Before entering Bolivia we knew that this was probably going to be the toughest part of our Pan-American journey. Bolivia is very poor and underdeveloped and the part we would go through, the Altiplano, has limited infrastructure.
The Altiplano is a large area where the Andes are widest. It stretches from southeast Peru to northwest Argentina and has an average height of 3700 meters. It includes La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and the world’s highest capital city. We wanted to see Salar De Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and if possible ride through it.
We entered the country on New Years which made the border crossing extremely easy. The people working there as well as the locals crossing the border were all in a good mood and had time to chat and ask questions.
Our first challenge came right after the border. We needed petrol urgently and had taken it for granted that we could get petrol on the other side of the border. We found a gas station, but they had sold out! They send us 10 km down the road for the next station.
On the way out of the border area we went through a police control. Nice guys but they wouldn’t let us go before we paid a “fee” to enter the country or should we call it a contribution to their New Years party. 40 Bolivianos per person (or $3). We didn’t mind it too much, just wished them a happy New Year and headed of to the next petrol station.
When we arrived there, they wouldn’t sell us any petrol. They only had a license to sell petrol to Bolivianos! This was getting a bit frustrating. There was not much petrol left in the Suzuki, it was cold and we could see black clouds moving towards us. Besides we really wanted to make it to a nice hotel that night.
Shortly after i ran out of petrol and we had to drain some from Lars’ bike to get us moving.
A local farmer directed us to the “casa azul” (blue house) a few km’s down the road. There we were introduced to the first Bolivian black market petrol kiosk. They will sell petrol to anyone at double the price. The kiosk senor poured something that looked like petrol into a 10 liter can and we gladly paid the price. We had no idea what we had just put into our bikes, but we were happily on the road again!
We filled up the spare tank as well and headed of for La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. We had no desire to ride into the city, but hoped to find a nice hotel in the outskirts to celebrate New Years.
The Suzi was running really bad after that. I could hardly touch the throttle and it would drown. Uphill I could go no faster than 40-50 km/hour. It was really strange as we had been in the same altitude for a while and I couldn’t see what would cause the extreme change. The petrol might have been bad, but I didn’t think it would cause this kind of reaction. I was really worried since we were heading for the Salar De Uyuni and I didn’t want to risk a breakdown out there. After a few hours I realized I had the CHOKER on max!!!!! The poor bike was struggling already with the lack of oxygen and here I was floating it with petrol! Tsk Tsk!
As often before, we found that the suburbs of the big cities in South America aren’t very charming. They often have character of shanty towns with chaotic house construction and no real infrastructure, piles of garbage and hundreds of stray dogs. As we got closer to La Paz city center, we quickly realized why we had to stay out and move south as soon as possible. The streets were flooded with water and the sewers couldn’t keep up, it’s one big traffic jam and traffic lights had no function what so ever. Basically no rules. Maybe it was extra crowded just before New Years evening. People were all busy going somewhere or eager to sell their last products.
Last minute pork anyone?
Lots of stalls selling printed money in any currency you’d desire. Not strange that banks outside Bolivia refuse to accept Bolivianos.
We stopped to check out a few hotels on the way out of La Paz, but they were not very charming to put it mildly and we didn’t wanna pay the price they asked so we continued out of the city and hoped for something better.
40 km south of La Paz we found a large highway hotel with a restaurant, a safe parking lot and a small super mercado. It was not luxurious in western standards in any way and the “hot shower” they had promised was a question of definition. But we went crazy in the super mercado and stocked up for celebrating New Years. Had a luxurious meal of rice, meat and beer in the restaurant and spend the rest of the evening cleaning air filter, washing clothes, and consuming beer and chips under the warm blankets while watching “Fletch” in Spanish!
Funny how your demands are inversely proportional with how late it is in the afternoon.
The first day in 2012 started well with blue skies. Our destination was Uyuni and we planned to follow the hwy south to Challapata and ride a dirt road the last 200 km to Uyuni.
Petrol was an issue again. Since it was a holiday the few gas stations on the way were empty or closed. In Santiago De Huari we got more black market petrol and made friends with some very drunk Bolivian men, who were still celebrating New Years.
In general Bolivians don’t seem to be very open to strangers. Very few wave and smile, and most just stare and look away when we look back. If they are drunk it’s a whole different thing. Then there’s no end to the embraces and the love, and boy do they get drunk. It’s January 1st and they are all off and we don’t blame them if they look deep into the bottle. In the areas we rode through most of the people seemed to be subsistence farmers with a hard life. The landscape is rough, the weather is cold and rainy, the distances are enormous and petrol is expensive. Very few have cars or even motorcycles or bicycles. And it seems the poorest of them all, the farmers, pay the entire price in order to make their produce accessible to their countrymen. They work their fields by hand in remote places with extreme elevations and slopes. They carry their heavy produce to the main roads (with one kid on the back and a few more clinging on to mom’s skirt. At the road they catch a lift with one of the many minivans or buses, load their stuff on the top of the vehicles, ride the long way through the mountains to the nearest town or city market where they – in competition with many other farmers – sit for days to sell their goods.
More than 60% of Bolivia’s population is indigenous people and there’s more than 30 different languages. There’s a gulf between the poorest and the richest people in Bolivia where the richest 10% earn almost half of the countries income the 10% poorest earn less than 1%. This places Bolivia in statistically bad company with Haiti and Angola.
Once again we had black clouds hanging over our heads.
Heading for a shower.
As we hit the final stretch of dirt road to Uyuni, we realized it was a mistake. We were on a large flat and wet plain and the road was flooded several places. We had spent too much time chasing petrol and it was already 1 in the afternoon. 200 km on a bad soggy dirt road could meant we would have to spend the night out there in the cold. And the villages we passed didn’t offer any kind of services for tired and wet travelers.
Typical Bolivian village.
So we decided to turn around and headed for a different and much longer paved road to Uyuni through Potosi.
This other route took us through the most amazing mountains on a perfect road, but unfortunately the black clouds and rain made it less pleasurable. The elevation (and probably the quality of the petrol) was hard on the bikes and we didn’t move very fast.
Before Potosi I ran out of petrol once again and we had to drain some from the KLR. The fact that Lars’ tank is 10 liters larger than mine was really an advantage in this part of the world.
We arrived late in the dark and rain in Potosi but we both had energy to ride around the cobbled streets to find a nice place for the night. We ended up in an amazing youth hostel with a perfect space for the bikes, a fantastic shower and a really nice atmosphere with lots of travelers around. Potosi was the largest silver mine during the Spanish colonization and they build a beautiful colonial city that attracts a lot of travelers today.
The next day, we headed towards Uyuni in the rain. Hrmpf!
Got some air on the way out from these 2 kids. They were sweet, but like most dogs we meet (sorry for the bad comparison) they didn’t seem to be used to positive interaction with adults. I had a look through the door behind them into their shop/home and it was a sad sight.
The road to Uyuni must have been newly paved recently. It was amazing and the scenery equally so.
Flocks of llamas everywhere.
Getting some more black petrol in Agua De Castilla.
Mamma Gasolina. She was a tough business women and hard to negotiate with – then again, she probably knew very well that we didn’t had a choice.
As we got closer to Uyuni the clouds cleared and we had a great ride with amazing ever-changing scenery.
The last 30 km before Uyuni was dirt road and most of it was really well maintained.
Only a few sketchy places.
Uyuni is nothing more but a satellite town for the many tourists coming to see the worlds largest salt flat. A Bolivian outpost before the great nothing. We were chocked to see the the entire town was completely surrounded by it’s own garbage. We have seen hundreds of pictures of this area on the Internet, but none of this phenomena. Once again we realize that tourists will point their cameras in the pretty direction and completely ignore the filth right next to the “Kodak Moment”. This was worse than anything we had seen before.
Salar De Uyuni attracts a lot of visitors every year and for sure generated quite a revenue. Some of that should be invested in infrastructure and maintaining the town. After some research we found out that the problems lies in the fact that all the tour companies are owned by people in La Paz. The people living in Uyuni just work for those companies. That basically means that the money leaves the town and no necessary investments are made to cater the ever growing stream of tourists. Another explanation is probably the Bolivian culture. Not many years ago all trash would have been compostable and just recently plastic has entered the system. But when you think of that, it almost makes it worse. If this desert of plastic have been created in few years, imagine what this place will look like in 10 years from now!
Arriving in Uyuni we realized that our trip here was in vain. The salar was flooded in water – taking the bikes out there was a simple no-go. The salty water would have wrecked them completely.
Nevertheless, we rode out to the shore of the salar to get a picture of the worlds largest salt flat.
Dan, a helicopter pilot from Smithers in Canada joined us for the ride.
Dan was riding solo on his KTM as far as his purse would take him. He told of crazy experiences crossing borders, in places where you shouldn’t cross and expensive consequences thereafter, and of breakdowns where he had to hide his bike and go to the nearest city to find assistance, and just the day before we met him, his sub-frame bolt broke when he was riding in the desert south of Uyuni. Dan was staying of the beaten path and more than us he had to struggle with himself over the fact that he didn’t go to all the touristy places that other people expect you to go to.
We decided to ride south of the Salar into Chile. But first we changed our tires and waited for petrol. Uyuni was out of petrol like most other places in Bolivia after New Years.
We finally changed to the knobby tires we had carried all the way from Lima.
The entire town was waiting anxiously for the next petrol truck and when it finally arrived everybody needed gas. We filled everything plus 2 large coke bottles with petrol and hoped it would be enough to take us to the nearest petrol station in Chile.
The wind was strong and when leaving Uyuni we had to drive through the plastic desert again. The wind was blowing large amounts of the garbage across the road and we hoped we wouldn’t get caught in one of those winds. Would have been disgusting.
The road was a wide gravel road with enough wash boards to keep the speed down. As we turned off towards Rio Grande, the road got increasingly deteriorated by the recent heavy rain falls and a few places we had to cross water.
Camping in the open with a few lamas as spectators was fantastic in this beautiful and silent place. The freedom and simplicity when you put up your tent in an open dessert is amazing. No searching for a decent hotel, no price negotiation. With the tent there are no uncertainties and it’s private.
It was cold and we enjoyed pulling out our woolen gear, that had been tucked away for a long time.
Camping under the stars in the Bolivian Altiplano
Next morning started with fantastic weather, porridge and a cup of tea.
Our navigation was based on a cheap tourist map, Google maps (studied in Potosi) and our GPS, all three less useful in an area with frequent changes due to extreme weather conditions. Like in Alaska there are probably winter and summer roads. The best is to ask locals, but frankly we were getting quite tired of asking locals. Often the directions they would give us was based in old experiences and would not be very precise and mostly consisted of a wave with a crocked hand which could mean both south, east and west. And often they would say “todo directo, muy facile” and then when we got on the way, it would split up without any signs or indications and we would be left with our best guess anyways.
Lars and his KLR in the Bolivian Altiplano.
The dirt road was amazing – well the washboards were a challenge, but they keep you focused. We headed towards San Juan and Chiguana on the way to the border towns Avaroa/Ollagua. We were going to ride through the Salar de Chiguana and hoped it wasn’t wet like Salar De Uyuni.
Having a break in the small town San Juan.
The scenery was breathtaking and we stopped again and again to take photos of this amazing place.
I the middle of nowhere we met a family from Chile. They had a flat and a broken pump and we were happy to offer them some help. I passed a bag of candy around and it broke my heart when they all threw the candy paper on the ground 🙁 Sad how parents will pass on their bad habits to a new generation.
Oups! The story goes my wheel got caught in the ruts. The truth is I wanted to test my newly welded luggage racks. (:
All a woman needs is a gentleman running to her rescue!
As we entered Salar De Chiguana it got a bit harder to navigate. There was a lot of tracks going in all direction. We used the Ollague vulcano as a land mark though and had a rough idea about where we were going.
As we got further into Salar De Chiguana the road got wet and heavy and we had to find detours around large muddy sections.
More and more water.
Eventually we got to a large muddy section and just as we thought we had found a way through it, our rear tires sank deep into the mud. Bummer!
We removed our heavy gear from the bikes and carried it to the other side of the muddy section. Walking through the slippery mud with our luggage in 3650 meters elevation was extremely hard. We placed my spare tire in front of my rear tire to give it some traction. Lars took the handlebars and I pushed and lifted the rear – and got completely covered in mud of course 🙂
Then on to the next bike.
Second bike out of the mud.
Nothing wrong with the view!
We could see several wet sections ahead of us, so before we put our luggage back on the bikes we rode a few kilometers to find the best way ahead. On that little recon trip Lars got a flat on the rear tire! And on top of that it started raining! Damn!
We didn’t want to fix the flat there in the rain and we could see the border about 4 km away. We left Lars’ luggage out there and took the bikes and my luggage to the border.
Lars ran with the flat KLR the last stretch to the border.
Once at the border, he took my bike and rode back to get his luggage.
It was afternoon, and we decided to put up the tent here at the remote border town. There was no people around and it seemed like a safe and quiet place to camp. The border patrol staff were concerned about us sleeping in the tent in the cold night and offered us to sleep in the immigration office. But we ensured them, that it was no problem, we had plenty of warm clothes and warm sleeping bags.
Cooking a nice camp meal after a rough but awesome day on the Bolivian Altiplano.
The next morning the weather had cleared up and the mud on the bikes was dry and could easily be kicked of.
…well, relatively easy.
Fixing the flat.
And we got nice company from this little charming fellow. As written before – there will always be kids and dogs in South America no matter where you are.
Chatting with the border patrol guys on the Bolivian side. They don’t get too much action here and were excited to hear about our journey and our bikes. The price of the bikes always comes up, and to be honest we are quite happy to be able to say that the bikes only cost us $4000. It’s still a lot of money in this part of the world, but not an astronomic sum. Traveling without looking like a million dollars sometimes makes it easier to chat and exchange stories.
Leaving Bolivia was a formality and didn’t last long. Entering Chile was to our surprise a whole different thing. We had longed to cross this border and expected to see Chilean (read: German) efficiency. Instead we were met with very rude border staff. They didn’t give us any problems but their attitude towards us was awful and they were not efficient at all.
Pretty view from the border office.
Yeah! We made it to Chile!
Now onto the next challenge: finding petrol! We had naively expected that there would be a petrol station or at least a Mamma Gasolina selling black petrol at the border town Ollague but this place was apparently too remote for that. Had we read a guide book we would of course have known that this would be the case, but as often before we have a tendency to just head out without too much planning.
We still had 200 km to Calama and wouldn’t be able to make it without some extra petrol so we went knocking on basically every door including the rail office and police and begged for a few liters of petrol, but no luck.
After spending several hours chasing petrol, we decided to go as far as we could with what we had. There was going to be several mining stations on the way and a police patrol, and if we were lucky, they would have some spare petrol.
Heading for Calama, Chile.
On the way we stopped every car we met on the road and asked for petrol. But apparently everybody in this area had agreed to use Diesel, so still no luck.
Incredible views over Chilean salt flats.
Never ending dirt road and extremely strong winds.
Surrounded by beautiful volcanoes.
When we got to the police check at Estacion Ascotan I finally ran out of gas. We were about to find a place to camp, when a pick-up truck running on gasoline came by. It was a nice family and they sold us 20 liters. We were so excited we hugged them and thanked them again and again.
This enabled us to continue for a while ahead and move down from Estacion Ascotan which lies at 3900 meters elevation next to a volcano. The wind was strong and ice cold up here and it would have been a bad place to have to spend the night. After about an hour the sun was going down and we had to find a place to put up the tent. We found a place which provided some shelter from the wind but still had a hard time putting up the tent. Our tent is really large and in strong winds it becomes a sail! We tied the tent to the bikes and crawled in with all out heavy bags before we could put it up.
The next morning we woke up to blue skies, no wind and a pretty white layer of frost on the tent.
Camping with a view.
All around us were snow clad volcanoes.
A little clip of me half-asleep and ice-cold trying to explain where we are (:
It was a whole different experience riding the following day in the sun with no wind. The washboards were still keeping the speed down though!
Just outside Chiu-Chiu we visited a water station and asked if they would sell us some petrol. They didn’t have any, but one of the employees didn’t hesitate to get in his car and drive home to get some for us.
The 2 other staff members at the station served us warm coffee and biscuits while we waited.
Finally some more precious drops of petrol for the Bunny bike.
We made it to Calama shortly after. Got petrol and visited a large modern super market where we used the impeccably clean toilets with toilet paper and soap! Pure pleasure!
We were overly excited to finally leave the Altiplano and head for civilization in time to make it to the Dakar rally rest day in Copiapo. The journey through Bolivia on the Altiplano had been tough due to the rain, wind, elevation and lack of petrol, but was nevertheless a fantastic experience that we will never forget.