Monday, July 11, 2011

Cruising the Altiplano – on sand, rocks and washboard past desolate landscapes, red lakes, rock trees oh, and the SALAR de UYUNI!

I love riding. I love that I can go at my own pace, that I have everything with me, that I can follow any road, that I can ride over stone bridges instead of getting wet feet (though I get that too!), I love that I'm not stuck in a crowded jeep with 6 other tourists and a coca chewing driver, I love hitting asphalt after 4 days of sand, rocks and washboard, and yes, I have to admit I love the small celebrity status you sometimes have with locals and other tourists. Most of the above went true to form over the last week of travel as we made our way from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, into Bolivia and the southern Altiplano (high altutide plains) and up to Potosi and then Sucre.

After whiling away days in the cute adobe town of San Pedro eating baguettes made by Arturo in our outdoor oven at the hostel, we decided to head to the next border north as we had heard that it was open and clear of snow. So instead of doing the more well worn route from San Pedro in Chile up via Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorada and up to the Salar de Uyuni, we instead crossed into Bolivia at the small mining town Ollague, and from there attached the altiplano roads or lack thereof southwards towards Laguna Colorada, then looped our way back up to Uyuni., For me it was hands down the most challenging riding I've done so far – chasing 4WD tracks in earthy red rolling landscapes, trying to navigate slippery sand and very annoying washboard in said 4WD tracks without falling too often, crossing rivers either through water or over stone bridges, trying to successfully slip my way down sandy tracks blind in sandstorms, avoiding patches of snow and ice at 4000m, letting my front wheel find its own path through knobbly rocky patches and having riotous fun busting my way up and down rocky tracks.

Enjoying the snow free roads above Laguna Colorada
Me on sand, minus my big red bag that Philipe was kindly carrying for me
Each with our own tracks

In the 5 days from leaving Ollague on the Chile-Bolivia border to arriving in Uyuni, we travelled countless kms on dirt, it seemed 100kms on sand, camped 2 nights in a freezing cold desert (I'm going to say it got to about -18deg), ate the dust of about 70 zooming jeeps and spent 1 night soaking in some thermal baths looking across to snow capped mountains.

Arriving in Uyuni finally after an impromptu camp due to a flat tire the night before was quite a joy.

So now for more detail...
On leaving Ollague and crossing the border into Bolivia, we hit the 4WD tracks proper and I was lucky enough to offload my big bag to a very kind Philipe and his sidecar – this essentially reduced the back weight of my bike a whole lot, therefore improving my balance and ability to actually pick up my bike when I dropped it by myself. Considering that I dropped the bike on average about 3 times a day it made a huge difference. It also meant that I could have a bit more fun riding the bike. Arriving at an 'eco hotel' alongside Laguna Ideohonda that first day was a lovely treat, and even better was the fun conversations we had with the hotel staff while we prepared and cooked our dinner in the hotel kitchen.

Fred alongside the Laguna Ideohonda

Hmm... which track to follow?

Taking a break
The next day was all about vast stretches of rolling red and shrubby yellow terrain with tens of 4WD tracks meandering their way through. Oh, and some deep sandy patches. And some big red boulders and rocks. The most well known of these is the Arbole de Piedra (Rock tree) which upon arriving mid afternoon we enjoyed our mini celebrity status with the many 4WDs that zoomed up to spill out rugged up tourists. These are beautiful rock formations, and I had fun clambering around them for a while. Oooh yes, even better were the hot peaches that Philipe had prepared as he had arrived earlier than us. (As the sidecar has a wider wheel base sand is not a problem to zoom over)

Morning reflections on Laguna Ideohonda 

Sand..... lots of it

Arbole de Piedra

Kurt with his fan club of swiss tourists around him
The 4 of us at the Arbole de Piedra - me, Philipe, Kurt and Fred
So this is where I talk about the other riders – Fred, Philipe, Kurt. It pretty much worked like this, Philipe would be ahead in the sidecar with the GPS while Fred or Kurt would babysit me – riding behind or alongside, helping me pick up the bike when I fell, making sure I got there in one piece. I'm incredibly grateful that I could travel with the three of them, and considering the little driving experience I have and my little bike, hopefully I didn't slow things down too much. As a point of comparison, riding 2 up with Kurt on the road to Uyuni we were going about 80kms/hr, whereas on the same road I was be tentatively going at about 40kms, shuddering as I felt every bit of the washboard. There is an ideal speed to go at... but alas I'm just too chicken to go too fast.

Camping at the Arbole de piedra was not as bad as we had thought it would be – due to the rocks a fair bit of heat was retained, and wind was cut so the nightime temps only got to about -6deg. AND I was sandwiched between Philipe and Fred in a 4 man tent so was pretty toasty! Next stop was Laguna Colorada – a beautiful red lake with flamingoes. At this point our group of 4 split up – Fred was keen to chill out at the Laguna, and therefore Kurt, Philipe and I headed up towards the Salar Chalviri and some termas (hot springs) there. Heading southwards and higher up meant a change of landscapes; more snow appeared alongside the roads, mountains rose up from desolate landscapes and the colours completely changed. We were rewarded even further upon arriving at a restaurant next to the hot spring, where we were kindly allowed to set up camp inside the restaurant, and spent a luxurious hour or two bathing in a natural hot spring in the setting sun. It is amazing what a pool of hot water and promise of a hot meal can do to one's spirits!

Relaxing in termas.... so so so so good

The following morning we set off back to Laguna Colorada, in the hope of catching Fred before he headed north. Although not quite doing so, we had a lovely ride back, stopping to take more pictures of the flamingoes. At this point our group of 3 went down to 2, Kurt and I headed northwards in the same direction as Fred was going, and Philipe going back to the hostel where Fred had stayed to see if he was still there. Again the landscapes changed, without a detailed map or GPS, Kurt and I had some fun guessing which roads to take, and ended up feeling slightly lost riding along dirt tracks alongside rivers and small salt flats. One of the most beautiful moments was seeing ice that had formed around the mossy green lily type pads in the river, with the sun dancing on the surface. However as the after wore on, it started to get late and we were about to draw the line of “if it gets to 4pm and we've not encountered anyone else, we turn back”, we stopped at a farmhouse, and then in delight and surprise turned around to Philipe who had sped along to catch up with us.

Laguna Colorada

Hundreds of flamingoes on the laguna

One of my favourite parts of road for the day

We made it to a town called Villa Mar, where we found a beautiful hostal for us each to enjoy having our own rooms. I had had this idea to make up a curry – Philipe had some coconut milk that we had magically found in Chile before leaving, as well as some tom yum paste. All we needed now were vegetables... which we really thought we'd be able to find in the town. So off I went to the 2 corner stores... only to find that apparently there was nowhere to buy fresh vegetables or meat – this was most likely because I was a gringo (foreigner) asking for it, but it was the first time so far that it was impossible to find something fresh. Nevertheless we dug around our food bags, found some veggies and cooked up our curry. Wasn't a recipe to share, but nice to taste a different flavour for a change.
Emerging a bit wet after a short river crossing - I drove over the timber footbridge and kept my feet dry!

Getting some help from locals
Next day we set off with the aim of getting to Uyuni... what we didn't calculate was the kilometres of sand, 3 river crossings and sandstorm which reduced visibility to about 1m. But because we're champs, and we hit tarmac mid afternoon (when we hit the tarmac I was pretty much yelling and punching the air with happiness, funny what a bit of sand free road can make a person do) we got the kms under our wheels and well nearly made it to Uyuni. What thwarted us in the end was a flat tire on the sidecar, and thus 30kms from Uyuni, Philipe and I ended up pitching a tent in howling icy wind and darkness, and settling in for the coldest night yet. And the cherry? It was Philipe's birthday and we had been pushing to get to Uyuni to meet up with Kurt and Fred, so it was a real bummer to get close and not make it.

So the following morning, after trying our various techniques to change the tire, we decided that being so close it would be easier to get a truck to take the sidecar to Uyuni so Philipe could change the tire there. I headed into town to arrange a truck, and while there I heard a shout from Kurt who had been stocking up on Toblerone at the market (he is Swiss after all!) and after a short reunion with Kurt and Fred, I waited around for the truck driver and we finally set off to find Phliipe. Stupid me though forgot the GPS co-ordinates, so we spent an extra 20mins scanning the horizon for me to try and remember where I'd left Philipe. It was getting dark and cold, but I finally spotted him, and loaded up the sidecar and a very cold Philpe into the truck and got back to Uyuni.

One of the reasons I love Bolivia so much are the markets; there is a great energy, they are all over the streets, the food stalls are very tasty, and there's a great energy and buzz to it all. Uyuni had various markets, and so I spent a couple of days snacking my way through the streets and generally feasting on life. Our plan had been to ride into the salar, but after Fred went one day and found there to still be a fair bit of water to cross, we decided to take a 1 day tour. In some ways I'm bummed that I didn't get to ride the Salar, but doing it in a 4x4 was sort of a real treat. The salar was brilliant – both literally in terms of light, and just such a different landscape to anything I had seen. Funnily enough though, I think one of my favourite moments though was gently dozing in the warm sun behind closed windows as we zoomed along at 80kms across the salt. Riding means you're open to the elements, especially the wind, so relaxing in a warm closed vehicle and not paying attention to driving was an absolute treat. There's not a whole lot to say about the salar, but it was a sort of surreal day of white and crystals, and we also had a great time composing and posing for each others photos.

Cementario de trens in Uyuni

Salt ready for harvesting on the salar

Yes, brilliant and amazing and beautiful ... and bright!

From Uyuni it was to Potosi – the highest altitude town of it's size in the world. The best thing about arriving in Potosi? The hot showers. The shouts of joy during and big grins from Kurt, Fred and I after our best hot shower in 2 weeks were sounds for sore ears. A couple of days in Potosi, and visit to the working silver mines and then we drove to Sucre. There is much I could say about the mines, but the working conditions are really still awful, meeting 16y/o boys who worked 8 hours at a time just chewing coca leaves, temperatures up to 50 degrees, dynamite exploding, pushing 2 tonnes of ore in wagons along narrow passages lined with arsenic, and not being able to breathe properly makes you very grateful for the lives you have.

In Potosi I also saw Mark and Bridget – 2 friends of friends who I had randomly bumped into in San Pedro in Chile. The last time I had seen them was 2 and a half years previously in London, and seeing familiar faces is always a real treat, especially when it was unexpected.

I'm rushing a bit, but I'm nearly up to where I am right now – in Sucre. The ride to Sucre from Potosi was awesome fun, lots of curves, all asphalt, more beautiful scenery. Arriving in Sucre was amazing, after coming down over 1000m, the wind was warm, the sun was setting on whitewashed colonial buildings, the atmosphere was relaxed and I really felt I was coming somewhere special.

I had always planned to stay for a while in Bolivia and take my first spanish courses in south america, and now I knew I had found that place. It really is a beautiful city, and can I really beat lying in a hammock under the bougainvillea with good coffee, a family of bikers around me and a massive central market around the corner? Hmmm... I don't think so.

So I'm putting my feet down for a while – seriously brushing up on my Spanish, indulging in luxuries like conditioner, getting to know locals, drinking good coffee and wandering the hilly streets for a month. Yes I may do some short trips, but I'm pretty stoked about staying put for a while.

As always, there's copious amounts of photos to wade through, but it really has been a challenging and beautiful couple of weeks, and hopefully the pictures can take you all there for a spell.

Abrazos y besos de aqui...

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