Sundance Kid (to Etta): Butch and me have been talking it all over. Wherever the hell Bolivia is, that's where we're off to.
(From the movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", 1969)
Unfortunately it was in Bolivia that the duo met their end at the hands of the Bolivian police, after they robbed several banks.
Che Guavara was also gunned down in Bolivia, after trying to take on the capitalist system and rouse the masses.
Hame and I didn't go to Bolivia to rob banks or start a revolution, but we did find lots of adventures...
Our first impression of Bolivia as we crossed the frontera at Villazon was hundreds of Bolivians struggling under the weight of sacks of cement, fruit and clothes, as they became human pack-horses for all the lorries crossing from Argentina. The lorries have to pay a tax if they cross fully loaded so it's cheaper for them to pay humans to carry each and every item across. As the people are paid by the sack, they try and run with these huge loads. We saw people of every age, both men and women, struggling under 50 kilo+ loads. It was a stark reminder that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.
One of the things I love about travelling is the way everything is instantly different the minute you cross a border. Different food, dialect, dress... Villazon was a typical border town; a mass of sights colours sounds hustle and bustle. Fantastic!
We felt very welcome immediately as we attracted lots of attention in the plaza. Questions we've become used to - "Where are you from? Where are you going? How much was the bike? How fast...? Where are your children?" were fired at us and we chatted away with friendly people before heading North towards Tupiza.
The minute we left Villazon the road turned to ripio and I suddenly had the horrible thought that Boliva might not have many paved roads (not far from the truth as it turned out!). However, it was "good" ripio and there was lots to see on the way - tiny villages with adobe built houses; cacti of every size and shape; ancient Swedish registered lorries hurtling past (probably shipped over from Sweden when they started to fail the safety tests); hills and valleys and people who stared at us as if we were aliens.
A small town with a distinctly "wild west" feel to it, Tupiza is near the mining village of San Vincente where Butch and Sundance were killed (remember the bit at the end when the film froze, showing them running out of the building... that was San Vincente). We hired horses for an afternoon and rode around the area, visiting amazing areas of natural beauty. I'd had a bit of altitude sickness in the morning but the local remedy, a mouthful of coca leaves, soon sorted that out.
In the evening we hooked up with Will, a Dutch guy and George, a rather eccentric American. We watched "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and noticed that bits of Bolivia apparently haven't changed since 1907, when the film was set. After not seeing the film for years I'd forgotten that Bolivia was where they ended up.
The road to Potosi was almost paved; long, tempting bits of concrete ran next to the sandy rutted diversion track that traffic was sent down. After a long, hot, bumpy and dusty ride we finally got on some tarmac and wound our way through Potosi's 400 year old streets in search of a hotel with parking. We treated ourselves to a plush hotel - ie, one that had an attached bathroom and a carpet, because I wanted to spend my birthday in style.
The day after we arrived I turned 35 (I'm no longer in my early 30s - argggghhh!) in the highest city in the world; fitting as Hame had his birthday in the Southernmost city in the world back in January.
At 4070 metres above sea level, Potosi was freezing at night and it was difficult to walk anywhere fast - even the smallest incline made us out of breath. Potosi is famous for the "Cerro Rico" (rich mountain) which overlooks town. Over the years the mountain has been mined for its silver and other mineral deposits, making the town rich and poor by turns as the mineral market fluctuated.
The Rich Mountain overlooking Potosi
We learned all about it in the main museum, housed in the former mint. Hame got all excited over the original 300 year old wooden minting machines, complete with their wooden gears. Yeah Hame, whatever!
Phwor! Gears... wheels.....
Potosi was a fascinating blend of Spanish colonial architecture, overhanging balconies, old cobbled streets, indigenous market stalls (selling everything from llama foetuses to nivea face cream) and streets full of shops selling mining equipment. It was interesting to see dynamite for sale, openly - apparently Potosi is the only place in the world where it's legal to sell it on the street.
Dried llama foetus, anyone?
Hats and dynamite
We hooked up with Will again and went on a tour of one of the mines. First we went to the miners' market to buy presents for the miners - coca leaves and fizzy drinks.
Then it was off to the mine, dressed in rather fetching shell suit pants and yellow hats. The mine we visited was a cooperative mine, meaning the miners work together and share any profits they make if they hit a particularly rich mineral line. The conditions were basic, to say the least. Fuelled by coca, fizz and 92% alcohol, miners work shifts of six hours, day and night. We spent four hours in the mine, in small tunnels, with dust in the air and water underfoot. We were allowed to watch the miners at work (in return for our gifts). There were both young and older men - the youngest we saw was a boy of 13.
The bloke Hame gave his coca leaves to
At one point we had to descend 25m into a narrow shaft, down three vertical rickety ladders held on to the walls by bent nails, with rungs over a foot apart. I found it pretty scary.
The trip was incredibly interesting but I was glad to be back outside. Over the last 400 years over eight million people have lost their lives in the mines of Potosi...
God of the mine; miners give him gifts of cigarettes, coca leaves and beer to keep themselves safe
In Potosi we discovered how cheap Bolivia can be; we found a cafe which sold four-course meals for US $2 - and that was the tourist price. This could be why Hame got Bolivan belly - but then Will reminded us that one night when we ate together Hame was so hungry he ate his fondue beef "rare", not able to wait for it to cook properly. Doh... He was fine after a day in bed. I had a tinge of it too, but I'm pretty sure it's just our systems adjusting to a different place. We've been fine since.
Raw meat, anyone?
While in Potosi there was one of the many strikes which are an everyday part of Bolivian life - this one was miners protesting against the goverment wanting to privatise the mines. Roads are blocked off, work stops and the strikers play football instead. Life grinds to a semi-halt because people cannot leave by road. Interesting. I doubt we would have been affected by it as we can ride around the blockades, but by the time we were ready to go it was all back to normal.
Leaving Potosi for Sucre, we had the treat of a perfect stretch of tarmac through stunning scenery (I know I've used that term a lot in the blogs, but it is all just stunning...) of hills and valleys.
We'd had a mail from Grant and Jules saying they were returning to Argentina for various reasons, so would not be meeting us to ride the Corumba road after all. This gave us nothing to rush for so we returned to our normal speed of reverse and spent ten days in Sucre in the very lovely Pacha Mama hostel.
Maria making lunch at the hostel
A bike Hame had when he was 16, a Fizzy
We didn't waste time though, we were very industrious and enrolled in a course of Spanish lessons in the continuing attempt to become fluent (ha ha...). We liked our teachers so much we've decided to head back in a couple of months for more. Marie Theresa and Juan Pablo took us on individually (Hame and I have learnt through experience we don't study together so well!) and we both progressed well despite being taught nasty things like some of the many past tenses.
Marie Theresa and Juan Pablo took us for "stone soup", a delicious meaty, tomatoey concoction with a volcanic stone dropped in to heat it, causing it to bubble as if alive. They also took us to see Sucre Universario thrash The Strongest, from La Paz, our first experience of a local football game.
Such passion! So much passion that the crowd chucked lit fireworks about, although illegal to do so it happens at every match. It was quite an experience and as football is such an integral part of South American life, I'm glad we got the chance to see a game.
Street in Sucre
In Sucre Hame found an ATM with a Scottish accent... click below...
We both liked Sucre, its old Spanish buildings, markets selling CHEAP food (50p a meal), friendly folk and laid back vibe. We saw another demonstration - it was more like a carnival procession as indigenous people marched around the square protesting against their pay on farms, dressed in their traditional brightly coloured clothes, dancing and playing instruments.
La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and the seat of the Goverment, but the high court convenes in Sucre and many of its residents believe it should be capital instead. While we were there (you guessed it) there was a huge demo; thousands of people took to the streets and yelled "Sucre for Capital!" There's a lot of shouting in Bolivia. We didn't however see any trouble, although we heard that in La Paz there had been riots.
Street in Sucre
One evening we visited Marie Theresa's university class and told them all about Scotland and England and our trip. Hame did most of the talking and made a pretty good teacher, drawing a rather "stunning" map of the UK on the board and telling the students what Scotsmen wear under their kilts.
We managed a few nights out too with new friends met in the hostel, all that studying made for thirsty work!
A night in Joyride Cafe, the best spot in town
Once fluent in Spanish (NOT!) we left Sucre with promises to come back and do more teaching - Hame seems to have talked himself into giving a presentation to Marie Theresa's partner Rolando's engineering class - in Spanish. That should be interesting!
In Potosi we'd met an English couple on bicycles who recommended a back road to Santa Cruz. We'd written their instructions down on a bit of paper which we'd promptly lost, so it was all a bit of guesswork as the road didn't appear on any of our maps. However, off we went, in search of adventure and Che Guevara.
The Road to Samaipata/Santa Cruz
Sign on the road from Sucre
The first few kilometres were paved which was a treat, but then it was ripio for the next 350km. Hame wrestled with Bertha over a variety of surfaces, I hung on, and we enjoyed the views, which were, you got it, STUNNING! I'll let the photos describe it.
Despite our new fluency we struggled a bit to get reliable information about how far apart everything was. We were aiming for Pucara, a tiny village near "Che's last stand" but everyone we asked as we went along gave different answers. When we asked three times and the answer was always five hours, we decided to stop for the night in Villa Serrano.
Sometimes the road disappears...
The next day there were more views and more tiny roads, winding up and down hill after hill.
We got to Pucara, a tiny place nestled way up in the hills and found it to be a place where time had stood still. The only hotel had no electricity, hot water or food, but it did have two rather uncomfy beds for two dollars each.
Bertha outside the hotel
Kids outside our hotel
The only "restaurant" served us egg and chips and the entertainment in the evening was to sit around a gas lamp drinking tea in the local shop. The butcher killed a cow and gutted it in the main plaza and at night the stars shone bright with no electric lights to hide them. The roads through town were made of ancient cobbles, as uneven as could be.
The local butcher
I met the owner of the shop next door to the hotel; a 79 year old lady called Maria Rico who had a beautiful face and the spirit of a 30 year old. She'd had 15 children and had lived her life in Pucara, selling her wares from a dusty shop by day and in the light of a candle after dark. There were so many things I wanted to ask her but language got in the way.
Outside Maria's shop
Pucara from above
We visited Che's last stand, at La Higuera. Here Che Guevara hid in the hills with his comrades after helping Fidel Castro in Cuba and plotted against the system, fighting injustice as he saw it. The CIA were after him and together with Bolvian troops they tracked him down, incarcerated him in the local school house and shot him. The school house has been converted into a small museum and on sale were tiny jars of sand impregnated with "the blood of Che".
The old school house where Che was killed
Che Guevara monument
We left the village where time has stood still and rode off, up and back into the hills. It was a very beautiful area and we noticed the flora changing - it was refreshing to see more green after all the dry barren country we've been in.
At Valle Grande we were stopped by the police and told the road was blocked for a race. We stopped and watched ten rally cars in varying states of repair racing through the village for a couple of hours.
On the road again shortly afterwards we watched a guy do a full 360 on the gravel road 100m in front of us, obviously he'd got carried away watching the race and fancied himself as a rally driver.
Fast becoming a haven for foreigners who are fed up at home, Samaipata seemed to be full of Dutch and Germans! This meant we could buy great sausages and cheese but also meant prices weren't typically Bolivian. We decided to camp on a Dutch owned finca, La Vispera, and spent a tranquil week back in our canvas home, with views of the surrounding hills (full of big houses which apparently belong to local drug barons).
Samaipata is surrounded by excellent trekking routes and caves. It's also home to a pre Hispanic fuerte (fort) which Erik Von Daniken (author of "Chariots of the Gods") thought was an alien landing strip. It looked like an ancient fort to us, but who knows... The road winding up to it was steep and twisty and the fort itself was situated on a hill with magnificent views all around. The main part of the fort was a huge, intricately carved rock.
We met Will again and joined him for a trek with the Dutch owner of his hostel, Andres. We trekked down into a valley in a place called Bella Vista, and it certainly was "bella" - beautiful, very green and lush, a bit like Malaysia...
Hame and Will trekking... click below...
Hame gave Bertha a bath and noticed a crack in the fairing bracket which necessitated him stripping it down and taking it to be welded. The cause was probably all the dirt roads we've been on, it has been very bumpy lately...
Tearing ourselves away from our peaceful campsite with its four star facilities and resident humming birds who visited the many flowers frequently during the day, we packed up and set off for Brazil where we hoped to meet Heather and Richard (our friends from Chile) in the Pantanal.
After a quick overnight in Santa Cruz with a visit to an Irish Bar, we headed out onto Ruta Four.
Ruta Four - the Road from Santa Cruz to Corumba (Dum dum duuuummmmm - dramatic music heard in the background)
I'm the navigator. That's my job. Unfortunately my map holder got eaten in the rear wheel so the map is on top of the tank bag, therefore Hame navigates now. If it had still been my job, we wouldn't have taken a 60km detour as we shot off down the wrong road... It was while eating empanadas at a roadside stall we realised we had to go back 60km - oops. They were delicious empanadas though, the best we've had for ages and almost worth the extra k's..
So back we went, through the soya and sunflower plantations and eventually found the correct road. To be fair, it wasn't exactly well-signposted (Bolivia isn't known for its signposts, people describe routes in hours, not distance most of the time) so no surprise we missed it.
We'd heard a few things about Ruta Four, not many though as few people are mad enough to ride it. We thought it'd take us a couple of days, not too difficult. After all, it couldn't be much worse than anything else we'd ridden, right? Wrong!
Right away there were signs for "road under construction". A crappy track ran alongside a road which will be very nice in a few years, but now is semi-ready, with huge piles of earth every two kilometres to stop you riding on it. It didn't stop us, because the track alongside was so rubbish but it was sometimes a hassle to get over/around the piles of dirt.
Around the humps....
... or over the top
This went on all afternoon. From time to time we saw people working on it which meant we had to resort to the diversion track. This had a range of surfaces - sand, deep sand, very deep sand, gravel, bulldust, rocks, corrugations and mud.
While on the mud I said, "Ooh, I'm not that used to being on mu-" then, SPLAT.
Luckily we both landed on our feet like cats, giggling. Bulldust sprayed with water becomes like ice, even though it looks like nothing in the photo.
Soon after this the heat became unbearable. It had been getting hotter and hotter all day and we were melting inside our gear - I still had all my thermal liners zipped in. We stopped for a coke in a rare village and sat in an open-sided straw hut full of children watching "The Flintstones" dubbed into Spanish. Hame sang "Do you know the way to San Jose?" (as it was the next town) to the rather bewildered cafe owner, who said afterwards he was "romantic".
Back on the road and it just went on, and on, rubbish surface, bumps and so much bloody dust that every time a car or truck went past we were drenched in brown. It still seemed like fun at this point.
Another dust bath coming...
Because of our little detour in the morning we ran out of daylight before getting to the halfway point. Camping wasn't an option because we needed water. In a small settlement we were told there was a village with a hotel 22km down the road. 22km down the road there was indeed a village but no hotels in sight. Luckily for us, as it was by now dark, a very nice man called Alfreo who we'd asked for directions invited us back to his house. Alfreo had a battered old taxi - as well as a horse and cart - but the family business seemed to be a tiny shop which operated through a window in their bedroom. He and his wife Marina shared their small house with six children and a few grandchildren.
Alfreo showed us where we could park the bike, inside one corner of an open room built next to the "shop". This room doubled as the local bar as Marina sold beer so as night closed in we sat chatting to locals, watching the evening's entertainment - a home video of a festival (lots of dancing and beer) which had taken place in June in the village.
When everyone had gone Hame and I built our bed on the tarp on the floor and crashed out, exhausted. Despite various people arriving and leaving all night and the entire population of dogs barking late into the night, then the entire population of chickens cocking and doodling away taking over from 3 AM we rested, very grateful to the family.
A bed in the bar
Alfreo and some of his family
Everyone was up by six so we got an early start which was excellent for seeing bird life on the road; we saw loads of different species. The road was briefly quite good, but then continued to be dirt and bumps.
On the way the previous day we'd seen a few strange looking people driving around in horses and carts. They were very fair-skinned and blond, and they wore very old fashioned clothes. The women wore long dark dreses and boater hats, and the men wore those German trousers which come halfway up to your armpits (think The Sound of Music) or dungarees circa 1920s America and straw hats.
We stopped by a group of guys sitting outside a small cafe in their horse and cart listening to "Who let the dogs out.." and asked if we could take their photo. They were very friendly, some of them were quite out of it on coca and alcohol and they seemed to be speaking some kind of German dialect. One guy spoke English. Unfortunately we were worried about daylight at the time because I'd have liked to stay and ask lots of questions, but we had to press on. We think they were somehow related to the Mennonites, a group of German/Candian descendants who live in Paraguay.
Once in San Jose we stopped for a fabulous lunch and saw more of the German looking people about, it was most incongruous to see them strolling about a town full of Bolivians.
1930s America or Bolivia?
After San Jose the road was briefly good - a random stretch of perfect concrete wich took us to the next town. We rode all afternoon and stopped in Robore, a dusty town where we showered, washed and flopped very quickly.
The electric shock shower, a Bolivian speciality
The next day we fuelled up and rode until we reached a small settlement where we had more egg and chips, hard roads make you hungry. Poor Bertha, we were really putting her through hell... I have to say Hame rode well, it was hard enough hanging on, let alone riding. Good for my biceps anyway!
The road was briefly good before it remembered it was supposed to be rubbish, and went rubbish. Same old sand/bulldust/ruts and the heat! It was up in the high 30s and we were roasting, having been in cold places for months now.
It got hotter still and the temp guage read 45º. It was making me feel slightly ill and we had to make sure we drank enough. The afternoon dragged on and on, the road remained its usual crappy self and we kept going. At some point it stopped being quite so fun as we melted in our gear and bumped along. The scenery wasn't all that great either - crappy roads are fine if the scenery is fantastic to look at.
And on... and on....
By the late afternoon of the third day we finally got to the border with Brazil and breathed a big sigh of relief. It was okay, but probably the longest - 600+km - continually hard bit of road we've done, maybe because of the heat.
Covered in dust, tired and very hot, we signed out of Bolivia for the time being.
We've loved the country, it instantly became my fave so far (yes I know I say that about everywhere) with great vistas and sounds, friendly people and lots to see, plus, it is very cheap to live! It reminded me a lot of being back in Asia.
Bolivian Village video, click below...
We'll be back to Bolivia in a few weeks - after a trip through Brazil, to Iguazu, Buenos Aires and back through Paraguay. Though knowing us the plans will change...
Too much road?
Not letting a little thing like being on a bike stop me from gardening, I've found a way to grow bean sprouts on the bike. Exciting, huh?
We should rename our blog, "How to kill a bike" after these last few weeks.
Here we go again...
Our route so far....
We said our farewells to Maciej and Charlottte and set off with Wim towards the Paso de Jama. Wim was off to Argentina, we were off to Bolivia. On the way Wim's charming but ancient jeep overheated so we parted - sadly; we'd had a great time with him - somewhere up the hill while he waited to cool the engine down.
On the way to the Bolivia turn off we met Simon Mendus-Edwards on his KLR, a biker we'd briefly been in touch with on Horizons. He'd just come down the road from Uyuni and he recommended an alternative route. The main route, he said, was full of jeeps whizzing past and nasty rutted tracks. Most tourists visit this area by jeep, although we know of several bikers and a few cyclists who've done it. All said the road was terrible!
We turned off the Paso de Jama road and immediately noticed big black clouds gathering. This was a bummer because we'd just experienced a few hot, dry days. We dearly hoped the rainy season hadn't arrived, as it would make the Salar de Uyuni nasty for the bike....
The temperature dropped due to altitude, and as we crossed the border - at a very primitive crossing - it got colder still.
Soon the temperature gauge read 1 degree and we found ourselves in a blizzard. This was a bit of a shock as it had been almost 30 in San Pedro de Atacama!
Snow! Get your gloves back on, quick!
Out of the snow
We road on, and eventually got through it. However, it looked as if there was more rain ahead...
Clouds on the horizon
The road deteriorated into corrugated sandy tracks with occasional gravelly bits interspersed with more sand. Aduana (customs) was situated at 5029 metres above sea level, next to a borax factory. I was frozen solid (and feeling decidedly spinny) by the time we got there but the nice customs official let me raid his kitchen and make Hame and I several cups of hot milk. Sufficiently thawed, we got back on the road to freeze again. It was another 40km to the hostel, on yet more corrugations and sand.
Hame playing with the sand
By the time we arrived at Laguna Colorada, I'd had enough, and to find the hostel full nearly had me in tears! It was getting dark and I was just about to give up when somebody produced a room for us.
We dumped our stuff and put on as many warm things as we could, then sat down to eat dried mash and tuna. Mmmm. Luckily the nice jeep tour party next to us took pity on us and gave us some soup (the hostels in the area don't provide food, when you book a jeep tour it comes with a cook), as well as entertaining us as one of the party was a Korean magician with the surname Yum! Very good he was too.
The hostel was basic, to say the least. No showers, concrete beds with plastic covered matresses on top and sheets which I don't think had been washed for several jeep tours. We crawled under a huge pile of blankets before 10pm and by about 3am, I'd just about got warm. The altitude - we were at 4365 metres above sea level - was affecting me quite a lot, huge pounding headaches and breathlessness coupled with a feeling of nausea. Poor Hame had to fight to get me to leave my nice warm bed early the next morning!
We rode to nearby Laguna Colorada which is pink, green and white. On sunny days it can be bright red, but the few clouds above us leant it a pinkish glow. The view was incredible. We stopped the bike and sat for an hour or so just looking at it all. As well as the views, there were thousands of flamingoes busily filtering algae. We smiled in amusement at a jeep tour who parked up, spilled out, took pictures and raced off again in minutes. I was so glad we had Bertha and could set our own pace.
Colours of the lake
Flamingoes on Laguna Colorada
The road was pretty terrible again, sand, corrugations (more!) and dust on the odd occasion vehicles went by. We'd decided to take Simon's suggested route which turned out to be an interesting and quieter alternative, though with several challenging tracks to negotiate.
Hame exiting the water
Lunch in style!
Riding along we were passed by a jeep whose passengers stopped by a river crossing to have lunch. In wonderful luxury, the driver set up table and chairs for them, and produced great food. We stopped to say hi as we recognised them from the previous night. Very kindly we were invited to lunch, and sat and ate in style, llamas in the background!
Setting off again we were chased by another snowstorm, but we managed to win the race and left it in the hills. Passing incredible rock formations in the background we soon arrived in a lovely valley with a grass-lined river feeding hundreds of llamas.
Hame helps out
Hame stopped to pump up the tyre on an ancient bike for a guy called Alex, who, in turn, directed us to a good hostel at Villa Alota, a small and dusty Andean village. This one was basic again, but at least served food. We ate with a Swiss jeep party and swapped stories about places we'd been.
In the morning there was some confusion about which track would take us out of town. It couldn't possibly be that tiny windy thing leading into the hills, with no signposts, could it? Yep. Off we went, up what was little more than a farm track. It was excellent. Passing huge rocks we wound our way up a hill. The road was rocky and provided Hame with some great riding.
Over H's shoulder!
This road rocks!
Bertha and I take a breather
We rode through small Andean villages with adobe houses and llamas nearby. At one point the road turned into a small stream.
Where's the Road?!
Then we hit the sand. It went on, and on! I had to get off and walk for a while, because it was just so slippery and rutted.
Railway across the Salar de Chiguana
The road ran along a plain and then we found ourselves on the edge of a dried salt lake, the Salar de Chiguana. We'd been warned that if it rained the lake would be peligroso (dangerous) for bikes but at first it was solid. About halfway across, the mud began. Thick, salty and sticky, it was pretty nasty stuff to ride through so muggins here got to walk again. It went on for ages and ages.
When we arrived in nearby San Juan, we found a place to wash the bike immediately and hosed off the salt...
Salt wash one
...before finding a hostel, again no food and the single shower working only if there was enough water pressure. While it was warm enough to shower the pressure was too weak, and later it got chilly again. Love those wet-wipes.
We visited the local museum which was surprisingly good; all about the local Andean life and culture.
After another early night - both shattered - we were up with the larks to pack up and get on with the last leg of the journey to Uyuni. We first visited the necropolis which was on a nearby hill and saw some 500-year-old mummified bodies. Unfortunately we couldn't stay long as we'd both picked up Bolivian belly and I had to make an unscheduled dash to the bushes between the town and the necropolis. Hame made it back to the hotel.
We met more corrugations before turning off to a small track which would take us to Atulcha, the place we could get onto the Salar. Our first glimpse of the massive salt flats was from the top of a hill covered in cacti. The road was steep and rocky and Hame did a great job of keeping us upright on the way down.
We stopped for lunch in a small shop in Atulcha. The local kids thought we were "the Red Power Ranger and the Black Power Ranger", I wish!
The kids loved the bike and put on their 'helmets'!
The Salar de Uyuni used to be part of a massive prehistoric lake which once covered most of Bolivia. In the rainy season it becomes a lake once more. We had been warned by several people, but no two stories about the amount of water were the same. Hmmm. We'd always said we would not cross it if there was water but... (you know what's coming...)
Anyway at first it was okay because there was a sandy spit of land running out from Chuvica - further South from Atulcha - which had been built over the wet outside edge. We rode onto the Salar and it was dry, with only a few puddles which we were able to avoid. We used the GPS (It'd been really useful in the previous few days) and pointed ourselves at one of the islands, Isla Incahuasi. The riding was amazing. Imagine riding on a flat, bright white surface, over hexagonal patterns in the salt and NOTHING else around. Incredible.
On the Salar
We stopped and took some silly pics - with nothing to show relative sizes you can shrink and enlarge whatever you want...
My toy Hame!
Salt, salt, everywhere
We rode to the island where all the tours were - we couldn't believe how many people were there. We got talking to a couple of people who told us there was rather more water than we thought. What to do, take a two-day detour or go for it? Stupidly, we went for it.
At first it was fine but the last 12 km were WET. At first it was just puddles, then deeper puddles, then just water, everywhere. Hame began cursing (and he hasn't stopped yet). Poor Bertha soon became encrusted with the most aggressive salt ever - it hardened into a vicious rock-like substance which just got everywhere.
The views were incredible though, it was like riding through a wonderland somewhere between the sea and the sky.
Between two worlds
It was getting late and Hame was riding slowly to prevent as much spray as he could. Suddenly I saw these huge holes and yelled at Hame to stop. We'd unwittingly ridden into what must have been a very dangerous area (I'm still having nightmares about it). I jumped off the bike and directed Hame back the way we'd come, because all around were two and three foot deep holes of thick mud. The salt had made a crust like thick ice on top, but I was sure that if we'd gone in, we would have lost the bike. She would have just sunk. It was pretty scary. Hame rode back to the solid stuff as quickly as he could. We saw jeeps racing along about 1km South, so turned to follow them. Thankfully the jeep in front of us chose a good path (the jeeps can, and do, get stuck) and we were able to follow it out. By now the water was about a foot deep, and as Hame saw land at Colchani and he went hammer and tongs for it. The three of us burst out of the water onto land like some mad creature. Bertha immediately stalled, as if she was saying, "Okay, I got you out of the water, that's IT!" I jumped off the bike onto LAND, breathing a big sigh of relief and two guys watching said, "You're crazy!" Hame just swore a lot.
Uyuni was about half an hour's ride away over more bloody corrugations and sand. We made it just in time to catch the washing place and gave Bertha a big hosing down with the most powerful water jet I've ever seen (or felt, Hame turned it on me to get the salt off my legs).
Where's the pepper?
We'd completely forgotten we had no money, so we had to persuade the owners we'd return and pay manana. They were sound people and let us go. Sonia, the owners wife, even said she'd accompany us to the hotel.
This turned out to be a good thing as she could help push the bike. Yep, poor old Bertha refused to start. More cursing from Hame. After pushing for several blocks we stopped at a hotel and persuaded the owners to let us put Bertha in the lobby to dry out. Hame was sure it was water in the timing pickup and that in the morning it would be okay.
Hame went out to get money and food while I tried to scrape some of the the salt off our gear. After a restoring pizza and beer we crashed out, after four of the most challenging days we've ever ridden.
I slept in and was woken with a cuppa (he's good like that) and the news that Hame had found the problem - a faulty ignition timing sensor, located behind the front wheel and therefore easily damaged by the salt. Luckily we carry a spare.
"However," said Hame. "That's not everything."
Oh shit, I thought.
"I've found another crack in the frame," he went on. "And it's massive."
Indeed it was. A three-inch gash around the shock mount.
Hame summed it up with some words from Scotty on Star Trek, "She'll tak' no more, Cap'n"
We switched hotels, taking our bags by taxi and returning to push Bertha. We found a great place for far less money with space for the bike right outside the room. Hame immediately got down to it. We didn't ask the owners if they minded us stripping a big red bike in the corridor, in case they said no. Apart from a few looks we were left alone and Hame got straight down to work. By lunchtime he had the frame off, saying he was feeling HUGE deja vu...
Been here before I think...
... and by afternoon it was welded, plus he'd fitted the new ignition timing sensor.
"Maybe we should stick to normal, sensible, flat tarmac roads now?" I said.
"Yes, but there's one problem. There aren't any from here..." was the reply.
Hame also had to dissemble the shaft drive assembly (more deja vu), flushing the salt out of the swinging arm. Well, I say Hame, but only my arm was small enough to fit inside it! He managed to persuade a local hardware shop to rent him a brand new torque wrench for a couple of hours to put it back together.
Up to my elbows in it
In the meantime I was able to clean everything else, even taking the air filter into the shower with me and persuading the owner to let me clean the wheels in the laundry sink.
Finally, it was done. Next time there's water in a salt lake that happens to be in our way - we'll take a diversion!
We met some good people while staying in Uyuni - Alex and Sharon from Scotland and Ireland respectively, and American cyclists Matt and Cindy. Uyuni has a few good eateries so we spent some enjoyable afternoons chatting and chowing down. I also earned a beer by helping Brian type an e mail. A 60-something backpacker, avid climber and proud Yorkshireman (Yorkshire is the best county in England, of course), Brian was a great character to meet and he showed that you can be an adventurer at any age.
Brian's Yorkshire rose
With Brain, Alex, Matt, Cindy and Sharon
As Sharon and Alex were heading in the same direction, we made a plan to meet in Coroico, a place which had been recommended by several friends.
Alex and Sharon headed off by bus and we followed a day later. The road from Uyuni was a horror - 200km of evil corrugations and pits of bulldust so deep I sank into them as I walked, where it was impossible to ride two-up.
Bulldust bulldust everywhere...
We arrived in Oruro after a blissful last 100km of asphalt (I'd forgotten what it felt like to not be shaken to bits on the bike) late and exhausted but with a hotel recommendation. It's much easier arriving in a strange town with the address of a hotel which you know has parking - the single most important criteria when finding a bed for the night. The next morning, thankfully, we remained on ashphalt and enjoyed a smooth ride, past small adobe villages, to the outskirts of La Paz.
Neither of us was prepared for the breathtaking vista and dramatic setting of Bolivia's de facto capital city. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and bare hills, La Paz is a jumble of outlying red brick houses clinging to the hillside, all leaning towards the city centre, deep in the 'bowl' created by the peaks which cradle it.
La Paz from above
We managed to negotiate our way through La Paz without the invaluable help of the GPS, (which got water-logged when Hame jet washed the bike and was now full of condensation), but with the help of a friendly police couple on a Kawasaki cruiser who gave us a mini escort up through the steep streets to the right road!
Immediately on leaving the worst of the traffic, we happened upon a Chinese restaurant - as you do - so that was our traditional Bolivian lunch sorted out. Minutes after leaving the city limits of La Paz we were back in the countryside, and soon we were riding below forbidding black peaks, on a marvellously twisty road which would take us to a the old road to Coroico, dubbed the 'world's most dangerous road' which, in its time of full usage, saw 100 fatalities per year. It's now much much safer as the new road takes all the heavy traffic and the only people who use it are tourists like us and a multitude of adrenalin seekers who ride it on mountains bikes. From La Paz you can go with a number of companies who'll drop you off at the top, and pick you up at the bottom. Some have more safety rules than others.
The road itself is a single track gravel road which is literally carved into the mountain, running under overhanging rocks with gasp-inducing drops on the left to forest floors hundreds of metres below. There's not much room for error. I was nervous as hell, but Hame was his usual calm, let's-get-on-with-it self, and off we went, past crosses marking the spots where unfortunate travellers have met their ends.
From La Paz to Coroico it's 80km, the last 30km or so on the notorious road which drops 3000m to Coroico below.
On the edge!
Huge drop to the right... Hame's in the clouds...
The last part of the road was cobbled and wound its way up to the village past lush green hills, reminiscent of Malaysian jungles. It was great to see trees and green stuff again after so many weeks of deserts. We'd arranged to meet Alex and Sharon at Sol y Luna, a highly recommended hideaway high up in the hills. With a warm welcome from our friends we settled down to a good meal. The next day we all moved into a bungalow higher up the hillside where we spent a few days enjoying one of the most chilled-out places we've been for ages.
The view from Coroico
Hame dismantled the GPS and dried it out, it's as good as new now, and navigating once again.
Alex and our nice, healthy fridge
The four of us got on so well it was easy to share space and we spent pleasant days looking at the incredible views and catching up on some reading, playing cards and making the trek out to the village to check mail and sample food from 'the best restaurant in Bolivia' - a small place run by a French woman.
Wandering into town
It's a tough life...
Sharon and Alex
We left and headed for Copacabana, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca via La Paz. We'd arranged to meet Sharon and Alex there so they set off by bus. We were not expecting a tiny ferry on the way - a tiny ferry we'd have to share with a bus!
Don't move backwards!
Sharing a rickety raft with a bus
South America is full of dogs which like to chase you. I was afraid of them at first, but we learnt that if you don't move your feet they don't know which bit to bite, instead only running madly after you. I've taken to winding them up by howling right back at them!
On the way to La Paz we got a wee bit wet. We've hardly had any rain on the whole trip - all the time our gear was waterproof the weather remained dry. Now we're experiencing rain, guess what... leaks everywhere!
A wet ride...
We settled ourselves in for a bit of luxury in La Cupula, a lovely hostel run by a German. This was the view from our room...
View from our room!
Despite the altitude, we decided to get a bit of exercise in. We took a boat to Isla Del Sol and visited some Inca ruins, before trekking back three hours across the island. It was excellent.
Inca ruins, Isla Del Sol
Bolivian women, Copacabana
Titicaca toy cars
Hame and Alex climbed to the top of the hill behind our cabanas in search of a good view of the lake. They were surprised to find toy cars for sale - apparently a local offering to the Virgin for protection while driving.
Sadly it was then time for more farewells... one thing travelling has given us is lots of new friends. With plans to meet again, somewhere, sometime, we had a night out on the tiles.... and a sad farewell in the morning.
Last night with Sharon and Alex (you can see the hangovers coming)
We had been in touch with Bob Morley, aka The Smelly Biker, as we needed an address in Arequipa, Peru for some packages from home. Bob wrote back immediately and said, use our address, but come for Christmas too! The great bikers' community yet again... When he's not travelling throughout the Americas, Bob makes GPS maps, selling them on-line, see Smelly Biker.com We pointed our bike in the direction of Peru, tried to ignore our pounding heads, and off we went to a brand new country to celebrate Christmas.
Bye bye Bolivia....
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I almost forgot..... Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
And one last thing, which may come as a bit of a shock. Are you sitting down? While up at El Tatio geysers on Nov 27th, Hame (overcome by altitude perhaps) asked me to marry him!!!!!!!!!!! This made me the happiest woman in World and of course I said a big fat YES!
Our veteran travellers share their tips (and great stories) for staying healthy, happy and secure on your motorcycle adventure.
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