The only thing more relaxed than myself after an Easter long weekend was my bike. The dashboard had been flashing the need for a service for the last 1000km, which I obliged with at the all accommodating BMW Santa Cruz. With all fluids changed, new brake pads fitted, and front wheel balanced, we reunited and plotted a course to the west and Ruta del y Che. It was good to get back into the mountains as the Cordillera Oriental range was stunning. No photos to prove this, however, as someone forgot to charge the batteries on his camera. I told you I relaxed.
I got to the town of Samaipata, and over dinner looked at the map and realized the route I had planned was on dirt. In fact, part of it wasn’t even on my paper map, which isn’t a good sign as there are some seriously dodgy roads that did make the cut. It still hurts considerably to move my arm, so slipping and sliding through mud is probably not high on the doctors recommended list of things to do. Sense prevailed, and I road to Vallegrande on the paved road.
Pavement was a distant memory as I rode out of town the following morning, heading up over a mountain, the top of which couldn’t be seen as they were covered in a pillow of clouds. Not exactly what you want to see when heading over a steep, muddy mountain. Thirty kilometres in, and having serious doubts of my route planning, I came to a steep, muddy incline and a big truck stopped at the bottom. The driver informed there was an even worse hill further on, and then more of the same down the other side, continued in such a manner for another 150km. Having already put too much pressure on my shoulder, I decided to turn around and seek an alternate direction to Salta. Che must have come through here in the summer. Or with a smaller bike. Or with two functioning arms. Or without making excuses.
Constant route changes were the order of the day as each town I came to was out of fuel. It is an indication of how often this happens when they have semi-professional signs stating no fuel. Without sufficient range, I had to give up the idea of going to Salta, instead going to Cochabamba, where I presumed due to the size of the place, they would have fuel. Once off the main routes in Bolivia fuel is becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating to source. No wonder everyone lines up after the fuel truck arrives, filling 50 litre tanks through the back window of their van. A Prius motorcycle anyone?
Dinner is normally selected by choosing the restaurant that has the most bums on seats. Arriving in Cochabamba with a very empty stomach, I pulled over at a roadside stall that had heaps of people standing around, happily tucking into grilled meat. Pretending I understood everything the cook was asking, I repeated the first word of each given option, and ended up with a plate of food. Acquiring a Coke to wash it all down, I sat on the steps, and looked at my plate. Staring back at me was four different types of cow innards. Cows stomach for dinner it is then.
I have observed the dangerous habit of drivers who having stopped at a red light, proceed through the intersection in the final seconds before their light goes green. I had the opportunity of observing this closeup as I was leaving Cochabama and a motorbike and a taxi in the cross road got bored, and went on the red. I planted the brakes, a perfect 70/30 front to back ratio, ABS chattering, but still hit the guy on the bike, knocking him into the taxi. My bike went down in the middle of the intersection, and once again, people helpfully honked as they drove around me. It would happen to be the only intersection in Bolivia with police on it. Thankfully, the guy on the bike knew he was in the wrong, but this didn’t stop the taxi driver from trying to extract funds from my wallet. The cop though the ATM had just landed in his intersection, and was poking ever button he could to extract money from it. I lost it on them, questioning how could I possibly pay them when I had a green light? And for that point, they should be paying me, as my bike dropped. The police was wagging his finger and talking about infractions, pointing at the car while I am pointing at my bike, yelling in a new found strength of the Spanish language. I then got my video camera out, and after about 30 seconds of footage, got my license back and told to leave, which I did in a hurry. Other than a small scratch to my shin, my bike and I were fine. A quick reminder as to why I avoid cities on a fully loaded motorbike.
Once back on top of the mountains, Bolivia is a high, flat plateau. This is perfect for what I have in mind today, which is going fast, straight and having a lot of kilometres roll beneath my wheels. All where successful and I was cruising around Potosi by mid-afternoon. With my bike on it’s center stand in the middle of the hostel, I went in search of Cherry’s Salon de Te, due to the guidebooks recommendation as “The spot for apple strudel, chocolate cake and lemon meringue pie”. I should have turned around the minute I opened the door. There was the smell of wood stain, similar to railroad ties. When I asked for a brownie I was informed there was no baked goods left, only a waffle. OK score me a waffle. This cold, insipid, store bought thing, dripping in a sauce of unknown origin accompanied by an “espresso” which was either from essence or Nescafe but had certainly not seen the pressure of an espresso machine this side of 1976. All this took 30 minutes, and Cherry had a terrible attitude. I really am starting to question the palate of the Lonely Planet writers. For future reference, if a cafe smells like railroad ties, leave.
Potoshi is a pleasant enough town, but the main draw is the mountain it is nestled beneath, the Cerro Rico. At one time the city was the largest and wealthiest in Latin America as the mountain was mined for silver. Apparently millions of indigenous people died in appalling conditions, a figure that is extremely hard to comprehend. Today many men still work the depleted mine, crawling around in tunnels that barely fit a human, breathing in stale air laced with asbestos and dust particles. Many tours outfit gringos with mining gear, helmet and torch, and lead them into this atrocious place. A pre tour stop to buy gifts for the miners is a prerequisite of the tours. The three requirements are coca leaves, alcohol and dynamite. The coca leaves are used to kill the miners hunger and give a buzz, the other two don’t need much explanation. Seems kind of like going to the doctor with a nail in you head, and he gives you a painkiller rather than taking the nail out. Riding up some of the tracks on the mountain, my feelings were confirmed when every man I saw had a green bag full of coca leaves, constantly filling their cheeks like hamsters. When they saw me, the first and only question was “coca?” That the men worship their devil “Tio” as they work in hell, is very telling.
The road from Potoshi to Uyuli is a brilliant piece of newly constructed road, randomly sprinkled with detours into river beds, washboard roads and sandy hills. They are in the process of paving the entire 200km length, which is greatly appreciated, but somewhat perplexing as I saw barely any other vehicles on it. But you won’t hear me complaining about it. I road 20kms north of Uyuli and to the entrance of the Salar. I had been told the Salar was too wet to ride on, and the lake of water sitting in front of me was confirmation. As I contemplated this setback, the lake was rippled with the bow waves of two motorbikes coming in the opposite direction. Two salt encrusted bikes with salt men sitting on them turned in my direction. With dashboards that quit working and bikes that were overheating, the general consensus was that they were jealous of me for not going, and having a fully functioning bike.
One of the goals of our trip was to camp on the Salar de Uyuni. I wouldn’t be able to camp out in the middle of it, but I was able to go further north on land, then come out onto the Salar. When the ground started getting mushy, I stopped and set up camp. I knew it would get cold, so had everything sorted so when the sun went down, all I had to do was snap some photos and crawl into my tent. And when that sun did go, let me tell you, it got cold. I mean, really cold, like -20C cold. I was wrapped in my sleeping bag in every piece of warm clothing I had, including the insulating layer from my riding gear. My water bottle froze solid, and it was in my tent. I had ideas of plugging my heated vest into my bike, but the thought of going outside held no appeal. A peek out of the tent at 5.45am saw a faint blue tinge being added to the black sky, and I bounded out of the tent to take photos. With toes and fingers suggesting an alternate hobby, I plugged my vest into my bike, and turned the key. Nothing. It was too cold for my bike. Back into the tent I go, to warm up and allow the sun when it finally comes up, to warm up my bike so it will start, get back to town, have the salt washed off, and have my broken pannier frame welded. Learning a few lessons in life on this trip. If you have a loose bolt, tighten it, or else you will need to have the frame welded and replace a $200 rear light. Add that to the cafe’s that smell like wood stain.
Uyuni is not the kind of place I want to hang out in too long, so decided to have a 2pm start and head in the general direction of the Chilean border. Three hours later, the towns I was supposed to be passing weren’t appearing and my GPS knew where I was, but not where anything else was. Suddenly, from under a snow capped mountain, the last throws of the sun shining off it’s peak, appeared the Bolivian/Chilean border. Somehow I managed to get to the border, a wonderful feeling of euphoria replacing the thoughts of another night in a cold tent.
Bolivia, you have been interesting, but I am really ready for a break from third world countries.