After digging ourselves out of the sand, we continue our drive along the edge of the Solar de Coipasa, a remote salt desert sitting at over 3700 m and covering over 2200 km². In the middle of this barren expanse, we see the island occupied by the salt-mining village of Coipasa with its buildings constructed almost entirely of salt.
Just when we think that neither the sand nor the corrugations on this narrow road can get any deeper, we gratefully arrive in Llica. The higher fuel prices we have been paying have left us low on cash and we don’t have enough for food, fuel, or lodging. The search for a bank machine or money changer begins and we find ourselves wandering the streets asking the locals for assistance. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to give us accurate directions when there are few street names and no addresses, but the first man we speak with assures us that there is a bank machine down the southernmost street. We search every building on this street and find no bank machine. The next lady we ask assures us that a small business around the corner will exchange money for us. After much pleading with the shopkeepers, they will not exchange our U.S. dollars. A third conversation leads to similar results. We are experiencing the Bolivian version of hospitality – wanting to appear helpful and knowledgeable, even if it means providing incorrect information. Feeling like we’re being led around in circles, we eventually decide to ask several people the same questions and hope that the most common response is actually correct. This tactic works, and we find a shoe vendor able to exchange our money and lead us to a friendly lady across the street who is thrilled to rent us a room for the night and roll our bikes into her storage room for safe-keeping.
After my icy shower the next morning, I catch a quick glimpse of the eye that has been bothering me for the last day. Three painful growths have appeared. They look like the sties that I’ve been accustomed to since I was a kid, although it’s unusual to have three at once. I try not to worry about them and get on with the day.
As we sit on the sidewalk enjoying our breakfast of freshly-baked saltenas, we visit with an outrageously smiley gentleman in an immaculate white embroidered poncho. I was dazzled by how he managed to look so dapper in the middle of this dusty little town. He confirms that the road we are planning to take to the Chilean border is the right choice and after checking our directions with a few others, we head west out of town, toward the border about 50 km away.
It’s tough going and this 50 km takes several hours to cover. Again, I’m forced to abandon the sidecar in deep sand, but this time instead of asking me to jump from a moving vehicle, Miles is pleading with me to hop back on while the Ural is building momentum. He’s kidding, right? I opt out and instead end up climbing a steep sandy hill to meet him at the top. Perhaps jumping into a moving vehicle wouldn’t have been so bad.
We are now 5 km from the Chilean border and searching for the turnoff. But the road that we are expecting to take to the border simply doesn’t exist. We try going down four different tracks that look vaguely like they might have been roads at one time, but after a very short distance down each road it is clear that none are passable.
Once we recognize that our chosen route is clearly not going to get us to Chile, we continue to explore along our current path which follows the border. At one point, Stefan and I see a sign post marked “Bolivia”. We drive around the sign to see it marked “Chile”. It appears that we have unofficially entered Chile, but the lack of roads and border officials make this entry into the country quite meaningless.
I continue to alternate riding with Miles and Stefan all day depending on the conditions. Miles and the Ural have an easier time in the deep sand but Stefan and his Africa Twin have an easier time on the steep inclines. With all of the moving back and forth between bikes, I’m feeling a lot like unwanted cargo, but I know that this is making the travel a lot easier. During one of my bike swaps, I lose my footing in deep sand while getting off Stefan’s bike, sliding under the bike and once again landing on the tailbone which is still recovering from my fall in Mexico. Stefan and I also have another fall that has him landing face-first in a dangerously poky shrub.
Both Stefan and Miles are proving themselves to be very hardy – it is taking incredible skill and a fair bit of strength to get through this terrain and they are both still smiling and seeming to enjoy the challenge. Meanwhile, I’m feeling exhausted, sore, and weak. I’ve been ill for a couple of weeks now and am struggling to find the strength to get through this day. To make things worse, I’m very nervous as we continue heading further and further into unknown, unmapped territory. All of this is making me more than a little edgy which in turn is making an already difficult day even more difficult.
We continued on our route, higher and higher into the hills, until we know that we have barely enough fuel to get back to Llica. Disappointed that the day’s adventure didn’t lead us to where we had hoped, we head back in the direction we came from in search of a suitable camping spot for the night. We had passed an area where there were some collapsed buildings near a school and a couple of homes. At this high altitude, the walls of the collapsed buildings will provide some welcome shelter from the cold night winds and we manage to make it back to this spot and get the tents set up before dark. Grateful for this bit of shelter and even more grateful to have the school’s tiny outhouse nearby, we settle in for a chilly night.