10 Questions: Cycling On The Andean Puna

The Puna, or Altiplano, is a high altitude region of the Central Andes spanning southern Peru, western Bolivia, north-east Chile and north-west Argentina.

It is one of the most extensive areas of high plateau in the world, and Harriet & Neil Pike explored the Puna extensively by bicycle in 2010 and 2011. They recently took the time to answer 10 Questions about their bike tour through the area.

Chasing llamas to Sajama, Bolivia.
Chasing llamas to Sajama, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

1. Which route did you take in the region?

We spent nine months in 2010 and 2011 on the Puna, first cycling northwards through Argentina, Chile and western Bolivia before taking a circuitous route through southern Peru. Still eager to continue exploring the area, we then did an about turn and cycled south through Chile and Argentina.

2. Why spend so long cycling there?

We were fascinated by the desolate landscape with its sprinkling of salars and colourful lakes, and volcanoes dotting the skyline. We loved the wide open spaces, the big skies, and seeing more camelids than cars. Going hours without encountering another human being made any meeting with a friendly local person, in an area you wouldn’t think it possible to eke out an existence, all the more special. Above all we enjoyed the sense of freedom and the challenge of having to be self-reliant, carrying all we needed – our food, clothes and home – on our bikes.

Cycling on the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia.
Cycling on the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

3. How useful were maps for route planning?

The availability and accuracy of road maps very much depends on the country. Good maps are available in Argentina. Likewise, you can find Chilean maps that are of reasonable quality. There are maps of Peru and Bolivia that show main roads accurately but despite buying a wide selection we didn’t find any that were reliable on minor unpaved roads. Often the smaller roads we took didn’t exist on maps and there were few road signs to follow.

4. How did you navigate in remote areas without maps or road signs?

We spent a lot of time in internet cafes looking for information on cyclists’ blogs and poring over satellite images on Google Earth, searching for small unpaved roads to cycle. We then noted down GPS co-ordinates of landmarks such as rivers, junctions or settlements and used these to help us navigate. Sometimes this was overkill and we could get by on the ground by asking local people, but on many occasions we were grateful to our GPS to know which way to turn at forks in the road.

Local drivers can also be an excellent source of information, though be wary of asking directions from people who don’t travel the roads very frequently – they might provide you with an answer, but it could well be guesswork.

5. What can you expect to encounter weather-wise?

All year round, the region sees warm days and cold nights. We were grateful for our four season sleeping bags as the temperature regularly falls below zero at night, and -20°C isn’t uncommon in June or July. The best time for cycling in the northern Puna is the dry season (April–October) with its blue skies and days without a cloud.

In southern areas of the Puna the summertime from December–March is better as this avoids the often savage winter weather. At any time of the year don’t be surprised if you encounter fierce winds. While it may not have Patagonia’s reputation for strong winds, much of the Puna can give even the windiest parts of Patagonia a run for their money.

Camping on the Puna in southern Peru.
Camping on the Puna in southern Peru. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

6. Is the food anything to look forward to?

Um, in a word, no. Many parts of the Puna, particularly in Chile and Argentina, are very sparsely populated so you’ll usually have to fend for yourself. Carry a few days’ provisions and cook on a camp stove. Small villages in Bolivia and Peru often have a basic restaurant but the difficulty in growing local produce and of importing fresh supplies from afar means that you’ll have to get used to surviving for days at a time on the staples – rice, eggs, potatoes, chuño (freeze dried potatoes) and hearty broths.

In Sajama National Park, Bolivia.
In Sajama National Park, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

7. What are road conditions like?

There aren’t a huge number of paved roads and those that have been tarmacked are usually busy with truck and bus traffic. Heading onto unpaved roads means taking pot-luck with the surface. The Bolivian altiplano has a reputation for having bad roads, but it by no means has a monopoly on them. In all countries of the Puna you can happen upon a good consolidated unpaved surface or find yourself rattling over corrugations or floundering in sand. As a rule it’s best not to expect to travel too quickly!

8. Most of the Puna is above 3,500m. Did you have difficulties with the altitude?

Apart from going very slowly and panting a lot up to the first few passes, we were lucky and didn’t have too much trouble. If you haven’t been at altitude much before it’s a good idea to read up about Acute Mountain Sickness at sites like www.altitude.org beforehand, then take it easy and gain height slowly to begin with.

Near Laguna Negro Francisco, northern Chile.
Near Laguna Negro Francisco, northern Chile. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

9. As well as cycling, you also hiked on this journey. What’s the Puna like for hiking?

Hiking up mountains was almost as important a part of our trip as the cycling, and we spent many happy days cycling to mountains on the Puna, dumping the bikes and then heading off on foot with backpacks. Most of the highest mountains in the Andes lie on the Puna, and with few exceptions they are non-technical ascents. If, like us, you love the wild, barren landscapes and don’t mind going a while without seeing a tree, there are plenty of opportunities for exploring the Puna on foot.

10. Any advice do you have for other cyclists heading to the area?

Choose your tent carefully, and then look after it well! It needs to be good in strong winds so geodesic tents are better than tunnel tents and will give you a quieter night’s sleep. Try not to leave it up for too long in the sun. The fabric will soon degrade due to the high intensity UV. Be warned that in the dry Puna regions tents shrink, so unless you can vary the length of the tent sleeves it can be difficult or impossible to get poles in.

Also, treat all zips with care as they become fragile and regularly break in the dry atmosphere. On leaving the Puna we were left with few working zips despite having become very adept at fixing them with candle wax and pliers!

More importantly, research your route before heading out to the remote areas – on many roads you can go hours or days without coming across water, supplies or a village. There is plenty of information on routes we took on our Andes By Bike website.

Thanks to Harriet & Neil Pike for answering the questions and providing the photos. Check out their Andes By Bike website for more information. If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.


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