Following two days in the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, we are cruising back to the base of Licancabur Volcano. Its ashen flanks are our signal to turn north, drop from the asphalt, and begin our ascent into a land like no other. At an elevation of about 13,000 feet and occupying 10 percent of the country, the Bolivian Altiplano is the second highest plateau in the world, the highest being Tibet, and an incredible place to ride a motorbike.
The Bolivian Altiplano is a geographical wonderland, a mix of volcanoes and windswept plains, where sandstone-rock formations dot the horizon and time stands still. On a gray, dusty track we roll on the gas and smile as our tires send up dust plumes that hang like vapor trails in the thin air.
Chalky gravel crunches under our tires as we ease the brakes close to the shores of Laguna Verde, which is a verdant shade of green from the copper infusing the water. We cautiously cross a shallow tributary, careful to stay dry because at this elevation we'd likely freeze before drying out. The desert is up ahead, an ash-smothered valley littered with boulders, prehistoric cast-offs from a passing glacier a millennia before. Lisa's whoops of excitement can be heard over the considerable noise of her bike. Riding the pegs jockey style we push our body weight back from the bars and over the rear of the bikes. Our now-lighter front ends skip across the myriad of four-wheel-drive tracks etched into the ground by prior visitors.
Past Laguna Salada the thermal baths of Polques mark the end of our first day, a perfect setting as boiling water bubbles from deep underground. We think about pitching our tent until we realize that the door to a new wood building close by is open. We take the chance that no one will mind us seeking sanctuary for a night and roll out our sleeping mats. At 5:30 a.m. we're woken by daylight streaming through the dusty window. Outside a dozen tourists tumble from the back of their over-filled and battered Land Cruisers, strip to their underwear, and prance barefoot across the sharp, rocky ground before dunking themselves in the scalding waters of the spring.
Thin Air and Extreme Altitude
A thousand feet higher we hand over our passports at one of the world's highest immigration offices. The Hito Cajon border post is our entry point into Lipez. Two Bolivian officials are barely recognizable buried under what looks like a hundred blankets, but they accept our passports and apply the necessary stamps.
It's mid-September and we are pushing northeast. We battle numb hands and limbs despite wearing electrically heated clothing and as many layers as possible. The payoff for this bundling is a landscape unlike any other on Earth, more lunar than terrestrial. I sneak a glance at my GPS, and its dusty screen reads altitude 16,134 feet, higher than many of the tallest peaks in the Rockies, and we're still climbing. By midday the ride is taking its toll; we are both struggling to take a full breath in the thin air. At an altitude of 17,246 feet our concentration is taking a pounding, as our lungs are unable to fuel our brains with oxygen. The bikes feel a little labored, but both seem to be handling the dizzying heights better than their riders.