The hotel where we stayed in Uyuni is a real meeting point for motorcycle travellers preparing for, or recovering from, a trip onto the Salar. Almost every day a new bike or two appears and sure enough the next morning there was another bike parked in the courtyard.
It belonged to Simon, a Brit who had been on the road for nearly 3 years raising money for bike related (www.millennium-ride.com) charity projects in Latin America and Asia.
Simon on his hand made bike
Yukiko, the Japanese rider we had previously travelled with was due to arrive in the afternoon, so with little else to do, Simon, Arno and I rode out to the train cemetery. Spooky it was too, with steam locomotives sitting in the sand, surrounded by piles of rusting junk. After the obligatory photos, we wandered around through the junk. The army had been using the area as target practice and maybe that was were inspiration came from, to test out some of the dynamite Arno had bought in Potosi.
Bikes and trains in the desert
We waited until sunset, by that time Yukiko had arrived and could join in the fun. Apart from a couple of locals removing metal to repair cars, there was not a soul to be seen. So, Arno and Simon put the dynamite somewhere in a train, lit the fuse and retreated. It took ages for anything to happen, I thought the fuse had gone out, but suddenly there was a big bang, a cloud of dust and a big dent in the steel.
Another day and more riders, a Swiss couple on F650’s, with no time to chat, they were off again early the next morning! The couple with the Yamaha came back from their Uyuni tour, they were planning to ride the Trans Chaco, and dissuading them was hard work. Must be very different travelling with such a big bike and trailer.
Hard with this trailer on the dirt roads of Bolivia.
After a couple more days making sure our 3 bikes were ready for the Salar and the rough terrain afterwards, we were ready to hit the salt.
On the road to Colchani, gateway to the Salar, I discovered a sand hole while riding a little too fast and came off rather spectacularly. Not a good start to our day! Dazed but otherwise ok, I was not happy to find my windshield broken, Arno was more unhappy about the frame which looked a little out of line. Ah well, something else to add to the list of damaged in action.
We finally made it onto the Salar and what an amazing experience, like riding on snow as hard as concrete and flat as far as the eye can see. Probably the only place on earth where you can ride with your eyes closed for a minute or two, exhilarating!
Riding on the Salar de Uyuni
We camped in the shelter of one of the islands and spent the next morning riding around on the salt taking photos and using up the last of Arno's dynamite.
We left the Salar and rode to San Juan, rough terrain, rocky and sandy. Got fuel and decided to spend the night there. Next day an early start got us to another Salar, not as white and spectacular as Uyuni, but with different scenery that made it just as interesting.
Salar de Chiguana, covered in jeep tracks
We followed the myriad of jeep tracks towards the military station at Chiguana, and from there it was up into the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking; volcanoes, rock formations, lakes, and all under a bright blue sky.
The scenery changes once again
It was slow going however and as dusk approached we had to look for a spot where we could camp wild. We ended up in a dried river bed, a little out of the wind – which later of course died away. It was damn cold out there, all the water we had in the tent froze, as did we!!
Laguna Colorado was our target for the next day, another day of hard riding, amazing scenery and a wind that belonged on Ruta 40. It blew both Yuki and I over as we got closer to the lake. The last hour, was for me a real struggle against the wind, with energy levels dropping faster every time we had to pick my bike up.
A llama gets refreshment at Laguna Colorada
Thankfully the last 120kms from Laguna Colorada to the border with Chile were much easier, we had planned to treat ourselves and camp by the hot springs, but when we got there we were rather disappointed, one small shallow pool with no shelter from the icy wind racing across the lake. Yuki decided to stay, (once at a hot spring no self respecting Japanese person can resist taking a dip) so we agreed to meet later in San Pedro. It was downhill for most of the way to Chile and even tarmac for the last 60 or so km’s to San Pedro de Atacama.
A strange place San Pedro, full of travellers and tourists coming from or going to Uyuni, this oasis town was not the quiet colonial place I’d had in mind. After Bolivia it was expensive too, so when Yuki arrived after her hot soak, we rode down through the desert towards Antofagasta.
My bike had been spluttering and smoking ever since we rode over the four thousand and something metre pass shortly before the hot springs. We had hoped it was the altitude, but as it continued on the downhill stretch after San Pedro, now at less than 2500m, this seemed less and less likely. We stopped to clean out the air filter and change the sparkplug, which helped and got us down to Antofagasta, however the bike was drinking oil and a visit to a local mechanic confirmed what we feared, the engine needed to be overhauled.
Demonstrators were out on the streets and roads into La Paz were blocked by protesting campesinos. Away from Plaza de San Francisco, where protesters were rallying, the city centre was quite, more so than usual. The Prada, usually 6 lanes of gridlocked traffic, was a delight to wander along, as were the streets near our Alojamiento, equally peaceful without the buses and collectivos, which had stayed at home in support of the demonstrators.
The streets of La Paz full of demonstrators
We were in La Paz for a week, while waiting for the spare parts we needed to fix the XT. It turned out to be a city of renewing old acquaintances, we bumped into Ian who we had met back in Guatemala, and also saw by chance Sascha and Monique, Swiss overlanders we’d met in Santa Cruz. Dieter, the HPN sheep killer also turned up. It was good to see him and his bike fully recovered from that accident.
We had ridden up to La Paz via Iquique and Arica, on Arno's bike, stopping off at Putre to test out the hot springs – no disappointment this time! Again the scenery on the Altiplano was amazing, especially around Lago Chungará near the Chilean border.
Lago Chungará with one of the many volcanoes behind
The city of La Paz – highest capital city in the world, was amazing, approaching from the south, you see nothing of the city until the autopista winds down from the sprawl of El Alto, then suddenly there it is, an enormous canyon filled with a city! The centre is a good 500metres lower than the rim, but still almost 4km above sea level! It’s a busy and very colourful city, our accommodation was close to Plaza V J Eguino where a multitude of stalls sprang up every morning.
Arno getting the bike out of our Alojamiento
After a few days of demonstrations, some roads out of La Paz were open and so we took the opportunity to take a ride down the so called “most dangerous road in the world” to the village of Corioco. This is the main route down to the Yungas and to the jungle lowlands of Bolivia and until recently the only road. The road itself is not too bad, it’s the fact that it is, in most places a single lane, and clings to the mountainside, with a sheer drop of at least 200m.
One of the many buses we met on our way to Corioco
There are few safety barriers, many blind corners and one moment of inattention would prove deadly. This fact is clear as you descend, passing the crosses that mark the many places where vehicles have left the road. The most recent accident was less than a month ago.
Sitting behind Arno as we rode towards Coroico, I had more than enough time to look over the edge, it was pretty scary and I wondered as we came face to face with yet another truck, why more traffic doesn’t make use of the new road, fully fitted out with safety barriers and tunnels?
Time to pull over as trucks speed past
We survived the most dangerous road, but still ended up lying in the street that day. As we rode over La Cumbre pass, on the way back to La Paz we met rain, the first for awhile. It had rained in the city too, making the cobblestones very slippery, the bike just slid from under us, it was even difficult righting it again.
We got to Arica a few days later, lucky not to have encountered any roadblocks on the way down from La Paz. Back down the coast in Antofagasta, I was relieved to find my bike still where we’d parked it and the arrival of the new piston etc, meant Arno was able to start working on my bike.
Not a sight I expected to see on this trip – my bike in bits!
It took 4 days in all, from the morning the postman delivered the parts, to restarting the bike after taking the engine apart, having the cylinder redrilled and putting all back together. We had a lot of help from the guys at Motosport, and owe them a big thank you for letting us work at their place and helping out when we got stuck!
Mechanic Luis and owner Jaime Rios at Motosport, Antofagasta
The coastal route to Iquique is amazing, but as we rode it for the third time, the impact was somewhat lost and we were glad to get to the city. We didn’t bother with the Zona Franca this time, having discovered on our previous visits, the ‘Zofri’ is only interesting for camera film, absolutely useless for anything to do with motorcycles. There is however a very good welder in the city, so we spent a day in his workshop getting Arno's panniers and rack sorted out.
Everything on the bikes now fixed, checked and run in, it was time to leave Chile and head to Peru.
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