Closer to the sun: high altitudes in Chile and Bolivia

We loved Chile to the last day we spent there. After a complicated entrance over the Paso de Jama from Argentina (see previous blog post) we stayed for a couple of days in Atacama Desert – the very dusty touristic village made of clay San Pedro de Atacama. After some riding around, searching for a place less crowded and least dusty, we settled down in a cozy and calm hostel called Inti Para. Soon after that a guy knocked on our room door and with clear British accent enquired if we are the owners of motorcycles parked in the courtyard and if we could help him figure out why his Yamaha TDM is losing power while riding. Linas agreed with him that tomorrow they can check the bike.

Next morning as I woke up, I found Linas already discussing motorcycles with another man, not the same from last night. Total there were four bikes parked in the courtyard. Ours, the Yamaha TDM and a BMW R1200GS. Apparently this was already a small motorcycle gang formed in our hostel: Us, David (the British guy who also speaks Russian which he learned in Siberia…) and Unni and Gunnar – the Swedish couple traveling South America for two months on a BMW.

Linas and David spent a whole day “playing” with Yamaha. First they thought that the bike lacks oxygen due to the high altitudes and started the fixing process from removing the air filter and replacing it with a fancy Ted Baker sock to protect the engine from the dust.

Then they realized that the problem is more serious – one of carburetors was not working properly due to the damaged membrane. So they searched for a replacement spare part and after failing to find it anywhere near San Pedro, they produced the new “membrane” from the yellow rubber glove they stole from the cleaning ladies at the hostel… :)

All the men from this just-formed motorcycle gang went testing the bikes and spent the whole afternoon having pleasure of the Yamaha-puzzle. While the ladies of the gang – Unni and me just relaxed for the day.

We finished off with a nice barbeque and a plan to ride together to see the lagoons and flamingoes Southeast from San Pedro before splitting to ride opposite directions – the three guys towards Argentina and us – to Bolivia.

Unfortunately, the next morning Yamaha refused to carry David to the lagoons. Linas made a guess that the float of the carburetor was stuck and would not regulate the level of fuel intake correctly.

So the “expedition: lagoons” consisted only of Unni and Gunnar and us.

The views were great, the weather was hot, the lunch we found on the way back was delicious and well-priced.

After a nice all-day experience, the Swedes returned to San Pedro and we rode towards Calama and went camping a bit further away from the city in a river valley before heading to Bolivia…

We heard a lot about traveling in Bolivia from other adventurers we met on the road. The main things were:

  • The distances without gas stations are longer than 500 kilometers

  • Even when you’re able to find a gas station they will need to reprogram it for you as a foreigner so that the fuel would be 3 times more expensive than for the locals and it does take time for them to do. So either you will be stuck there for some time and pay a lot, or they may refuse to do it and just tell you that they have no fuel at that moment.

  • The roads are sandy and all with washboards so bad that it’s almost impossible to ride

So we prepared ourselves for the worst, got an additional jerry can with 5 liters of fuel in Chile, released some air from the tires and expected to ride about a 100 kilometers a day, slowly…

The part of the road from Calama to Ollague (where the border is) in Chile (circa 100 kilometers) was supposed to be all gravel according to the map we had seen. Road in Bolivia from the border to Uyuni was not paved for sure and it was another 200 kilometers. Depending on the quality of the surface of the road we would take 2-3 days to ride the total distance without stress… That was the plan.

In reality the road on Chile side was mostly paved and very scenic, so it was a pleasure to ride it. The border crossing was smooth and easy. Bolivian officials were very friendly, one of them even walked us to the other office a bit further away to make sure we would be able to go through the procedures without any hiccups. The road towards Uyuni was indeed unpaved, but it was made of clay and luckily dry, so it would feel as stable as asphalt for the most of the way. The riding was easy and fun with all the interesting structures of clay along the road and great panoramas of mountains. In only 3 hours from the border we arrived to Uyuni with our expectations very much exceeded.

Next day after researching a bit about the world-famous salt-lake, we saddled up and rode to the Salar de Uyuni. Being on that vast incredibly white desert of salt feels amazing. My brain had problems grasping the whole idea of so much salt under my wheels, I sometimes would catch myself thinking that I’m riding on the snow and would have to remind myself that it is indeed salt!

Immediately after having enough fun riding, taking pictures and videos on the Salar, we took the bikes for washing. For the first time we washed our bikes with a firefighter’s hose! :)

There’s also a train cemetery in Uyuni which was created after the mining industry collapsed and the trains were just left there… It is said that they planned to make a museum there, but by the time the decision was finally made, there was not much left from the abandoned trains… The place is a bit sad, yet very photogenic!

We left Uyuni next morning in great moods! Took a last look at it from above and turned to Potosi – a silver-mining town at mind-blowing 4000 meters above sea level. It’s a world’s highest town of such size, built by Spanish colonists to service one of the largest silver-mines in the world. However for Bolivians it’s a sad story with lots of lives lost in the mining process which funded Spanish imperialists. We didn’t click with this town – Linas got fever as soon as we arrived and spent two days almost not leaving our hostel room. I tried to walk around a bit in search for food for dinner, but really felt being stared at in the streets and in the local market one of the ladies selling some snacks refused to sell me anything without giving the reason… Our hostel staff was grumpy was well, so the whole experience in Potosi was unwelcoming and a bit sad as the history of the place itself.

Two days later, as Linas felt better we decided to leave Potosi without having a better look at it since there was a possibility that the fever he had was from the altitude the town is in. So we decided to head towards Sucre, the capital of Bolivia which is not far away from Potosi, but almost 2000 meters lower!

Just a few moments before leaving I checked my phone for the last time and found a message in Instagram from a lady I didn’t know. She suggested we visit La Pitantorilla in case we are around Sucre. So, after checking for the place online, we found out that this was an old building up in the mountain just 30 kilometers before Sucre. Without much discussing, we set the Garmin to guide us there. The last kilometers of the road went over the mountains with steep inclines, river crossing and even through the riverbanks (which luckily were dry) and I had to climb over the fence to get into the territory of La Pitantorilla, but we made it! And we didn’t regret!

For the next 3 days we stayed in over a 100 years old mansion (La Hacienda) with exceptional architecture… almost alone! Actually it was a center of alternative education (although we struggled to understand why alternative and who would study here), but since it is still summer holiday in Bolivia, the place was empty. Only a group of teachers from one of the schools in Sucre were spending a couple of days there before starting the school year, but they soon left and we were having the whole place just for us!

An amazing young couple Nancy and Aliacim who work there prepared us fantastic food and even organized the delivery of wine for us and fuel for the bikes from Sucre :)

We worked on the bikes a bit, making sure that after 14 000 kilometers of this trip, all the bolts and screws were still in place and still tight. And carefully washed them again, making sure that there is no more salt left anywhere after Salar de Uyuni.

So after an unforgettable long weekend in a mansion all for ourselves, well rested and relaxed, we plan to continue riding North around La Paz and towards Peru.

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