Bolivia II, Part 7: The Lagunas Route | Thermales and Geysers

December 23 – 24, 2010

From Laguna Colorado, the southern third of the Lagunas Route takes you through some active geysers and hot springs before exiting at Laguna Verde and into Chile.

Setting off from Laguna Colorado.

A vicuña strolling by in its homeland. Good thing it has no natural predators, cause there’s nowhere to hide.

A pebbly track. I made sure to put a few psi back in the tires after the deep sand north of Laguna Colorado to avoid any punctures.

A crack in the earth’s crust forming a small canyon, which was a departure from the usual landforms in this area.

The kobby Kenda K257D did well in this terrain, aired down to spread the load and soften the ride.

The route joined up with a better-graded highway that was maintained by a Chilean company extracting boric acid nearby.

Besides all the fun and games of a nice off-road adventure, there was the business of crossing an international border towards the southern end of the ride. The Bolivian customs office is off the route and requires a small detour near the geysers.

An out-of-place huge metal structure in this desolate land, welcoming you from the Bolivian customs, which was a few kilometers to the right with the route and the geysers straight ahead.

A street sign in the middle of the desert. Apacheta is where the customs office is.

The highest customs office in the world at 5,020 m (16,470 ft). No one was in, but I waited for around twenty minutes in the freezing cold and nothing moved, so I continued without properly checking out the bike from Bolivia. I don’t plan to return for a long, long time, so it’s ok.

Reaching the highest point of the route near the customs office of 5,049 m (16,566 ft). I didn’t get any headaches along the whole route, so either the coca leaves or the altitude sickness pills worked, or maybe both.

A panorama, coming back from the customs office at Apacheta. Laguna Colorado is to the left (north) with the geysers to the right.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Geyser Sol de Manaña.

A wide angle view of the discoloration to the rocks from the hot scalding steam and sulphuric acid bursting up from the hot magma under this geologically active place.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Fumaroles, fountains of hot mud.

It was entertaining to see the different shapes captured in the mud as the liquefied surface bubbled and burst up.

I liked how open this whole area is with no restrictions anywhere, so you can get as close as you like to the steaming cavities. Of course, if something bad happened, you’re on your own.

From the geysers, the route was very sandy back to the main piste and I lost momentum on an incline and had to ride the clutch quite heavily to make it over the top and from here on, the clutch would slowly lose its effectiveness. However, I didn’t have to change it out for another 2,000 kms (1,250 mi).

A wide angle view as I got closer to the destination for tonight…

…the hot springs at Salar de Chalviri.

I got to the Polques Agua Thermales in the late afternoon and after setting up camp next to the guest house…

…I soaked my aching body in the comfortably warm waters of these hot springs.

It was quite cold above the water as elevation was at 4,418 m (14,495 ft), but just fine if you stayed submerged.

The winds were quite fierce and created waves on the surface.

As I lay perfectly still in the waters, these guanacos slowly strode by, only glancing up upon hearing the shutter of the SLR.

I sat there for about two hours through sunset and observed some flamingoes along with various other wildlife that came by. I know you’re not supposed to stay more than 20 minutes at a stretch in a hot tub, but I kept hydrating and my head was cooled down by the chill winds, so all was good.

A perfect end to an epic adventure. Tomorrow would be the final day on the Lagunas Route and it’s worth all the praise that’s levied on it. Come here to see all the natural beauty and test yourself by riding your own vehicle. It’s a grueling but rewarding journey.

The next morning, hordes of Land Cruisers turned up for a sunrise dip in the hot springs, so I suggest the end of the day for peace and quiet.

The hot springs are fresh water (which flow into the already salty lagoons) and I filled up my water bottles from a nearby spring. Don’t take water from the hot tub!

From Polques, the route passes through a valley called the Desierto de Dali and the coloring of the mountains sort of resembles one of his paintings.

And I think these rocks in the sand are supposed to resemble his trademark forms, but I was too far away to see.

The route was still sandy and corrugated but much better maintained than further north.

It’s sandy, but over a hard surface that was recently graded.

A panorama capturing the landscape dotted with volcanoes and mountains.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

And finally, the last jewel in this desert, Laguna Verde (green lagoon).

The guard at the southern gate offered to take my picture as must be customary for overlanders successfully making it across the Ruta de la Joyas Alto Andinas.

From there, it was a short climb up to the Bolivian immigration post at the border, which was quite high at 4,500 m (14,765 ft). I didn’t tell them about the customs office being closed yesterday, because they probably would have made me go back. I think they’re going to open a new customs office near Laguna Verde.

A school bus that didn’t make it. Finishing off a strange and wonderful journey through this kaleidoscope of experiences that are waiting for anyone willing to swim in the sand of southwestern Bolivia.

Good-bye Bolivia, it’s been a good time. Many travelers told me it was the highlight of their trip and I understand why now. I guess it’s going to be hard to be impressed by the landscape after Bolivia, put Patagonia’s calling…

Hello, Chile. It’s about 50 kms to San Pedro de Atacama for Chilean border formalities and after another 7 kms of well-graded piste, you arrive on…

Pavement! I aired up the tires back to 32 psi in the front and 38 in the rear (it took a really long time at this high altitude). I was so pleased with myself for not having dropped the bike even once across the whole Lagunas Route. That surely boosted my confidence in my off-road riding ability. Good practice for Africa…

It’s all the way down from up here. The paved road is coming from Paso de Jama, but if you enter Chile from Bolivia, you are required to head down to San Pedro to visit Chilean customs and immigration. I don’t know if you’re allowed to head straight to Argentina.

The road drops down constantly into the valley below where the Salar de Atacama is. You drop 2,100 m (6,890 ft) in 50 kms (31 mi) down to 2,500 m (8,200 ft). One of the Land Cruiser drivers told me he likes to turn off the engine and just coast all the way down.

Arriving at San Pedro de Atacama and that concludes the journey across the Lagunas Route.

Next: Chile: San Pedro de Atacama

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 6: The Lagunas Route | Laguna Honda to Laguna Colorado

Bolivia II, Part 6: The Lagunas Route | Laguna Honda to Laguna Colorado

December 22 – 23, 2010

Continuing the Lagunas Route through southwest Bolivia from Laguna Hedionda through the Arbol de Piedra to Laguna Colorado.

A few kilometers south of Cañapa is Laguna Hedionda, another endorheic salty lagoon with its own colony of flamingoes. It soon becomes apparent why this desert route is called the Lagunas Route.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

An info board at the next lagoon down, Laguna Honda with the official name of this route: Ruta de la Joyas Alto Andinas (Route of the Jewels in the High Andes), but in the overlander’s community, it’s simply referred to as the Lagunas Route.

Laguna Honda, collecting and concentrating the salts as they wash down from the surrounding volcanoes. The white around the edges is the salt of potassium chloride, which feeds the algae and in turn the flamingoes.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

After that series of lagoons, it’s a sandy desert till Laguna Colorado, about 80 kms (50 mi) away.

The winds are constant as evident in this dust funnel.

Besides the few volcanic peaks in the distance, the landscape is flat, making this big sky country.

The surface of this whole area is loosely-held rocks of varying sizes, ranging from sand grains to boulders and the tracks follow what appears to be the best option around the landforms.

Because I could see landmarks from far away, I got the feeling of being a small perturbation in this giant landscape.

The Land Cruisers make tracks where ever they want and you just pick one that’s heading in the general direction.

Using Oakley ski goggles with the Arai XD. The orange tint kept the glare out but let in enough contrast to make out the variations in the sandy track.

Going around this hillside and slowing gaining elevation.

Looking back at all the sandy tracks that climbed up to…

…this narrow mountain pass.

The pass opened up to this canyon and the route kept climbing.

Instead of reaching a summit, it was a high plateau at…

…4,637 m (15,216 ft).

Take your pick of sandy tracks across this small valley.

No other colors for hours on end except the browns and reds of the earth and the blue and white of the sky.

After climbing a bit more to the top of this ridge, the track descended quickly into the valley up ahead. Vicuñas roam this desert. How does such a big wild animal survive up here?

The deep sand was wearing me out and I took frequent breaks to relieve the tension in the shoulders.

Around the corner is some remote lodging at the Tayk Hotel, in the middle of a sea of sand. It’s probably part of the lodging network for the Land Cruiser tour groups, as no one else comes this way.

From there, the tracks all head up this huge valley.

If it wasn’t for the blue sky, you would think you’re on Mars with the red landscape, persistent winds and chilling temperature all adding to the feeling.

Riding on sturdy rocks was a relief from the loose sand everywhere else.

The temps are cold, but the sun is beating down strong.

In what really feels like the middle of nowhere, there’s a welcome sign to the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.

The route was actually graded in many places within the national reserve. The Arbol de Piedra is near the cone-shaped volcano on the left with Laguna Colorado to the right of it.

The Arbol de Piedra, a famous tree-shaped boulder sculpted by the sand-laden winds that are constantly blowing in this area.

It’s an inhospitable place to hang around with fierce winds blowing and picking up the loose sand and pelting them against everything in their path. But, surprisingly, there were two park employees taking cover behind that stone in the background and they offered to take my picture.

From the Arbol de Peidra, it’s only 15 kms (9 mi) to Laguna Colorado.

However, it’s covered in the deepest sand of the whole route. I know the theory of what it takes to ride sand – lots of speed to get the tires up and surfing across the sand. But, the equally strong, but less glamorous brother of speed is braking with a high chance of dropping the bike if the rider is inexperienced in such conditions. And I told myself I would not drop the bike on this route, so I resorted to slowly plowing my way through the sand with feet down, providing support. It’s not ideal, but gets the job done.

It took me 2 1/2 hours to do these 15 kms and I think 10 minutes just to negotiate this turn.

The first traffic sign since Uyuni requesting all traffic to head straight and make a right at the orange sand up ahead.

Just to spite the sign-makers, I took the diagonal short-cut. It was either deep sand and washboard or deep sand and rocks.

It probably wasn’t any faster, but at least the rocks added some variety to the image of just sand that was by now burned onto my retinas.

The options were either go straight and join the principle route with washboard or continue on the big rocks. Catching a glimpse of Laguna Colorado off to the right, the entity of me and the bike took the shortest route to our destination.

Back on the principle route of deep sand and huge corrugations. The diminishing daylight evident as the sand berms were casting their shadows into the troughs of the corrugations. I tried to improve things by dropping the air pressures even lower to 8 psi in the front and 15 in the back.

The road got better as Laguna Colorado came into sight and it tested my ability and right wrist to keep the throttle steady to ensure a safe arrival.

I made it! That was the toughest ride, yet. The route now passed through the gated portion of the national reserve, which runs from Laguna Colorado to Laguna Verde, near the Chilean border to the south and requires an entrance payment of B150 (US$21).

There are a few buildings here making up Camp Ende, where I found some lodging for B30 and I heard from other riders that you can find petrol here, as well.

Now, that’s a rewarding view after a tough day’s ride. Sunset over Laguna Colorado.

They didn’t serve food at this basic hotel, but as I experienced on the ride, so far, some Land Cruiser crews feel sympathetic towards the lone bikers they meet on the Lagunas Route. Perhaps cause they understand how tough the ride is and since they carry their own food, they offered me some left over dinner, which was a feast and a great way to end an epic day.

The basic rooms, which were comfortable enough and warm. There were no showers but I splashed some water at the sink.

In the morning, I hiked up a small hill to get a view of Laguna Colorado, the largest of the lagoons on the route.

Flamingoes standing around in the shallow lagoon, munching away on algae.

When not busy eating, they stand still. I wonder if they can see their image in the mirror of the lake’s surface?

Since this is at the end of the dry season, the water levels are low, revealing salt bars across the lagoon.

The red algae that Laguna Colorado is known for.

Next: Bolivia II, Part 7: The Lagunas Route | Thermales and Geysers

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 5: The Lagunas Route | San Juan to Laguna Cañapa

Bolivia II, Part 5: The Lagunas Route | San Juan to Laguna Cañapa

December 20 – 22, 2010

With the tourist attraction of the salar done with, it was time to get down to business and begin the infamous Lagunas Route (or Ruta de las Joyas Alto Andinas) through remote southwestern Bolivia across a lone, sandy, rutted track heading to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. I was dreaming and dreading of this route for the longest time. It was challenging to the best of off-road riders and I knew my skill level wasn’t up to par, yet I was throwing myself in on the belief that I could make it through.

The tracks in the southern end of the Salar de Uyuni all funnel down to this exit that joins the route heading to the town of San Juan.

The rainy season around Uyuni had started and I was lucky to come here during a short dry spell. There is a lot of mud around the edges and previous riders have gotten stuck.

The heavy washboard (corrugations) started right away and I turned off the complaining department and just told myself to enjoy whatever comes in the next 500 kms (310 mi) to San Pedro de Atacama.

It was reassuring to see these sturdy guanacos in this high-altitude desert.

Just to add to the strangeness of the experience, I passed by a a basketball court as the route went through a small village. I also saw a number of them on the Tupiza to Uyuni stretch and remember seeing a USAID and EU donor organization signs. External aid felt basketball courts would be considered development.

Back on the track, which got better in places, but the corrugation was ever present and that too, the surface was covered in loose sand. A storm was brewing towards the east and I hoped Yoshi, on his bicycle, wouldn’t be affected.

The route followed what seemed like a coastline, but the bed of perhaps the crust of the dried lake was at the same level now.

I had GPS waypoints, but no auto-routing (sacrebleu), so it was reassuring to see a sign for San Juan as the GPS was only capable of drawing a straight vector between my current position and the destination.

The route went through some deep sand just before getting to San Juan and my energy was sapped after bouncing in and out of deep corrugations and plowing through the sand.

Arriving in the remote town of San Juan with empty, sandy streets and two open stores. The town is 110 kms (68 mi) from Incahuasi. This kid was glad to get some new company and kicked his ball over to me and we got into a volley for a few minutes, until his father opened up…

…the last reliable petrol stop until San Pedro de Atacama. The Su Almacen Amiga (your friendly store) has basic supplies and petrol at B6/liter (US$3.32/gal), which is 60% over the nationally fixed price, but still way cheaper than petrol in Chile.

I topped up the 40 liter (10.7 gal) tank and along with enough petrol, I was carrying about 7 liters of water and enough food for about 5 dinners with oatmeal for breakfasts and the nuts and dried fruits for lunch.

I was too beat to camp and the only open lodging was this salt hotel for B30/night. It was circular with rooms on the perimeter and the sandy floor made for a hushed atmosphere.

The beds and all furniture were constructed from blocks of salt and I was impressed with the place. It felt luxurious compared to the places I had stayed at the previous few nights. Hotels along the route are mainly setup to provide lodging for the Land Cruiser tour groups, so food isn’t provided, which was fine since I was carrying my own food. Highlighting the scarcity of water here, a cold shower cost another B8.

Heading out the next morning towards Ollague and I think this is the track. It doesn’t really matter here, as you basically head towards a general direction on whatever path you want. I figured the Salar de Chiguana was on the other side of this mound.

Tonny Strulovic catching up to me on his KTM640 Adventure. He’s on a two-month whirlwind trip from Bogota down to Ushuaia and back. I was put in touch with him through Reginaldo (from Curitiba) and met up with him in Uyuni. He had already decided to do this route with one of the tour groups, where the Land Cruisers carry your panniers and luggage and provide petrol, food and lodging for about US$120, which is not a bad deal, considering the route. However, you have to be on a strict schedule as the tour groups do the route in three days, getting up at 4 am some days and I wanted to take it more easy and have the choice of where to camp each night. Tonny took off into the distance and I would catch up with him in San Pedro.

A train from Uyuni heading to Ollague, on the border with Chile, across the Salar de Chiguana, under the shadow of Volcan Coyumichi.

As the 4×4 tracks across the salar slowly pointed towards the railroad tracks, I realized I had to cross them, as I saw the 4x4s doing. It’s not easy on a heavily loaded bike and I piled up some stones to act like ramps over the rails. I’m not sure if there’s a proper crossing at some point further west or not, but this sure adds to the excitement.

This salar was more muddy and brown compared to Uyuni and I think the rains bring out the dirt in the salt. Like this, there are many salars in the area, but all much smaller than the expanse of Uyuni. I stood for awhile under this volcano’s gaze and understood why ancient knowledge would have deified these landforms. However, their destructive power still commands respect, even in today’s world of more certain geologic knowledge.

Parallel tracks creating ruts in the mud with the cone-shaped Volcan Chiguana on the left.

Where the mud has been cleared (like in the tracks), you can see the surface of the salar. From here, that’s the last of riding on salars and the route starts climbing. We’re heading to the right of Volcan Coyumichi.

The route turned sandy as we started climbing.

Looking back at the way I came across the Salar de Chiguana with Volcan Luxsar looming over.

Corrugated, sandy tracks heading towards Volcan Coyumichi.

It was steep in places and you can’t stop, but just have to power on over to the top.

Besides the individual overlanders, the only other vehicles are from the numerous tour groups that ply the route with trusty old Toyota Land Cruisers. Being a gear head, it was good to see them being used in such tough terrain, as their image is that of a luxury SUV in the US. I got passed by between 10 and 30 jeeps a day, which makes it feel like a busy road at times. Some were nice and stopped to make sure everything was ok and asked if I had enough water. But others were quite rude and just bahn-stormed by, without giving much clearance. Their fast speed is the primary reason for such deep corrugations along this whole route.

I took frequent breaks and continued chewing coca leaves during this whole route, along with taking the altitude-sickness tablets and had no more headaches.

The surface was loose and where the sand had been swept away, loose rocks came through.

Reaching the top of this pass and getting a glimpse of the route as it headed towards the volcano alley.

But before the next break, there were more rocks to negotiate. I had aired down the tires to 12 psi in the front and 18 in the back.

The elevation quickly climbed from around 3,600 m (11,811 ft) on the salars up to 4,200 m (13,780 ft) and would stay up here and go even higher from here on. The destination for today was Laguna Cañapa, which was 22 kms away as the crow flies, but more like 32 kms as the bike crawls.

Volcan Coyumichi, standing at 5,850 m (19,200 ft), whose sides looked like an easy climb from here, but I knew that distant slopes are deceptive to the human eye.

Looking south towards Volcan Callejon.

A super-wide panorama of about 270 degrees taking in the snow-capped volcano-studded landscape, starting with Coyumichi on the left, Inti Pasto in the distance with Callejon to its right and finishing up with the active Volcan Ollague, sitting on the border with Chile and which you can ride up the sides of.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

I realized this 4×4 track is a shortcut from Salar de Chiguana over the Coyumichi pass and joins the bigger highway coming down from Ollague. So, there must be a proper railroad crossing if you continue across the salar to Ollague.

The track joins highway 701, heading from Ollague to San Cristobal and back up to Uyuni, for a short while. This is also the way to enter the Lagunas Route in the rainy season, when the salars are flooded. The track splits off and continues south under Volcan Inti Pasto.

Snow-capped Volcan Inti Pasto, without its cone, meaning it blew up sometime recently (geologically-speaking).

Heading up a rocky track down the alley of volcanoes.

A clear view of Volcan Callejon. It can’t be overstated how clear the air is at this altitude. With most of us living near sea level, we’ve gotten used to a haze in the skies (either from pollution or just water vapor from the seas) and the clarity of the sky is stunning for us low-dwellers.

Evidence of the rainy season beginning and dark clouds were looming further south.

I turned the corner and arrived at Laguna Cañapa, the first of the lagunas on this epic route.

Flamingoes munching away on krill-like food and algae that grows well in these saline lakes.

There were about three-different types of flamingoes in the lagoon and most of them had their head under water, constantly nourishing on the algae. The peet-moss at the edge of lagoon was soft and mushy and smelt of decaying organic matter.

I arrived around 2 pm and upon seeing this rain front moving west across the route, I decided to camp here and take it easy. The weather would probably be better in the morning.

It was a spectacular place to camp, at 4,150 m (13,616 ft) next to a salt lagoon and under a snow-capped volcano. All the hardships of the route were worth it for experiences like this.

I setup my shelter and got the cover on sanDRina just as the first few drops fell. I tucked in to escape the cold and the wind and laid down to relax by listening to an audiobook from Arthur C. Clarke. It was his first novel, The City and the Stars and its futuristic setting of a global desert landscape seemed quite appropriate. I got up around 4 pm and noted not much rain had fallen, even as the rain clouds passed over head, but the cold winds were still present.

It was interesting to see the changing colors of this stunning landscape.

The moment after the sun dipped out of view with the glowing sky reflecting on Laguna Cañapa. The fact that I was the only human being for miles around in this remote mountain landscape, surrounded by such breath-taking beauty made me feel one with Nature as opposed to being lonely and seeking human companionship.

The flamingoes standing in the golden water. It’s amazing to think how they survive the cold as they don’t leave for the night, but are ever-present in the lagoon.

Being comfortable (having water, food, shelter and means of mobility) in a remote setting can nurture the impression that instead of seeing Nature as an enemy to do battle with, it is the essence that we come from. I don’t believe in supernatural forces, only natural ones.

Laguna Cañapa, the most remarkable place that I’ve camped at.

There were some abandoned rock and mud structures nearby and I found a corner to escape from the wind and get some water boiling for ramen noodles.

I bought this can of tuna in Santa Cruz, at an elevation of about 400 m (1,300 ft) and didn’t think twice before piercing its top at 4,150 m (13,616 ft). The pressure difference resulted in a spray of tuna juice. It wasn’t that bad, but now the smell was on my sleeping bag and other pieces of gear.

A pretty hearty dinner of ramen noodles and tuna steak.

Waking up for sunrise and noting the frost on the tarp. I was pleased with how warm the Catoma Twist kept me, even though it’s not a sealed tent.

A wide angle view of Laguna Cañapa as the sun’s rays slowly come over the horizon. The full moon was just about setting in the west.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Sturdy flamingoes plying the lagoon for tasty bacteria.

There wasn’t much movement among the birds, but I was ready when this chap was cleared for take-off.

He generated enough lift to appear like he was running on the water’s surface.

And just as it looked like he was about to rotate and lift off, he aborted and came back into the lagoon to hang with some other friends on this side.

I think this is the definition for ‘steel blue’.

The risen sun now warming up all the flamingoes and the landscape.

The bike cover protecting sanDRina from the frost.

Next: Bolivia II, Part 6: The Lagunas Route | Laguna Honda to Laguna Colorado

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 4: Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia II, Part 4: Salar de Uyuni

December 19 – 20, 2010

The one place I really wanted to experience in South America was the Salar de Uyuni and thus I made a big detour from southern Brazil to come back to Bolivia before heading south. The timing didn’t work out on the first attempt when I came down from the north and I told myself I had to return before leaving this continent. Expectations were high and they were surpassed.

I had a good sleep in Atocha, about a 100 kms (62 mi) south of Uyuni and was excited for today as it was finally the day I would get to experience the Salar de Uyuni. Having a typical breakfast at the mercado of a big glass of api and some fried bread.

The interesting geology started right outside town. Note the change in the color of the road as I crossed from one mountain to another.

Rocks of varying colors on display on this mountainside.

The assortment of colors splashed on the landscape were a feast for the eyes.

It makes one wonder how a stone pillar like this can remain standing on a steep hill where the wind blows with sand grains in it.

The route followed this currently dried river bed, but as you can see, there are tracks running right through it.

And here’s who’s making them: Land Cruiser 4x4s plying the route between Uyuni and Tupiza. It’s probably a faster route, but with a higher chance of encountering muddy crossings.

Entering a canyon of rock towers.

The first Red Bull that I’ve taken on this trip. In the US, I was a firm believer in this energy drink and always kept a few handy for those situations where continued attention was needed while riding, like towards the end of a long day. I was carrying this sole can all the way from Chicago and not needing it in the past ten months, I felt it was time to get rid of it and drank it. I really didn’t need it but I was planning to camp out on the Salar tonight and expected temperatures to drop below freezing, where this can would have burst.

Some tame llamas crossing the corrugated road.

A cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

This was a remote area and here was this woman walking to the next town with her children.

30 kms left to Uyuni.

Better than the Red Bull, I resorted to the local stimulant of coca leaves to abate any altitude sickness. The leaves have to be masticated for about 30 minutes first, then the alkaline (ash) agent has to be added, which releases the alkaloids in the leaves. I didn’t feel any rush, but just didn’t get tired.

The town of Uyuni slowing coming into view on the horizon. It lies in the middle of a flat expanse and is the hub for tourists heading out into the salar and on the lagunas route via 4x4s.

Zero marker for the route from Tupiza to Uyuni. I filled up petrol and topped up my water supplies and headed north.

From Uyuni, I headed 20 kms north to the town of Colchani on a heavily corrugated (washboard) road.

At Colchani, the routes heading into the salar begin. The salar proper begins about 5 kms west of town. Being a salt flat, salt production is expected and all salt workers on the salar belong to a cooperative at Colchani.

As you ride towards the salar, a broadening band of white grows across the horizon. In the foreground: an abandoned building made with salt bricks.

After heading down a few wrong tracks, I was finally on the right track heading to the middle of the salar. It was a bit confusing, since there’s no actual road and multiple tracks head off across the salar. I had GPS maps of the area, but you have to move a certain distance to see if you’re heading in the right direction. The building on the horizon is the salt hotel.

Flags of the world at the only salt hotel on the salar.

The original salt hotel, which was constructed with bricks cut from the crust of the salar, due to a lack of building supplies at the time and later its construction became a novelty and an attraction in its own right. New salt hotels are banned on the salar itself, but exist on the periphery.

The confusion of tracks heading out from the salt hotel to Isla Incahuasi. A track starting just a few degrees off can lead you away from the center and to one of the exits. You can generally ride whichever direction you want, but with the rainy season already begun, I was told to be wary of mud off the established tracks.

And Ojo de la Sal (eye of the salt), an opening in the crust, reminding you that it’s not solid ground that you’re riding on. The crust ranges from about a few centimeters to a few meters thick, covering a lake of brine about 20 m (66 ft) deep. The brine is a solution containing relatively large amounts of different salts: sodium, potassium, lithium and magnesium. And of those, lithium is the economic gold mine, since Bolivia contains about 50% of the known reserves on this planet. This rare substance is growing in demand due to its use in lithium-ion batteries that power all laptops and most electronics today. Heading down the direction of electric cars, the demand for lithium is bound to sky rocket and foreign companies are already trying to establish ways of extracting this precious mineral but Evo Morales is taking a cautionary approach to ensure the local population benefits directly.

Riding on the salar is a strange and unique experience. Firstly, the surface is rock hard, almost like concrete and on a well-used path like this, the granules of salt have been pushed aside, making for a smooth ride at high speeds. Secondly, the pentagonal and hexagonal patterns in the crust buzzing underneath you make it the most beautiful surface you’ve ridden on, even having a hypnotizing effect at the right frequency. Thirdly, the lack of any nearby visual reference points make judging distances or speed difficult. That blip on the horizon is Isla Incahuasi, about 30 kms (19 mi) away, which doesn’t seem to get bigger until you get right up to it.

Arriving at Isla Incahuasi at the center of the salar. It’s an island in this sea of salt, but is actually the tip of an old volcano that got engulfed when the salar formed about 12,000 years ago. This whole area is part of the Altiplano, a low-relief, high-altitude plateau sandwiched between two primary ridges of the Andes, the Cordillera Occidental to the west and the Cordillera Oriental to the east, making this the widest part of the Andes mountain range.

It’s been theorized that when the Andes rose (due to tectonic deformation), prior weaknesses in the Earth’s crust and other factors allowed the altiplano to form. After it formed, there was a massive lake called Ballivián or Michin across the whole altiplano and as it slowly dried, it left behind Lake Titicaca in the north, Lake Poopó further south near Oruro and two salt lakes, Coipasa and Uyuni. The altiplano is an endorheic zone, meaning rain water doesn’t drain to the sea and the minerals that washed down from the mountains collected as salt in these lakes and their concentrations slowly built up over the ages into the salars of today.

Not having any nearby visual reference points makes playing with perspective a fun thing to do on the salar. I really am standing on sanDRina as look, my tiny shadow is one with the bike’s…

She gets a kiss for being such an awesome travel companion.

Jumping off the front fender for a dive into the salt lake.

The island is visited by numerous Land Cruisers and can look like a parking lot during the day, but they all go away as the sun dips down. The island itself is a protected area and stepping foot on it requires you to pay B15, which allows you to hike to the top for good views and provides access to bathrooms and a fresh water supply. There are also some hotel rooms, but I was looking forward to camping out. Next to me, Yoshi from Japan pulled up here on his bicycle. He is cycling around the world and has just come down from Vancouver and is heading east across the planet. It’s always reassuring for your sanity to meet someone crazier than you.

The surface of the salar is quite rough and can cut skin if you scrape against it. However, the entire 10,582 sq km (4,086 sq mi) of it doesn’t vary by more than one meter, which is all the more remarkable considering its altitude of 3,656 m (11,995 ft). This truly is a special place on this planet and hopefully it doesn’t change much when lithium mining picks up and the brine is drained. Due to its extreme geologic flatness and high reflectivity (being white), it’s been a good place to calibrate the altimeters of earth observation satellites. The flatness has been attributed to the annual flooding of the salar as the water levels any changes in the topography. During the rainy season, Lake Titicaca overflows into Lake Poopó and it in turn floods the salars of Coipasa and Uyuni. It’s not advisable to ride a metal machine through a salt lake but the views are supposed to be fantastic with the whole surface acting like a giant mirror.

After setting up camp, Yoshi and I hiked up to the top to enjoy the sunset. The uniqueness of this place grows with every step. We’re in the middle of a salt falt on an old volcano covered in cactii.

Some of them are quite large, sprouting flowers.

The shadow of Isla Incahuasi growing towards the east as the full moon rises over the track heading to Uyuni.

Looking north with tracks heading to Jirere and Volcan Tunupa, a prominent feature on the horizon, which is active. The volcano has importance in local Aymara legends (her tears for a runaway lover volcano mixing with milk created the salar) and they prefer this place to be called Salar de Tunupa rather than Uyuni, which isn’t even on the salar.

The sun setting over the Salar de Uyuni and with that, the winds picked up and the temperature plummeted. It’s quite comfortable during the day time, but without El Sol, it’s a different place.

Looking south to the route I would take tomorrow.

Sunset on Isla Incahuasi, surrounded with seas of dried salt. What a way to end an epic day…

I was hoping I could time my trip to the salar with a new moon for the expected super clear night sky, but alas, I was two weeks out of sync with our lunar neighbor and would have a bright moon for the next few nights. Oh well, that is a natural phenomena to enjoy in itself.

A natural bridge in the rocks of Isla Incahuasi.

Strangely enough (but I guess not surprising anymore), there are two resident llamas on the island. What’re they doing in the middle of a salt desert on an island of cactii?

I guess, anything they want. They were running about and playing on the salar like it was their backyard and just then, the skies turned purple briefly with two llamas dancing on salt.

Getting ready for a chilly night. It’s summer now but I was still expecting it to get very cold, dropping way below freezing and thus I put my sleeping bag liner inside my summer sleeping bag and put that inside the newly acquired down sleeping bag. In addition, I wore quite a few layers including wool socks, neck gaitor and fleece beanie (winter cap).

After some dinner of ramen with tuna, which we ate outside, but did so quickly as the cold wind was sucking our warmth away, we tucked in for the night. However, around 11pm, the wind suddenly stopped and after a quick peek outside and seeing the brilliance of the full moon on the salar, I took this picture with my old Konica Minolta 5D SLR, which is a 3 minute exposure. You can see the rocks that I laid against the tent wall to seal it to the ground as my tent is primarily for hot weather and the roof doesn’t seal to the floor.

Getting up at 6 am for sunrise from the top of Incahuasi. The temperature didn’t drop as low as I was expecting and I was actually a bit warm.

The darkness of night peeling back to the returning Sun.

The moment of daybreak. The winds were howling and quickly died down as if bowing down to the mighty heating power of this parent sun.

The strange coral-like structures that the island is made of. A relic from the days when this volcano was engulfed by the ancient lakes of the Pleistocene era.

Enjoying the effects of the new sun on the cactus island.

Dried salt after going through a heavily-rutted area that was filled with saline solution near the entrance to the salar as I looked for the correct track. I scrapped off most of it.

Saying good-bye to Yoshi. He was heading to Uyuni and onwards to Potosi. Before setting off on his travels, he worked at a Toyota factory back in their home city of Nagoya and is actually a motorcyclist more than a bicyclist and is a part of various moto clubs. He’s built a cafe racer from an old Yamaha RD400. He actually wanted to travel by motorcycle (of course), but his worries about finding enough spare parts and the cost of maintaining a bike led him one step further down the minimalist path to pedal power. He actually said he didn’t enjoy pedaling for so many days in a row and I chuckled as I reminded him of the three years that lay ahead for him. You can only second-guess yourself, so much. I see the appeal of traveling by bicycle, not burning any fossil fuels, but you obviously need a lot more time to cover the same distance. After probing me about the maintenance I had done to sanDRina and happy to see such an old bike performing so hardily, I planted the seed in this bicyclist to come back to the motorcyclist world.

He had given me his diary to write something in there for him to read later and forgot the book as he took off. I got ready and went after him and was impressed to see he had done 7 kms in 30 minutes. It was a strange experience searching for a moving object on the horizon in this blinding landscape. He was on a parallel track and as I veered towards him, I could see his wheels turning, but it didn’t look like he was moving. He was happy to have his diary back as all his thoughts from the past few months have been captured in it.

I turned south and looked for the exit that all the tracks pointed to. Knobby tires are not needed on the salt and I wore them down by riding fast on the rough surface. But, they would be much appreciated on the terrain coming up.

Woot! to an awesome experience on the Salar de Uyuni. It might be getting more touristy all the time, but that doesn’t take away from why this place is so impressive.

A glamour shot of sanDRina on the brilliant salar.

Next: Bolivia II, Part 5: The Lagunas Route | San Juan to Laguna Cañapa

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 3: Sucre thru Tupiza to Atocha

Bolivia II, Part 3: Sucre thru Tupiza to Atocha

December 15 – 18, 2010

I spent a few days in Sucre, getting acclimatized and making final preparations for the Lagunas Route.

A prominent statue at the center of revolutionary leader Antonio José de Sucre, whom the city is named after. He was a Venezuelan general and the right-hand man of Simón Bolívar, who together orchestrated the liberation of the Spanish colonies from here north. Sucre won the final battle in Ayacucho and thus liberated Alto Peru, which was later renamed as Bolivia, in honor of Simón Bolívar.

The government house, showcasing Sucre’s colonial architecture. The city was founded in 1538 and features heavily in Bolivian history, being its capital initially and later relinquishing the title to La Paz, but still holding onto the seat of the judiciary, while the legislative and executive branches moved to the new capital.

Nearing on almost half a millenia of continued inhabitation, it’s amazing that so much of its colonial past has been preserved. The city has sprawled out into the nearby mountains, but the center still retains much of its architectural glory, typified by whitewashed buildings.

After welding up a small crack in my pannier frame (from the cobble-stoned road), I figured this was a good place to finally fix my shortened side stand. I had cut off an inch of it before the trip since it appeared too long with the weight of all the luggage. However, I later realized that cranking up the compression of the rear spring was the correct way to compensate for the heavy load and this in turn raised the rear of the bike, making it precarious to park with the shortened side stand. I made a temporary fix in São Paulo by adding a few extension bolts but here I could correct it properly.

The welder spliced in an inch of steel tube and did a good job. All for B40 (US$6).

Having a huge bowl of fruit salad for lunch, for B6 in the central market. This was a common sight in most Bolivian cities; stalls selling fresh fruit juices and salads with yogurt and granola.

At night, the lit-up whitewashed buildings glow in all their grandeur.

The street markets come alive at night as people are heading home.

Eating at the mercado is usually the cheapest option but this is also primarily a daytime activity. Strolling around the center, looking for a cheap place to eat at night, I was directed to a back entrance of the central market to the Comedor Nocturno (night food court), that runs after the market usually shuts down from 3 pm to midnight.

The comedor consists of numerous stalls with each table run by a different family.

And they’re all jousting to get your business, but it’s hard to pick a table when they’re all serving the same items at the same price, so just sit down anywhere. This is the typical meal, lomitos, consisting of a piece of fried beef served on rice and french fries with a fried egg on top with fried plantains and a nominal salad, all for B10. It’s tasty, but oh so greasy.

And the tables come with pickled vegetables, which I added to supplant the salad. There were onions, sweet peppers and even radishes. Plus, Bolivia understands hot sauce and it’s widely available where food is served, usually homemade and very spicy.

At the mercado campesino (street market for the normal folk) stitching up my five year old toiletry bag, which was bursting at the seams and was held up with staples for the longest time. I figured this was the last stop to get things repaired before I entered Chile and Argentina. I also managed to find a real goose down sleeping bag for around US$30, as I would need that for the cold nights at high altitude on the salar and into the Lagunas Route.

Spending a few days at Hotel Pachamama, which was recommended by other bike travelers. A bed could be had for B40 a night with courtyard parking for the bike, hot showers and prime location between the center and the mercado campesino. As Sucre is located at around 2,800 m (9,200 ft), it was a good place to acclimatize to the elevation and walking the hills around town was a good way to introduce my blood to the reduced oxygen up here. I also adjusted sanDRina’s air/fuel mixture in the carburetor by reducing the flow of fuel to get the combustion mixture as close to stoichiometric as possible (14.7 molecules of oxygen for 1 molecule of hydrocarbons).

Heading out from Sucre, the road climbs steadily up to Potosi.

A taste of the geological wonders from here on. Flat sedimentary layers pushed almost vertical as the South American plate steadily crashes into the Nazca and Pacific plates.

Cerro Rico and the world’s highest city of Potosi at 4,070 m (13,350 ft). The discovery of huge quantities of silver in 1545 made this the richest city in Latin America by the 19th century and this location alone bank-rolled the entire Spanish empire for nearly two centuries. Millions of indigenous people and African slaves were forced into the bone-chilling mines to create wealth for the colonial powers. Most of the towns I passed through in northern Argentina were setup along the supply route to Potosi from the port at Buenos Aires. Just think, if it wasn’t for the discovery of exploitable natural resources, where would the colonial powers be today?

From Potosi, I headed south to Tupiza on word that the route from Tupiza to Uyuni should not be missed.

There was some good off-road riding but this was mostly a construction detour as the route is being paved.

The route snaking through a valley. I gained and dropped elevation throughout the day and not yet being fully acclimatized, I got a serious headache by late afternoon, similar to my first experience with huge variations in elevation in getting to Quito.

I found a room in Cotagaita, a town halfway to Tupiza, popped a few paracetamol, applied some tiger balm and slept it off.

It was all good in the morning and I had some typical breakfast of a salty soup with some meat and potatoes, which are considered by the locals as a good source of energy, maybe cause the potato might have been the only source of energy for long periods in their history.

There were some interesting sights on the ride to Tupiza, but most of it was shrouded in construction dust.

Following a rural Land Cruiser ambulance on a stretch of freshly-laid tarmac with colorful mountains ahead.

Having some tasty Salteñas for lunch in Tupiza. These are a form of empanadas and are very tasty. An Argentine couple from Salta was exiled to Bolivia where they started selling these emapandas and the craze soon spread around the country. While in Tupiza, I also picked up a bunch of altitude sickness pills (10 for B35, $5) from a local pharmacy, because I could not afford any more headaches in the rough terrain coming up.

From Tupiza, I turned north towards Uyuni and stayed the night at Atocha.

I was told this route was full of geologic marvels and was not disappointed. Vertical sedimentary layers.

Twisted and contorted layers of rock.

There was farmland in some valleys, but the route was mostly quite remote.

With hardly any traffic, it was an enjoyable ride.

A huge obelisk of stone right by the road. With more people around, I could see this sculpture being worshiped for fertility due to its uncanny phallic resemblance.

As I gained elevation, the terrain became more arid and cactus took over from the shrubs.

Taking a break at 3,800 m (12,465 ft) and noting the path as it slowly made its way along this sparse mountain ridge.

I was heading to that little volcano you see in the distance.

Yup, it was thaaat steep. Coming down after summitting near 4,050 m (13,300 ft).

There’s something to appreciate in a route following the natural curves of the land, rather than a straight path being bulldozed in the name of efficiency.

This route is known in the motorcycling community for its frequent arroyo crossings, which are dried river beds for most of the year and swell up in the short rainy season, which was supposed to begin right about now, but was delayed. A flash flood could be coming and that cow would have no idea.

A wide-angle view showing the prominent landmark of that volcano, which was visible for most of the route in this big sky landscape. The clouds feel close enough to touch.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Domesticated llamas were the only visible wildlife.

A landform, plying its way through time under the open sky.

I stopped in this little village after seeing the public water pump and this man jumped on top and happily put some energy down the pump to bring up the water.

I’m sure it was a pure and clean source, coming from deep underground, but just in case, I ran it through my LifeSaver filter, which I’ve been doing for most of my trip and have avoided spending money on bottled water.

A panorama taking in the route and the ever-present volcano.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The old route crossing over the muddy arroyo before Atocha.

But, I played it safe and took the newer route through the hills to…

…arrive in Atocha, a small mountain town halfway to Uyuni.

The brightly colored buildings were a stark contrast to the surrounding natural hues. I got a room there for B20.

The bus station and airport all in one place. I guess when the wind picks up, you could just unbolt it from the tower and lift off.

Dinner at the mercado of a warming soup and meat and potatoes with rice. Even if the main dishes stay the same throughout this area, the hot sauce varies.

Next: Bolivia II, Part 4: Salar de Uyuni

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 2: Ruta del Che Guevara

Bolivia II, Part 2: Ruta del Che Guevara

December 11 – 14, 2010

With sanDRina all ready for the Lagunas Route, I still had some things to source in Sucre, namely a down sleeping bag. But between here and there was the Ruta del Che, some beautiful off-road riding through small towns and villages that played host to the final days of Che Guevara.

With Santa Cruz being at the foothills of the eastern flank of the Andes, the mountainous terrain started soon after leaving the city.

Only an hour after leaving, my rear tire went flat. The patches on my heavy duty tube were leaking and it was time to part with it. I had ridden the whole trip, all the way from Chicago on that tube and kept patching it as punctures happened. However, the problem with heavy duty tubes is that they do get punctured from sharp objects and when they do, they are hard to repair perfectly due to the different compound of rubber that they are made from compared to standard tubes. I gave the tube to a local kid who was watching and put in a new standard duty tube that made it all the way back to Buenos Aires and beyond without a puncture.

Stopping for the night in Samaipata, a small town just 120 kms (75 mi) from Santa Cruz.

You know you’re close to Santa Cruz when there’s a sculpture to autonomy in the central plaza.

The town is on the gringo trail with restaurants serving western food, but I headed to the market and the eataries at the back for a plate of chicken and rice for B10.

As I was walking back to my hotel, I saw this lady talking to the pig that was tied underneath the truck. Maybe she was giving it words of encouragement? It’s the biggest town in the area and locals from the surrounding hills were selling produce from their farms.

A pleasant hotel for B40.

From Samaipata, there’s a turnoff heading south to the town of Vallegrande, the start and center of the Ruta del Che.

This part of the route was recently paved, but I was told the rest of the route was off-road and the rain clouds ahead didn’t bode well for the mud roads.

The central plaza of Vallegrande, a small town that was placed on the world map due to the events surrounding the death of Che Guevara.

I would say it’s a typical small Bolivian mountain town with some development here and there, but life chugging along without too much change.

Having a snack in the central market of a papaya smoothie and some fried bread.

A sign asking residents to vote no on a referendum against autonomy from the central government.

And now the story of Che Guevara’s final days. If his politics bother you, skip ahead, but if you respect his contribution to revolutionary movements around the world, read on.

A mural to Che at the Hospital Nuestra Señora de Malta, where his corpse was brought to display to the world. The Argentine doctor felt revolution was the only answer to the poverty he witnessed is his travels around Latin America. One of his journeys was on an old Norton 500 motorcycle in 1951 and was successfully captured in the movie “The Motorcycle Diaries.” After assisting and becoming a central force in the Cuban revolution, he desired to assist revolutions around the world. But much to his chargin, he did not find willing revolutionaries and some consider his life to have ended in failure. Regardless, he achieved a lot in only 39 years on this planet.

A letter Che wrote to his five children meant to be read after his death.

After an unsuccessful attempt to assist the revolution in the Congo, he embarked on his next project, where he felt Bolivia was ripe to ignite the revolutions around Latin America that had yet to happen. It is not sure exactly why, but he chose the remote Camiri mountains of southeast Bolivia to train a guerrilla force to fight the Bolivian Army. Many things worked against him: he underestimated the revolutionary desire of the local people, who were poor but not really discontent and the strength of the Bolivian Army was greater than he expected as they were being assisted by the CIA to counter this enemy of the USA. After being encircled in a canyon and wounded in battle, Che surrendered, only to be executed on orders of the Bolivian president to avoid a lengthy trial. This all happened in La Higuera, a small village about 125 kms away, so the body was flown to Vallegrande and the world’s press was invited to witness the death of Che.

His body was placed across these two shallow laundry basins and then photos were taken to prove his death to the world. They showed him off like a wild animal that had just been slaughtered.

How foolish the authorities were to think that killing him would keep his story quiet, instead the opposite happened and he became an instant martyr to revolutionary causes around the world and generations of rebels, becoming a symbol of counterculture across time and societies.

Fans and followers have visited this little laundry house over the nearly four decades since his death to communicate their support and worship. His famous slogan “hasta la victoria siempre” (until victory, always).

The tour around Vallegrande is done through the municipal’s tourism office and this is the only way to get access to all the sites. It costs about B90 and lasts about 2 hours. The guide was informative and speaks only Spanish.

Besides Che, there are memorials to the other guerrillas that fought and died there.

A poem and a mural at the cemetary.

A memorial to Tania, an ex-Stasi (East German secret service) agent, who was placed in Bolivia to assist Che is also purported to have worked for the KGB and unwittingly lead the Bolivian authorities to Che’s whereabouts. Guevara was instrumental in developing the Soviet-Cuban relationship and with the US embargoes, this was an economic lifeline to them. He was also behind the plan that brought the Soviet nuclear missiles onto Cuban soil leading the world unwittingly to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 and he felt the backing down of the USSR and giving victory to the Americans was a betrayl to the Cuban cause and thereafter dismissed the Soviet Union as much as he did of the USA. He was also getting more friendly with Chinese communism, much to the irritation of Castro and the USSR. So, maybe all these events suggest that the Soviet Union also wanted him brought down.

At the entrance to the mausoleum for Che.

After the drama of showing Che’s corpse to the world, the Bolivian government made the story bigger by hiding his body and not telling anyone where it was. They thought his corpse would be dug up and made into a worship site. Ironically, that is exactly what happened after a lot of fuss. In 1995, a retired general revealed that the bodies were hastily burried near the airstrip in Vallegrande and a search was carried out for the corpses. They were found in 1997 and the remains were taken to Cuba to be given proper honors and this mausoleum was built on top of that site.

Bringing the body of Che back to Cuba came at a good time for Fidel Castro as he needed something to keep up the revolutionary spirit on his island. Castro’s Cuba obviously benefited enormously from Guevara’s influence. Castro admired Che’s intellect as he made literacy a top priority, which the country is benefiting from today, but the two men also disagreed on many things during their partnership, such as Che’s dogmatism and strict adherence to ideology.

Inside the mausoleum with the grave stones of the seven men that were found to be hastily buried here in 1967, only to be rediscovered 30 years later.

With the man that put the word of revolutionaries into action and met his expected fate, albeit much sooner than anyone thought. His presence is so endearing today because he was not a simple thug touting Marxist principles, but is seen as a deep intellectual who was searching for the correct way for humans to live. Instead of aimlessly asking what the purpose of life should be, he went out and created the life he thought should exist on this planet. History will look on these type of figures and state their ideals were ahead of their time, but actually, progressive thinkers of every era are the ones who create the stories that are later told in history.

There are various photos on the walls of the mausoleum and if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember this raft that was made by the lepers in Peru and named the Mambo-Tango, since Che wasn’t a good dancer and couldn’t discern between the sounds of tango and mambo.

After the tour, our guide, Mauricio said there was a party that night and we were welcome to join (I was with two Colombians from Bogota who were traveling around Bolivia). Bolivian street party in full swing.

What’s a street party without some fresh street food? This lady was frying up some meats and potato.

The patron saint who the party was in honor of, but I don’t think most people cared. It was an occasion to get together and celebrate.

The musicians were strumming out the Andino wino music and were chewing huge wads of coca leaves in between swigs of the local alcohol, chicha cochabambina, a fermented corn drink.

A nice night out in the streets of Vallegrande with Mauricio and the owner of the place that threw the party.

Getting some breakfast the next morning at the mercado.

A hearty soup with some meat and potatoes.

It was going to be a long day’s ride, so I stocked up on the calories with an api drink, which is made from corn, lemon and cinnamon. I like its viscous, grainy texture and being served warm makes it enjoyable for the body. And who doesn’t like a purple drink.

Enticing chickens in the meat section. You have to generally walk past this section to get to the ‘food court’ of a market.

Chunks of red meat from grass-fed cows.

My comfortable hotel in the centro for B25. I usually ask for a shared room and most of the time, there’s no other guests.

From Vallegrande, external donor organizations have provided the information for self-guided tours in the area following Che’s story. They did this as a way to encourage tourism in the area. Even if it wasn’t for all the Che story in the area, this route is quite an adventure. Luckily the rains from the previous day didn’t make the mud roads impassable.

The day was overcast and it got very chilly as the route climbed up and over a mountain ridge.

Trademark Bolivian roads, cut into the side of steep mountains with no guard rails and…

…epic views. You know you’re gaining elevation when you’re higher than the clouds. The route summited at 2,817 m (9,240 ft).

Looking back at the way I came, winding up the mountainside.

The route is well-signed with indicators pointing the way to La Higuera.

On the other side of the summit, things cleared up and the temps rose as the elevation dropped. Heading down into a valley…

…to La Higuera, the small village, which played witness to the death of Che Guevara. On October 7, 1967, around 2,000 soldiers from the Bolivian Army surrounded Che and his fighters after their position was betrayed and Che surrendered with gunshots through his leg. Not expecting to capture Che alive, there was confusion in the Bolivian government about what to do with him. The US wanted him extradited to Panama to face a lengthy trial but for unclear reasons, the Bolivian President René Barrientos ordered him killed. On October 9, Mario Terán was chosen to carry out the execution. He was a sargeant with a personal grudge against Guevara as his band of fighters had killed friends of Mario’s in an earlier gun fight. A witness to the execution said that Mario was hesitant to carry out the act, fully aware of who he was murdering but Che said, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!” This bust stands outside the schoolhouse where the above drama played out. It translates to ‘Your example lights the way. A new dawn.’

The French intellectual Régis Debray spent some time with Guevara and his guerrillas in the jungles of Bolivia and relayed that Che sensed his end was near and was ‘resigned to die in the knowledge that his death would be a sort of renaissance’ to freedom fighters around the world.

The cause that speaks to me about Che was his desire to raise the consciousness in every individual about how they should live based on moral principles and this will only be achieved through introspection. Alas, overcoming human nature’s follies has been every revolutionary’s greatest struggle. His legend will live on as an icon of rebellion. And to illustrate how commercial his image has become, there’s a hotel in his name, serving tea and coffee to the left.

Hearing that there was a bridge across the Rio Grande down in the valley with a place to camp, I headed out there instead of staying in town.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The road steadily dropped down to the valley.

There wasn’t any other traffic and the road was well-maintained, making for a stress-free ride.

Looking down on the route as it snaked across the colorful geology. Note the black hill with its yellow razor-back spine.

Crossing the Santa Rosa Bridge and…

…finding a nice place to camp down for the night. A lady was living in the brick house and was responsible for preparing meals for the once daily bus that passed through here.

The views were wonderful from the high perch above the broad bed of the Rio Grande, a major tributary of the Amazon.

The broad river being funneled through a narrow slit in the rocks, which it cut for itself.

The area is remote with the next major town of Villa Serrano being 75 kms (47 mi) away or heading back about a 100 kms (62 mi) to Vallegrande and the imposition of this new concrete bridge felt out of place amongst all this natural shaping of the land.

The winds were strong in this valley and it was carrying the top layer of water faster than the rest of it could naturally flow. Tracks along the sandy shore.

A panoramic view of the Rio Grande river at its lowest point at the end of the dry season from the Santa Rosa Bridge. Alfonso told me the rains were late this year, as it’s becoming more expected with climate change. While that’s not good for the natural world, it made riding through this area at this time of year possible.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The strong winds kicking up a dust storm further up the valley.

And just in case, you’ve been warned: no fishing with explosives. Crazy construction crews.

Camped across from me was this couple from Sucre, Hugo and Miriam, who were on their yearly ten day camping trip of this area in their Mitsubishi Pajero. They were boiling rice and invited me for dinner.

Capturing some beautiful light from the setting sun, shining the path I would follow the next day to Villa Serrano.

Their primary meal was rice with condensed milk with fried and baked breads. We talked and exchanged traveler’s stories and Hugo wanted to practice his English, having a few kids in the US.

I liked his lantern idea where a coffee can was cut in such a way to reflect out the light from one candle, creating a more luminous atmosphere than was possible with the same candle out in the open. This also protected the flame from the strong winds. He was very much a do-it-yourselfer, regarding living on the road, but they yearned for a more spacious, proper camper van.

I anchored sanDRina to a nearby tree with one of my Wunderlich luggage straps to keep her from falling down in the night from the heavy winds and who knows if it would have worked, but that’s all I could do.

Heading along the western side of the Rio Grande valley on my way up to Villa Serrano.

The Rio Grande must be really grande at the end of the rainy season, spanning the entire river bed.

The route passed through a different kind of geology from that of the previous day on the other side of the valley.

An interesting looking tree that looks like two or more trees are joined near the base.

A wide-angle view of the route and the terrain it was heading through.

The temps were rising faster than I was gaining elevation and I took breaks in the shade.

Passing through 2,100 m (7,000 ft) marked a change in the flora with pine trees taking over.

Pulling into the small, mountain village of Villa Serrano where the only petrol was sold out of barrels at a 20% markup from the fixed price. However, a proper petrol station was only another 100 kms (62 mi) away.

As a stage before paving with asphalt, sections of the route were cobble-stoned and this makes for a vibration-induced ride on motorcycles.

A hairpin turn as the road dropped down into a valley.

At least the cobble stones allowed you to know with a bit more certainty the condition of the road around a bend, so if you could get over the vibrations, it wasn’t an undesirable surface.

While the new road is being extended from Tarabuco, the route still follows the old tight route through a narrow canyon. Elevation was around 2,730 m (8,955 ft).

And a high-pressure natural gas pipeline follows the road, reminding me in miniature of the Dawson Highway and its companion in the Alaska Pipeline.

There were very few inhabitants along the route but a few farmers were out ploughing the land and tending to their livestock in his arid environment.

A wide-angle view of the valley the road dipped down and quickly crossed before climbing up the other side.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

I got used to the vibrations from the cobble stones (even with reduced tire pressures), but sanDRina showed some fatigue and a part of the luggage frame cracked where there was a heavy tool tube dangling from.

Putting air pressure back in the tires upon reaching pavement in Tarabuco. It took longer than usual for the little air compressor to get the job done with the thin air at 3,050 m (10,000 ft).

Riding into Sucre and that concludes the Ruta del Che, an amazing route through remote southeastern Bolivia with a dash of modern revolutionary human history thrown in with buckets of much longer geologic history.

Next: Pictures from Bolivia II, Part 3: Sucre thru Tupiza to Atocha

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 1: Tarija to Villamontes and Santa Cruz

Bolivia II, Part 1: Tarija to Villamontes and Santa Cruz

December 2 – 10, 2010

I was back in Bolivia to see parts of this geologic marvel of a country that I missed on my first visit when I came down from the north in July. I was on a tight schedule of sorts for Brazil, so I had to skip a tour of southwestern Bolivia after I had my first major breakdown and had to turn north for the Amazon. It all works out well in the end, because I got to see much more of this country on this second visit.

It was also a relief to be back in a less developed country for a change after the expenses of Brazil and Argentina. Bolivia is an Andean nation and not that rich compared to its neighbors, but neither is it poor. It just seems to keep chugging along and it’s a highlight on travelers’ maps for the amazing landscape the Andes put on and the warm locals they encounter.

I headed up to the big city of Santa Cruz to refresh sanDRina before the rough off-road riding through the southwest. From there, I took the newly developed Ruta del Che, a remote trail following the last days of Che Guevara and getting to Sucre. After dipping down to Tupiza, the geologic fun started heading to Uyuni and its Salar. After playing in the bizarre landscape, the experience turned up a notch on the remote, high-altitude crossing via the Lagunas Route to northern Chile, the highlight of my ride thru South America.

Efficient border crossing at Aguas Blancas (Arg) and Bermejo (Bol). Customs for both countries is in the same building, but immigration is in different buildings. Rather than fast and hard rules for each country, it seems the requirements at a border match what both countries are asking for there. Argentina is now in the habit of asking to see some sort of international motorcycle insurance and therefore, Bolivia also asks to see it when you cross here.

Cheerfully painted bridge across the border in each country’s flag colors.

Bolivian immigration once you cross onto Bolivian soil. Being from a strange country to them, like India, always takes more time since they have to dig up the rules book and see what the agreement is between each country, regarding how many days you are allowed to stay.

A mini sign-post forest, making it tricky to figure out which way to go.

My route through southern Bolivia. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The border crossing took about an hour and I still had enough light to do the 190 kms (120 mi) to Tarija, the big city in the south, where I had a contact to stay with.

The paved road was very twisty and in excellent condition, making for a fun ride.

Tunnels – never stops to be a source of joy on a ride.

The road was quite empty, except for the occasional hoofed traffic as ranchers move their cattle from winter to summer grazing areas.

After the flat riding in Argentina earlier in the day, this was a welcome sight; carpets of green covered mountains with a twisting road up its side.

As I got near Tarija, the vegetation dried up, but the elevation kept up, making this an ideal wine-growing region.

Tarija has almost a Mediterranean feel to it with date palms covering the central plaza. I took out some local currency and met up with Patricia, a cousin of Alfonso, my friend in La Paz.

The next day, I headed east on the scenic Ruta 11 to Villamontes, 250 kms (155 mi) away.

The route was paved initially and I took in the dry landscape.

It soon turned into a small dirt road as it wound its way down the eastern flanks of the Andes.

Stone-fenced pens on the dry hillsides.

The road was in good condition, being hard-packed gravel with a fine layer of sand on top.

They were paving sections of it in the middle, where the route was accessible to large machines.

But large parts of it winded tightly along the contours of the hills.

sanDRina’s paint scheme blending in nicely with the natural colors.

The route was especially enjoyable when it went through tight canyons where the steep sides and tall trees made you feel small.

The route opening up near Entre Rios as it passed along the carved cliffs of this dried river bed.

Now, that’s what you call a hole-in-the-wall kinda place. I didn’t want to stop in the busy square of Entre Rios for lunch, to be surrounded by onlookers, so I scoured the surrounding streets and found this open door with a table and chair ready for patrons.

It was a restaurant, but felt more like eating in the owner’s house, especially with the lack of other patrons.

Getting the full Bolivian Almuerzo (set lunch), which starts with a soup loaded with carbs and some meat (and french fries in this one)…

With the secundo (second course, main course) being some friend chicken with pasta, fries and some salad. All for 10 Bolivianos (US$1.45).

I usually avoid a heavy lunch while riding since it makes me sleepy in the mid-afternoon (when all the blood has rushed down to help digest the meal), but no worries on a dirt road as I discovered while riding the TransAmazonica. My attention is much more piqued while riding dirt than pavement, since the loose surface can quickly lead to a tip over and this increased use of brain power keeps my attention going the whole day (supplanted with appropriate music, of course).

The only downside of this route is the regular truck traffic and the ensuing dust clouds that you must ride through. A helmet with a face shield being invaluable as you swim back into clean air.

When there was no oncoming traffic, it was a true joy to be riding the pegs on a well-maintained dirt road through captivating landscape.

But, the trucks are always there. This is the principle route across southern Bolivia and traffic coming from Paraguay and the chaco of Argentina have to take this route to access Tarija and points westward of there.

This was also the end of the dry season, with the last rains falling months before, so the surface was pulverized into fine sand in places. I was glad I made it back to Bolivia before the summer rainy season started and made many of these roads impassable. I’ll take choking dust over soups of mud any day.

It was getting into late afternoon and the vivid colors were coming through stronger.

The narrowness of the route was dictated by huge boulders in places and dirt-lovers can rest assured this whole route wont be paved anytime soon.

Darkening clouds changing the hues across the landscape.

The on-going twists in the road kept the excitement up as the sun faded and I still had an hour to reach Villamontes.

The universal ‘pavement ends’ sign.

The dirt route resembling the dried river bed that it followed.

A panorama of about 170 degrees of a bend in a dried river bed. This whole area was just yearning for the first rains to fall.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

An enjoyable ride through southern Bolivia from Tarija to Villamontes.

I spent the night in Villamontes, which is not much more than the first border town in southeastern Bolivia. I had a good breakfast at this lady’s stall before setting off to Santa Cruz.

The culture of empanadas carrying over across the border as the cheap, street food. A fried puff with meat inside and an assortment of condiments (pickled vegetables, hot sauces, etc).

From Villamontes, you can head east to the border crossing at Ibibobo into Paraguay’s Chaco.

A distance board indicating the 500-odd kms to Santa Cruz.

It was a flat ride on the well-maintained pavement with a few undulating hills and lots of greenery.

But the temperature picked up as the Andes dropped back to the west and the sun shone strong.

Alfonso (from La Paz) contacted his friend Oscar in Santa Cruz to help me get some bike maintenance done. He and his son, Miguel are gear heads, as well, but of the 4×4 kind, doing rallies in a modified Range Rover. We’re having a Sunday meal with his mother at a country-style restaurant.

Steak, a-la milanesa style (breaded and fried) with rice and salad.

The shady central plaza of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the most populous city in Bolivia (all though La Paz and its neighboring cities seem more crowded). This city has been in the news recently after discoveries of huge natural gas reserves nearby and their continued demand for autonomy from the rest of Bolivia. The population has been more right-leaning than Evo Morales’ left-leaning La Paz and the Andean side of Bolivia. Their desire to move away from federal Bolivia shows through with the locals considering themselves more Brazilian than Bolivian and the climate seems to agree with that, as well.

The large Jesuit-styled cathedral with a weekend crafts market in its shadows.

The brick face towers over the central plaza, but I was told most people are only religious here for ceremonial reasons and more easily bow down to El Dinero than hesus.

The government house proudly displaying the green and white flag of a hoped autonomous Santa Cruz rather than Morales’ multi-colored flag. I thought seeking autonomy was still in the discussion stages, but with the local government touting it, they must be serious about their demands. The northern states (where I passed through heading to the Amazon) were also seeking autonomy since they feel the federal government in La Paz doesn’t do enough for them and this all works against Morale’s drive to centralize things around the capital. While I initially supported the voice of indigenous people finally gaining stature in this country, it now appears he’s heading for single-party autocracy rather than a true multi-party democracy. Power corrupts all.

Getting a plate of various rice and corn dough grilled snacks.

And then it was down to the business of preparing sanDRina for the extended off-road riding coming up. I waited till I got to Bolivia to replace some big-ticket items on the bike since everything is much cheaper here compared to the neighboring countries. I found the tires I needed at Becar Motos, a well-known shop in the motorcycling community. In Bolivia, if you buy something from a shop, you can usually mount it or have it serviced there for free. I bought a rear Pirelli MT-60, which is a 50/50 tire and a cheaper set of Kenda tires; a rear K270 (another 50/50) and a more aggressive K257D for the sandy Lagunas Route. I wanted to make sure that I could make it back to Buenos Aires without needing to buy tires in expensive Patagonia.

I also found some high quality DID chains and I mounted one and kept one as a spare. They were not the preferred cross-ring style, but o-ring nonetheless and it would be much better than the Iris chain that I mounted in Sao Luis, Brazil that stretched and formed kinks in its links within just 13,000 kms (8,125 mi), which is around half the life of a good quality chain. Iris is a brand from Spain and I would not recommend it, as other riders concur. It’s easily available all through Latin America but lasts much shorter than quality Japanese chains. This is Gert here throwing in a helping hand.

I contacted Gert through the HorizonsUnlimited communities page and he informed me of Becar Motos and introduced me to drinking a beer Santa Cruz-style, where you mix some Fanta with the lager. He’s from the Netherlands and ended up here after a bike trip down the Americas and now has setup a few businesses.

Changing engine oil and as explained, you only have to pay for the new oil and they change it for free. However, since I don’t like to let anyone else put a tool on sanDRina (unless I highly trust them), I did the oil change myself, but they provided everything I needed, including some diesel to clean the reusable Scotts stainless-steel mesh oil filter.

Getting a spare key made from an original Suzuki blank for B50 (US$7). My old key was the original that came with the bike and it was 12 years old and slightly smoothed over. The new key felt crisp in the ignition.

Stocking up on dried fruits and nuts. I like dehydrated prunes since they have a lot of fiber and help keep up healthy bowel movements, which can become constrained while camping in rough places. And usually when I’m riding off-road through remote places, I don’t stop for lunch and instead just snack on prunes and walnuts through the day.

One major item I wanted to repair while in Bolivia was my primary riding gloves. The Teknic Speedstar summer gloves have served me well but after about three years of use, the stitches in the fingers were coming loose and I knew I could have them repaired in good ol’ Bolivia, compared to Brazil or Argentina.

But even here, I was surprised at the number of cobblers that refused to repair them because it was going to be a complicated job.

The cobbler had to slide the gloves onto a thin enough support to get the stitches to stick between the new leather cover and the older kangaroo hide.

I also finally got the chance to make a new windshield, after breaking the earlier one as I left Bolivia for Brazil. Having the experience of making the original shield in Chicago, I knew what materials and tools were needed. We sourced some tinted Lexan and found an autobody shop that had a heat gun to put the bends in the Lexan.

Molding the shield with a mini flame-thrower for the final adjustments on the headlight cowl. It’s small enough not to block too much air in hot climates and would provide adequate protection from the winds in Patagonia.

Next: Bolivia II, Part 2: Ruta del Che Guevara

Previous: Argentina, Part 3: Colorful Hues of Salta and Jujuy

Bolivia, Part 4: Hot and Dusty across the Pampas

August 9 – 13, 2010

After being stuck in Rurrenabaque, in northern Bolivia, for a few days waiting on petrol, the ride was on again. North to Brazil.

Eager to get back on the trail, I left Rurrenabaque around 3pm after getting petrol and packing up.

I didn’t make it far before deciding to find a place to stay for the night. I came across this small farm and asked them if I could camp for the night.

It was a good ways away from the road and the dust and it felt quite tranquil.

They were herding cattle and sheep.

As I set about preparing dinner with my stove, they offered me a plate of food: rice with some eggs. Very generous of them.

In the evening, as darkness fell, the old man sat by the fire and their young child fanned the flames.

The next morning, back on the pebble-riddled sandy track. It was going to be hot and dusty for the next 550 kms to Riberalta, the next major town.

The surface was pummeled into soft sand in places and riding through wasn’t that bad actually. The only downside was oncoming traffic with trucks barreling by with a huge wake of dust in the air, causing zero visibility for a few seconds. Good thing there was a breeze blowing most of the time to clear the road of the dust clouds.

Picking up some bananas in Santa Rosa, a reasonably-sized town about 97 kms (60 mi) from Rurre.

To avoid the bone-rattling rocks, I followed a path on the side of the road in some places.

Oops. As I was coming back to the main piste from a side track, the heavy sand caught my front wheel and laid the bike down gently, with the pannier resting against the small embankment.

It was quite a struggle to wake up sanDRina from her nap and the loose sand not helping.

I waited about 15 minutes and a local biker came by who helped me get sanDRina right side up. If no one would have come in 20 minutes or more, I was going to start removing the panniers and lightening the bike, but didn’t really want to do that in these conditions.

Wow, now that’s a tall bird. This is a Jabiru and it’s the tallest flying bird in Latin America, standing as tall as 1.5 m (5 ft). As I got near, it was an impressive sight to see this guy take flight.

A group of jabirus around a pond in the Bolivian savanna.

A welcome sight of water in this dry, hot region.

The lose sand made for slow going but I was ratcheting up my sand riding experience as the day wore on.

A dust cloud was moving towards me and instead of the usual truck, it was a herd of cattle.

I got enveloped in them but the cowboys cleared a path for me.

The road condition changed later in the day to a smoother, harder surface allowing me to taste third gear after a long time.

The first sign of natural bright color in a while and the harder surface quickly lead to wash board, a phenomena of undulations that form from the vibrations of heavier traffic as they speed across dirt roads. If everyone would go slower, there’d be less washboarding.

Around 4 pm, I came across this farm and asked them if I could camp for the night, which wasn’t a problem.

It was quite a big farm with lots of mechanization and they were also herding cattle.

Strange sunset in the pampas. The strength of the Sun started fading around 4 pm but dusk lasted till about 7 pm. The outline of the Sun was clearly visible all through dusk until it went under the horizon.

I think it’s the fine dust in the air, obscuring the strength of our home star that allows us to see the Sun whole without blinding effects. At night, even with no cities around, I could only see a handful of stars.

The kitchen on the farm with an outdoor oven.

Fresh river fish for dinner and that one with the red stripe is a piranha.

The wood fire stove in the kitchen.

Frying up some fresh fish.

The owner and his wife sharing their dinner and their house with me for the evening.

Sunrise the next morning with a similar effect on the Sun.

Back to more mind-numbing washboard road. If you’re an expert dirt rider, you can fly across the tops of the bumps by going very fast, but I took the slow route and went up and over each undulation. I was more concerned about the health of my rear shock and the vibrations breaking off something on the bike.

Riding across the bridge at Yata.

A river and colorful trees at Yata.

Looking forward to that curve up ahead. To keep my mind focused on the simple task of going in a straight line at slow speed, I had to listen to some audio books to keep my mind engaged.

Scenery of the pampas (savanna) of northern Bolivia.

And a lot of it is burned, creating pastures for cattle. As a country develops, its demand for red meat increases.

Look, there’s a hill. Yeah! There were some stretches of respite from the washboard but after a short while, sudden intense vibrations would be felt signaling the return of the dreaded washboard.

As the sun started to retreat, I kept an eye out for the next farm.

I came across a few clusters of houses in Mariposa and was told I could camp under this tree.

Cute little piglets having a drink from a cut tire-drinking trough.

And after I setup camp, they reclaimed their territory and promptly went back to sleep.

This little guy tagged along and gave me this Caju fruit, from the tree I was going to be sleeping under. I didn’t know the cashew nut comes from a fruit like this. Looks pretty strange with the nut outside and a sweet fruit attached to one end. The juice from the caju fruit is very common in these parts of Bolivia and into Brazil.

After I took an outdoor shower, one of the locals who told me I could camp here invited me over to his house for some dinner.

Some of his and the neighboring kids.

Dinner of some fried pork with boiled yuca and rice. There’s no electricity in these rural parts and sunlight pretty much governs the day with farmers rising at dawn and trying to finish dinner before it gets dark with everyone turning in around 8 pm. I slept well these nights, get as much as 10 hours of sleep, recharging for the next day.

On the last stretch into Riberalta. Cars would pass me, flying at around 100 kph (62 mph) while I was chugging along at half that speed.

Road engineers have tried to analyze why washboard (corrugated) roads appear, but the cause of the phenomena still hasn’t been figured out with prevention impossible. The only remedy is to regrade the road or go slower with lower tire pressures. I think I prefer sand riding over washboard.

Finally a road sign to Riberalta. Good to know I was on the right road (thanks to the trusty GPS).

The road got better as I neared Riberalta.

You’re going to warn me about a dip after all that I’ve been through? :p Civilization must be close.

Coming across the first proper gas station since Rurre in Riberalta. You can find gasoline in the small towns along the way for about 5 Bol/lt.

The vibrations of the washboard took a toll on sanDRina and I had the right pannier weighed down a lot so wasn’t surprised to find this crack in the pannier frame.

Welder in Riberalta promptly working on the bike.

Big, fat weld for 10 Bolivianos.

The accident in the fog had cracked a joint in my left pannier and he said he could also do aluminum welding.

A fine job of joining the split walls.

He also made me a new highway foot peg as the old one got sacrificed in the accident, acting as a frame slider and protecting any damage to the engine.

Having dinner with Rodrigo from CouchSurfing. He’s from Santa Cruz but has been working here for a few years as he’s involved in transporting the lucrative Brazil nut, which is gathered from wild trees as it can’t be grown in plantations.

Dinner of some grilled beef with veggies and a soupy rice.

That evening, Rodrigo invited some friends over and we polished off two bottles of a local alcohol made from the Caju fruit.

The final stretch of the road in Bolivia, nearing the border at Guayaramerin.

More washboard, but construction was taking place to pave the 96 kms (60 mi) stretch from Guayara to Riberalta.

Having one last cheap meal in Bolivia before crossing into Brazil.

I didn’t get to see what I really came for in Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni but I had a wonderful time here, nonetheless. The people were warm and the food was good. I was shown lots of generosity from mechanics who helped me out with sanDRina and farmers who let me stay with them. It was a rough journey north of La Paz, but the experience will linger.

Next: Brazil, Part 1: The start of the TransAmazonica

Previous: Bolivia, Part 3: Yungas and mud riding