Mendoza north to Bolivia, time for an adventure...
Oh boy its been far too long since I updated this and now I don’t know where to start! I guess where I left off would be the logical place – Mendoza. The more time I spent there the more I liked the place. Great atmosphere, fun fiesta’s and a park the same size as the town itself. Oh, and did I mention the wine... fantabulous.
As Jase was otherwise engaged with the lovely Virginia (Salt Lake city’s finest) I hooked up with some old friends of his, Harriet and Werner, who happened to be in town for a couple of weeks. Harriet is a real horse lover (hmmm... that doesn’t read too well!) so off to Las Vegas it was for their annual Rodeo. While they got the bus with Mattias I took the long route on the bike and ended up on my first real mountain road, 100 or so hairpins up to about 3000meters and a brilliant view. It felt like you could see right over to Buenos Aires.
The rodeo was complete madness. Local lads giving it their all on the back of cows and bulls and wild horses – think I’ll stick with bikes thanks, much safer!
Mattias, Harriet and Werner
From Las Vegas I headed straight for Santiago to meet up with my sister, Jacqui, and her husband, Trent and Jason. They came from London for a month and were keen to get on the bikes so we only spent a couple of days there while they acclimatized then rode back over the pass to Mendoza.
Jacqui, Trent and me, Santiago in the background
Quite a road it is too, it passes by Aconcagua which is the highest peak in the Andes (about 6900m), and is just over 3000meters. The 3 hour wait to cross the border wasn’t much fun though, the smaller borders are definitely the way to go.
Not sure how J and T where enjoying it on the back of the bikes. Being overland veterans themselves (UK toNZ) they were fully prepared for anything but no rider really wants to go pillion do they?! We had a rough plan not to do any gravel roads but this went out the door on our first day out of Mendoza. It wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it’d be 2 up and once again the bikes coped well. We did a load of rider swapping and Trent ended up on Jase’s bike for a fair while with Jacqui on the back.
Once again the roads where fab and the scenery awesome. We were on a mission to get to Cafayatte (famous for its white wine) to meet up with Greg and Alexis from The Beast plus Nuno and Tatiana (on an Africa Twin). 3 days of solid-ish riding and we were there.
5 days of relaxing by the pool allowed us time to reflect and hatch a drunken plan to ride into Bolivia via its south western border with Argentina. We could only do this with the support of The Beast as we needed to carry extra fuel and water. Plus we thought the roads might be rough enough that riding 2 up may prove too difficult.
So on to Salta for a couple of days then north and west over the awesome Paso de Jama to San Pedro de Atacama. This pass went up to 4800meters at times and the bikes (and The Beast) struggled with the lack of oxygen. We were out of breath most of the time too but coped allright. The Andes this far north are awesome and we rode for several hundred k’s at well over 4000meters.
Greg enjoying a change of scene
We chilled for a couple of days in dusty San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) before setting off back toward Argentina and the border with Bolivia – and who knows what. We picked up another biker, Chris, who I’d first met on the side of the road a couple of months earlier close to El Calafate.
We were all bloody nervous. The route we had planned is normally only done by tourists in organised 4X4 tours. The roads and road signs in Bolivia are notoriously bad and… well, it was into the unknown we went.
"Yay, we're in Bolivia"
The border was an easy one but we then had to go 50k’s into Bolivia to deal with customs (for the bikes and truck). The roads did indeed prove too much for riding with a pillion so there were 5 people in the truck by this stage. Customs was in a dilapidated (but warm) building at over 5000meters… and it snowed!
We made it to the refuge at Laguna Colorado that night, all exhausted. We’d only done about 100k’s in Bolivia but the constantly changing road surface meant concentration was critical. Nuno had a small spill which brought home the reality of what could happen if a bike broke down (or worse) out here.
We all suffered with the altitude (4600) and didn’t get the best night’s sleep (not helped, it must be said, by Greg’s awful rice/bean stoge – thanks for making the effort though mate!)
Do not trust this man with rice and beans.
Next day was a real challenge. With 3 GPS units and several maps we still had no idea where we were going. The best guide proved to be the tiny tourist map you’re given when you enter this area. There were 4X4 tracks going everywhere, luckily they all seemed to lead to the same place. There was such range of terrain – one minute you’re on dirt, then sand, then you’re riding along a several km wide sea of small rocks. All of this at over 4500meters.
"Hurry up and fix your bike Chris."
Somehow we ended up on the border of Chile and Bolivia. This wasn’t our plan but it was good just to be somewhere, even though all that was there was a train station and a border crossing. I couldn’t see any roads leading off but after consulting someone “local” we headed east (the road went through the local football field which I guess is why we couldn’t see it!) This road took us into a semi-flooded salt flat. The bikes rode around the edge while The Beast decided to go straight through the salt flat (which was mostly sand and mud) which worked out well until… they got stuck… and Greg forgot they have diff lock;-) Oh how we laughed!
Alexis doing what she does best...
Man this had been a tough day of riding, spectacular and all, but when you’re not sure exactly where you’re going the stress levels do rise a bit – I loved it though, felt like real adventure.
San Juan was a sight for sore eyes and, as always, the 9 of us made our own party that night. Tomorrow was to be the big one, the reason we were here – the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar is a massive salt flat – completely flat (d'oh) and when it rains the water tends to sit on top of it until it evaporates. Getting good information on the conditions on the salar was proving difficult. The best we could gather was that it was flooded for about 2k’s around the edge and the rest was dry. Salt water and vehicles do not mix well!
I definitely didn't take this one... cute though
50k’s of rough road north of San Juan we found the entrance to the Salar. Its like a 5km long jetty which delivers you far enough from the edge to avoid the water. Jase and I headed out to scout the situation. At the end of the road all we could see was water. Damn, we might not be able to get on to the Salar after all. I had a go anyway and got about 2meters before the soft salt below stopped me in my tracks. I got the bike back on dry land and went for a walk, eventually finding some solid stuff. Jase had a go and was able to get to the solid base no prob. “Woo hoo we can ride it after all”.
Chris decided he didn’t want to get his bike covered in salt water (wise decision as it turned out) so while he took the dirt road to Uyuni the rest of us pushed on north accross the salt. We only had a few k’s of dry however until we discovered the entire salt flat was covered in anywhere between an inch and 2 inches of water. It felt and looked like you were riding in the sea, the reflection of the clouds in the water was spectacular and the wake each vehicle was producing was quite impressive.
"Remind me again why we're doing this...!"
We knew the salt water was getting asolutely everywhere but it was too late to turn back. Jason’s bike eventually succumbed to some electrical fault and I ended up towing him to an island where we camped for the night. Trent spent hours trying to trace the fault and while he found loads of corroded and broken connections it wasn’t until the next day that he found the real problem - a corroded connection on the starter solenoid.
Camping at Isla Inkawashi
Trent getting into Jason's bike
Sunset on the Salar, con KTM...
The next day was more of the same though this time we headed directly east to Uyuni, each of us hoping like hell our bikes would make it to the jet washer to get this evil salt off! We did get about 20k’s of dry surface which was really really fast and fun. Jason’s bike stopped again just before the salt hotel, only 5k’s from land. This time the Beast towed him which was no mean feat as the waters at the edge was about a foot deep and soft underneath due to so many 4X4’s churning it up.
Don't try this at home kids
It took a full 2 days of stripping and cleaning the bikes before we could hit the road again. My steering head bearings were stuffed and I blew a fork seal on the salar as well.
The road to Potosi had turned into river of mud after several days of rain and it was at one of our roadside stops that I noticed both Jase and I had oil leaks, shite! “It was still worth it” I kept telling myself, not very convincingly however. Then Jason’s sub frame broke, shite.
Potosi is a maze of narrow one way roads and we were all rapt to get out of the rain, especially Harris, an American cyclist we’d picked up 10k’s from Potosi. He’d spent 3 days in the pissing down rain and mud riding from Uyuni to Potosi, poor buggar. A couple of beers gave us all time to reflect on the days ride… The Beasts resolving never to do another dirt road again, ever…!
We spent another 2 days working on the vehicles and saw some sights around Potosi too. This is mining country and Potosi is dominated by a massive mine with thousands of k’s of tunnels dug into the mountain behind it. The history of this place is incredible. Slaves used to work the mines for up to 6 months at a time without ever seeing light. All the mines riches were exported to Spain and the locals made very little from it. A tour through the mines is a real eye opener. These guys work all day for about $10 a day and its back breaking work. Picks, wheelbarrows and dynamite are the only tools these guys have.
Potosi, view from the top...
Jaqcui and Trent had to get to La Paz to fly back to Santiago then home. Unfortunately a miners strike further north was preventing all buses from getting through to La Paz so in the end we headed to Sucre before they flew to La Paz and on to Santiago… 2 days too late to get their flight to London! All part of the adventure I guess. I spent 6 nights in Sucre, bloody lovely place, with Chris, Harris, Nuno and Tatiana. A dutch biker, Gert, owns the Joy Ride café there and he looked after us with some great hospitality and local knowledge. I even managed an off road ride with him and 15 mates all on late model dirt bikes – great fun, cheers for taking are of us Gert ;-)
I needed to get back into Chile to get my sorted and we’d found a KTM dealer listed in Iquique. Jason got there a few days before me and had been working on his bike in their workshop. I rode abck to Potosi then up to Oruro for a night. All tarmac thankfully and, again, all over 4000meters, the riding in the altiplano truly is stunning. Oruro to Iquique was something else as well. Some rough, pot-holled, roads, smooth tarmac, then once you cross the border into Chile you descend from 4500meters to sea level riding along the ridges of canyons, my pictures really don’t do it any justice.
The guys at KTM Iquique really took care of my bike and its back to just about better than new.
Hans, Pato, me and Pepe, cheers guys
I’ve been here for 10 days now, the beach is lovely and I have some time before picking up my next pillion, Harriet, in La Paz on the 15th. We’re going to head to Lima over 4 weeks, guaranteed to be a hoot. Jason is high tailing it to Bogota to meet up with his Salt Lake City connection, hope that goes well bud.
There's so much that never makes it into this blog, the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, it really is difficult to get the emotions of riding through this wild continent onto paper. I’m sure this is obvious. I do just wanna take a sec to thank all the people who have made it such a great trip so far, you know who you are ;-)
Also, to Greg, Alexis,Jacqui, Trent, Nuno, Tatiana, Jason, Chris, cheers, the last month was awesome,
Posted by Peter Baird at 06:18 PM