Some more stories from South America as our Ural Adventure moves from Bolivia into Chile:
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.
Loading the bikes on the busy streets of La Paz is proving to be quite a challenge. There is barely room to move between the shuffling feet and every second pair of feet stops to watch or photograph us, causing even more congestion. On the positive side, the attention is fun and we’re having a great time posing for pictures and answering questions in our broken Spanish. Well over an hour later, we finally have our gear and ourselves out of the hotel lobby, across the sidewalk and onto the bikes.
The day’s destination is Oruro, a mining city and the largest settlement of the Southern Altiplano. This fascinating city sits against a range of hills at the northern end of the country’s salty lake district. These hills are chock-full of copper, silver and tin, forming the backbone of the city’s economy. When the price of tin dropped in 2008, the average monthly salary of a miner went from US$3000 to US$280. Mines were closed, putting 1500 miners out of work. Things have slowly started to look up since, as some mines are again re-opening but in the meantime, this part of the country is still finding its’ way through a drastic change of fortune.
As we head out of Oruro after a fun night wandering through the street markets, we are hit with an unexpected blow. There have been changes in Bolivia overnight – changes that will create some new challenges for us during the rest of our stay in the country. Due to a new law that came into effect yesterday, foreigners can purchase fuel only at a designated ‘foreigner approved’ fuel station and only at prices more than double what the locals pay. We aren’t terribly concerned with the price, but getting any information on the location of the designated stations is proving difficult. We drive from one end of the city to the other, stopping at every fuel station looking for information and fuel. Nobody will sell us fuel and nobody knows which station is the ‘approved’ one. Finally, as our fuel supply is dwindling and we think that we are now at the last fuel stop in the city, a military officer points us in another direction. There is one more fuel stop and thankfully they will sell to us, although at a significantly increased cost and with an enormous amount of paperwork. Nevertheless, we are finally refueled and ready for the next stage of our journey.
We make a decision to continue our ‘off-the-beaten-track’ adventures and head towards a seldom-visited part of Bolivia and a little-used border crossing into Chile. As we head out on the highway, several concerns are on our minds: we aren’t sure where our next tank of fuel will come from, the condition of the highway is steadily deteriorating, we are being choked by voluminous clouds of black exhaust coming from every truck, and the nearest border to Chile is still days away. If the major highway is barely drivable, what will we face on the smaller roads where we are headed?
We find our next tank of fuel at a station in a small village where the notice of the new law is posted. While one employee says “No” to fueling us up, the other ignores her and fills our tanks. Shortly afterward, we take our turn off of the highway, heading toward Salinas de Garci-Mendoza, Llica, and the Chilean border.
There is no pavement, just gravel and deep corrugations. We have now entered the kamikaze road network of potholes and deep ravines that make up the 95% of Bolivian roads that are unpaved. These are known as some of the bumpiest and most poorly maintained roads in the world. The roads are so rough that it seems as if for each mile of official road, there are six miles of unofficial roads off to the sides, created by the locals to keep from being continually sent flying by a trip on the official roads.
As Miles tackles the challenge of maneuvering across the deeply rutted terrain, I spend some time riding on the back of Stefan’s bike which is provided with its’ own challenges as we hit the deep sand of this desert landscape. Both Stefan and his Honda Africa Twin are highly skilled in this environment, but with the added weight of me on the back, it is a lot to manage. We have a couple of close calls where we are able to stop before falling and I push the bike out of the sand while Stefan drives. But finally, even skill isn’t enough. We wobble toward the left, then to the right and I bang my leg hard on the side of the bike before finally landing on the ground with the bike’s pannier hitting me in the hip. I will have a few good bruises, but other than that Stefan and I as well as the bike are all fine, at least for now.
A short while later, Stefan turns off into an abandoned village so that we can check out at an interesting-looking church. As we head back to the bike, Stefan sees a large pool of oil under his bike. Big Trouble. I head to the road to see if I can still flag down Miles but he is nowhere in sight. Stefan spends a few minutes examining the bike before determining that there is a major oil leak. We have managed to hit a rock hard enough to puncture the skid plate and create a hole in the engine case. He hops on and speeds off down the road, trying to catch Miles. It takes a moment before it sinks in. I am abandoned . . . in a deserted village . . . in the middle of a steaming hot desert . . . where I haven’t seen another person for hours . . . and it is about 1 hour before sunset . . . and I have nothing but myself and my motorcycle gear. I have no idea how long it will be before Miles and Stefan return. It seems logical that they will deal with Stefan’s bike before heading back to pick me up, so I could be here for a while. My mind is prone to heading in all sorts of strange directions in these uncomfortable situations. Yikes!
Thankfully, Stefan isn’t gone for long and Miles returns shortly behind him. We follow the first rule of repair according to Horizons Unlimited and make a cup of tea. Rather than rushing through a quick and probably poor repair, we decide to camp here for the night and think through the best way to fix the bike. My mind quickly shifts from panic to excitement. I’m looking forward to a night of camping, set up in the midst of an abandoned village with wild vicuña wondering past our tents.
In the morning, the boys manage to repair Stefan’s damaged oil sump with some silicone and a bandage from our first aid kit. It’s amazing what is possible when you just don’t have that much to work with. Shortly afterward, we are headed to Salinas de Garci-Mendoza, once again in search of fuel. Under the watchful eye of a local police officer the fuel station in this tiny village fills our tanks, no questions asked. I guess they have not received the memo yet!
As we head toward Llica, the sand gets softer and deeper, sometimes up to our axles. At times there is no clear path and we need to move forward on faith that we will find our way. At one point, we start losing momentum, soon to be stuck in the deep sand. The sea of sand extends for the next 400-500 metres before a patch of high ground. Miles calmly looks over at me and yells “JUMP!” We need to lighten our load and losing me is the quickest way. We had discussed this possibility in advance, but the reality of jumping from a moving vehicle is far more frightening than I had expected. I’m momentarily paralyzed and the questions start to fly:
T: “Why do I need to do get out?”
M: “Just get out.”
T: “I don’t wanna.”
T: “But, but, but…”
As time passes, we are slowing and slowing into the deep sand. I finally get myself onto the side step and leap with Miles commenting that I look like I’m auditioning for the trapeze act at the circus. Thankfully the sand is soft and cushions my fall. Knowing that Miles was moving as fast as possible to get out of the sand, I am certain that we were traveling at least 15 kph. I feel quite heroic. Unfortunately, I am disheartened when I finally look back at the Ural to see it stuck in the sand, regardless of my significant efforts. I am even more disheartened when Miles tells me that we were barely moving at walking speed when I finally jumped. Well, as I learned yesterday, my mind does have a tendency to exaggerate in these situations. I’m guessing that the reality is somewhere in the middle of our two visions. Overall, leaping from a moving vehicle, regardless of its velocity, is not enjoyable and I recommend avoiding it at all costs.
Now it’s time to start digging and pushing our three wheels through the sand.
The Bolivian border is almost in sight. As we drive through some road construction, we are suddenly jolted by a deafening sound. To my ears it sounds like a gunshot. I think fast. What do I do in case of random gunfire? Duck? Head for cover? Leave the scene as fast as possible? The entire construction crew freezes on the spot. As our Ural limps to the side of the road, I realize that leaving the scene quickly isn’t an option but also isn’t necessary. There was no gunshot, just the sound of one of our trusty Chinese tires bursting, punctured by construction debris. A quick swap with our spare and we’re on the road again.
Soon we are at the border, warmly greeted by a Bolivian official who speeds us through the necessary paperwork. We make it out of Peru and into Bolivia in about an hour and a half, making this one of our smoothest border crossings since leaving the U.S.. On the Bolivian side, we meet a young Australian lady not quite as well-prepared. Her Bolivian visa has expired but her desire to stay in the country has not. Leaving all of her possessions in Bolivia, she legally enters Peru and then immediately heads back across the border into Bolivia to receive a new visa. But her request for a new visa is declined. She has overstayed her welcome by overstaying her visa. This is a traveller’s nightmare but the risk that you take by trying to stretch the rules. We offer our sympathies and head off down the road, never learning her fate.
Our first stop in the country? Fuel. Or so we had planned. We pass several fuel stations that are unexplainably closed before finding one that can help us. Well, sort of help us. Bolivia has a law in place to prevent Peruvians from crossing the border and taking advantage of lower fuel prices. Within 100 km of a border, vehicles with foreign registration can purchase a maximum of five litres of fuel. We’d heard about the fuel limitations and aren’t surprised. Our solution is to stop at every open fuel station that we see for the remainder of the day, all two of them, purchasing what we can and then moving on.
We are now leaving the shores of Lake Titicaca and once again crossing the altiplano as we head toward the widest part of the Andean range. Our wheels are pointed in the direction of the capital, La Paz, but we’ve made a decision to skip the big city in favour of travelling off-the-beaten-path. We turn off the main road and head for the town of Viache.
As we move further into the country, we start to form a clearer picture of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America despite being the richest in natural wealth. Bolivia’s politics and history are tumultuous and tragic, but their culture has changed little in centuries. It is estimated that 64% of the population live below the poverty line with this figure increasing to 80% in most of the rural areas where we are travelling. Average annual earnings are around US$900.
Nowhere is the state of the economy more obvious than in the road conditions. The road to Viache is treacherous. When we arrive we learn that there is only one hotel, but the hotel owner is not there. I have one person trying to reach her by phone and another searching her out on foot, returning with the assurance that the owner will arrive in just a moment. We keep waiting, but sunset is fast approaching. If she doesn’t show up, our best alternative is to head to La Paz which will take more time than we have daylight. We decide it is best to head to the city now.
The city is one giant street-market. Pedlars are hawking everything from food and medicine to hardware and household machinery. The number of street-side vendors is roughly equivalent to the number of pedestrians, and trying to find our way through the throngs of people is quite a challenge.
After driving through the city in the darkness for about 30 minutes, I finally see a hotel sign. I hop out and head toward the hotel. Rushing along the crowded street, my eyes on the signs overhead rather than on where I am headed, I trip on an uneven piece of the pathway. Landing face-down on the sidewalk, I slide down the broken pavement. I knew that my diligence in wearing my full motorcycle gear was going to pay off at some point, but I hadn’t expected that it was going to be for the protection it would offer during a high-speed walking accident. Fully clothed in my helmet, motorcycle jacket, Kevlar trousers, and leather gloves I seem to be completely unharmed. From the corner of my eye I see dozens of leather boots and full skirts shuffling past and then finally a gloved hand reaching toward me to offer assistance. I turn to see the puzzled face of a police officer. I accept his hand, spring to my feet, offer a “Muchos gracias” and continue on my way, dazed but acting as if nothing unusual has happened. I can’t imagine how ridiculous this must have looked to the many onlookers – a very tall and strangely clad foreign woman doing a dive and slide through the street market. I do know how to put on a show.
After all of this excitement, I find the hotel and learn that it has absolutely no parking available. Not good. We keep going and when we eventually spot another hotel, it takes about 20 minutes to make our way through the traffic just to get around the block to the front door. But it is worth it – a nice hotel with secure parking included. The price is about US$50 which is significantly more than we have become accustomed to, but at this point the price seems reasonable if it will get us off of the busy streets and provide a much-needed resting place.
After parking and settling in, we explore the neighborhood on foot to find someplace for dinner. Wandering the streets, we really have an opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of this bustling market city lost in time. We are mingling with the throngs of Indians in bowler hats and petticoats as we browse for some exotic delicacy. We finally settle on one of the nine street-front chicken vendors across the street from our hotel. Yes, despite our searching, chicken is once again the best option for dinner. As we eat, we reflect on our first impressions of Bolivia. The government and infrastructure are presenting us with some new challenges, but the people we have encountered have gone out of their way to help us and make us feel welcome. We will grow to appreciate the people of Bolivia even more in the coming days as their country continues to put us to the test.