Some more stories from South America as our Ural Adventure moves from Bolivia into Chile:
Journal: December 6, 2011 Uyuni, Bolivia
As light begins to seep into our room from a courtyard window, I can make out my motorcycle jacket in the corner of the room – just standing there. Yes, standing. It’s thoroughly coated with salt from yesterday’s drive across the Uyuni Salt Flats and is so crusty and stiff that it now holds my form even as I am lying on the opposite side of the room. A trip to a laundry will definitely be on the agenda for the day. We’ve spent the last three days tackling the challenging roads, and lack of roads, that we have faced here in Bolivia. Driver, passenger and bike all require at least a day off from traveling. We wander through the local market stalls looking for breakfast and sample saltenas from two different vendors as well as a potato pancake stuffed with meat and eggs. While I catch up with family and friends at an internet café, Miles and our German companion, Stefan, do a thorough maintenance on their bikes, chipping away the salt that accumulated yesterday and preparing the bikes for what could be some more rough riding over the next few days. Uyuni is a much more touristy spot than anywhere else we’ve been in the last couple of months. But the desire to please the foreign crowds has resulted in a wide assortment of restaurants – not just the usual chicken and potatoes. As I read the menus of various restaurants, my mouth is watering. Against their better judgment, Miles and Stefan concede to me and agree to an Italian dinner, recognizing that Bolivians aren’t really known for their expertise with pasta. We settle on the most reasonably priced location that has some variety. After ordering, I wait two hours before enjoying my Roquefort Ravioli. Not having had pasta or even cheese since leaving home, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Miles and Stefan are not so lucky. We suspect that their meals have been given to another table by mistake and they wait almost another hour before being served.
They are not impressed….
Total bill: B147 . . .
and we are still hungry….
We promptly head away from the tourist area and find a local ‘Pollo Asado’ place where we each enjoy a complete chicken dinner.
Total bill: B34 . . .
and we all feel very satisfied.
So much for my need for a change of pace.
As we’re sure you’ve noticed, the Smiles & Miles blog has been resting for a very very long time. After 26 crazy weeks, 23,000 wild km overland, 15,000 lonely km by sea & 20 awe-inspiring countries, we had a bit of a hard time re-adjusting to life at home and finding a place in our new routine for writing. Sitting in our home office, the inspiration wasn’t quite as strong as it had been while we were on the road and we questioned whether anyone was actually reading now that we had returned home and shared our stories with family and friends in person. It somehow didn’t seem as relevant now that we had settled back into more predictable days and began to resemble somewhat normal Canadians.
But reality is that the travel certainly hasn’t stopped. Since flying home from London with our Ural in March 2012, we have visited: China, Denmark, England (three times), Estonia, Finland, Germany (three times), Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Poland, Russia (twice) & Sweden. Whew! We continue to travel primarily by land & sea, but our journeys are all under four weeks and the Ural has stayed safely parked in our Garage Mahal.
Now that a couple of years have passed, we realize how many new stories we’ve accumulated and how much we’ve missed sharing our adventures with like-minded or just plain curious friends around the globe – and we’re hearing from many that they are missing it too. Although we’re no longer on the road every day, exploring our big beautiful world is clearly still a significant part of our lives and we don’t see that changing anytime soon.
These are some great reasons to resuscitate the Smiles and Miles blog . . . but currently overshadowed by another huge motivator. We’ve just committed to another tremendous adventure which we can’t wait to share.
In 78 days, we will be getting behind the handlebars of an auto rickshaw (aka tuk-tuk, samosa, tempo, bajaj, lapa…) for a leisurely 2,700 km drive from Jaisalmer to Shillong, India participating in the Rickshaw Run and raising funds for Cool Earth and Free the Children. We’re quite sure this will prove to be one of our craziest exploits to date. Stay tuned for more details.
In the meantime, the stories from our overland adventure from Calgary to London via Buenos Aires & Dakar will continue. We invite you to come along for the ride.
Tracey & Miles
I wake in the morning to find a llama and a sheep waiting just outside the tent for me. They accompany me on my trip to the nearby outhouse and then patiently escort me back to the campsite. On our return, we are met by an older lady from one of the nearby homes whom I had tried to chat with before setting up camp the previous evening. She speaks neither English nor Spanish so our communication was limited. Out for a morning walk, she has spotted our tents and bikes and is overwhelmed with curiosity. After a night’s sleep, we are both much more energetic than we were last night and we exchange some animated sign language and huge smiles as I give her a tour of our campsite and demonstrate all of the most interesting features of the bikes. She sits outside Stefan’s tent for about 10 minutes patiently waiting for some sign of life. Finally she gives up and heads to our tent with Miles still slumbering inside. I unzip the fly and give her a peek inside at Miles still tucked in his sleeping bag. She flashes a nearly toothless grin and almost looks like she’s about to climb in and join Miles but instead decides to head back to the other tent where she once again sits patiently waiting for a glimpse inside.
With Stefan still oblivious to any of this activity, our visitor finally decides to end her tour and heads back across the field toward home, followed closely by the llama and the sheep.
It takes a while for the boys to rise. Clearly they need some extra sleep to recover from yesterday’s hard work. When they are finally up, the sun has been out for a while, I’ve returned from a walk in the nearby hills, and we take just enough time for a quick breakfast before once again hitting the trail back to Llica. It’s a beautiful bright day with no signs of yesterday’s bitter wind and on our return trip to Llica we are well-prepared for the roughest parts of the trail and tackle them a bit more easily than we had yesterday. We are better able to enjoy this magical corner of Bolivia – a remote wilderness of harsh hillscapes, psychedelic mineral colours, and tiny quinoa-producing farms.
We arrive in Llica in time for lunch and lounge over bowls of soup. There’s time to spare while everything in town except this soup kitchen is closed for the usual three-hour after-lunch break. We spend some time deciding on our plan for the afternoon. Do we head back to the main highway where we had started several days ago? Or do we take the even more adventurous route across the salt? Easy decision. Salt it is.
After re-fuelling from old soda bottles from someone’s kitchen, exchanging more money and re-stocking our emergency food supplies, we roll through the town’s military base and to the edge of the salt – the Salar de Uyuni to be more precise. This part of the Altiplano has no outlet to the sea and the minerals leached from the surrounding mountains are deposited here, forming a 12,206 km² salt lake, the largest in the world. There are no tracks across the lake, no landmarks, and only one sign pointing vaguely in the direction of where we are headed, the town of Uyuni, almost 300 km away across this expanse of hexagonal white tiles . With no roads and therefore no map or navigation system to rely on, we point our wheels in the direction indicated by the sign and hope for the best.
Miles is a bit bored. Having spent lots of time at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, this is all too familiar for him. But for me, this is a whole new world and I’m loving every minute. At the start, we can see Volcán Tunupa which we passed on the other side a few days ago. It looks far more impressive now, spewing steam into the clear blue sky.
Looking into the distance is eerie. Most of the time, we see nothing but white ground and blue sky. In the few spots where there is water, the surface perfectly reflects the sky and the horizon completely disappears. It feels like we are driving through the sky. Occasionally we pass islands covered in bizarre rock formations and even more bizarre Trichoreus cactus. The whole scene is truly surreal.
As we near the far side of the salt flat, we pass a hotel built almost entirely of salt and then pass through the central area for salt extraction and processing.
There remain at least 10 billion tons of salt in the Salar de Uyuni. Farmers hack it out with picks and shovels and pile it into small conical mounds that line this edge of the lake. The estimated annual output of this operation is nearly 20,000 tons of salt. Most is sold to refiners and hauled off by rail, but some is exchanged with local villages for wool, meat, and grease.
We’ve been driving quickly, carrying enough speed that the hard ridges of salt aren’t too hard on our butts. Miraculously, our dead-reckoning has taken us directly to the town of Colchani, only 20 km north of our destination. But as we head off of the salt and on to the roads, we discover that this will be the longest 20 km that we have travelled. The asphalt on this stretch of road is completely destroyed. Not a single vehicle is driving on the road. They are all maneuvering the rough and winding makeshift tracks in the ditches, dodging one-another at high speed. This is the ultimate contrast to the last several hours of cruising across the salt and a jarring welcome back to the real Bolivian road system.
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.
In August 2012, Miles and I had an opportunity to present some of the lessons from our travels at the Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting in Nakusp, Canada (www.horizonsunlimited.com). At the request of several participants, we have made some of the materials available here for our readers’ use. Please visit the new “Resources” tab for materials to assist in packing for your trip, including a copy of our own packing list and reviews on some of the gear that we have used.