to Arbol de Piedra is good and all rideable. The next 17km to Laguna Colorada is pretty wash boarded, and sandy in places. It’s still 95% rideable though.
The ride took us 4:30 (riding time).
The other worldly colours of Laguna Colorada
Day 5: 23km, 462m up, 84m down
From Laguna Colarada to a sheltered campsite at 4691m with a beautiful view over Laguna Colarada.
Take 2 days water from Laguna Colarada. We detoured to the shop at Huayllahada refugios. This was about 10km from Laguna Colarada and was well stocked. We bought crackers, tuna, biscuits, coffee, chocolate and porridge.
The road from the shop back to the main route heading south is sandy, and required a little pushing. You’d be better off rejoining the main road from the way you came. The the rest of the day the roads were good and all rideable.
The ride took us 3:45 (riding time).
A stunning view from the sheltered spot above Laguna Colorada
Day 6: 36km, 363m up, 646m down
From camp above Laguna Colarada to Polques on Laguna Challviri.
It’s an easy day with a good, rideable road all the way. The section coming into Polques is stunning.
The restaurant does not serve lunch or dinner, but does breakfast. Lots of jeeps have lunch however. We stayed on the floor in the restaurant and had breakfast for 15 Bolivanos.
The ride took us 3:45 (riding time).
Day 7: 35.6km, 387m up, 442m down
From Polques on Laguna Challviri to camp in abandoned buildings near Laguna blanca.
It’s another easy day with a good, rideable road all the way. The view coming down to Laguna Blanca is outstanding.
The ride took us 3:40 (riding time) into a strong W wind.
A stunning viewpoint close to a nice sheltered campsite near Laguna Blanca
Day 8: 63km, 400m up, 2276m down
From camp in abandoned buildings near Laguna Blanca to San Pedro De Atacama.
The road is pretty good all the way. From the Bolivia / Chile border to San Pedro de Atacama the road is paved and fast.
The ride took us 4:10 (riding time) into a strong W wind.
Enjoy your first hot shower in a long time in San Pedro de Atacama.
5 thoughts on “Cycling the Lagunas in South-West Bolivia: Practical notes for cyclists”
Thanks for the detailed description! We did the trip a few weeks ago and it was very useful. Everything is still true except for the Los Flamencos hotel which is now “luxury hotel” with ridicules prices. I loved the campsite above Laguna Colorada – amazing view!
Good effort doing this, especially while Covid was still present. I hope you had fun.
Thanks for the detailed description. Great photos. You have inspired me to try this route.
Timothy Tower Seattle 2019-0713
I cycled the Lagunas Route in September 2019. I was alone, although I met up regularly with my friends, a Brazilian couple Andre and Gisele. I started in San Juan, south of Salar de Uyuni.
I based this ride on Andy’s 2016 ride (Cycling the Lagunas in South-West Bolivia). Many thanks for the detailed route, Andy!
The changes I made were:
1. I spent an extra night wild camping at the pretty Laguna Cañapa. Recommended.
2. I did not wild camp in the abandoned building at Laguna Blanca. Instead, I spent 2 nights in the excellent hospedaje at the south end of the Laguna.
3. Instead of wild camping, I stayed in a comfortable hospedajes at Laguna Colorada and Polques. These offered good dinners and breakfasts.
1. There were hospedajes along most of the route, so I only wild camped 4 nights (out of 10). Except for the first hospedaje (Eco Hotel, Laguna Hedionda), the hospedajes offered good meals at reasonable prices, ( $3-5). The Eco Hotel charged $20 for dinner. I passed.
1. The roads were much worse than when Andy did this route. We ended up pushing a lot more than he describes. The biggest problem was thick sand. The locals said that the Morales government is no longer maintaining the gravel roads in SW Bolivia.
2. The tiendas had a poorer selection of food than described by Andy. Mostly they had junk food. Even in San Juan, at the start, I struggled to find enough healthy food.
I have included detailed daily logs and gpx tracks in my CrazyGuy blog http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/SAm19tim. For Pros and Cons, see http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?page_id=592439
Many thanks, Andy, for the detailed description of this route. Without this, I doubt I would have attempted it, especially since I was cycling alone.
I followed Andy’s route N-S (same direction as his) in Sept 2019. See Days 194 – 203 of my blog http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/SAm19tim. Things had changed quite a lot since his ride. For one thing, the sand seemed thicker and the roads worse. There were more places to eat, and an excellent hotel at the south end, before entering Chile. Thanks to Andy for the write-up, without which I doubt I would have attempted this remote, scenic route.