Trip distance and Time trip correct at La Paz, Bolivia on 28/11/11
More photos in the galleries Bolivia 2011 - Chile 2011 – Argentina 2011
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‘Trails of South America…a photo journal’ gallery which supports my ADV Rider thread
Continued from Chapter 27…
After a painless border crossing at Copacabana (I’d exited Bolivia there in 2009 and so knew the system) I rode on to La Paz only to arrive at Hostel El Careterro just as Mark & Claire appeared on foot to take a look at the place. They’d been staying elsewhere but soon moved when they realized how much they could save my moving to El Careterro.
I hadn’t realized quite how tired I was until I stopped. The dirt roads, bushcamping and cold of the mountains had left me in need of a break that I hadn’t realized I needed until I stopped. La Paz was a better place than most to do that as I could afford a private room where I could make breakfast set-up my laptop etc without having to pack it all away every time I went out. I knew my way around having spent 19 days there trying to repair Lady P’s suspension back in 2009, knew where to get a great fruit/yoghurt salad for lunch and a variety of restaurants for the evening. It is also a ‘real’ city, not one that’s evolved around tourism and so it’s an interesting place to walk around. (A bit of time off the bike also gave me a chance to write chapter 26 and much of chapter 27).
A few days later it was my birthday and Mark & Claire knocked on my door bearing gifts, the most fantastic handmade birthday card and an invitation for breakfast.
Three courses of breakfast later and we could barely move. Nobody gave food another thought until Claire appeared early afternoon with an incredible chocolate birthday cake and promptly brewed fresh coffee to wash it down. It was a stunning cake but rich, oh so rich. Now there was a time when I was the king of the rich deserts amongst my friends and could out eat anyone but even I couldn’t manage seconds. Mark though made me look like a novice and promptly dusted off what Claire couldn’t manage.
Later that afternoon Yoshi arrived and moved into my room which immediately halved the price doing us both a favor. That evening the four of us headed out to ‘Olivers Travels’, a gringo bar/restaurant that serves as good a Bangers ‘n’ Mash as you’ll find in any pub in England and, when they’ve got it, locally brewed draught Saya beer in either dark or amber. Being a birthday celebration it took several Sayas to wash down the BnM.
It was the second time I’d spent my birthday in Bolivia and was in total contrast to the last time when I’d spent a memorable night camping alone on the Salar de Uyuni. Regular readers will recall this flashback to 2009…
Before I knew it I’d been there for 3 weeks. Mark & Claire had left and so had Yoshi, only for Uwe to arrive and take his place whilst the bed sheets were still warm.
Back on the road
I eventually rolled out of La Paz on the 1st September although that was easier said than done. I’d virtually drained my gas tank dry over the previous weeks by filling my camp stove and as a result I needed gas asap. At the first gas station I was exasperated to be told they couldn’t serve ‘Extrañeros’ (foreign licensed vehicles) and was sent to another station which fortunately wasn’t too far away. There they looked at my license plate and pointed to a sign stuck on a pump that said ‘Extrañeros’ were to be charged Bs8.69/l (normal price was Bs3.74). I’d bought gas for the regular price at a tiny place on the road from Lago Titicaca so I knew it was possible, I just had to find out where. Surprisingly, when I asked where I could buy it for the regular price they pointed to the gas station on the opposite side of the dual-carriageway – WTF! I promptly filled up there for Bs3.74/l.
Note: Recent gas price history in Bolivia – Pissed off with the surrounding countries crossing the border to fill up with cheap gas, president Evo Morales doubled the price of (subsidised) gas overnight. The people revolted and went on strike, shutting the country down and forcing ‘Evil’ Morales to reverse the price increase as quickly as he’d instigated it. Forced into a re-think he opted for the ‘Extrañeros’ pricing scheme without pausing to think who it would effect. In towns like Cochabamba, some 600km(?) from the nearest border it is obviously only tourist this will effect. Tourism has the potential to become one of Bolivia’s greatest money earners but this fact appears lost on ‘Evil’. I was shocked to hear indigenous people with nothing good to say about the world’s first indigenous leader. It would appear that unless you’re a coca farmer, ‘Evil’ has done nothing to help you. On the subject of coca farming, under the leadership of ‘Evil’, Bolivia has leap-frogged Peru to take-up second place behind Colombia as the world’s biggest coca producer. It would appear that the Latino populate are hopeful ‘Evil’ will be toppled by his own people. An event that would lead to a ‘non’ indigenous leader having a better chance of forging some progress, though not for a long time (perhaps since Simon Bolivar himself) has Bolivia had a leader that didn’t have their own agenda.
Eventually on the road, I headed NW towards Lago Titicaca. When the road split I took the right fork through Peñas and soon found myself back on the dirt following a series of narrow, rutted dirt tracks along the valley floor. When I came upon what looked from a distance to be a market I was waved down by a group of locals. I never was exactly sure what was going on but it appeared that a photographer from a local newspaper was there to photograph a local farmer with his prize llama. They wanted a shot with me and of course once one had had his photo taken, so the next guy wanted his, and the next etc. I took the opportunity to give my camera to the photographer and get a snap for myself.
A little further on I rejoined the tarmac and began climbing. The views of Ancohuma (6427m) and IIIampu (6368m) would have been stunning but they were hidden in the cloud. I rode on through the trekking town of Sorata to beging what would be a 470km loop along the old ‘Gold Road’ (so named as it was built by gold prospectors) around the mountains to Coroico.
After camping on an abandoned road near Ananea I descended into the narrow valley and felt the heat of the elevation change immediately. The road was a narrow affair hacked into the valley wall high above the river, the going so slow I barely got out of second gear all morning. The housing was very different down here with many constructed with thatched roofs and bamboo cane walls giving the place a very Asian feel. It wasn’t just the houses that made it feel like Asia, the heat was getting to me as I wasn’t used to it.
The further I rode the more traffic I encountered and by mid-afternoon I was in Caranavi and after taking on more fluids I turned south for Coroico. When I left town a strange and dangerous thing happened: All oncoming traffic was on my side of the road! At first I couldn’t work out why – was the road one-way? Had I ridden unwittingly into alternative running? At every blind corner I slowed enough to allow me to react to wherever the oncoming traffic came from and was promptly overtaken by a minibus and couldn’t see anything in the dust. There was nowhere to get off the road either and so with no chance of finding a campsite I had no choice but to ride on to Coroico. As I entered the narrow part of the canyon so, it became darker, compounded further by the setting sun. Some drivers had the sense to use their lights in the thick dust and failing light but many did not, waiting instead for it to get completely dark before turning on their lights. I realized (or so I thought) that we were driving on opposite sides of the road to allow drivers of oncoming vehicles to sit next to the edge of the road to better judge their proximity to it.
Trucks and buses often had to back up to allow one another to pass making progress even slower. As it became dark I no longer though about time, I just wanted to arrive in Coroico alive. It’s no surprise that Coroico sits at one end of Bolivia’s once famous ‘Road of Death’. Often dubbed ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road – BBC’ it was once said to claim the lives of 200-300 travelers annually. Fortunately, after more than 20 years of construction, the new road is now complete and the old road is little more than a tourist attraction. Not that that means people have stopped dying on it. On the contrary, there are several memorials to Mountain Bikers who have plunged to their deaths in recent years. (More of the ‘Road of Death’ later).
It seemed to me that the Coroico – Caranavi road was just an extension of the infamous part. The dust was incredible. It was the most dangerous three hours I can ever recall spending on a motorcycle.
The direct(!) road to Cochabamba
I didn’t want to get up the following morning and it was 0800 before I managed to drag my sorry, tired arse out of bed and stretched my eyes with a mug of strong coffee. There was no gas in the gas station which meant descending into the valley to queue for gas before returning to town to ask directions to Cochabamba.
Note: When I calculated my fuel consumption I was shocked to find it had increased from 20km/l to 13.8km/l. I was unsure as to whether that was as a direct result of the poor quality Bolivian fuel, the slow 1st and 2nd gear riding of the previous tank full or a combination of both. Either way it would have real consequences for my planned route through the lagunas in Bolivia’s SW corner.
My quest to find the correct road out of town went something like this…
Me – “Donde esta el camino a Cochabamba?”
Local – “Cochabamba? Ah…La Paz…”
Me – “No, no, no. Cochabamba. Directo”.
Local – (shaking head) “Directo? No, no se!”
Eventually I asked the way to Chulumani, the first village of any size on my map and was pointed onto the right road. In Chulumani it seemed everyone was riding old Jawa motorcycles from the Czech Republic – cool.
There was a lot of traffic hence dust and so my camera stayed in its bag for most of the day. Late afternoon I found a bushcamp along the banks of a wide, dry riverbed and pitched camp. Rosie wasn’t the only one running on poor fuel. My salami was shite.
As lost as it’s possible to be without actually being lost
WTF does that mean I hear you all cry! Well, it means I didn’t know exactly where I was, or how to get where I wanted to go but I had my ‘track’ on the GPS so could always return the way I’d come.
The morning had started well but after crossing a valley and climbing to the small town of Inquisivi it all went wrong. Realising I was on the wrong road I returned to town and asked directions at the police checkpoint. Now this is where my limited understanding if Spanish can get me into trouble. I understood that a road led from beyond the plaza to Independencia but I failed to understand that there were two plaza’s and that I wanted the road leading from the second. As a result I followed the track away from the first plaza and into the wrong valley. At the first settlement I came upon two guys making mud bricks and again asked directions to Independencia. They pointed to a track leading off the plaza and told me to take the right fork. The right fork led to a gang clearing the road of fallen trees who said it wasn’t the way to Independencia and pointed me in a different direction. That direction led me along a dead end track that terminated at a tiny finca where I met and chatted with this lovely couple. She shuffled along bent over at 80° and he seemed to do everything.
Returning to the hamlet I once again met one of the brick makers who by then changing the oil in his truck. He insisted that he had told me the correct way to Independencia and re-confirmed his directions. I passed the wood cutters for a second time and continued to the pass there the road split. Neither showed signs of sufficient use for either to be the main road to Cochabamba and not for the first time that day I was undecided as to which route to take. I made a brew.
Just as I was packing up I spotted a local guy walking along a goat track. I chased him down and using his finger he traced a route around the valley that I should take. Despite his confidence I wasn’t convinced. The track had grass growing on it and so whilst perhaps it was possible to get to Independencia, it certainly wasn’t the main route that I had in mind. Slowly I descended towards a wide, stony, glacial river valley with a track bulldozed across it. As I descended so I felt something loose on the back of my bike. I stopped to find the r/h pannier frame had snapped and quickly ‘McGuivered’ it with a tyre lever and zip ties.
I contemplated pitching camp but needed water before I could do so and so I rode on to the river in the middle of the valley. Just as I was taking some photo’s a truck appeared on the opposite bank and crossed the river towards me. It was the only vehicle I’d seen outside of a town all day and the driver told me that Cavari was only 40 mins up the hill and there I would find the track to Independencia.
Their mentioning of Cavari allowed me to pinpoint my location on my paper map and finally understand where I was being directed. It became immediately obvious that I was right in my conclusion that it was possible to get to Independencia this way and that the ‘big circular motion’ with the fingeras indicated by the wood cutters had been trying to direct me back to Inquisivi but without actually saying so!
I emerged out of the valley an into the small hamlet of Cavari at the football pitch (match in progress) and suddenly felt the eyes of all the spectators fall on me as I skirted the pitch. In town there was one small tienda and I asked for a coke… “No hay”. A bottle of water…”No hay”. When I explained that I wanted water for cooking I was led through the shop to a standpipe in the back yard. The shopkeeper turned on the tap but no water flowed. Fortunately the drip bucket beneath the tab was full and I took what I needed from that. I bought a tin of tuna and a packet of biscuits. The rest of the stock was made up of large bottles of pop, crisps and popcorn. No wonder the two toothless Cholita’s sitting on the step outside declined to have their photos taken!
I re-confirmed my directions and set off. The sun was setting and I knowing I had to re-cross the river valley to my left I pushed on in the hope of finding a campsite along the riverbank. Once again I had that ‘loose luggage’ feeling and stopped to find my ‘McGuiver MkI’ had shifted and that a MkII was required.
There was precious little daylight left as I turned onto the riverbed and rode upstream a little way to where I could pitch camp out of sight of anyone crossing the river. As I cooked dinner whilst drinking tea and listening to Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ on audiobook, I glanced at my gas tank and realized I’d better not get lost en-route to Independencia tomorrow!
The following morning I splashed through the river and took the easy if twisting climb up to the ridgeline where I rejoined what was obviously the road I should have been on all along. I soon ran onto reserve and began coasting downhill in a bid to make it to Independencia and a gas station. As I coasted so I spotted the town in the valley below but despite making it into town I wasn’t out of the woods yet. There was no gas station! When I asked in the shop I was buying a drink from where I could buy gas I was asked how much I wanted. By chance I’d stopped at the one shop in town that sold gas from containers but as ‘Evil’ had limited the amount of fuel villagers could buy in containers and therefore transport to remote villages, the price was inflated. The going rate was Bs7/ltr. I checked the map and asked for 15ltrs which should have cost Bs105 but as I produced a Bs100 note the woman started counting change and I realized that she hadn’t given me 15ltrs, only 10. When I enquired as to why I was informed I had to buy in units of 10ltrs. Had I paid with the right money I’d have been pushing Rosie to Cochabamba!
It was a good job I did as once again I soon found myself on the wrong road! Soon after leaving town the road turned 180° to the right and as it straightened so a much smaller track spurred off turning 180° left. It was much smaller than the main track and couldn’t possibly be the main track to Cochabamba and so I all but ignored it (mistake!)
As my track formed on my GPS screen I realized I was heading south and not south east. Atfer checking my paper map I opted to continue on through Kali to Taipacari where I could follow another track east along a valley to meet the main La Paz – Cochabamba road at Parotani.
It was bloody windy at 400m above Taipacari but as I descended in search of a windless spot to make lunch so a front wheel puncture decided for me. I rode on a little way until I finally found some respite and removed the front wheel as the water boiled.
I had leftover soup from the previous day and fresh bread I’d bought in Independencia so I had a decent lunch. I also had a reasonable place to stop and as I was ‘only’ riding to Cochabamba I was in no hurry.
Having re-fitted and packed my tools away I checked the tyre before washing my hands only to find it flat again. Aaarrrggghhhh!!!!
With the help of the adjacent stream I found a series of tiny holes next to the original thorn hole that I’d patched. I tried patching them but to no avail as a second check in the stream revealed yet more holes. I fitted my spare and rode off.
At Taipacari the track carried me straight down the centre of a glacial valley, through seemingly endless water crossings until it seemingly just petered out. I asked some guys working in a field but bizarrely none seemed to understand ‘Cochabamba’ (Bolivia’s third largest city) and it wasn’t until I mentioned Parotani (where the track joined the main road to Cochabamba) that I got a positive response. Somewhere amongst the water crossings the track had divided and climbed the bank to a road etched into the valley wall. I never did find the correct way to that road but I got there nevertheless. No sooner had I joined the track than my right foot slipped off the footrest. Or at least I thought it had slipped off. In fact, one of the two mounting bolts had sheared off allowing the footrest to spin round on the second bolt! (More on this in a bit) Eventually I joined the tarmac for my final run into Cochabamba just as a sandstorm whipped up slowing my progress sufficiently for it to be dark by the time I reached the city. I found Hostel Jardin with its ample parking easily enough and was desperate for a hot shower. Shame there wasn’t any water in it!
Eventually the water situation was resolved, I got cleaned up and headed out into the city in search of a steak. What I found was pretty good and by the time I’d finished the large beer (I was expecting a 660ml bottle but was served a full litre) I’d proclaimed it most excellent. It had been quite a day.
The next few weeks proved to be very sociable. Before leaving Cochabamba I had dinner with ADV inmate and Cochabamba Cory (aka krazykiwi – ADV Rider) and from there, after stopping at six gas stations before finding one that would sell me gas at the regular price, I rode to Samaipata to visit Maarten and Tip (Chapters 9 & 19). Since my last visit Maarten has started Bolivia Motorcycle Adventures and has procured a fleet of DR, XR and KLR 650’s. They’d also renovated the former dwelling on their plot of land and converted it into a little cabaña which guests can rent (give Tip a days notice and she’ll even rustle up a Thai meal for guests).
In Maarten’s newly built workshop Rosie got an oil change, sidestand and rear brake pivots greased, valve clearances checked and the broken footrest bolt replaced. Maarten also took me to a local welder to get the pannier frame repaired.
Note: Broken footrest bolt – It wasn’t until I began work on Rosie in earnest in February last year that I noticed the footrest mounting bolt issue. ‘Man Mountain’ Ian from whom I’d purchased Rosie had fitted a footrest lowering kit (comprising two brackets which drop the mounting position below the protection of the skid plate) which I wouldn’t need. When I attempted to remove them I discovered that the r/h one had struck something so hard it had pushed one of the original mounts into the frame so it was no longer parallel with the second mount.
Another repair involved the main zip on my BMW Rallye suit which had broken. Now I always thought it was a good idea to have YKK zips on everything as everywhere has spare YKK zippers right? Well nobody told the Bolivians and despite a trip to Santa Cruz both Tip and I failed to find a replacement. I squeezed the old zipper together a bit tighter with a pair of pliers and added a pull tab from a Chinese zip. Only time will tell…
After a week I waved goodbye to Maarten and Tip and followed the Ruta del Che through the hills and valleys to Sucre just as I had back in 2009. Only this time with some decent weather!
Are you still here!?
In Sucre I rode into the regular overland travelers hangout Hostel Pachamama where I found Yoshi patiently awaiting a replacement shock for his 30,000km old 2009 model BMW R1200GS (despite it having dome less than 1000km of dirt roads!). I moved in with Yoshi to share costs and learned that his bike was in bits in the workshop of Motoservi where owner Jamie had kindly let me do some maintenance on Lady P back in 2009. I was in town for about 10 days and on both Sundays Yoshi and I spent the day with Jamie. On the first Sunday we visited a market on the edge of the city where I ate the biggest fish I’ve ever eaten. On the second Sunday we arose at stupid O’Clock to catch a collective the 70km or so to the famous market at Tarabuco. Locals come in from the outlying villages to trade and are regularly dressed in their traditional garb. We chatted with a blacksmith who’d been working the same forge for 55 years!
During my time in town I prepared for my forthcoming ride through the SW corner of the country. I bought a new pair of knobby tyres, a 20l fuel can and addressed the issue of excess play in Rosie’s sidestand in Jamie’s workshop.
Jamie’s very proud of his expertise of cylinder boring and attracts customers from all over Bolivia.
When Uwe and I parted company on La Paz we tentatively agreed to meet up somewhere and ride the lagunas route together as Uwe had no GPS. I hung around in Sucre for Uwe to arrive but when he did, he did so with a broken subframe mounting on his frame. After making some enquiries he decided that the frame needed to be welded using cro-moly welding rods but of course there were none to be found. It wasn’t a repair he was prepared to bodge-up and so had to order welding rods from Brazil!
I unfortunately couldn’t due to the time remaining on my visa and so left Yoshi and Uwe both waiting for the postman to come knocking.
Maarten had informed me that since my last visit the road from Potosi to Uyuni had been 80% surfaced and so I opted to carry my tyres to Uyuni. I hate carrying tyre but it was only a day’s ride and riding 360km of tarmac on new knobbies would have been sacrilege!
The ‘Lagunas Route’
The ‘Lagunas Route’ as it’s become known runs from the Chilean border post at Hito Cajon in the SW corner of Bolivia and runs north, virtually parallel with the Chilean border until it intersects the Uyuni (Bolivia) – Calama (Chile) road at Chiguana, taking in many colourful lakes along the way including the most famous Lagunas Verde and Colorada. From Hito Cajon to Chiguana is approximately 180km and another 35km to San Juan. Gas stations, shops and settlements are replaced by stretches of sand, rocks and ruts. Much of it is above 4000m and there’s no water. You’re on your own…well not quite…The route has become a favorite of 4×4 tour companies either running loops from Uyuni and Tarija or ferrying tourists to and from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
The Curse of the Lagunas
I first attempted the route on Lady P back in 2009 but I aborted my first attempt (from the south) because of all the cold starting problems I was having at the time (It’s regularly -10°C overnight but can drop below -20°C). With thinner oil and a new battery I rode to Uyuni only to arrive with a leaking waterpump and have to replace it in the hostel car park. The following day I made a second attempt heading SW from Uyuni only to blow a fork seal which resorted in me tying a rag around the fork leg to prevent the oil getting into the front brake. I was only 30km or so south of Vila Alota at the time and so hadn’t even got to the start of the Lagunas Route proper. The track would only have got worse and so I aborted.
So, after two years of dreaming about this route would it be third time lucky on Rosie? Not quite…
I checked into Hostel Tati Laura where I stayed two years previously and set about changing my tyres. On occasion, over the past few weeks I’d had a feeling that something was loose at the rear of my bike yet despite checking and re-checking I could find nothing amiss. Until that was, I tried to remove the rear wheel spindle and couldn’t. Well not at first anyway. Only with a huge amount of effort did I eventually free it and the reason was immediately apparent. A collapsed cush drive bearing. I was somewhat surprised at this failure as I’d replaced the cush drive bearing and both rear wheel bearings with fully sealed NTN bearings just 11,500km ago in Quito, Ecuador
The only place in town that looked likely to have a bearing was closed but it was late afternoon and so I hammered on the door. Eventually a head appeared from an upstairs window and the owner (who was evidently in the shower) asked what number bearing I wanted. He said he had one and told me to wait. He appeared a few minutes later and sold me an unsealed bearing from the Czech Republic. All that remained in the housing of the old one was the outer shell and I had no tools that I could remove it with. He told me to return in 15 minutes, which I did, and the new bearing was in place. Luvvly jubbly.
I worked until a little after dark by which time it was very cold and so it was late the following morning before Rosie was ready to roll. At the gas station I filled Rosie to the brim along with a 5l can and an 18l can. I took the 18l can to the row of tour agencies and asked around until I found a company that was about to leave on a tour to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and who were prepared to carry my fuel to San Juan. The driver said he’d leave it at the shop in San Juan and we began negotiating the transport cost. It started at a staggering Bs200 (GBP20/U$32) and after much bartering we eventually agreed on Bs50.
So why did I need so much fuel? It was my intention to ride to Laguna Colorada and then on down to Laguna Verde near Chilean border then return to Laguna Colorada and continue north through Chiguana, San Juan, Chuvica and cross the Salar de Uyuni from south to north, exiting at the village of Tahua at the foot of Volcon Tunupa. North of there lies the village of Salinas de Garci-Mendoza where, in 2009, I’d marked a gas station on my GPS. I had no accurate information regarding distances for many sections of my proposed route and therefore had to make my fuel calculations based on a piece of string and a map whose accuracy I was uncertain of.
I could have ridden my chosen loop anti-clockwise which would’ve enabled me to return to Uyuni to refuel before crossing the Salar but all the 4×4 tours running from Uyuni ran anti-clockwise and to do the same would mean constantly overtaking/being overtaken and hence constantly riding in their dust. My decision was based upon passing each tour once and once only thereby minimizing the dust.
By lunchtime I was ready to ride and had an easy day riding SW towards Vila Alota and Valle de Rocas, topping up with gas at San Cristobal along the way. The dirt road had been improved over the past two years making it an easy ride to where the real dirt road began at Vila Alota. I dropped my tyre pressures to 18F and 22R (PSI) and crossed the shallow river to join a sandy track that leads onto the wider but still sandy track up the hill. Rosie lapped it up with her new knobbies hooking up and blasting me up the hill in top gear.
By late afternoon I was in Valle de Rocas where I’d had a memorable bushcamp two years ago and with black storm clouds on the horizon I hastily pitched camp. The storm passed close by, blowing hail stones across my campsite. I had a lousy night’s sleep, probably overexcited at the prospect of finally riding the lagunas route after years of dreaming about it and finally dragged my arse out of bed at 0640.
It was reasonably sandy right from the beginning but Rosie lapped it up, carrying me along in 4th and 5th gear – great riding. Soon after the village of Mallcu Villa Mar the track got much stonier and I slowed my pace. The track ran through a narrow gorge before climbing onto a plateau and affording me my first view of Salar Capina.
After skirting the Salar the riding was once again fast and I was soon at the National Reserve entrance where I was signaled to stop and pay the Bs150 (GBP14/U$22) entry fee. The clouds had once again begun building in the distance as I approached Laguna Colorada. It was still before lunchtime and yet I’d already stopped counting 4×4’s heading towards me when I got to 20. My plan to ride clockwise seemed to be working.
Coloured by red sediments and pigmentation of some algae Laguna Colorada is an unusual sight. I’d seen many coloured volcanic lakes in Indonesia but never a red one and never one inhabited by hundreds of flamingoes. It was a sight to behold.
South of the lake I joined the road south to Chile and began a steady climb. The wind had picked up and I began to think about finding some shelter where I could stop for lunch. Walking to the edge of a shallow canyon to take a photo I noticed vehicle tracks in the bottom. I retraced my tracks to the entrance and rode in to find a great spot; so good I made a note of it for later.
After lunch I continued to climb to 4900m. It was another ‘Ride for sore ears’ (a reference to taking my helmet on and off so many times to take photos my ears become red raw!). Passing Laguna Salada and the Desierto Salvador Dali I rode on to Laguna Verde before returning to Laguna Verde. The ride looked like this…
I was expecting a sub-zero night and didn’t want to add a wind chill factor to it so I returned to the canyon where I’d eaten lunch. The wind was blowing from the west which was perfect as by camping beneath the west wall I’d catch the warmth of the rising sun; although as you can see from the lingering snow it wasn’t that warm.
I needed cold water with which to make porridge but as soon as I plunged my Steripen into my waterbottle it froze. The temp gauge on my bike said -6°C and it had already been in the sun for 20 mins. I ended up boiling water then letting it cool on the snowpack.
At the western entry to the National Reserve is a tiny tienda. I stopped to buy water & toilet paper and to take a photo of it and the complex beyond. As soon as I produced my camera the woman (owners wife?) who’d been sitting outside doing laundry in a tub ran screaming from her stool as though she’d been shot! By far the most over-reacted response to being in a photograph (not being THE photograph) I’ve ever encountered. Given the number of 4×4’s I’d seen (that overnight there) she must do more running, waving and screaming than she does laundry.
A well marked track led to the ‘Piedre del Arbol’ (stone tree) after which it was fast going through wide valleys to the next POI, a rock formation that reminded me of the Bungle Bungle’s, only in miniature. The riding was sublime; quite sandy but a blast on Rosie with her fresh knobbies.
In some places the ruts were 30cm deep but they were ‘V’ shaped so my footrests didn’t drag. I passed several more lagunas along the way before coming to a rocky section that eventually descended to the main Uyuni – Ollagüe route. I was tired and making stupid riding errors and so looked for a place for lunch. I hadn’t slept well the previous two nights and I’d had a headache for two days. A combination of altitude, dehydration and tiredness I suspect. Below the road to the west was an area of rock formations very similar to Valle de Rocas and I found some shade amongst the rocks for lunch and 40 winks.
After my nap I followed the main road north for a while until my route branched off NE. Another good run through the sand led up to rise with a view across the Salar de Chiguana A sandy and rocky jeep track descended to the salar and I quickly caught up with two 4×4’s ahead of me. To my surprise they moved over for me to pass and I didn’t see them again until San Juan. I crossed the railway track near the army post at Chiguana and continued north across the Salar.
The first (only?) tienda I came to in San Juan was the one holding my fuel and I walked in to see my can standing in the corner. The owner was a friendly woman and I chatted with her and two customers for a while. They asked where I’d come from that day and how long it had taken. I checked my GPS to find that my actual riding time had only been 3h10 but by the time I’d added a lunch stop, 40 winks and photographs it was 6h!
I stocked up on a few supplies and feeling the need for a sugar fix, had a special treat of a cold coke and a Snickers. As I was pouring my fuel in so the two 4×4’s pulled up. In one was a Dutch couple I’d met in the guesthouse in La Higuera a few weeks previously. Their tour had commenced in Tupiza hence it was running clockwise. These were the only two I saw running clockwise.
I spent a little longer than I should have sitting around chatting but eventually sped off on a fast dirt road. Fast that is until I made the mistake of following a sign post! It led me to a tiny hamlet from where I had to ask directions to proceed. I could see a track climbing the hill beyond I just couldn’t see how to get there. When I asked for directions I was told the road was difficult but then the guy looked me up and down before adding “Por usted, no problem”
Once over the hill I had my first view of the Salar de Uyuni. It was a rocky descent all the way to Chuvica where I picked up an often sandy track due north to the edge of the Salar from where a causeway led onto the salt flats. Upon entering I noticed there was a little spray and with hindsight being such a wonderful thing I wish I’d stopped to see how bad it really was. Instead, because it was late and sunset was approaching I rode on. Initially there were none of the pentagonal patterns that I’d seen in ’09 and I had to ride a long way before seeing what appeared to be the beginnings of their formations.
Eventually, just before sunset, I chose a spot to camp and stopped. Immediately I looked at Rosie I was horrified. She had cm of salt built up on the exhaust header and several mm over everything else. I was so pissed off with myself I couldn’t relax. I put a pan of water on to boil and went to clear a spot for my tent. As I kicked out one of the salt ridges to make a flat place so my foot broke through the surface. It was just a thin skin covering the salty slush.
Immediately I wasn’t happy with camping. A – I would subject everything I unpacked o the salt water and B – I would awake to a wet groundsheet/inner tent, the drying if which would delay my (now necessary) return to Uyuni to wash Rosie.
I had the GPS waypoint for the eastern entry/exit ramp at Colchani from back in ’09 and decided I could ride there in a straight line and return to Uyuni that night ready to wash Rosie as soon as the ‘Lavado’ opened in the morning. The temperature on the Salar plummets at night so I added some warm clothes and set off. I couldn’t see a thing through my black visor and I’d managed to lose my clear safety glasses that I normally wear at night so it was an uncomfortable 70km to the exit.
As I approached Colchani I encountered huge puddles. Puddles so big that their edges were outside the scope of my headlight meaning I had no idea whether to turn left or right. I tried going left and right alternately to keep me going in a straight line but soon I was surrounded with no dry line visible. I had no choice but to ride through first one, then another and another. I was so pissed off (with myself) I was screaming inside my crash helmet. At last I saw what appeared to be a puddle free zone but as I rode onto it so I sank. I opened the throttle but just dug in. I had a vision of getting stuck within sight of land and having to spend the night where I was stuck.
Rosie’s rear wheel was buried up to the swingarm and as I came almost to a halt I jumped off and began running and pushing with a steady throttle opening. At 3600m I had no idea how long I could maintain that exertion for but I was prepared to run until I collapsed in a bid not to get stuck. Suddenly, at the end of my headlight beam I spotted a ridge. About 30m away was the raised ‘ramp’ that heralded the exit I was looking for. I kept running and pushing and eventually made it to ‘dry land’ whereupon I promptly apologized to Rosie for being such a twat. It was still another 25km to Uyuni along a dusty corrugated road. I checked back in to Hostel Tati Laura at 21:04 and went out to eat a shite pizza.
I was at the Lavado by 0800 and soon had the side panels, seat, tank and bashplate off for a good washing. These places wash all the 4×4’s that do the tours so they’re well set up. A good hosing down with a large diameter hose was followed by a very lengthy scrubbing by hand and another hosing down. It was 1130 by the time I returned to the hostel whereupon I scrubbed the drive chain with kerosene and spent the whole afternoon scrubbing all my luggage and straps. It’s amazing how baked on that salt becomes.
On with the plan
My paper map showed a road leading NW away from the Uyuni – Oruro road at Chita but when I got there I couldn’t find it. Despite being 1100 the only people around to ask were already drunk and so establishing whether or not the road actually existed, never mind actually finding it, was a game in itself.
As helpful as they wanted to be there arms constantly waved in different directions. Eventually the wife of one of the guys arrived and gave me some directions that led me to a track that seemed to go in roughly the right direction. It was slow going through deep sand and bulldust and was just the beginning of a day that led me through the longest, deepest and sometimes slowest sections of sand I’d encountered with Rosie (In fact, the only time I’ve experienced longer and possibly deeper was on the ride to Australia’s Lake Eyre).
There was no road/track marked on my GPS to follow and the locations of places on my paper map were obviously wrong but I noticed that the irregular shapes of the regions lakes corresponded on both the GPS and paper maps and so that was how I navigated for approx 150km.
When I met the ‘new’ road on which I’d broken Lady P’s suspension back in ’09 it still wasn’t finished. Not only that, but nobody was working on it. Nor had they for some time judging by a wet seasons worth of debris wrapped around the bridge support steelwork.
I couldn’t find the track I was looking for on the opposite side of the road but eventually picked up a sandy track from behind a cemetery that led me to the track I really wanted. It was more like a ride through Baja than Bolivia. Sandy/rocky jeep tracks stretched across flat scrubland and ran through unnamed villages. Eventually I came to one with a name, San Martin. I stopped to take a photo of the plaza only for a guy to appear waving a finger at me and shout ‘NO PHOTOS’ I don’t know what his problem was but I’d never encountered that anywhere in the world. WTF…it was the town plaza with nobody in it!
Late afternoon I came to a reasonably deep water crossing and didn’t fancy getting my feet wet. There was a pedestrian bridge 50m upstream wide enough for Rosie and so I took that.
Eventually I found a place to pitch my tent behind some dunes and cooked my dinner watching the sunset. The next morning, approaching Santa Ana de Chipaya I came across another river crossing. It was reasonably deep at what I estimated to be 50cm or so but what concerned me more was the soft sandy bottom with no sign of vehicle tracks (which would have given me an indication of how firm it was). Once again there was a pedestrian bridge a little way upstream, only this time it was a little on the rickety side. I walked across it and it wobbled and had a few planks missing. What to do? A basic mental Risk Assessment concluded that whist the consequences of the bridge collapsing were high, the likelihood was low. Whereas the consequences of getting stuck in the sand mid-river were medium, the likelihood was quite high. I chose the bridge.
After passing through the village I found a track that appeared to be a shortcut to Sabaya where I was hoping to buy gas and find a track to Macaya. 20km of sand carried me into Sabaya there the gas station was still being built. Or rather construction had stopped! I was directed around the back to where gas was dispensed from a homemade tank.
My map showed a track/road heading NW away from Sabaya to Tunupa but I couldn’t find it. Eventually I gave up and rode NE to Huachacchalla and picked up a westward track that, after approx 45km, intersected with the one I’d been looking for in Sabaya. Along the way I found several faults with both the locations of places on my GPS and the papermap. In some cases villages were marked with the wrong name. What was marked as Cotasi on my GPS and Kotasi on my papermap was in fact Juno. My papermap even had villages marked on the wrong roads. No wonder nobody I’d asked had understood where I was trying to go! Unfortunately I’d filled up my diary two days before all this happened and I started writing notes on scraps of paper. At the time of writing I can’t find all those scraps of paper and so can’t recall the details of the map/GPS shortcomings. Bummer.
From Juno to Macaya I had to navigate another salar. It took several attempts to find a way through as many tracks just disappeared into either salty bogs or the river. Once again the riding in western Bolivia was sublime. I’ll let some photos of the Huachacchalla – Macaya road do the talking…
Unfortunately, without my diary, the details of my ride of these few days are rather vague but I rode north through Pampa Magachi and Chachacomani as I headed towards Parque Nacional Sajama. I camped south of the main road to La Paz and had a magnificent view of the perfect, 6542m cone of Volcon Sajama.
The morning began with wet feet as I crossed the river to enter the tiny village of Bofedal with its adobe chapel. My map isn’t detailed enough to identify the two mountains in the first photo but I believe them to be Volcon Parinacota and Volcon Pomerape on the Chilean border.
Across the main road I entered the park and it wasn’t long before I was getting my feet wet again.
I hadn’t seen a shower for a week and was looking forward to bathing in the hot springs in the park but I was disappointed to find that the tracks leading to the Termales both ended at carparks requiring me to leave Rosie and walk. I really didn’t want to leave all my gear unattended and so my shower had to wait until the end of the day.
The ride through the park was pleasant enough but without an ascent of Sajama itself the eastern exit of the park proved more interesting. As I exited the park I passed a few cottages, rode through Ojsani and just before re-joining the main La Paz road I came across an area of weird and wonderful rock formations that were like the Valle de Rocas – on acid! Some parts reminded me of Moab’s Slick Rock Trail (USA) and others, well…make up your own mind.
I made lunch in the shade of an overhanging rock then hit the road to La Paz 230km away. In La Paz I returned to Hostel El Carratero where I found two Washington USA registered DR650’s and promptly met Aussie couple Linden and Jeanette who’d bought their bikes in Seattle and spent the past year riding south. They were up for a bit of proper English pub grub and a real beer and so I took them to Olivers Travels. We walked in to find just one other couple sitting at a table – English couple Simon & Lea from Chapter 27! Needless to say the Saya beer flowed and we had a great night.
My main reason for returning to La Paz was to collect a parcel from the Post Office. La Paz born, Colorado resident and professional photographer Sergio Balivian had picked up on my ADV Rider thread and after a couple of public postings we exchanged several emails. He was horrified to learn that I was still shooting jpeg’s and finally convinced me to make the switch to RAW (something I’ve known I should’ve done at least 4 years ago but I just didn’t know where to start). Anyway, Sergio had recommended a book but the publisher’s wouldn’t ship it outside the US and so I had it sent to Ken (ADV TrophyHunter) who I’d stayed with in San Diego. He in turn forwarded it to me ‘Poste Restante’ in La Paz. It was waiting for me when I arrived. Thanks again Ken.
It was a brick that I really didn’t want to carry but I knew it was the only way I was going to learn.
Given the time of year I should have continued north from La Paz into the jungle but I couldn’t drag myself away from the mountains. I still had a few routes in mind that I wanted to try and I quite fancied riding the last leg of the Carratera Austral down to Villa O’Higgins.
And so it was that after a few days I packed my gear and rode SW through El Alto and light rain towards the most northerly of the Bolivia/Chile borders at Chiguana/Visvisi.
At the Bolivian border in Chiguana there was a barrier across the road but nobody there. I saw a building with a ‘Migracion’ sign above the door but when I knocked I found it to be a private house – (take the feckin’ sign down!!!) She told me Migracion was in Visviri (Chile). It was about a 5km ride and I arrived to find that yes Migracion was there, and they stamped me out, but that Aduana was back in Chiguana. I eventually found my way into the locked compound that contained (among various things) the Aduana office but without any signs it took me a while. I was dumbfounded when the officer wanted photocopies of my driving license, passport and title. I was afterall leaving and not arriving (copies weren’t required when I exited at Copacabana). Of course the photocopy office was closed and there was no sign of the person who ran it, not even in the canteen. – WTF! I waited for ages until the Aduana officers’ colleague returned from lunch whereupon the fax machine was used to copy the title. Suddenly the other copies weren’t important! Then the computer system went down meaning my TIP (Temporary Import Permit) couldn’t be processed and so a copy of my TIP was made using the Fax machine and that was stamped, signed etc (I needed that to prove to Chilean customs that I’d checked out of Bolivia).
I left the compound, got on my bike and just as I was riding away so the Aduana officer came running out to say the system was back online and asked me to return. It only took a few minutes and I had the correct paperwork.
Back in Visviri I got stamped into Chile but the Aduana guys were eating dinner and so I had to wait for them. Eventually they were ready and they quickly processed a TIP without checking anything!
Ahhhh…the joys of Latin America!
My plan was to follow the Chile/Bolivia border as closely as possible south to San Pedro de Atacama. A route that would keep me as close to the ridgeline of the Andes as possible whilst carrying me through several National Parks and Reserve’s along the way.
The road south was another wide, corrugated affair until I entered Parque Nacional Lauca near Parinacota with some great views across the Nevados de Payachata. I joined the main Arica – La Paz road and headed east to Lago Chungara right on the border and found a campsite mentioned in LP. I was grateful of the stone walls that protected me from the wind and I had a magnificent view of Volcon Parinacota.
I awoke to find the campsite wasn’t free! It was 3000pesos (£4/U$6). I wanted to replace front brake pads but the pin cover was seized despite being fitted with anti-seize compound (Curse of the Salar, strike 1?). I tried for ages to unscrew it but to no avail. I rode west to the small town of Putre in the hope of finding either bike or car mechanic. Eventually I stopped at a shop for empanadas (lunch) and a few other supplies. I was told there was no mechanic in town and no fuel either. I backtracked a little way and turned south onto a dirt road that I was both surprised and disappointed to find was a wide, corrugated affair. I counted over 50 trucks heading the other way on my way to the Salar de Surire and arrived to find a salt mine. Once south of the mine I didn’t see another vehicle. In fact, I only saw one other person between there and my bush camp and he was herding Llamas. Along the way I ran onto reserve with 579km on the trip (from La Paz). I poured in the 5l I was carrying and hoped there was fuel in Colchane.
The high Andes always throw up some amazing cloud formations and today was no different.
A strong wind blew up during the night. At one point I thought I was going to have problems as the tent side blew onto my chest as it had in Baja. The force of the wind had pulled the vestibule peg out from the rock I’d jammed it under and the fly sheet was flapping about and in danger of tearing. I managed to secure it and lucky for it to last the night.
The morning brought a decent ride on regular width tracks past grazing llamas and vicuna’s to the main Iquique (Chile) to Oruro (Bolivia) road which I followed to the border town(!?) of Colchane.
There was no gas station in town and so I made a second pass looking for a sign saying ‘Vende de Gasolina’ – nothing. I stopped at the ‘Carabinera'(Police?) station and asked if gas was sold in town – no. The nearest gas station was in Huara, 195km away on the Pan American highway. I explained that I had enough gas for maybe 80km and he pointed me towards the Bolivian border saying something about the right hand side. I rode off to a small collection of houses but there was nothing there. I then spotted a track leading off to another settlement and so followed that. As I looked to my left I could see the large building that marked the Chilean border. I rode on and as I crossed a football pitch I realised I was back in Bolivia (illegally?) I asked a group of guys where I could buy gas and was overheard by a young woman. She led me to a corner shop but unfortunately they didn’t have any. The owner though pointed me to another building down the street but they didn’t have any either. The owner of that place though directed me to the gas station 500m away! (Why had nobody else mentioned the gas station!?) They had gas at the gas station but looked at my license plate and pointed to the notice requiring foreigners to pay Bs8.59/l instead of the usual Bs3.74/l. I had Bs120 in notes and in my best Spanish and with the use of my map I explained to the guy that at the inflated price I could only buy 15l which wasn’t enough to get me to Huara (it would, but I didn’t want him to know that as I didn’t want to go that way) He agreed to sell me 20l but I explained that I was going south not west and needed a full tank to get to Ollague. I remembered the coins in my pocket and produced another Bs25. He was going to give me 25l but a bit more persuading as he put the nozzle in my tank got him to fill it up. He wanted another Bs20 though which I didn’t have. What to do? Think? A quick mental calculation: Bs20 = approx GBP1 = approx 1500pesos. When I’d paid for my campsite yesterday I’d been given my change in 1000peso notes and whilst I didn’t have a 500 I gave the guy 2000pesos and he was happy. I’d paid somewhere between the two prices but more importantly I had a full tank of gas.
As I rode away back into Chile I realized the whole episode may have done me a favor. Back in Putre the ATM wouldn’t give me any (Chilean) money and so all I had was the 30k pesos I had leftover from 2009 (approx £40). I wouldn’t see another ATM let alone a bank before San Pedro and if the ATM there doesn’t work I’d have to ride 95km to Calama (in the wrong direction) to visit a bank. Now though, even if my ATM card doesn’t work, I should be able to buy enough gas to get me well into Argentina.
Leaving Colchane I picked up a dirt road SW to Cariquima and beyond to Lirima. The weather looked bad in the distance with several storms trapped in the various mountains dotted along the horizon. I soon found myself climbing into one such storm and as it tried to sleet so I stopped to don my waterproofs. It was a shame about the weather as the scenery was magnificent. I would have taken some photos only my hands were too cold to operate the camera.
As I climbed it became obvious I was heading to the highest pass I’d crossed with Rosie – 5088m
On the opposite side of the pass was blue sky and more of the strange, wind sculpted ice formations at the roadside. A few corners later I came across a Toyota Hi-Lux that was stuck. At first I was baffled as to how such a vehicle could get stuck but it turned out to be only 2wd and fitted with road tyres. It was clear that the pass had only just opened and the Toyota, whilst squeezing past the icy formations had dug itself into the loose roadside gravel and subsequent wheelspin had turned it sideways to the point that the rear end was in danger of toppling off the roadside.
The occupants seemed to be the owner who was late 30’s, his wife and her mother. They were trying to put small rocks under the wheels to gain traction but as the wheels spun so they spat out the small rocks. Like so many Latin Americans they seemed unable to look ahead. It was all well and good trying to get some traction but then what? They were trying to drive the truck out of deep holes and it took me ages to get them to understand that we needed to reduce the angle of the exit and use much larger, flatter rocks that wouldn’t get spat out. I also reduced the tyre pressures from 40 to 28psi (no idea what 4×4 drivers use?) It took a long time, moving ever slowly forward but eventually, after almost 2hrs, we got them out. Initially they’d wanted me to return to the previous village to get help but that was 40km away and an 80km round trip would have used enough of my gas to prevent me from going where I wanted to and so I declined. Afterall, nobody was hurt. I’ve no idea how they’d have fared if I hadn’t come along they didn’t seem to have any provisions, let alone warm clothes and at almost 5000m it would’ve been -15°C overnight.
It was 1330 and time for lunch by the time they got going. Normally I’d have ridden on to a lower altitude before stopping but as I already had all my gear off I decided to use the ice formations as a windbreak and have lunch where I was.
By the time I got to Parque Nacional Salar de Huasco the sun was out and I stopped for photos at the far end of the lake. It was a great view but really needed to get going and find a campsite. At about 5pm, not far north of the main road I spotted a cracking spot and pitched camp. I’d actually finished eating by the time the sun set for a change. Sunset was a cloudy but extremely orange affair.
I awoke to a rather cloudy sky but it improved as I ate breakfast. I was on tarmac almost immediately and stayed on it until the southern end of Salar de Coposa where I turned off onto dirt. It was another wide, corrugated affair that led me past Mina Collahuasi away to my right. Once past the mine the track narrowed and became much more enjoyable.
In Ollagüe there was once again no gas station. I bought bread and asked about buying gas but they wanted a staggering 1500pesos/litre – almost 2quid!!! (pump price was 650-800).
Whilst Calama was out of my way it was only a 70km round trip out of my way and going there would give me an opportunity to repair my front brake so I decided that was my best option.
I left town on what began as another wide, stony, corrugated affair but as it descended past white sand dunes to the Salar de Cocote it became a little sandy. At the far end of the Salar I stopped for lunch behind a derelict building and just grabbed a few photos of a train travelling across the salt flats.
The road surface changed regularly en-route to Calama and I caught and passed the train so I got a few more photos.
In Calama I rode straight to the campsite where I’d stayed 2yrs ago. I Slept in late then realized Chile was an hour ahead (EH? But its WEST of Bolivia…how does that work then!?), and so it was even later! Once again my camp stove wouldn’t work so I took the generator apart and cleaned it but still nothing.
Went to the tourist office for a map of Calama and directions to where I could buy a new jacket zipper (my squeezing of the slider had lasted all but a day) and the locations of the bike shops. I bought a new zipper but couldn’t get a YKK one.
The next morning I managed to get my campstove going but with an orange flame so it boiled very slowly. I rode to the bike shop, borrowed a hammer and big screwdriver and had the pin cover off almost immediately. Back at the campsite I got stuck into some maintenance. I serviced front caliper and fitted new pads. Cleaned chain and lubed with engine oil. Washed air filter and 2x filter skins; oiled and fitted one, turned front tyre around (I’ve got into the habit of doing this with Pirelli MT21’s after the first 3000km as it evens out the unusual knob wear – nobody like unusual knob wear!).
Still no Geysers!
I’d only planned a short ride to the geysers at El Tatio and so I had something of a lazy start. The previous evening I’d discovered unlocked Wi-Fi available in my tent and so listened to Simon Mayo (BBC Radio 2 for foreign readers) whilst I ate breakfast and packed .
I ran into a sandstorm as I left town. Visor filthy, in my eyes and everywhere – couldn’t see jack! It was mostly tarmac en-route to El Tatio although it did get a little sandy on the final run in. As I pulled up so did two Chilean two guys from Arica on KTM 450exc’s. They had followed the Dakar route through the desert from home and were heading to San Pedro. Their three mates also on KTM’s soon arrived and we had a bit of a chat. One of them had a KTM350 exc (which I’d never heard of). Now that looked like a GREAT bike – 103kg’s they said…must look it up!
I thought I could get a bed in the building but was told it was for staff only. It way too windy to pitch my tent so set off to find shelter. I eventually found it in abandoned mining accommodation block a few km’s south. Most of the buildings had the floors missing but I eventually found one with it in place and by unloading one pannier I could get Rosie inside too. That would help with getting her started in what would be a very cold morning. Or rather I thought it would…
I got up at 0600 so I could ride back to El Tatio to see the early morning thermal activity. It was -8°C inside the wooden hut. My camp stove wouldn’t work so no coffee made for a grumpy start to the day. Outside was colder – so cold I snapped the tube of my Camelback in half!!!
I also snapped one of the shaped knee pads in my BMW riding trousers. I pushed Rosie outside and tried to start her but the combination of cold and altitude meant that I struggled. I struggled to the point that I flattened the battery trying. I had to unload all my gear, push her out to the main dirt road, then along it until I found a hill I could bump start her down. (Ever tried bump starting a thumper with knobby tyres at 4400m!!!???). By the time I’d done that and re-loaded all my gear the tour companies were returning to San Pedro…the thermal activity was over for the day and I never did see the geysers!
That was just the beginning of my day. I rode the 90km to San Pedro de Atacama and had a look for a replacement stove but without success so I filled up with gas and headed for Paso Sico. I wanted to enter Argentina at the next border south, Paso Socompa, but my map said it wasn’t an international border. I did some searching online and found a report from a guy who’d approached from the opposite side but was turned away as they couldn’t process vehicles. He tried persuading them but they just laughed and said even if they let him through the Chilean’s wouldn’t.
And so it was that I headed for Paso Sico. I had fond memories of the pass from ’09 when I crossed in the opposite direction but this time the wind was howling and I had a job to stay on. When the wind blew from the side I was leant over so far the front wheel was all but taken from underneath me. At one point I turned so that the wind was behind me and a dust cloud blew past me like I was standing still. I was doing 80km/h so the wind was gusting to at least 120km/h.
As I approached Argentina and I got my first view of the border complex so my heart sank. I suddenly recalled the officious, straight faced ‘Jefe’ (boss) I’d dealt with last time. If he was on duty I was in trouble. I recognized him as soon as I walked through the door and before stamping my passport he wanted to see all my paperwork, including insurance. To buy insurance for Argentina in Chile you need either a 6-digit license plate (compatible with their insurance co’s computers) or a roadside insurance agent who will issue a handwritten certificate. Well there are none on the way to Paso Sico so I arrived without and was told in no uncertain terms “No entrada sin seguros”, and was promptly sent back to San Pedro. The wind was even worse on the way back. Like BAD day on Rta40.I finally arrived at 1915 after 510km, 330 on dirt and walked around all evening with my neck craned over at 45°. Once again it had been quite a day.
My third option for entering Argentina was the main road over Paso Jama. Mark & Claire had entered there without being asked for insurance and so I approached it with my fingers crossed. It was tarmac all the way but was a pleasant, if windy ride.
I breezed through Migracion and Aduana, even having a laugh with the Aduana officer who apolgised for not speaking much English. “No problem I said. I speak a little but understand very little. Though I understand nothing in Chile I added. She found this very funny and didn’t mention insurance. Phew!
On the border was a YPF gas station complete with expresso machine and sandwich toaster which meant a special treat for me – Latte and Pannini. Whilst I ate I chatted with two local guys riding BMW F800’s. They were returning from a trip to Machu Picchu and we’d passed each other on the road from San Pedro several times as we stopped in different places to take photos. Unfortunately they weren’t sure whether or not there was fuel 450km away in Antofagasta de la Sierra.
I said goodbye and followed the main Rta 27 until I reached the Salar de Cauchari where I turned south onto a dirt road that followed its’ western edge to eventually intersect with the Rta 51 to Paso Sico just above Cauchari and 115km from the Jama border. From the junction it was 68km to San Antonio de los Cobres where I knew there was fuel. Despite being in the wrong direction and being a 136km round trip, it would add 53km to my range. Now 53km is a chuffin’ long walk and so reluctantly I took the detour. I rode into town filled up with gas, noted all the new housing built over the past two years (due to the Borax mining) and rode out again.
There’s really nothing at Cauchari, it’s just a place on the map where Rta 51 meets the road south to Antofagasta, SW to Mina La Casualidad and north to Rta 27. However, I had noted some derelict buildings when I’d passed by earlier and they were of significant importance to me as they were provide me with a place to pitch my tent out of the wind. My stove was now failing on a regular basis and so in anticipation of this I’d bought cheese, ham and bread in San Antonio. It was good job I had as I barely managed to boil enough water for a brew. It was cheese & ham sarnies for dinner.
Overtired from the previous two days I’d gone to bed with a headache and didn’t get up until 0800. By now my stove was driving me nuts and in my frustration, when it leaked petrol all over itself, I set it alight. When both the stove and I had cooled down I tried again and to my amazement it lit. And so it was that for the next few days that became my lighting process! The flame was limp at best and cooking on it took forever but at least I could have a hot brew.
Whilst eating breakfast and scrolling through my route south on my GPS I noticed a big piece of missing info and had to re-load Viajeros Mapas (LINK). It was 1100 before I got moving and headed south past the Salar Pocitos o Quiron on another big, wide mining road. Sign at edge of the next salar said straight on to Antofagasta but that just led to the mineroad led to mine. Tried to follow the route on the GPS but road disappeared into the salar.
I backtracked to where the GPS showed minor route. It was there but hadn’t been used for eons. Why? There was something wrong, it was more direct than the main route and yet it had been abandoned. There must be a reason. I could sense disaster if I were to have followed that track. The name of that particular salar was after all Salar del Hombre Muerto (Salt plain of the dead man)
I returned to Police post at edge of the salar but being Sunday it was empty. I made use of the buildings to shelter from the wind, make lunch and think about how to proceed.
The Police post was marked Catamarca (state/province) but I was only just over the boundary and so staff must come from south (from the north would be hundreds of km’s) and so there must be a way. With Rosie parked in the shade I zoomed in on my GPS and spotted a thin red line skirting the salar. Bingo! That was my track and I followed around its western edge. I climbed away from the salar and looking back could clealy see the main route across it. Yet without the benefit of elevation I couldn’t find it for love nor money on the opposite side.
From the salar (or more precisely, the mine) onwards the track was much smaller and I saw only Vicuna’s. It got sandy in places but not as bad as I was expecting.
Approaching Antofagasta I passed some incredible rock formations and not for the first time wished I was traveling with a geologist. What I saw were obviously the remains of what had been eroded away of time but what period of time and by what? Wind, rain, snow, ice, glaciers?
Town itself was fairly quiet but there were several locals slowly getting drunk in the only shop that ws open. I bought a drink and asked if they sold gas. The reply to which roughly translated as “No mate. You buy it in the gas station down the road!”
It took a while for someone to appear and fill my tank after which I continued south through the town and out into a massive lavaflow amongst which I found a great bush camp.
My Scottoiler, or rather the oil I was putting in my Scottoiler hadn’t been flowing properly in the cold climate. I’d previously used straight 30w engine oil which had worked well but all I had found recently was 40w – just a little too thick when cold. As a result I started pouring oil onto a rag and wiping it onto the chain. I propped Rosie up so I could spin the rear wheel and found the r/h rear wheel bearing had failed. I removed the wheel and tried to knock the bearing out but I couldn’t get a purchase on the edge of the bearing with my drift and I eventually gave up and re-fitted the wheel.
Techie bit (girls and pen pushers may want to skip) – Normally when either of the two wheel bearings or the cush drive bearing fail I replace all three (in my experience, not replacing all three only leads to the other(s) failing soon after) but back in Uyuni only cheap, unsealed, Czech bearing were available and so I only replaced the failed one (although I did buy the two wheel bearings incase one failed before I could find ‘proper’ ones. Wheel bearings are an interference fit and so you can only replace them so many times before the wheel hub stretches and the bearings no longer fit tightly. Hence my reason to wait until I could buy all three bearings from a decent Japanese manufacturer AND replace the seals which had been all but destroyed during the previous failure.
The bearing failure scuppered my plan for the day which was to follow a Dakar Rally ‘piste’ through the mountains to Palo Blanco and beyond to Fiambala and its fabulous hot springs but rough tracks and sand weren’t what Rosie needed and so I stuck to the ‘main’ route through Pasto an on to Belen. Not that that began much easier 20km of corrugations for which I couldn’t find the right speed to smooth out. If there was one it wasn’t below 100km/h.
The scenery made up for the state of the road though. It was like riding through a watercolour where everything appeared ‘unreal’ as though I was riding through a 1950’s western.
At El Penon I was surprised to find tarmac (pleasantly surprised given Rosie’s faulty wheel bearing). I was equally surprised 136km later when it ended as abruptly as it had started and deteriorated into a sandy track. I’d lost a lot of elevation, the temperature had rocketed and I was now surrounded by cactus.
In the village of Vila Vil I asked where the Termas were. “Across the river, past the cemetery” I was told and soon found them at the end of a track 1.2km from the main road. There was nobody there
When I arrived I could see what I thought were the changing rooms but where were the pools? A closer look and I realised what I thought were the changing rooms were the pools! A little hut with two doors each opening onto a pool about 30cm deep. Crystal clear and about the temperature of a nice bath I stayed in for over an hour.
With my camp stove still playing up I collected firewood and made use of the BBQ stands. I soon had red hot coals, cooked pasta, made tea and pitched my tent.
Over the next few days I rode south through Belen to Nonogasta where I turned SW to San Jose Jáchal from where I hoped to re-cross the Andes at Paso Agua Negra. The road runs right through a glacier on the Argentine side and has all the making of a stunning route.
At Villa Unión I’d camped in the YPF gas station (as I often do in Argentina) where their café had wi-fi. I checked my emails and amongst them had one from Mark & Claire suggesting I checked the Argentine road reports before I headed for the main Argentina – Chile border at Las Cuevas had been reported only accessible with snow chains the previous day. At 4779m Paso Agua Negra is some 1600m higher than Las Cuevas and sure enough the border was closed and posted as ‘Un-manable”. WTF! ITS SUMMER!!!
Unable to take my chosen route I decided to push on and get to Santiago where Mark & Claire had told me about a mechanic who had let them use his workshop.
At 800km it was always going to be a long day so I could’ve done without the drama. After 1h15mins I finally exited the border into Chile. It was dusk and I had about ½hr of daylight left so I was pretty miffed to find my headlight not working. As the switching to both beams is fused separately the fault must lay with the main power fuse from the battery right? Wrong! That meant both filaments in the bulb were blown – very unusual.
There was nowhere to camp and so I stretched my head torch over the screen and rode on. I couldn’t use it to see with but at least oncoming traffic could see me – kind of! By the time I arrived in Los Andes it was 19:40 and pitch dark when I arrived in Los Andes. I was scared shitless as I passed cars in side roads waiting to pull out in front of me and so I was really disappointed to find the shop at the first gas station I found was closed. I rode to a second gas station but they had no spares in their tiny shop. I asked the girl working there and she spoke to one of the guys on the forecourt. He then asked a taxi driver who said everywhere was closed. Then the forecourt attendant asked me what type of bulb I needed and I told him H4. His Subaru Imprezza was parked on the forecourt and he promptly popped the bonnet, removed a bulb and gave it to me saying that he could get a new one in the morning for 2000pesos (£3/$4.50). I couldn’t thank him enough and rode on to Santiago where I eventually arrived at the hostel at 22:00 to find it full. Nooooooo.
I asked the receptionist to see if Mark & Claire were in their room and luckily for me they were. “Of course you can sleep on our floor” they said and so that’s what I did.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Santiago at all but managed to get myself ‘ship wrecked’ there for 18 days. As well as new rear wheel and cush drive bearings I needed to replace the seals that went with them. The sand and lack of oil flow from the 40w oil in my Scottoiler had massively increased the wear in my chain & sprockets and they needed replacing after just 18k km. The opportunity to use a workshop also gave me the opportunity to inspect and grease all the suspension linkage, swingarm and steering head bearings as well as a routine oil change.
On the outskirts of town I found Ruben who not only let me work on Rosie but cleared off one of his pump up benches to let me do so. I arrived on a Friday afternoon and so by the time I got Rosie washed I only got a few hours work done. Ruben was open 1000-1400 the following morning so I returned to finish up.
That Saturday saw the start of Chiles’ longest weekend holiday. Come 1400 everything would close and remain so until Wednesday. I still needed to find dust seals for my new rear wheel bearings and in the rush to re-assemble Rosie and get to the seal shop before it closed I inadvertently over tightened the steering head bearings. An oversight I would come to regret.
As it was the seal shop (along with several others in the street) had closed early for the holiday and so I was stuck until Wednesday anyway – hence my stay in Santiago dragged on.
It was a sociable time though. I met up with Axel (Chapter 17) who, since I met him in 2009, has become the Sherco Motorcycles importer for Chile and will drive the Sherco support truck in next years’ Dakar Rally. How excited was he!?
Yoshi was in town but without his bike which was still where it was when I left him in Sucre, Bolivia. Having been quoted U$3000 by BMW for a new rear suspension unit for his ’09 1200GS he looked around online. He found a new one in the USA through ADV Rider thanks to a rider who’d had his replaced under warranty but decided to upgrade to an aftermarket unit. The OEM shock was said to be brand new and Yoshi duly coughed up U$550 + U$160 shipping (if I remember correctly). When the shock arrived it was obvious that it had been badly packaged. The spring was loose on the body allowing it to move around. Yoshi fitted the shock, went for a test ride and returned to find it leaking. I admired his philosophical approach to the situation having wasted so much time and money. He was in Santiago having ordered a German Wilbers shock through their Santiago agent and was in town to collect it.
Before riding south Mark & Claire gave me the new stove generator they’d ordered through Coleman Chile and had delivered from the USA. It was a fantastic jesture that really did change my life!When Mark & Claire rode south so Uwe arrived and we spent many a night swapping stories over a few beers.
As all this was going on I received two emails of particular interest. The first from Billy & Trish (Chapters 9, 10 & 16) to say they’d be arriving in Santiago in a few days after two years riding through Africa and would be heading straight to Valparaiso to await their bikes.
The second was from Sergio to say that he was leading a photo tour in Bolivia at the end of which he’d have time to give me some RAW lessons.
I’d already decided that if I was to have any chance of getting through the Amazon then I’d have to scrap my idea of riding further south and so I rode to Valpasaiso and found a cheap place to stay. Meanwhile, Claire had received an email to say her dad had been taken into hospital for a heart operation. Quite naturally she’d lost heart in their trip and they’d returned to Valparaiso to arrange shipping their bikes home. In the middle of doing so Claire got the news that her dad was out of surgery and doing well so she relaxed a little. I’ll miss them. They’ve been a big part of my time in SA since we met in Cali, Colombia back in April, often ahead of me on the road and sending me lots of very good info. Not to mention the great birthday they gave me. Thanks guys.
When Billy & Trish arrived we didn’t stop talking for two days and even then we only scratched the surface. Had it been earlier in the year we’d have had the chance to do some camping together and catch up in a more tranquil manner.
Next stop…La Paz!
In order to meet up with Sergio I had 4 days to get to La Paz, Bolivia, 2600km away. I rode it in 3.
I could only find OEM Suzuki sprockets in Santiago and so I was back to OEM gearing which pushed my comfortable cruising speed back up to around 105-108km/h (up from 90) which made a big difference on this ride.
Leaving Valparaiso early I got 1109km under my belt on the first day and 900 on the second leaving me just 600 on the third. The riding was pretty straight and boring for the first 1200km or so but once I turned off the Pan Americana and onto the coast road (Rta 1) at Taltal things began to change and the ride from Antofagasta to Tocopilla was a huge improvement. From there to Iquique though was stunning. The mountains ran straight down into the ocean with the road sitting on a manmade shoulder. At the northern end giant sand dunes ran down to the sea again with the road once again sitting on manmade shoulders.
Being Chile accommodation was expensive and so I was bush camping and cooking as well. Those were loooooongdays!
I spent five days with Sergio in and around La Paz. In an unspoken deal he was sharing his deep knowledge of Lightroom and RAW in return for me acting as a model in his photo and video shoot he was doing to promote a motorcycle touring company he’s launching next year with La Paz friend and resident Oscar Ebert. Over the course of those five days we rode into the mountains around the city on routes I’d not ridden before and took a ride down the ‘Road of Death’ to Coroico where we spent the night. We were joined on that occasion by Sergio’s friend and fellow pro photographer of 50 years Medford Taylor who’s passion for photography at the age of 72 was infectious. His stories of the good ‘ol days when National Geographic Magazine would send him into the Outback with 400 rolls of film and U$10,000 stuffed in his trousers made great listening. A big Thank You to Sergio for all that he taught me.
Come the following weekend Sergio flew back to Colorado and I checked the weather prior to heading north into the jungle. Rain was forecast all week and so I decided to wait it out to see whether it was just a blip or whether the rainy season had begun.
Whilst I waited I tried to find a new set of steering head bearings. When I’d checked them back in Santiago I’d been pleasantly surprised to find them in perfect condition but over tightening them during my hasty reassembly had seen them ‘notch’ (and therefore self-centre) in just 3000km.
Everywhere I went just looked at the number I gave them blankly and shook their heads. Eventually I found my way to Bolivia’s major bearing supplier and whilst they knew what I wanted they had none in stock and only one in the country in one of their other shops. (I needed two).
Oscar phoned a friend in Cochabamba who went looking for me but he too drew a blank. The Suzuki dealer had them but wanted 320% more than the bearing dealer for EXACTLY the same NTN bearing, only in a Suzuki box. I wasn’t prepared to pay their price – a decision I would come to regret.
The Altiplano had lived up to all my expectations and often exceeded them. The Andes are a magical place and I feel privileged to have ridden among them. To have lived off of my bike and experienced the heat of the day, the cold of the night, the wind, the rain, the snow and the thin air is an experience I will never forget. Being a soft twat I can get quite emotional just thinking about it.
Eventually the time came to leave La Paz and the Andes and descend into the jungle but that’s another story…
I’ll leave you for now with a few of my memories of La Paz…