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Author: Lise

End of Lagunas Route to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile!!

End of Lagunas Route to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile!!

Despite the spotty electricity and running water, we were grateful to have a roof over our heads and heavy blankets under which to sleep! It was a glorious sleep and when we awoke we found everything outside to be covered with a decent blanket of snow. Our bikes were quite a sight!

We unpacked our own stoves and slurped down oatmeal and tea for breakfast, packed up, and headed out to the bikes to see what kind of starting shape they were in. It took some time, but eventually all five bikes were revved up and ready to to go. I was half worried and half curious as to how I would manage riding over snow covered, muddy roads with no rear suspension. I just told myself: “slow and easy” and was thankful that I had a supportive husband and crew of friends close by.

As we rode along it actually wasn’t half bad. The roads were so slippery you couldn’t drive that fast anyhow (or at least I wouldn’t have) and so I just bumbled along and did my best to avoid the bumps. Pretty soon we found ourselves at the next border check. It was busy! Lots of tourists and backpackers waiting to get papers checked so that they could tour through the Lagunas Route in 4x4s. It took some waiting but we got through no problem. So far it seemed that the guys at the remote crossing did the correct paperwork. Finally! We were officially in Chile! We all agreed it felt pretty surreal. This was the country for which we had been aiming for the last four months and we had finally made it! We excitedly hopped back on our bikes and headed down the dirt road to San Pedro de Atacama where we would complete the final passport check and vehicle import. And the road immediately turned to tarmac! Ha! I think the boys were a bit disappointed. I, however, was quite relieved as I found it much easier to manage the trampoline my bike had turned into.

The scenery was beautiful, the extremely high desert with snow covered mountains to either side of the road continued on for miles. As we rode I could feel the elevation quickly dropping. If not by the way my ears felt, then by my temperature. We pretty quickly went from wearing all of our layers to shedding most of them. And the llamas! Holy crap they were huge!! And liked to hang out in the middle of the road! As the road dropped towards San Pedro de Atacama it straightened out and the landscape flattened out as well. I began to see what all the fuss was about this Atacama Desert. It was a vast and beautiful landscape.

Drew

San Pedro de Atacama was a dusty and bustling little tourist town. Our first stop was to find the Aduana and get our import papers completed. It was a busy place! With the long lines of tour busses and backpackers, I could see that this was probably going to become more of a common sight as we made our way south. It was vacation time in this hemisphere, after all. After being pushed from line to line and being made to wait for over two hours, all the bikes got inspected and searched and paperwork stamped. The only thing we had to give up was some popcorn and I had been carrying since Peru.

Hot and hungry, we made our way through the town to find some lunch before attempting to find a hostel. We found a pretty decent place that was not too pricey, but we could tell by looking around that things were already getting more expensive than they had been thus far. After lunch we checked out a few different hostels and they all seemed to be either full of partying hippy backpackers or super expensive. We settled on one that was a little pricier than we hoped for, but quiet and had off street parking for the bikes. We were able to get a little suite with five beds and a little kitchen and it’s own bathroom. Split five ways it wasn’t too expensive. Next task: fix the suspension.

Linus took his bike and rode around town looking for it’s moto street. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much of one in San Pedro de Atacama. The one shop he found did not have the means or knowledge to help repair a suspension and so Linus decided he would have to wake up early the next morning and drive my suspension to the next biggest city of Calama to see what he could find.

suspension effectively removed and ready for transport

In the meantime? Showers and beer. Oh, and to make researching where to go for bike parts even more interesting, there was no wifi. Anywhere. In the whole city. We were told when we checked in to the hostel that there was. But then the owner conveniently remembered to tell us that there had been a huge rainstorm the day before that had knocked out the internet. In the ENTIRE town. And no one seemed to have any idea when it would be repaired. Cheers!

Lagunas Route Day 2

Lagunas Route Day 2

Linus woke up before the sun and hiked above our campsite to watch it rise. He felt that it was truly one of the most special experiences he’s had. It was quiet, bitterly cold and crystal clear. There was new snow on the mountains and frost on everything. He felt so small in such a giant landscape so high up in the altiplano! It had been so cold all night that everyone’s sleeping gear was covered in condensation from our warm breath inside the tents. We laid sleeping bags and tents on the rocks in the sun to dry them out and cooked up coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. The bikes needed some encouragement to start at such a high elevation and cold temperature, but in the end everyone got fired up just fine and we headed down the route towards the next Laguna. At this lake we were to get stamped in and pay for entrance to the national reserve. We also hoped to find gasoline as we were all starting to run a little low.

Good Morning!

The route continued to be bumpy, but we were able to find an alternate route away from the main road that was a lot more pleasant. Linus went way out into the middle of the sandy valley and was riding with some llamas!

Llamas!

I was enjoying myself as well as I had become worlds more comfortable with riding in the loose gravel and sand. Once you get used to how it feels to have the bike move around under you and just let it happen, it becomes really fun! I was cruising along enjoying the ride and the views of the lake in the distance when all of the sudden my right pannier clipped one of the thick Dr. Seuss bushes next to the track and I pretty much lost control. I almost got it back but my front tire caught a sandy ridge and down I went. No big deal though! I hopped up and Drew helped me pick up the bike and we were on our way before Linus could catch us.

Beautiful views, but mind the plants!

Pretty quickly after the spill, we all met up at the entrance to the reserve. We paid the fee and wandered into the little shops to buy provisions and ask about gas. These places were tiny! The shop owners lived in the shops and the shelves of supplies were literally right next to their beds. There wasn’t much. Dust covered bottles of water, crackers, cookies, and pringles. And there was no gas to be found. We really were in the middle of no where! We bought some water and headed out. And, oh my, the road got TERRIBLE. The worst washboards yet. You would try to go slowly and then get frustrated and speed up only to realize this was a bad idea and so you would slam the breaks on to slow down again. We all scattered in different directions trying (mostly in vain) to find a smoother route. It was annoyingly miserable because the scenery was so breathtaking, but we had to focus entirely on the road. This continued on for most of the morning as we made our way towards the remote Bolivian Aduana office that would stamp our vehicles out of Bolivia. We would cross into Chile later today at a tiny crossing.

View from the “shop”

As we headed up an especially bumpy section, I couldn’t help but feel that my bike was acting strange. It was struggling in second gear and felt just plain sludgy. I followed Linus off the road into the dirt for another attempt at a smoother route. It was going alright, but then we had to find a way over the dirt mounds back on to the main road as it was heading in a new direction and looked a lot smoother. Linus found his way back no problem, I had a little more trouble.. I eventually found a better way back to the road, but by this point Linus even noticed that something was strange with my bike. I hopped off and he hopped on my bike to give it a check. As he came back towards me he yelled, “Geez! Your bike feels like shit!!” As he pulled up and jumped off I noticed a steady stream of oil pouring out from under the bike. “What is that?” I yelled. Drew and Linus set to work examining. We were all worried it was engine oil. After some fiddling and examining Drew exclaimed, “Whew! That’s not engine oil, it’s suspension oil!” Still a big problem, but not nearly as serious. They said it could still be ridden. “How?” I loudly asked. “Very carefully”, my dear husband said with a smile on his face. Ugh, we still had at least 75 miles left of the route before getting to the city of San Pedro de Atacama. I was less than amused, but with nothing to be done I hopped on and tried to remain positive.

Luckily, the Aduana was only about five more miles down the road so about 30 minutes later Linus and I rolled up to find the other guys waiting. Sam and Rich had been there for over an hour already and had already had their paperwork done. Unfortunately, the Aduana had just left for lunch so we decided to cook up some ramen while we waited. We came up with a new plan while we waited. Since I could only travel at a max of 20 mph depending on the road we decided to head towards a place about 30 miles down the road that was said to have  hot springs with hostels, shops, and apparently gasoline. We would stock up there and continue on until it was time to set up camp. Then, in the morning we would head to the border and on to San Pedro. If my suspension had not blown, we could have been in San Pedro today. The Aduana returned around 1pm and quickly completed our paperwork. I then slowly bounced towards the next stop. Linus rode behind me to make sure everything was okay, and the others rode ahead at their own pace with the plan to meet at the hot springs. Let me just say, it is crazy to ride with no rear suspension or shock. The spring was the only thing working. I felt like I was being bounced off of a trampoline every time I went over a bump. Which was a lot, as the washboards continued… New skill added to the list: Riding rough, sandy, muddy roads with no rear suspension. Sheesh.

About an hour and a half later I bounced up to the hot springs refuge where everyone was waiting. There wasn’t as much there as we had hoped. Definitely no obvious gasoline place. Linus and Rich set to work asking around about fuel, and I wandered into the only store (which was also the restaurant and hostel) looking for food provisions for the night. All I ended up with was more water, pringles (what’s with all the pringles?)  and some juice. No noodles or tuna to be found. We still had enough pasta and powdered soup that we could make it work for one more night, though. Eventually they found a guy who was reluctantly willing to sell us gas. When Rich first asked if he had gas the guy responded “no” quickly followed by “Cuanto tu necessita?” (how much do you need?). Ha. Very funny. We got enough to split between all of us that we felt confident we would make it to San Pedro. Okey dokey! On down the road everyone sped, and I slowly bounced along behind with Linus patiently following. As we climbed up and away from this last lagunas the mountains we passed had these amazing zebra-like patterns of red and white sand. It was so beautiful! There were small sandy roads leading into them and I couldn’t help but feel bummed that if my suspension hadn’t blown I would be up there in a heart beat. Interesting, just as I get more comfy with riding off road, this happened. Lesson here? Don’t let your fears control you! Live it up while you can as you never know when your suspension will poop out.

Luckily, the road started to take on longer stretches of smooth gravel and I found that I could travel almost 30 mph at times. This helped my mood a bit! We soon rounded a corner down into a valley where everyone had stopped for a break, and on the horizon? BLACK clouds and lightning. It looked like the meanest storm yet was headed straight for us. Damn. We agreed to push on to the next and final lake, called Laguna Verde, and try to find a place with shelter where we could set up camp. Drew, Rich and Sam sped ahead, and Linus and I limped along. It got so cold and windy! My face stung like nothing I had felt before and even though I had my winter gloves and rain liners on, my hands were completely numb. We rode on and the pep talks continued in my helmet as I tried to amp myself up for the cold night of camping that undoubtedly lay ahead. Just as I had the feeling that all I wanted to do was dismount the bike and curl up into a little warm ball, we met the other three at a bend in the road. Through the howling wind and sleet Drew yelled that he could see on his GPS that there was a refuge about five miles up the road. He suggested we aim for that and see what we find for sleeping options. Sounded like a good plan!

Black clouds, no suspension, oh my!
Black clouds, no suspension, oh my!

We soon arrived at a long building made of mud bricks. It had a bunch of 4×4 vehicles outside of it, but didn’t look like much. As Linus and I parked next to the others, Drew came up and said we could camp out back. Perfect, I thought! Anything sounded good at this point as I was tired of being cold and tossed around. Then Drew laughed and said he was just teasing and that they had beds and running water for around $5 per person. Oh! Okay! Can’t say no to that. I think Linus was slightly disappointed at losing the challenge of camping in the elements at 16,500 feet. Honestly, I was mentally prepared to camp as well by this point but when I saw the bed with big quilts on it, I was okay with not camping!

After unloading the bikes, we settled in at a table in the dining area with a big bottle of wine and a deck of cards. It was so cozy! Especially when the thunder and lightning increased in frequency. While enjoying hot soup and spaghetti from the refuge, the rain started and got heavier and louder. And the wind! Wow. At this point even Linus agreed he was happy we found this place. Pretty soon after that the snow started! Crazy! We all snuggled into bed pretty early and were very happy to watch the snow fall from a warm and dry place. Tomorrow we enter Chile!!

Lagunas Route Day 1

Lagunas Route Day 1

We woke up with the sun and when we crawled out of our tents, we found that during the night it had snowed in the mountains above us! It was so pretty! We got packed up an eventually got around to discussing what to do about the road ahead. There were a few questions floating around. Was this really the Lagunas Route? What about the other road about 30k down the road? Maybe that was the actual way to go? Drew and I were not super keen on driving up steep hills with roads covered in big rocks and sand. In the end Linus and Rich prevailed, convincing the group that we would drive up there with the option of turning around and trying the other route if it got too rough. I was having a hard time staying positive and enthusiastic because I kept focusing on the thought that my skills were not anywhere near the other’s skills. The others assured me it would be fine, just take it slow and steady, and even if I fell they would all be there to help and pick up the bike.

Drew going up first

We went with the plan that Linus would go in front of me and I would follow his line. It was pretty bumpy and rough, but I just kept telling myself not to hesitate once I picked a line. Stay committed and don’t stop! Everyone was cheering me on and once I got to the top I felt a little silly. All pumped full of adrenalin and shaking a bit, everyone congratulating me, I couldn’t help but feel a bit silly because it really wasn’t that big of a deal! The road continued to be rough like this and strewn with big rocks for another few miles or so, and I did take a spill coming down a hill because I hit a rock and then got hung up in a rut. But it was fine! Rich helped me pick the bike up and encouraged me on down the road. I am so glad to have such an awesome husband and friends!

Encouragement!

As we continued down the route I was amazed at how vast everything was. The mountains were so big and colorful, and the skies were huge. Eventually we rounded a big bend and descended to the first Laguna. And there were flamingos! I squeaked with excitement. We parked the bikes and took some time to take it all in. I found a nice spot by the lake and sat down to unwind a bit after all of the morning’s excitement. It was pretty overwhelming to be so high up in these remote desert mountains and to remind myself that we drove all the way there. From Utah. Sheesh.

Flamingo happy place!

On down the road we found a hostel/refuge by the second laguna. We bought a few bottles of water and settled at a picnic table to make our lunch and recharge some more. By this point we noticed more and more 4×4 (mostly land cruisers) bringing tourists through the route to see the lakes. We all agreed that we were thrilled to be on bikes and that it sounded pretty miserable to experience this bumpy route as a passenger in an SUV. After lunch and making sure we had enough water for camping we continued down the route. We followed the sandy foothills of the mountains for a while and then the path climbed up, turned left and opened up into a ginormous expanse of sand. The “road” we were following pretty much disappeared into all these small tracks and it was choose your own adventure riding. Everyone took off in a different direction, it was an adventure motorcyclists playground.

Happy places for everyone!

After a while of riding alone through endless sandy tracks and wondering what was over the next horizon (more sand) Linus came zooming past and let out a loud woop! I think it was his best day yet.

Pretty soon we met up with Drew and Sam. Drew was sitting in the dirt and Sam was pushing Drew’s bike upright. I guess he was having a little too much fun and took a spill. On inspection, they found that a rubber piece from the gas tank had worked itself loose and flown off on impact. Linus and Sam fixed that while Drew took a rest. We then jumped back on the bikes and attempted to pick our ways to the main track, or at least a better one. Things had become very bumpy, and in between the big bumps were loose sand. It was a good challenge for everyone. As we trucked on the wind picked up, the clouds rolled in and the rain started. It was cold!! I think I forgot to mention that by this point we were over 16,ooo feet or almost 5000 meters above sea level. The road got even bumpier, like driving over endless washboards for giants. The biggest ones I’ve seen yet. Poor motorcycles! The rain turned to hail and the hail soon turned to snow.

After about an hour of driving in this, Linus and I caught up with the others taking a warm up break by some cool rock formations.

Break time

As we were discussing the plan for the evening I noticed something by Linus move. It was a very large rodent. It looked like a big rabbit but had a very long tail, and it was not shy! It just stood there and looked at Linus. Then we noticed there were four more scattered about on the rocks, all just sort of staring at us and slowly moving a little closer… I’m sure they were harmless, but Sam and I decided it was time to move on. I don’t think they wanted us camping on their turf!

Greetings earthling

We decided to ride for another hour or so and look for a good spot to set up camp for the night. And holy crap, did we find a good one. All of the sudden there were all these martian looking rock formations that just popped out of the massive expanse of sand! It was amazing. We drove around the rocks and found a sheltered spot to set up camp. There were some 4×4 tourists around, but as soon as the wind picked up and it started spitting hail and snow again, everyone miraculously disappeared. I can’t imagine why!

This is fun! We’re not that cold…

As we set up our tents we could see lightning and hear thunder in the distance. Experiencing thunder and snow was a first for all of us. The dark clouds were gathering over the colorful mountains to the east and it was one of the most dramatic sights I have ever seen! Even though it was freezing cold and windy, we all agreed there was no other place we would rather be. We bundled up with all the layers we had, made some tea, and enjoyed the craziness of our surroundings.

After an hour or so the weather had blown around us and things calmed down. We fired up the stoves and made dinner. Ramen, spaghetti, tuna… Yum! I think we MAYBE made it to 8:00 before retiring to the warmth of our tents and down sleeping bags for the rest of the night. I was totally fine with this as I had finished my book on pandemics and started in on a new one about the history of Doctors Without Borders. I tried not to bug Linus too much with sharing the epic stories from this new book…

To the Lagunas Route

To the Lagunas Route

To the Lagunas Route! You might be wondering what this is all about, so I will fill you in. The Lagunas route is a series of very small roads (and sometimes no road at all) that only four wheel drive vehicles and motorcycles such as ours (ones that can handle off road conditions) take. It travels through the high desert and mountains of southern Bolivia and passes a series of salt lakes along the way. I hear there are pink flamingos on these lakes! For the second half of the journey you travel through a national reserve called Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. At the end of the reserve you cross into Chile and head out of the mountains towards San Pedro de Atacama to get stamped in to Chile. It is said to take about three days depending on how quickly you move and what the road conditions are and you definitely need to make sure you have reliable maps and maybe even a compass (!). Rich and Drew had been reading up on the route for a while and were really excited to do it and even more excited to have Sam, Linus and me join. It took a bit of convincing for me to agree as I was still pretty nervous about riding small dirt roads, but deep down I knew I didn’t really have a choice as Linus really wanted to do the route and I would probably greatly regret it if I chickened out. SO, we woke up early, packed up all our gear and extra food and water, and made our way to the start of the route. Which ended up taking all day…

We did about 50 miles on the road that headed southwest out of Uyuni, which was a mix of paved road and some dirt. We then got on a smaller but very stable gravel road that took us to a small town called San Juan. We had a snack and were able to buy some gas from a lady who sold it out of her back yard in jerry cans. At this point I was informed to let some air out of my tires as the road was about to get even smaller. Woo hoo, here we go! We set out of San Juan on a sandy road that led us to a big salt flat. Pretty quickly, Rich led the group to the right across the flat and away from the main tracks. I was last in the group and had a question in my mind as to why he was heading away from the tracks, so I stopped. Linus rode around me and motioned for me to follow, but I hesitated. And, boy, am I glad that I did! Pretty soon I was watching a comical show from afar as all the guys attempted to ride through really thick and slippery mud. One by one they all either got stuck or dropped their bikes. Linus and Drew made it back pretty quickly and I have never seen so much sticky mud in my life! It made springtime in Richmond look like a walk in the park! You couldn’t even make out the tread on their tires.

As Linus and Drew set to work trying to remove the slaty mud from the important parts (making all the cleaning from the previous day seem pointless) I watched Sam and Rich continue to struggle. They had driven out further and had more mud to fight in order to get back to a stable path. It was hard not to giggle as one would fall down, struggle with the bike, get it back up right and then repeat the whole process again. Adventure indeed! And we weren’t even to the proper start of the route yet!

Sam and Rich picking up muddy bikes

Once everyone got out of the mud and sort of cleaned up (it was mostly in vain) we headed out of the flat and towards what looked like a road that would bypass the salt flat. I am pretty sure it wasn’t a bypass, but the actual main road. Rich is proving to have a track record of trying to take smaller roads/short cuts and finding some good fun, or trouble, depending on how you look at it. As we continued around the salt flat the scenery got unbelievably beautiful. Colorful mountains with snow covered peaks on the horizon and big blue skies. The air was dry and crisp and the wind brisk. When we checked we saw that we were above 4500 meters or approaching 15,000 feet! Around 2:00 Linus smartly suggested that we stop amongst the beauty and cook some noodles for lunch before it got too late. We found a great lunch spot and pulled out our stoves.

Nice view for lunch

Further on down the road, Rich suggested another short cut that would get us on a main road that was supposed to take us to the cut off for the start of the Lagunas Route. I was hesitant, but had no room to argue as my map wasn’t updated so I just followed the group. I guess it’s good for me to relinquish some control once in a while! The road was mostly just a sandy track with some rocks here and there, but not too bad. Pretty quickly we did get to a main road that if taken one west would lead to one of the Chilean border crossings and if taken east would eventually take you back to Uyuni. We took it east, but very quickly cut off onto a TINY road. Again I hesitated a little, and as I did I watched as Sam went down up ahead. This time Linus was with me and said “hmmm, I’ll ride up there and take a look”. It turned out the road was really deep with sand. Rich had gone up further to see what was what. By now it was getting late and Sam and Drew were pretty much done for the day. I think Sam was pretty frustrated from falling so much. No one was hurt, though! I was feeling ready to camp as well. As I waited for the verdict, I looked to my right and once again saw what looked like a more principle road. I was reminded of hiking with my brother. He is an avid climber and I trust him implicitly, but sometimes he picks routes that are more difficult than they have to be because his ability is so high. He simply doesn’t notice that it is more difficult than the route five feet to his right. As was this road that I pointed out to Linus. He went over to check it and it was a lot better. He met Rich on the road who communicated to Linus and Drew that this was indeed the start of the Lagunas Route and it was steep, full of big rocks and lots of sand and pretty challenging. Hmm, sounded like a discussion for the morning. Where Linus and Rich had met there was a perfect flat spot with big boulders and a mountainside that offered great protection for a camping spot. We agreed that we had done enough for the day and dinner and sleeping were in order.

The less direct, but better road

I couldn’t believe how amazing the scenery had already been, and we weren’t even on the route yet. Also Linus and I were pretty excited to be camping at this elevation, a first for both of us. We set up camp and as the sun lowered to the horizon and the wind picked up, it got COLD!! Linus and Rich hiked up to the top of the rocky hill above the camp site and I wandered around below shooting pictures. We made dinner and tea and as soon as the sun was down we all cuddled into our sleeping bags for much earned sleep and warmth.

Best camping spot yet!
Rest Days in Uyuni

Rest Days in Uyuni

We spent most of the day Sunday cleaning up the aftermath from the salt desert. Even though we were only out there for a few hours, the bikes were covered in salt! It didn’t help that Linus and I accidentally rode our bikes through a puddle of salt water that ended up being more like a lake. It was deep! We took the seats and tanks off of our bikes and set to work cleaning and checking everything. We used a lot of WD-40 and did the best we could to make sure that everything was relatively clean. It was a good opportunity for me to get to know my motorcycle a little better. The other guys also spent the day doing the same.

Random pic of one of the townies. We named him Dog Marley.

For dinner we headed to the same place we ate our last few meals. It seemed to be the most reasonably priced for how touristy the area was, the variety of the menu was decent and the wifi was better than the hostel’s. Since we arrived in Uyuni a few days ago, my stomach had completely calmed down. It had been happy with everything I had eaten, which was great. I thought I was out of the woods! Linus and I decided to splurge and share a pizza for dinner which sounded really good to me. Unfortunately, right before the food came out, I felt one really big stomach cramp and had to book it back to the hostel for some more bathroom time. Alright, my stomach won and I decided to pull out the strongest antibiotics I had been carrying the entire trip and kill this thing once and for all. No pizza for me.

I spent most of the night rolling around in discomfort, so when we all woke up the next morning to pack up and head towards our three day adventure through the high desert into Chile (the famed off road Lagunas Route) I was not feeling up to it at all. It was decided that everyone would wait another day to see how I felt the next morning. I was relieved that the others were willing to wait one more day because it sounded more fun to do the route all together as I was kind of nervous about all the off road riding. I took it easy all day and spent a lot of time writing and I only ate soup and bread and tea. Linus took advantage of the extra time and was able to get my beat up panniers bent back into shape. They had become rather disfigured from all the spills I had taken. He was also able to adjust where the panniers attach to the racks so they didn’t rattle around so much. Awesome!

By the afternoon I was feeling much better. Before dinner we all took a ride out to the train graveyard to watch the sunset and get some photos. It was pretty cool to climb around on all the rusted out trains in the middle of the desert. It certainly did look like a place where trains went to die! On the way back from dinner we picked up some last minute provisions for the upcoming adventure and spent the time before bed packing the panniers and organizing the provisions for the next few days. We aim to hit the road early and see what this Lagunas Route is all about! I have a sneaking suspicion we are in for some good challenges!

Train Graveyard!
Sam got a bit stuck
Uyuni

Uyuni

One of my favorite things about camping is waking up with the sun. For some reason in this situation, I am immune to my usual resistance to waking up early. Despite the intensely noisy wind all night, I felt pretty well rested. It was so nice to wake up next to the river! We had a simple breakfast of coffee and bread with peanut butter. My stomach had woken me up a few times in the night and it still felt pretty bad. I had pills to help stop me up, but I think this made the cramping worse. Our plan was to drive a few hours down the road to Uyuni, get a hostel for a few nights so that we could have a few days to relax and plan for the three day trek through the desert to a remote border crossing into Chile. This would also give me some time to sort out my stomach issues, and we would get to visit the infamous salt flats without being loaded down by all of our gear.

sunrise!

The stream crossing out of the camp site and the sandy roads back to the highway went much smoother than the day before. It was a windy but beautiful ride to Uyuni. It really reminded me of the desert landscapes of central and eastern Utah.

road out of camp

Very similar, except for the llamas. We stopped for a quick breakfast in a tiny and dusty little town. Just as we had pulled over another motorcyclist pulled up from the opposite direction. When the helmet came off, I was so happy to see it was a woman riding solo! She was Italian and full of life!

She really liked Drew

We had great if not confusing conversation. We were speaking spanish and she would answer in Italian. We did decipher that the salt flats were doable by bike. Just a few kilometers of shallow water at the beginning and then all clear. We said our goodbyes, the guys ate their breakfast (yogurt for me..) and we headed on down towards Uyuni.

We arrived in Uyuni before lunch time, got settled in the hostal and wandered the main street in search of a lunch that was affordable and agreeable to my stomach. We found something nice and simple. I had a big bowl of soup and a little salad (all veggies peeled) and it sat very well. I felt great! After lunch we walked around in search of new stickers for our panniers. Linus even bought a Dakar ball cap, first cap he has owned! Ha! We spent the rest of the afternoon doing a big tire changing fest. I put on a new front tire, Sam put on a whole new set, and Rich changed his front.

Right before sunset the guys decided to ride a few kilometers to a train graveyard outside of town. I decided to stay and enjoy some alone time but not long after they left, here came Rich pushing his bike back to the Hostal! Luckily, he had just run out of gas again. He had forgotten that he had given gas to Sam two days before, so his mileage count was off. After a forgettable dinner that took a really long time to prepare we settled in for an early night of reading, blogging and sleep. We’ll be up early for a much anticipated day trip to the Salar de Uyuni, or Bolivian Salt Flats!

sunset at the train graveyard
New Tires and Good Camping

New Tires and Good Camping

Written by Linus, posted by Lise:

Time to hunt for tires again, this time in the desert city of Oruro. Me, Drew, Rich and Sam went for a morning hunt for breakfast and tires while Lise got some well deserved rest and yoghurt stomach therapy in the hotel room.

Sam had found an address for what we now generally call moto street, the street with all the motorcycle  repair and parts shop, so we strolled out in that direction. Once again the iOverlander helped us by pointing out a good breakfast stop on the way. Starting with breakfast was a good thing as the disappointment of finding that moto street wasn’t at Sam’s address is easier to handle on a full stomach.After asking a few guys working on the street we were given new directions towards what they called Moto Centro. This time the directions were actually correct and we found five or six motorcycle stores whereof only two seemed to be open. We found out from a guy in an oil shop that the rest of the stores would open “later”, a very useful piece of information.

In any case we had found the moto street so everything was as good as can be. We quickly found tires, compared some prices and went back to the hotel to ponder and check out. We collected Lise and checked out, rode back to the stores and after some price negotiations rode off with a new set for Sam and a new front tire for Lise strapped on the back. Next thing was gas, as Sam and Drew were pretty much running on fumes after yesterdays failure to fill up. We had two gas stations on the way out of town and luckily the first one was willing to fill them up, even though it was at gringo prices, about a dollar per liter.

Even ninja tourists pay premium prices

All done we rolled out of the city around noon. We’d had a long discussion this morning about going to Sucre or not, wether to split up the group so some could go there and some directly south. Me and Lise were not to keen on another city and as it was out of the way a bit, it would cost about a week time wise. Drew wanted to go and Rich and Sam were either or, although the back road to Sucre looked like a fun ride. In the end the time loss made the group decide to stick together a bit more and head directly south towards Uyuni and the salt flats. Lise had found an interesting camp spot a bit off the highway beside a thermal river, and that became the goal of the day. We rode a few hours on the dusty desert highway, stopped in a little town for some supplies and lunch and continued on to the turnoff towards the camp site.

The road here quickly turned to dirt and loose sand. For Lise and Sam this was the first real encounter and we slowly made our way across. After a few kilometers the road got more stable and we rode through some small mud hut towns into the hills. Just before the camping site we had to cross a stream, and Lise decided to take a little mud sample. I say she took it fairly well this time.

After we got her up again I decided to take a detour and ride a little offroad up a hill. Halfway up I managed to hit a hidden big rock, got over it with the front wheel and landed on the tool tube leaving the front wheel in the air. And so it was that I did my first bike laydown on the trip accompanied by a loud “Yeeaah!” from my dear wife.

It was actually almost a relief as I had been waiting for it to happen and had started to worry that I had been collecting to have a really big crash at some point. As it was, the only physical damage done was a cracked tool tube, which was later “fixed” with the magic of duct tape.

Ignore the redhead in the background, sorry Drew!

Once up and running again we rolled in to the campsite and set up camp. The scenery was beautiful and the thermal river pretty warm indeed! Unfortunately it seemed many people had camped here and there was quite a lot of litter around, and for some reason a lot of diapers thrown on the ground at the outskirts of the site.

After setting up our tents we got a visit from an old man who lived in a few dirt huts about a kilometer away. We talked for a bit about the surroundings and after giving him some water he went back to his house.

It was quite windy, and after dinner when the sun went down it got pretty cold. We tried to hang out for a bit longer but soon we all got cold and retired to the warmth of the tents and the sleeping bags and called it a night.

sunset by the river
To the Altiplano!

To the Altiplano!

We woke up early to exit the saggy bed of death. It was seriously the softest, saggiest mattress I have ever encountered, our bums nearly touched the floor under the bed! We enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee utilizing our camp stove and then packed up and headed down the street to attempt to re-seat Drew’s tire from his roadside flat fix the day before as it was riding a little rough. We found a little tire shop that had air and Drew set to work trying to fix the crooked tire. It was taking a lot more time and trouble shooting than anticipated. No big deal, though. It was a beautiful little town and we didn’t mind sitting on the curb enjoying the morning sun for a bit.

waiting..

Then my stomach started churning. I desperately asked the store owner if he had a bathroom. He did not, but directed me around the corner and down some steps to the public banos. Oh wow. I felt like I was in a medieval castle. The bathrooms were in a big stone room and were simply holes in the ground separated by stone walls. And if they weren’t already disgusting, I definitely made it worse. Back up at the tire shop, things seemed to be on the right track for Drew’s tire and we were ready to be on our way.

Finally fixed!

We finally headed over the last of the shortcut towards the altiplano. I think it is safe to say that this road is one of my favorites so far! Driving along deep canyons, surrounded by snow capped peaks with waterfalls pouring down emerald green mountain sides was truly spectacular. And the road just switching back and climbing higher and higher! We all stopped a lot to take in the beauty and try to capture it on camera. I also had to stop multiple times to try and find secret rocks to crouch behind and appease my extremely unhappy stomach. I guess the antibiotics I took in Huaraz only worked for so long, which is pretty frustrating. I have a big dose of really strong antibiotics in my emergency arsenal, but I want to avoid taking them if at all possible. Time will tell, I guess.

Pure beauty!

The road climbed up high again, above 4,500 meters or 14,500 feet! And then we exited the mountains and the terrain completely flattened out. We didn’t descend from the mountains, though. Everything simply flattened out. Welcome to the altiplano! We made our way south towards the town of Oruro. We were all running extremely low on cash, so low that we would not be able to buy gas when needed. Since we had spent the last three days driving through tiny towns, there had been no cash machines and we could pay for nothing with credit card. It’s really felt like we have been in the true thick of it lately. Just as we got to the main road towards Oruro, Linus and I found a gas station that was somewhere in between tourist and local prices and we had just enough cash to fill our bikes. The other guys were up ahead and didn’t seem interested in trying to fill up. Their gas tanks are a little bigger than ours, so we figured they would be fine.

The road to Oruro

The road to Oruro was two lanes each way and straight! It was quite the shock to our systems after all the crazy roads we had driven the past few days. It really reminded me of some of the desert driving in the U.S. Around lunch time we rolled into Oruro, which is a pretty good sized city. Our first goal was to find a cash machine, then lunch, then gas. Drew navigated us into the center of town and we started the search. Around and around we went and no ATMs. Finally, after asking a few people, we bumped into what looked like one, but wasn’t, got directed further down the street by a guard and found a few. Problem was that they only worked for Visa card, and Linus and I are the only ones with Visa. The search continued, and finally in a slightly crummier part of town we found a machine that would accept Mastercard. As I waited for the others, I looked around and realized we had accidentally found the moto street of Oruro! There were tire stores galore! This is perfect for us as we have decided to skip the three day (one way) drive east to Sucre which is the next biggest city that would have tires. As lunch spots looked scarce and my stomach was feeling less than dependable, we had a group meeting and decided to look for a place to stay for the night. That would give me the afternoon to try and settle my stomach and would also give those who needed tires a chance to find a good deal.

Let the search for a hostel begin.. As we navigated our way towards an option, we got stuck in a snarl of traffic and then, you guessed it, a massive street market. What in the world is going on? It’s Wednesday! Of course, duh, massive market day is Wednesday! I’ll never figure this one out… And then, like clockwork, Rich ran out of gas. And my stomach churned. Crap. Linus gave Rich some of his gas and we quickly continued towards the direction of said hostel.

When we got there I ran in and desperately asked to use the bathroom. Whew! What a relief. Unfortunately, the place was pretty nasty, so we walked around the block checking other places. They were either full, had no parking, or were too pricey. Ugh. I just wanted to find a bathroom to camp out in for the rest of my life. Plan B ensued: As the other guys were running very low on fuel, we would find gas station, then find hostel. Just a little further down the road we found a station! Rich was able to fill up, albeit at premium pricing. Then, as Sam and Drew stepped up there seemed to be an unfixable problem with the station’s computer system for foreigners and they said they couldn’t sell them gas. Again, crap. And more stomach churning. More wild goose chasing followed, then Sam ran out of gas, so we stopped again to get gas from Rich to Sam. By this time, I was huddled in a ball on the curb, maybe, possibly missing the infrastructures of the developed world just a wee bit.

Not the best place to run out of fuel.

FINALLY, we made it to a nice, clean, affordable hotel that even had private bathrooms. Yay! I crawled up to the room and Linus was nice enough to park my bike for me. They let us park the bikes inside the hotel in a dining room they weren’t using! When all was said and done, it was 5:00pm. We had arrived in Oruro at 1:00. Four hours of goose chasing! The beautiful drive of the morning was a distant memory by now. Once my stomach had calmed down (thanks to Imodium) we ventured out to find food. Everyone was starving and desperate for something to eat. But as it was in between lunch and dinner all that could be found was street food of fried potatoes with hotdogs and various sauces (called salchipapas) or hamburgers. Not anything I wanted to touch with a ten foot pole. We wandered around the markets for a while. If I had felt better it would have been super interesting. There were all sorts of dry goods, knitted goods, and even a row of ladies making fresh smoothies and juices. I didn’t feel up to trusting the street food, though. On our way back to the hotel we saw a sign for fresh empanadas. We walked into a tiny little place that smelled amazing. I had a perfectly baked chicken and potato empanada and a cup of tea. And it sat perfectly in my stomach!

Back at the hotel, I had every intention of catching up on writing about our recent adventures, but as soon as I sat down in bed I realized it would be a fight that I would loose. I was passed out before 9:00. If I felt better in the morning, the plan was to get new tires and head a few hours down the road to find a camping spot on the way to the infamous Salar de Uyuni, or the massive salt flats of Bolivia.

The Endless and Stunning Route 25

The Endless and Stunning Route 25

This one is written by Linus and posted by Lis:

We woke up in the dirty swimming pool courtyard to the sound of jungle birds singing strange songs. It had rained a bit during the night but as we had set our tents under the roofed area we were still fairly dry. We cooked some quick breakfast coffee on the stoves and packed our bikes, eager to get out of this place and get on with our dirt road mission. We said goodbye to the Dutch overlander couple, paid our host and left. There was a slight confusion about directions and we all had to regroup once again outside the camping. We then backtracked a bit through the town to fill up at the gas station. Then we found a little  breakfast joint where we had a cheap and nice full Bolivian breakfast; rice, egg, platanos, bread and coffee. After breakfast we went to look for an ATM. Everyone was quite low on money and most ATMs around only accept VISA cards, and unfortunately Lise and me were the only ones equipped. Here, no foreign cards were accepted and after a few failures we decided to ride on and try in another town along the way.

We rode on route 25 towards the town of Inquisivi, where we hoped to be able to take a smaller road across the mountains towards highway 4 that goes through the high plains. Drew pretty soon got a flat back tire from a nail and Sam and Rich stayed to help him while me and Lise trudged on as we move a little slower.

Team work!

The gravel road pretty soon got really scenic and we rode through even bigger canyons and roads that hugged the hills in such a dramatic fashion that the death road from yesterday seemed to pale in comparison. On the way down one of the mountains we ran in to the Dutch couple again and stopped for a short chat. They invited us for coffee in their overlander vehicle but we decided to move on so as not to loose too much time.

After an hour or so more of driving we stopped at an overlook where minutes later the gang caught up with us. We took some photos and relaxed a bit, and got caught up once again by the dutch couple. We took some photos together and took off again. Getting closer to the intersection the landscape was fantastic, with high mountains, deep ravines and big dramatic landslide marks on the mountainsides.

We reached the intersection, looked at the road and decided to chance it with the shortcut. We also thought we had understood that there was an ATM in a village not too far in on the shortcut road, and if it got too bad we could always go back. So off we went down another ravine and up another mountainside, and along the ridge for another hour or so before reaching the town of Quime. Unfortunately the info was once again wrong and no ATM was to be found.

See that little village over on the mountainside? There is no atm there.

Rich had found a camping spot beside a river on the iOverlander app and we went past Quime to try to find it and spend a night camping. After looking around a bit we found the site, but unfortunately the trees had been cut down and stapled on the potential tenting spots, and the only possible location to set up a tent was right by the road. It was a real pity because the surrounding scenery was beautiful with a lively stream and a big waterfall down the mountainside.

The almost camping spot

Now it started to get dark and we decided to take no chances camping so we backtracked to Quime to try to find a cheap place to stay. On the main road we found a little sign saying Accomodaciones so we banged the door until a boy opened. He said sure, we could get rooms for 30 bolivianos each, and there was parking right by the rooms. Said and done we rolled into the courtyard and settled in. The rooms were simple and could not be called very clean in any way. The boys got a triple room with a bathroom that had definitely not been cleaned after the last guests. We got a double room with a bed that probably only had two springs left holding the mattress up. Sometimes you just have to take what’s available…

We were starving so we cooked some dinner in the courtyard on our camping stoves and while we did, the boy’s mother who was obviously the boss, came and said that the guys room was 55 Bolivianos each because of the private bathroom. We quickly told her that 35bs was exactly what we’d pay for a room with a dirty bathroom and she buckled and agreed. After dinner we were all really spent, once again called it a day pretty early and withdrew to our concave bed.

Dirt Roads and Bruised Shins

Dirt Roads and Bruised Shins

Last morning in crazy La Paz! We all agreed we’d had enough of big cities for a while. We woke up early, quickly packed up and headed to moto street in hopes of finding tires and new brake pads before heading into the mountains to ride the infamous Bolivian Death Road. We had been told on Saturday that the shops open around 8:00. We arrived around 8:30 to closed shops, of course. We were told by an officer that they usually open around 9:00 or 9:30 so Drew and I set out to find some breakfast while the others babysat the bikes. We eventually found some egg sandwiches from a nice lady and on the way back happened on some deliciously spicy chicken and potato empanadas. Breakfast done! We returned to find the shops open and most everybody got what they needed. After chowing down on the breakfast goods we embarked on the crazy exit out of this massive city, oh, and the challenge of finding a station that would sell gas to foreigners.

Waiting for Breaky..

**Side note:  Gas in Bolivia is subsidized for locals and is very cheap. Therefore, they started to have problems with people coming in from surrounding countries to fill their gas cans with cheap gas. To stop this, the Bolivians came up with a system for foreigners buying gas. The gas station attendants have to fill out some documentation in order to sell gas to travelers/foreigners and that gas is sold at rates almost equal to european prices. Needless to say, some gas stations simply don’t want to bother with this whole process and tell you they can’t sell you gas. We have found, however, if you get away from the bigger cities they are more relaxed about it and you can even barter an in between price. This makes tourists like us happy and the gas station workers make a little extra on the side. It does turn into a bit of a gamble, though, because if you wait too long to find a station that will work with you, you may find yourself stranded on the side of the road with no gas at all!!**

We were fortunate to find a gas station that would sell us fuel on our second try, although at “foreigner” prices. We didn’t have much of a choice, though, as we were heading into scarcely populated mountains. And climb into these mountains we did! They were so beautiful and cold! The climb was so quick that our bikes refused to go any faster than 40 mph due to the quick elevation gain. We kept passing loads of mountain bike tours, all headed for the Death Road. You are probably wondering what the deal is with this death road, huh? For many years this dirt road was the only road connecting a network of smaller mountain cities with La Paz. It earned the name of the Death Road because of it’s narrowness and location pinned to the side of a very steep mountain crossing over and under multiple rivers and waterfalls. It drops (or climbs) an impressive amount of altitude in about 20 miles. Imagine a road like this heavy with all sorts of traffic (well, pretty much like many of the roads we took in Peru) and it was a recipe for many disastrous accidents. Now days it is only used for recreation as there has been a paved bypass built within the last ten years. You can only drive one way on it, down hill from La Paz, and it is pretty much only driven by mountain bikers and motorcyclists. There is still a decent amount of hype around it, so we decided to see what it was all about.

Death Road!!

The road was indeed impressive and quite beautiful. We quickly descended enough that I had to shed most of my layers. It felt strangely nice to sweat after being cold for so long! As we bumbled along down the gravel I could see how it would have been very dangerous in the past, but to me it felt quite pleasant to be able to drive through such beautiful and dramatic scenery without having to worry about what crazy driver was headed straight for me around the next bend. Was the Bolivian Death Road scary to me? Nope. It was really nice and oddly enough it did resemble what Sam had been previously calling it so as not to upset me: The Road of Butterflies and Rainbows.

Waterfalls of Death?

We arrived in the town of Coroico around lunch time. We found some food and wifi to sort out what to do with the rest of the day. We really wanted to make camping a priority. In the larger scheme of things we were planning to head east, possibly to the town if Sucre, and then head back down southwest towards the Salar de Uyuni (massive salt flats). We could see that route 25 headed in that direction and looked like interesting mountain road on the map. When we asked the lady serving us lunch if route 25 was paved she said it was. Cool! We can head down that road towards a camping spot Rich had found online. The camping destination was about another 80 miles down the road and it was still early. After grabbing some food supplies we headed out. And the road quickly became bumpy gravel. And that is what we drove for the next two days. Unfortunately, locals have a habit of telling you what they think you want to hear, rather than simply admitting they don’t have an answer. No big deal, though. We had been aching for less cities and more roughing it, and our wish was quickly granted.

Linus, Drew and I quickly got separated from Sam and Rich. We kept coming to forks in the road and after a while of thinking we were going the right way, we realized we had taken a huge detour. We kept driving up and down and in and out of countless steep canyons, and just when we would get to the bottom of a canyon and I would breath a sigh of relief to having a relatively straight path, the road would quickly start switching back up the next steep mountain. This went on and on for a few hours. I was starting to feel tired and ready for a break. Just as I was thinking this, I rounded a tight corner and met two locals on one motorcycle head on. There was slight panic in both our eyes, I am sure. I steered to my right and hit my brakes, he steered to his left. As I came to a halt our tires were inches apart. I thought I had successfully stopped, but no good, my wheel was turned too much and down I went. Luckily this all happened at less than 25 mph for me so aside from adding another bruise to my shin, I was fine. Linus had been behind me and seen the whole thing happen. I had cut a little too close inside the curve and the other guy was driving really fast. It was mostly my fault. After seeing that everyone was okay, the other driver went on his way and Linus and I picked up my bike. By this point I was exhausted and just ready to get to where we were going. Lesson/reminder learned: Always assume there is someone around the corner and hug your side of the bend. It’s good corner practice too!

Not too much further up the road we found Drew and after some map consulting and guess work, we approached a junction where we had planned to meet up with the other guys if we got separated. Luckily Sam and Rich were there waiting on us, and had been doing so for at least an hour. After talking to some locals and realizing that this route 25 was simply miles and miles of rough dirt road we needed to reconsider our plans. If we stuck to our first plan we were looking at two or three more days of this possibly rough road. There was a bypass that looked even smaller on the map, but could potentially save us loads of time. Option three was to turn around and head back to La Paz where we could take the road through the lowlands from there. That didn’t sound like fun to anyone. We decided to truck on to the planned overnight spot for tonight, and then drive to the junction with the smaller road tomorrow where we would inquire with the locals (in DETAIL) about the smaller road and make a decision.

We drove on for about 35 more miles on the famed route 25. This felt like way more of a death road than the actual death road for sure! I am getting a lot more comfortable riding on dirt though. Gaining new skills is always a good thing and doesn’t come without a few bumps, bruises and lessons. We finally came to the town of Chulumani where there was supposed to be a small hotel with grounds for camping. The spot was on the outside of town and the road to get to it had one switchback. One more measly switchback. And as I met it, I laid the bike down in the middle of the curve. One more time for good measure, I suppose. I was really tired but seem to remember a bunch of local onlookers laughing and one tiny little boy probably no older than eight running over and attempting to lift the bike himself. So sweet!! Oh, and I forgot to tell y’all that first thing this morning on moto street I was accepting new challenges and attempted to ride up onto the sidewalk to park the bike, and klutzily popped the clutch and laid the bike down. Three in one day, a new record! That is a total of ten so far, I think. Help me out if I am wrong.

The Road that Never Ended

We settled in at our quirky camping spot. It was on the grounds of a somewhat small little run down resort. We met a dutch couple in an awesome overland vehicle that were camping there as well. We cooked and enjoyed our tunafish with pasta and tomato sauce, it was nice to finally use our stove and camping gear. After realizing I had bought platano instead of banana and they were inedible, I ate a few cookies and headed to bed. It was an epic day for everyone, and we were exhausted. We needed to get good rest as tomorrow probably holds similar roads and challenges for everyone!