For the fourth, or was it the fifth time this morning, I ended up in the sand, my bike complaining loudly beside me.
“The truckies didn’t tell us there was sand” I muttered for the hundredth time,
“we didn’t ask” came the reply as Arno helped me get the bike upright.
Sian in the sandpit of life
Maybe we should have taken the train after all I thought, but only briefly, the road was a great introduction to Bolivia, hard as it was and some of it was actually fun!!
Leaving Brazil was a bit of a hit and miss affair, after waiting an hour for the customs guy to arrive and push the relevant bits of paper around, we were then told we had to ride back into Corumbá to get our passports stamped at the bus station.
The Bolivian side was no better, had to pay 4 Reais each for our immigration stamp and then told Customs were closed, come back tomorrow! Luckily it was only a few km’s to the next town, Puerto Quijarro where we planned to catch the so called “Train of Death” to Santa Cruz.
While waiting for more papers to be shuffled, the next morning back at the border, we got chatting to a couple of truck drivers, also on their way to Santa Cruz, they however, were driving! We had heard that a road existed from another traveller in Rio, who had been put on the bus instead of the train for some obscure Bolivian reason. He had said it was a pretty bumpy trip, but faster than the train. The truckies said that the road was pretty good, dry, with plenty of places to stop along the way as well as fuel. Now our interest was aroused, was it possible to ride this road, should we try it, or should we take the train?
A visit to the station was next, we took our bikes along and chatted to the guys in charge of transporting goods. They quoted us a kilo price of 0.86 centavos, a total for 2 bikes around U$50. The cost for ourselves was around U$40 and at least another U$10 for the guys who would help load the bikes, so around U$100 for the 20 hour journey. Not a bad deal, but the thought of actually riding to Santa Cruz kept nagging away at us.
The only thing to do was go and see for ourselves.
The road was surprisingly good for the 30kms we rode, wide gravel with only a few potholes and although we knew you can’t judge the whole road from a such short ride, we were positively encouraged.
Good gravel, wonder why the bus takes so long?
On our return to P.Quijarro, at around 5pm, the station was still full of people waiting for the 3pm train, there was some demonstration occurring, with tyres burning on the tracks. At 9pm as we ate supper, the train still hadn’t arrived and that speeded our decision, we would ride.
After 100kms of good gravel road we were congratulating ourselves on our decision. While stopped for a break, a small Honda 125 road bike pulled beside us. It was a brand new bike bought in Corumbá and on its way to Santa Cruz to be sold there. Chatted to the rider for awhile, he was going to ride through the night and do the 620kms in 24 hours or so. The road can’t be that bad if this bike can do it! We ate our lunch by the side of the road and watched a goods train putter by at 30kms an hour, no wonder it takes so long by train.
One of the many goods trains that use the single track
After 200kms or so, the road changed to packed earth, still easy to ride but now and again it was covered with sand. Not a problem but it slowed us down a little. There were lots of villages along the way, mostly by rivers. Most of the rivers were dry or pretty low and most had bridges – at least for light vehicles. A couple of times though we got wet feet as the bridge hadn't yet been rebuilt after the last flood.
engine cooling and chain cleaning all in one
It started to get trickier and the sand deeper, as the afternoon wore on and so at around 5pm, we decided to stop for the day. There was a conveniently placed restaurant, behind which we camped, an outdoor shower where we could admire the scenery and to round off the day a cold beer.
riding towards where we camped
The next day Arno’s starter motor turned temperamental and wouldn’t work, perhaps it knew what was ahead. It eventually sprang to life and we continued on towards San Jose, 100kms away. Now the road got really interesting, the hard earth sank deeper and deeper under the sand and we were ploughing our way through soft deep stuff in the ruts left by the trucks. Arno was struggling to stay upright, as I parted company with my bike again and again. It took us 4 hrs to ride 70 kms but then the road relented and we had it a little easier for the last few kms to San Jose. Here we fuelled up the bikes and ourselves, had a quick look at the Jesuit buildings, then on again. The road was much better and we rode another 70kms or so before it was time to look for a spot to camp.
Enough sand, where’s the mud?
The deep sand was past, the road was much better and we were at Poso de Tigre by 9am for coffee, only 80kms away from tarmac. A further 20kms along the road and we came upon a tanker truck on its side, its load of diesel leaking out into the fields. The truck had rolled a couple of times and the cab was pretty much destroyed. The driver had been thrown clear and was sitting by the side of the road, somewhat dazed, looking on as the local population of Memonites salvaged some of the diesel before it ruined their farmland.
We were invited by one of the group, back to the colony to see their way of living and for lunch. It was very interesting and they had as many questions for us, as we had for them. During the conversation they said that there was a bus to Santa Cruz every day and it only took 3 hours, at the time I thought this a little strange, but a few km’s after Tres Cruces all became clear. Yet another type of terrain, this time very hard and uneven, not exactly potholes, just differing levels of road within a short distance, with rocks added. Combined with a fine cement type dust that filled the holes, making them seem less severe, but filling the air with any passing traffic for nil visibility, it was a bone jarring, bike wrecking 40kms that took a couple of hours.
The tarmac came sooner than expected but the fun was not yet over. There was a bridge to cross, a long one lane bridge shared with the trains. Had to get the bikes over one rail, then ride in the middle of the tracks, the planks full of gaps and nails, before getting over the other rail to leave the bridge at the other end. Eventually, we arrived in Santa Cruz, tired and dusty but happy we had survived the Road to Hell.
Santa Cruz is a big city and it felt more Brazilian than Bolivian. We were in need of a place to do an oil change and some maintenance after riding the Road to Hell. Found a workshop that on first sight wasn’t encouraging, a young lad was drilling out a cylinder with what looked like a Black & Decker!! The guy in charge knew what he was about however, Snr. Becerra had worked in the States and Japan. Besides we didnt need anything complicated doing, oil change, wheel bearings, and while we were there, Arno took the chance to check out his shaft.
Arno checking how clean his bike is, or was it the bearings?
Antonis turned up while we were in the city, he had the good sense to take the train from Brazil and decided to come with us to Sucre. Arno assured us that the road was paved the whole way, I had my doubts – this is Bolivia after all – but we set off expecting tarmac. We got it too, well for 70kms anyway, until Abapo, where the road works started. We got fuel here too, by the side of the road, jerrycan and funnel replacing the usual pump.
Filling up – don’t think this is Shell!
We had to ride across another of those railway/road bridges, this one in a worse state of repair than the last if that were possible, no side rails and the tracks not flat into what little wood there was between them. On the other side of the river, the road works awaited, we thought we had missed a turn but no, this was the new road, trouble was, it was still being built.
We did actually get to ride on parts of the new road, at other times however we had to contend with the sand. Antonis was having a harder time than me, the big 1150GS kitted out with road tyres was not easy to keep upright. It made a change for someone other than me to be dumping their bike in the sand! We’d planned to be in Monteagudo for the night, but we were far far away by the time it came to look for accommodation. Asked in a tiny village if we could camp somewhere, it didn’t look very secure, but then a truck driver told us there was a construction workers camp a few km’s further on and we should ask the boss there. We did so, and were able to put up our tents in a nice fenced compound complete with semi-permanent bathrooms and even a canteen.
Packing up in the early morning
An early start the next morning after a Bolivian construction workers breakfast, of steak, egg, chips, rice and coffee – all at 7am!! We actually got to ride on new road for most of the morning – we sneaked onto it when no-one was looking and kept going. Had to move the occasional branch out of the way but was preferable to riding on the sand holes the trucks were making. Unfortunately, at a junction, we had to turn off the nice road and go back onto the sandy track that was the road to Sucre.
It took us a few more days than planned, but it was a good ride and took us once again away from the other travellers.
Antonis battling with the sand
The city of Sucre was a great place to hang out for a couple of days. Arno found a workshop and we spent a day doing a few things to the bikes; fixing panniers, cleaning air filters and fiddling with our carburettors in anticipation of higher altitudes.
The town was full of historic buildings, the market was wonderful to stroll around and we even managed to be there for a big Fiesta.
Our next destination was Potosi, 160km’s away, another 2000 metres higher but tarmac all the way. Took it slowly and had lots of breaks to try and avoid getting sick. The 2 BMW’s had no problems with the altitude, my XT though was stuttering a little above 3500m.
Potosi is famous for its mine – well mines, the mountain towering over the city is filled with small mines, some of which you can visit. It was hard work clambering around in the small tunnels, to see the appalling conditions in which the miners have to work. Glad we were only down there for a couple of hours and not a working lifetime, not surprisingly shorter than the average!! Dynamite is used to reveal more seams of zinc and …… when underground, the whole mountain seemed to tremble as the charges went off. It was interesting to wander around the miners market, where the full array of mining paraphernalia was on sale for anyone to buy – including sticks of dynamite. Now Arno is a bit of an explosions freak, so there was no way he was leaving town without a few sticks to test out somewhere in the desert. Antonis and I patiently waited while he chose between the various sizes types and lengths, then he had to choose the fuse!
Arno deciding which dynamite to purchase
Antonis wasn’t too keen to tackle anymore dirt roads, so he rode in the direction of La Paz, while we took the dirt road to Uyuni. It wasn’t too bad this time and the scenery of course pretty spectacular.
We arrived in Uyuni late afternoon, a strange little town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand and plastic bags. Booked into the Hotel Avenida where most riders seem to stay and were amazed to see a huge Yamaha Dragstar complete with trailer, parked inside. Can’t wait to meet the owner of that one!
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