Altiplano – Bolivia Part One
Altiplano – Bolivia Part One

Altiplano – Bolivia Part One

The altiplano, riding towards Sajama Volcano
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Concrete walls.  A faded black gate topped with barbed wire.  It could be from a zoo, or a prison…except that the walls are a rather nice peach colour…it is of course my hostal in Arequipa.  On the other side the traffic stampedes by, no lions or convicts I hope, but buses bark, taxis trumpet and amongst them slither the motorbikes, growling loudly without exhaust mufflers.  People eat, waiting for buses, always eating, from one stall or another, throwing their litter into the road without a care as if it were a magical river.  The people always seem to be moving too, the pavements as full as the roads!  On this side of the gate, Rodney and I await to join this stampede, though to be honest, I’m not sure I’m actually ready to leave.

Roxanne walks out, holding a plastic bag, “It’s for you, ” she says handing it over, “bread and cheese.” I slip from the saddle, a broad smile on my face and start trying to cram the bag in to my top box, to accompany the first bag which she gave me earlier containing a hoard of fruit.

“It was nice having you stay here.” she says.
“Really?”  I ask a bit surprised.  Maybe she just liked my singing, her names is really Rosanne but I like the police and sing the song at every opportunity….skipping any references to red lights.  Actually I sing only one word….ROXXXXXXAAANNNNNE!

Luis emerges from his temporary hibernation, a cheeky grin on his face, completing our little family of three.  “Niiiiiiick! You’re going?” he asks tossing a palmful of sugared-nuts into his mouth with satisfaction.  I never once saw Luis eat a proper meal, well apart from the time we three cooked together.  Otherwise it was snacks and occasionally noodles.  But he was always offering me something, a coffee, a bit of soup or now some of his peanuts.  I enjoyed our forays to the supermarket together too, where he would buy tubs of ice cream, biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks.  Then at the checkout, he’d buy ice-lollies whilst we waited and, then placing a cola on the belt he would say, “to balance my sugar levels!” a devilish grin on his face, as if he were enjoying killing himself!

“So, where are you going, Niiick?” asks Luis.
“Well, first I’ve got to get some parts for the bike and then out to Salinas…and Puno.”
“You should go to Dolores for the parts,” says Roxanne,
“Really?  I was planning on going to Tacna and Arica.”
“No, on Dolores, it’s just all motorcycles, the whole street.  They sell EVERYTHING….”

One Hour Later….

“We don’t sell parts.”
“Really….,” (that bitch Roxanne) “…So which shops sells parts?”
“No, the whole street.”
“We just sell bikes.”
“Well, you can go to Tacna and –”
“Oh, you know it!”

Arequipa and Volcan Misti

I slip back on to the road that shines like coaldust thanks to years of dirty running buses and head to Tacna and Arica, passing a female traffic cop.  She’s red in the face, yet continues to blow her whistle, withoput pause for breath! But her whistles seem ineffective, only echoing – and adding to – the noise of the traffic horns tooting angrily.  I particularly like their slightly-too-small for their hand breast pockets though.

Traffic Cops, all female with slightly too small pockets :o)

Tacna and Arica looks oddly familiar, what is it?  There’s definitely something….And then I realise, I’m on the other side of my hostal, which is just over there! 400m away!  Three minutes on foot, or three hours by motorcycle!  (I also discovered there are two Av.Tacna y Aricas and two Av.Paz Soldans (where my hostal was) no wonder I was lost!)

I’m able to buy a chainset and air filter, and with no doubts about wanting to get out of the city remaining, I head to Av. Kennedy and escape!  From the hemmed in narrow cobbled streets of Arequipa, busy with people and hanging with fumes, the world opens up and my lungs suck on the fresh air and my subconscious absorbs the blissful solitude!  To the left, across a broad slanting plain rise the volcanoes of El Misti and Pichu Pichu.  I scan this plain as I ride alongside, looking intently for my road which should pass between the volcanoes.  But  I don’t see it and I don’t find the turning.  Maybe my bearings are off and it’s farther ahead and will cut back at an angle?  After a long while, getting doubtful, I stop to ask a friendly looking man waiting for a vehicle to get a lift towards his village.  He tells me the road I want doesn’t exist (it does I think looking now), but there is is another.  “You need to go back [to the last village]” he says, “and take Av. Jesús.”

One by one I go back through the villages passed looking for Av.Jesús.  I try a few unsigned avenues too, but with no luck.  Eventually, after a long and arduous search, tired of being lost now, I find it.

In Arequipa.
Square one.

Any doubts I might still have harboured about leaving Arequipa are now replaced with a degree of hate, or maybe it is hopelessness!  Still, at least I’ve found the road!  And, just a little farther along with not a soul in sight, I stop to camp, a really fine spot between the volcanoes of Misti  and Pichu Pichu both at over 5500m.

Camp, and finally out of Arequipa.

Birds zip about  the low scrubby bushes in the morning and to the side the snow-dusted cone of Volcan Misti is touched with gold.  Somewhere far below – thankfully! – is Arequipa, though all I can make out is the hanging purple grey layer of smog.  Soon double-articulated lorries make their way slowly up the trail, throwing huge clouds of fine pale dust up behind them.  I eat my porridge and sup my sweet tea, re-reading Vonnegut’s SH5 and, once packed up, soon follow in the lorries’ dusty wake.  There are few trucks to cause a problem however, and I am able to pass them even here at altitude and quickly forget their dust and the torment of yesterday in Arequipa with such a fine view stretching out beneath me.

Riding up towards Salinas!  What a view!

At the top and Reserva de Salinas opens up, a large and milky lake, around which curves the dusty trail.  Despite the trucks, and the mines the lake is untouched and teems with flamingos of white and pink.  The road is easy and quiet over the high broad pass, somewhere over 4000m, passing occasional settlements of dusty houses.  Navigation is tricky though, with trails darting off all over, however I can follow km marker stones for the most part and see three in quick succession, 130, 154 and 221km.  I pin my hopes on it not being 221km, as I’ll run out fuel!  Thankfully it’s not but it’s still a long days ride which ends near Puno with a windy, but sheltered camp amongst an old road-building quarry.  Here I started what was to become common practise heading south, getting in the tent and falling asleep after my tea and biscuits, zonked!  Sometimes I’d wake at 11pm or midnight and start cooking dinner famished, other nights I’d sleep right through, ten hours or more.

I drop down quickly to Puno next morning and go looking for the British ship, the Yavari, which is also the oldest iron hulled ship in the world!  With no railroads to the lake, the ships were built, in Birmingham UK in 1861, in kit form!  None of the 2766 pieces weighing more than 175kg.  But the journey to Lake Titicaca’s shores at 3810m – crossing passes up to 4850m and all by mule – was at first a failure.  Pieces of the ship were scattered about the Andes from the Pacific coast all the way to the lake!  The ship, which landed in South America in 1862 was finally completed and Christened on Christmas day 1870!  Nine years after the original concept!  It is now a B&B!

Nine years work….the Yavari, now a B&B.

Whilst the steel hulled machine is unique, likewise are the local’s own boats, made from the lake’s abundant resources of Totora reeds, which they also use to make floating islands upon which they live!  Whilst I wanted to see these up close, a trip to the Uros islands is – I’m assuming – a bit touristy, and would cost a few bob too.  So, I spent the rest of the morning looking for a Totora reed boat maker near Puno, following any information I could get from men and women sitting around watching their animals grazing next to the lake.  After a hot walk and a few scared shepherdesses, I gave up, needing to get to the border of Bolivia.  However, I do chat to Manuel who spins nylon threads into nylon rope.  He buys the threads and then, with the help of his wife, lays these threads out in long lines upon small bridges, all along the field.  Then he simply spins the handle of his home-made machine (see below) to twist into a rope.  He makes little money, as you can expect, and he seemed envious of the next group, who had a battery powered spinner!  Everyone was doing this all along the main road to the border, driving the price down even further!

Man watches his animals from the rail-track.
Manuel spins nylon threads into ropes, not surprisingly there is not much money in it!

Barely through the border, I see a little bike trundle up towards me. Comically small actually – like a clown on a mini bicycle – and comically loaded too; assorted bags, sacks and paraphernalia hang on desperately to the bike, swinging freely and playing a little tune, like a dull wind chime.  The pilot is American named Guy, though Guy calls himself David thanks to the Latino propensity for pronouncing Guy, Gay.  I call him guinea-pig (guinea pig in Spanish is ‘Cuy’).   

Gay rides a little 125 too, a Honda CGL125 andI persuade him to join me for camp, rather than cross the border into Peru today.  We set off towards Copacabana and the beach alongside Lake Titicaca, “But I gotta get gas first.” says Gay. 

Guy and his Honda CGL125, note his stove in particular which hangs freely in a mesh bag!
But at the petrol station the woman tells us that it’s closed.  Resigned Gay gets back in the saddle and pulls off to lead the way towards the beach.  Sadly for Gay however, things since meeting me aren’t going his way, and one of the now infamous (for regular readers) Loco Latino dogs comes a chasing…and a barking and I watch in horror as David looks frantically over one shoulder then the other and then…

I recall my riding instructor during my introductory CBT riding class.  His thick Brummy accent made it hard to take his instructions without laughing aloud, if you could take them at all.  He dwarfed his Chit-Un Chinese 125 even more than rest of us and made us feel even smaller when, in a figure of eight maneuver, we veered and wobbled 10 yards wide of a cone, on the wrong side, to stern reprimands.  “No!  Nouw lissen…Yow weeul gow where yow loook.  Sow loook where yow wunt to gow!” though by now we were somewhere off the training area and in the grass…looking to our instructor over our shoulder through a tangle of bushes…

For Gay, the dog was clipping at his heels, running alongside curled at his waist to avoid snagging himself in Gay’s wheel.  Gay is looking over his right shoulder, NOT where he wanted to go!  Gay was looking good to make a perfect ‘8’ or at least a frantic looking U.  But he is obviously lacking the wee technical insight of the CBT and rather than bumping harmlessly into a plastic cone (or pile of nettles) he runs straight into a slightly less harmless, wall.

The dog skips away, back from whence it came, looking rather pleased with itself and I’m sure I even spotted a smile running around its grubby snout.  There was certainly one on my face!
Luckily Guy and his tough little Honda are unscathed, and he leads me to a tall set of steps leading down to the lake.  I assume he knows he can ride down and make it to the bottom, for neither of us, least of all him will be able to return up the steep slope if we can’t (I noticed his bike suffered more on hills here at nearly 4000m).  We can make it though and begin setting up camp near the lake and, with permission, next to a hostal.  As we set-up, a German comes over from his Unimog.“You know it’s only 10Bs for a room and shower.”
“That’s like a buck fifty!” says Guy.
“I’m camping.” I say without much thought really, though bloody hell that is cheap!
Guy thinks for a moment before saying,  “I’ll think I’ll camp too.”
“Well, suit yourself.” says the German.
“Sorry Guy,” I say, “I hope it’s okay…I just like camping and 10Bs is 10Bs!”Luckily he seems keen too, and starts setting up his tent which cost about one tenth of mine at about $15.  Then, once set up he starts inching his bike up alongside his tent…”Bloody hell, Guy!  Why not put it inside the tent!”
“Someone might steal it!”
“I don’t think so…but I’d take your rucksack off.”
“Oh,” he says dejected, “really?”
“Well, it’s probably okay, but they might sneak away with it, better be safe I suppose.”
“Oh, man!  There’s a lot of straps…”Bag removed, darkness falling Guy goes off to buy his dinner, me apologising that, rules are rules and I’m cooking.  Tonight is, as always very simple, tuna, a little rice and vegetables (though the expensive tuna bumps this onto my Luxury Dinner list).  Guy returns as my coffee brews and I fill his cup as he comes to sit next to me in the darkness besides the tents.  I apologise to him that actually I could have cooked for us both but am a bit embarrassed by my poor meals and poor cooking.  “That’s okay!  I’m American, I gotta eat good!”  His mum however, is British and we get talking about all the good food!  Cottage pie, bangers and mash, and the king….beans on toast!  Guy even sounds a little British at times, “I like a good cup o’ tea!”
“I’ve got some pretty bad tea if you want…this coffee is rubbish too by the way, tastes like hot mulch.”A pack of dogs comes skipping through, the sound of paws on sand clip-clip-clip and that sound that isn’t a sound, the sound of bodies, breathing, blocking out the sound of the lake.”Holy shit!” says guy at the obvious large number.
“Count ’em!” I say.

Oscar, our family dog getting ready for Xmas!

“1, 2, 3…” we count in unison, “11, 12…..13!”
“Thirteen, shit!” says Guy.

“A fockin’ baker’s dozen!” I say and, after a moments contemplation I add, “I miss my dog!”
“Me too!  I can’t wait to see mine!  Not sure about my friends though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when I left, I just kinda took off.”
“Umm, I was the complete opposite, waiting to leave.”
“Yeah, just I never really told anyone.”
“So, why did you leave?”
“Ahh, you know.  I was just sick of it, so one day I decided to get out, bought a ticket to Chile.”
“Yep, then when I got there I thought, ‘I should get a bike!’ so I did and here I am!
“Fair dues.  But why so worried about going back?”
“Aren’t you?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“But will you go back?”
“Ummmmm….I’m not sure.  Probably, but more and more I think no.”
“Umm, no. Well, probably not. I don’t know.  I think so.”
“But why not?  Do you think you’ve changed?”
“It’s not quite that, I think I’m just the same and—”
“Nah, come on!”
“Well, just, it’s just, I think that here I’m a better person, not that I’m different so much.”
“Yeah, but you can be the better person there?”
“No.  That’s just it.  When I go back, I’ll go back four years.  Four years down the road and no closer to getting anywhere.  Everything the same.”
“Nah!  No way! I mean you’ll be a different person!”
“No, what I mean is that I think you’re shaped by what’s around you, and the people around you.  You get dumped in a school with some people, good people, bad people, you make a few friends, you live where you were born, get a job, but you have no choice in most of it and all the time it’s shaping you.  My friends are really good people, but maybe they didn’t bring out the best in me, the ‘me’ in me.  I think people don’t change when they travel, they just become themselves.  So, being surrounded by good people is the most important thing.”
After a moments silence I burst out laughing.
“What?” says Guy.
“Ohh, I’m just thinking of you hitting that wall!”
“Oh man! Come on! Jeez, I’ve been riding all this time and haven’t put a foot wrong, I feel so stupid!”  Guy looks out to the east, beyond the mountains, flashing black on white…”Hey what’s that?”
“A storm I think.”
“Yeah, I think so…pretty far though.”
“But it might come over here!”
“Nooo, I don’t think so, it’s miles away.  Look up, just stars!”
“No, it could do…Oh, man, I’m kinda worried now.”

After a long chat, we get into our tents.  A beautiful silence, a silence disrupted as I envision Guy’s wall moment, and burst out laughing again!
“Sorry, I can’t help it!”
“I feel so STUPID!”  (Guy must have hated me for this, but I couldn’t help it!).
The silence broken, we talk late into the night from our tents about baked beans and hobnobs…
A floating reed house and boat on Lake Titicaca opposite our camp.

A dog wakes me in the morning, though for Guy I fear it may have been the cold, “I can’t feel my big toe!”

We eat hot porridge and drink steaming coffee to warm our bones and pack up.  At the end of the beach it’s time to split up, Guy is heading to Puno.

“Well, it was nice meeting you!” says Guy.
“yeah, you too!  Enjoy the trip!”
“Yup, ride safe!”
“Yeah you too! Watch out for walls!”
“Oh man…you’re going to put that in your blog aren’t you?”

Guy goes right and I go left, riding through the pack of dogs, though it’s now twenty-something grubby beasts.

Part of the church in Copacabana, Bolivia

Whilst Copacabana is quite nice, there isn’t much to see, being made up of mainly tourist artisan shops, as well a small market, a nice church and children playing foosball down at the beach on tatty wooden tables.  So, I leave after a walk around the town and ride out to the peninsula riding up along the cliff edges looking out on the huge expanse of the Lake, before dropping back down to lake-side.  Men stand knee deep in the lake, chopping totora reeds, women herd goats and sheep, children launder clothes in old Incan water canals that, they tell me, have never run dry.  There, beyond the villages and the freshly felled redwoods, beaches which look out towards the east, towards the Islands of the Moon and the Sun or towards the tall mountains of Bolivia’s Sierra Blanca, bright white against the dark blue of the lake.  I think about camping here, a village called Belen where the wooden boats bob peacefully in the waters, divine, but also it’s very early.  And I think, that maybe I can reach those mountains to camp…

Should have camped here!

I ride on back towards the main road up a steep dusty trail, and then cross the strait between the sections of Lake Titicaca aboard a twisting raft of planks which creak like an old pirate ship. A beer wagon lists first one way then the other, its tall load of bottles likewise hang precariously over the lake, tinkling as they go, left then right.

Over the strait of Titicaca

I just reach the mountains in time, but here the weather is steely grey and bitterly windy.  I battle against it to find camp out of the wind, and after a long search I give up in a riverbed behind a pile of gravel, which the locals have prepared to truck away and sell….the mountains are still in view…provided I get out of the tent and look the other way!  But I’m tired again and fall asleep after a hot brew and biscuits.  Should have camped at the lake!

Camp, somewhat out of the wind!

I know hardly anything at all about Bolivia, only what my map tells me, and look endlessly at it for hints and clues and things which might grab attention.  One place I do know, and can’t miss on the map, is the Salar de Uyuni; the largest salt lake in the world which takes up a good portion of the map.  With the rainy season fast approaching I’m worried about getting there too late, when it will be under a shallow layer of water.  I could get there quickly, on good roads.  I could be in La Paz, the governmental capital, in two hours.  But it’s a paved road.  The other option, would take me east into Yungas.  I don’t know what’s there, but the map shows a dirt road which it calls a “Minor road/Cart Track”, and personally I really like dirt and don’t really enjoy asphalt.  But which is right?  I always find it hard to choose where to go, where not to go.  Which will give me what I want? Whatever that is!  Two hours or three days?  It could be three days wasted, who knows, the map doesn’t say.  Whilst the freedom is fantastic I find this part really hard, I don’t want to make a mistake and think “I wish I’d….”  I decide to ride to Sorata, which the maps says is a nice village.  It’s close-by and still on paved roads, and heading towards the dirt.  So I can decide one way or another from there.

In Sorata

Snuggled up in the bowl of the tall mountains all around, I enter Sorata and join the long queue for fuel.  In Bolivia one seems to have a view into the future, what it will be like when fuel runs out in the world, the only difference is the price, 3.74Bolivianos per litre, (35p or US50c).  Unless, that is…

“You are foreign.  Sorry…but you have to pay nine Bolivianos.” Says the girl with a heartfelt grimace.
“Umm,” so instead of 35p I have to pay 82p, “well I have to have fuel…I’ll buy this, and work something out.”
“Most foreigners change their number plate for a Bolivian one.”
“Umm…won’t I have a problem with police though?”
She shrugs her shoulders and rams the pump nozzle in the tank.  I’ll have to think about this, and promise myself it is the last time I’ll pay the high price(though I seem to have had little grounds to base my promise on!).

Sorata is a strange mixture of war-torn 40’s European buildings, tropical palm trees and chilly mountains.  Then in the streets the local Indians plod slowly on, selling their wares, fruits, juices, round white cheeses, used clothes and Chinese trainers, or else wait in the plaza for buses to La Paz.   The people seem like props too, the place looks somehow unlived in, benches peel paint, grass grows high, iron balconies lie empty beneath crooked wooden doors, even the litter looks old and dusty sat next to trees or blowing in the breeze.  The buildings are like photogenic facades with adverts painted on the end walls, but rather than Ovaltine and Cadbury’s it’s Pacena beer!

Shopping in Sorata

Now I’m in Sorata it seems foolish to back-track, back along the road and on to La Paz.  If there’s one thing I dislike more than asphalt, it’s going back!  So I ask the men waiting for buses which is the way to Consata and head out towards Yungas.

I’d expected the road to drop down to the river and follow this down the valley.  Instead it rises up to the right and I’m worried it’s the wrong way, heading south rather than east.  It is however, busy with traffic, each one a Toyota Land Cruiser from one era or another, from the very old made of olive green pressed iron plate (like Series One Landrovers) to the very modern; all shiny white plastic.  All vehicles pass waving and tooting, taking me back to my time in Guatemala and Honduras where I beeped, waved and whistled to people all the way.  How long ago that seems!  And I’ve missed that too, that friendliness, in Peru I felt as if invisible on the roads, or an unwelcome imposter.

Hope my bike doesn’t fall over….on the road to Consata

The road is different from Peru too, steeper and even more twisting, with hairpins tightly packed, one after the other, always up and always down.  It seems almost pointless too, I can’t tell where the goal is, is it up or down, to this side, or that?  But I don’t have much time to think, the trail is extremely narrow at times and teeters over steep precipices.  Land Cruisers are always rushing towards me to keep me on my toes, and once a truck comes charging through the trees and I squeeze by with only a gnat’s pube to spare!

On the map, Consata looks to be near Sorata and below 1000m, next to the river.  Conversely, having ridden a long way, still the road rises up, into a town mystified in fog.  Women sit as usual in the plaza, beneath coloured parasols, unperturbed by the ghastly cold damp and sell fruit, drinks, bread and individual cigarettes to all the people arriving and departing in Land Cruisers.  It’s in this mystical mist that I remain, mystified myself as the trail forks off to left and right deeper into the fog.  I keep left, certain that I must drop into this valley, which is now over the other side of the mountain, to my left.  Sure enough, once over and around the mountain the trail starts to drop and once out of the fog, I set up camp, with a really fine view over this valley.

Out of the mist, and a fine view of the deep valley, down which I must drop!

A bus’s klaxon wails in the morning, filling the valley with its noise and black smoke as it makes its way up the steep mountainside towards Sorata.  The noise lets people know it is coming and wakes me from my sleep.  I leave camp and head the other way, zig-zagging down and down and down, hairpin after hairpin until reaching a small town at river level.  Beyond, a fine smooth trail, narrower and less used, no Land Cruisers now and by lunchtime I’ve reached Consata.   I have covered only 126km since this time yesterday in Sorata.  I’d planned to stock up here and eat lunch.  However, whilst there are several shops, they all sell the same basic things; biscuits, tins of tuna (which are actually sardines!), corned beef, sweets and soft drinks.  With Mapiri, the next town, equidistant on the map, I’ve little choice but to buy what I can and so lunch looks likely to be a pack of crackers.  Fortunately one woman kindly gives me some – rather grotty looking – bananas from her own supply, so I take them gratefully, along with the crackers back to the quiet plaza.

On the road to Consata

There in the plaza I stand in the shade of a large tree, hot now in the valley bottom, to nibble on spotty bananas.  Two men come over and start talking and ask if I will accompany the one to Mapiri.  He seems impatient to leave and so I cut short my meagre lunch and follow behind the man on is Honda XL250.
It’s a great route!  A fairly narrow trail, littered with rocks and rain damage, ducking beneath trees, slipping in deep mud, bouncing over rocks and crossing rivers and landslides.  I think about my partner, who must ride back, and so uphill which will be a tricky and slow ride.  Because he is a bit impatient, though friendly, I get only one photo!

I’ve only got this photo of this great road!  I needed a good run up to get up the bank, left.

Whilst he told me it would take 1.5hours it actually took us something like 2.5 hours, and it’s not until 3pm that I can finally eat.  I’m starving and am little put off by the chicken, rice and salad that are pulled tepid from a little wooden box…lest the abundant flies should get to it.

Supplies are still hard to come by, no bread, no fresh produce and no fuel either.  There is coke though, but it costs a premium and despite my thirst I decide to stick to the now hot water on the bike.  For dinner I buy a tin of “tuna”, to complement the few veggies I also have.  Along the quiet dirt, alone again, I look for camp and find a spot along an old pylon service road, atop a quiet hill.  Thick forested hills and valleys sit in, above and below the swirl of grey and white clouds all around.  It’s hot here as the sun pops out below the clouds, and flies buzz and pester in my eyes and ears, and mosquitoes zeeeeee whilst ants climb all over and inside the tent.  Unless that is I zip closed the door, and sweat in the stifling heat of its interior.  To ward off the ants I put the destroyed – thanks to the rough road – crackers on the ground, and watch as the ants descend on the bounty and carry away huge chunks up the steep bank and far off through the grass.  But it doesn’t really work, or more correctly; it doesn’t assuage my annoyance.  And so, a bit disgruntled, I decide to move the tent.  Sunset though finally means peace, relaxation and a cuppa watching a distant storm light up the sky.

During a visit to the bathroom at night I notice the storm is closer, audible now and by morning it is closer still and just across from me on the other side of the valley.  Soon the rain is falling.  Then it is pounding down like coins falling on my tent.  I sit watching the water sheet off the tent, into the sandy ground, until I am sitting on a waterbed-like floor.  I worry about the road ahead, which is pure hard-packed mud and very quiet, not to mention the short trail up to my camp, which was already heavily damaged.   I lie back and try to read as the tent flaps against my head with the wind and rain, confident at least that my tent is withstanding the pummelling and the pegs are holding in the soft wet sand.  But then the tent is awash with bright piercing light, but worse the ear splitting sound…Thunder….the noise is interminable and, if I can be honest, absolutely bloody terrifying!!  I have never heard noise like it!  I lie in the tent curled in a ball, with my hands on my ears praying, literally, for it to stop!

Turding it!  A glimpse of Nick aged 50!

When it stops, I peer nervously out of the tent, a second wave of storm seems to be approaching from the east, so I start ham-fisting things into the bags and panniers as quick as I can!  What a wimp!


Leaving camp

I make it back to the main dirt road – along the nasty little entrance trail – from camp, the main road still intact.  I start slip-sliding down the hard-packed and greasy red mud with my feet pressed into its surface as hard I can to try and get some extra braking on the ice-like surface!  I can see that the road drops down and down, to the brown river flowing in the base of the valley.  I pray there is a bridge, but a sign reading “Men Working” means that, no there is no bridge and the men who should be working on the bridge aren’t.  It looks a pretty small river crossing and I ride straight in, but it was surprisingly deep!  I felt sure I’d draw water into the engine, but it didn’t and, for the first time ever I’m grateful to Rodney (the Honda) for pulling through!  (I was to feel this several times in Bolivia!)

Surprisingly deep, and impossible to see the bottom, but a calm current made it no probs!

Another river is crossed, easier and clear watered and I arrive in Guanay.  It’s a small, hot and unexceptional  town, but also the start point of an old foot-trail, the Gold Route, which cuts back west.  I try to buy fruit in the square  I find some bananas, “how many do you want?” asks the woman.
“I don’t know, two, three….how much are they?”
“Thirty-five each.”
Thirty five, must be 35cents I think, that’s an odd price.  Well, not so odd, about US5c each.  I start plucking off a couple.
“NO!” she says, “Thirty five for the bushel!” Ohhh!  35Bs ($5) for the lot!  Well, I certainly can’t carry the whole bushel and give up my ‘fruitless’ search!

I do at least manage to fill my small bottle of oil for my chain, which is rattling and creaking after the rivers and dust, but fuel is another matter.  Thanks to a road block created by striking miners on the road into La Paz, no fuel has been getting through.  Luckily I’ve still got a good supply of fuel from Sorata and press on a little way, to a small dusty village where, after a lengthy search, I find some.  The shop is a tiny hut, run by a man who doesn’t look too familiar with daylight, his bed surrounded by plastic coke bottles and drums full of fuel and a couple of dirty plates and bowls. I buy eight litres and then go for a “salteña” (a pasty) and a drink of sweet icy fresh chicha, made with maize, cloves, cinnamon and sugar.  I try talking with the woman, but she doesn’t seem too keen, busy knitting a scarf!  “What do you need that for?!” I ask, “it’s so hot!”  I even found bananas here and thoroughly pleased I start looking for camp.  Mountainous and more populated here a little closer to La Paz it’s tricky to find a spot, and one man even shouts at me to leave, “Didn’t you see the log?…go away!  Everyone keeps stealing my mangoes!”

Filling up with fuel, pumps are a thing of the past…or the future, coke bottles all the way!

With nothing found I arrive in the town of Caranavi, but I spotted a trail leading from here down the river.  Skirting town I take this trail and, with fine weather, I finally set up.  It’s a pretty bad spot, but it was about to get a whole lot worse.  After sunset, out of nowhere, clouds start forming, encircling me and my camp.  If it rains here  in the river bed (or upriver of course!), I’m stuffed! Stubbornly I cook dinner – with no fresh veg or fruit this means a can of corned beef and some potatoes from the bike.  But more than food I want to drink, and to sleep too.  I make a huge cup of sweet tea and sit in the tent as distant and silent flashes of lightning illuminate the sky.  I watch carefully as the storm tightens in on every side, and one by one the stars disappear behind the gathering purple gloom.  Closer, the thunder now audible, I’ve no choice but to leave and finish my tea as I pack up the gear. I ask the police in town if I camp in their courtyard, “It’s a police station.” says the officer, i.e. “it’s not a campsite, gypo!”  So I ride into town looking for a hostal.  Even now at 9pm the streets are busy and street vendors’ bare bulbs throw light into the road, as do welders flashes as they continue to work, in this light bathe the people as they eat and drink in the plaza…or go to the dingy-looking public showers.

The only hotel I can find, is run by a fat lady.  She sits, fat legs splayed in the doorway, waiting for money to fall in her lap.  She looks at me as if I was a parking warden come to give her fat-ass a ticket.

“Hello, how are you?” I say, but receiving no reply, only a tired look of annoyance, I continue.  “Have you got any rooms?”
“Yeah, but only with shared bathroom.”
“That’s okay, how much is it?”
“Twenty-five.” ($4)
“Can I see it?”
She shrugs, “It’s just a bed.”
“Yeah, but is it clean.” I ask.

She does and says nothing, so one can safely assume it’s probably filth.

“Well, can I park my bike inside.”
“If you can.”
“Can you open the door.”

After wrestling the bike in between the half open door, her watching, fat and expressionless, I’m handed the key.
“Thanks, senora.”  I really should be more honest with assholes.

The bed is straw and also, judging by the stench, a toilet.  I throw it off with as little physical contact as I can possibly manage and pull out my own air-matress for the second time that night and pump it up.  The room stinks of pee and I feel like poo.  I pop down stairs and ask the lady if she has any drinks for sale.
“Yes” she says, but elaborates no further.
“…Ooookay….do you have Sprite?”
“No, just Simba.”  But, for some reason, I need Sprite and decide to go for a walk.  I ask her if she wants anything from the shops, she looks at me as if I were barking mad (being nice, polite and/or thoughtful only goes to prove to Latinos that gringos are stupid).

Looking for Sprite, luckily almost all is open until about 11pm

Two boys run the butcher’s shop, though mostly they watch TV, ignoring me for it’s thrills, that or their mobile phones. The shop resembles the dungeon in Saw (the film, No.1!), white tiles, cold and dirty.  A solitary piece of meat hangs from a hook, it looks dry and fake like plastic, as if it’s always been there.  Alongside this hang some – equally plasticy, though just as warm and foetid – frankfurters.  On the wooden counter, wine-red and brown fill the years of knife cuts with old dry blood, a bloodied pirates knife, a mini cutlass, sits amongst fragments of meat and fat.

“Hey….HEY! Got any Sprite?” I ask (you have to be a bit rude actually, it’s just the way).  With both eyes on the TV he pulls a dusty bottle out from some grebby recess and slaps it with a bloody cloth to clean off the dust.  He does this with a flourish of pride and professionalism and thumps the bottle on the counter.  Just to be sure he wrings his sweaty hand around the bottle cap.  I think about asking for a dirty bottle.  I stare at his ear for five minutes, his eyes fixed to the TV…

“So, how much is it?” I ask, he looks around surprised.  He asks his brother slumped watching the TV, and he doesn’t know, so he wakes his dad, who unbeknown to me was asleep on the floor (just like the guy in Saw!).  “Eight.” he grumbles.  Paid up, I return to Hotel Urethra and drink the whole two litres and try to sleep.  It’s difficult though as other people arrive at every hour until 5am to have a “swifty” (or not so swifty).

Abandoning camp, in Hotel Urethra, knackered!

People walk with muddy trouser and dress hems in the morning, like an old Victorian scene amongst the mud and puddles which fill the streets…and people toes.  I give the hotel’s Woman of Rock an apple (though  I should have given her a good kickin’), which actually manages to warm even her cold heart, and from then on, she was all smiles.  I pack up and chat with her and others on the street before leaving, passing the huge queue of cars and trucks which line up two abreast waiting for fuel, freshly delivered, the road block has opened.  Good timing.  The road is light brown and muddy after the rain last night.  With everyone waiting for fuel, it’s quiet riding until after only a short time I come up to some road works, which won’t open until midday.  One by one, other drivers gather around the bike to chat in the long interim until a group of 30 or so are asking questions.  That is until 11:59am, when, for once, the Latino’s famed lack of punctuality is proven incorrect.  They leave me en mass and get in their vehicles.  12pm comes and horns start to toot with growing anger.  The road-worker holding the rope looks under pressure and talks frantically into his radio.  Cars move forward, anxious to move, three abreast, edging up inch by inch right up to the tape…with me in the middle.  More horn tooting.  12:03pm the JCBs stop, another radio call and the rope (gate!) drops and we are off.  Flat out.  Madness!  I’m sure I spot Dick Dastardly, cruising around the outside of me on some impossible bend, but in a white Toyota with near bald tyres on the very edge of the precipice!  This is madness….but fun, I just laugh and laugh!

Vehicles start approaching from the other direction, beeping horns and flashing headlights.  No surprises, we’re driving on the left!  This is crazy!  But we just keep ploughing on, until I’m out in front and actually, wondering if I should be on the left.  I try and read what the other oncoming vehicle is going to do.  But it’s obvious he’s thinking the same.  Sometimes it’s left, sometimes right and on one tight and narrow turn I nearly come together with an old jeep.  The road is narrow a lot of the time, with tight corners twisting out over the steep valley walls…and in any case driving on the wrong side of the road is never good, so I stop to ask.  Sure enough it’s left side here, until the paved road!

Left or right?  What do you think?!

For those interested, the left rule is simply so that truck drivers will be positioned over the outside edge of the road and better able to judge the available space, as some trucks have been lost into the ravine!  The earlier roadworks though, mean that this treat is soon to be another great road lost to history.

This road leads nicely to Coroico and the infamous (sort of) “Road of Death”.  The RoD is now a tourist attraction thanks to a new paved route leading to La Paz, so it is quite safe!  In fact, I believe it is much safer than the last road from Caranavi to Coroico thanks to there not being any traffic on it, with the exception of a few bicycling tourists!  I surmise that actually the Road of Death is (or was) really the “Road of Ambiguity!” and the accidents occurred as no-one knew which side of the bloody road to drive on!

One of the falls on the Road of Death

Rising up from Coroico at 1500m, the road turns from cobbles, to smooth dry dirt and then damp and rocky.  Waterfalls cascade down from up high, down slimey black vertical slabs, then across and down the road.  It’s narrow at times, but for the most part not too bad and I even find a lay-by to set up camp!  Thanks to it being almost exclusively tourists here, it’s extremely quiet at night, with only the sound of the waterfalls pattering down gently on to the rocky road, perfect!


Camp on the Death Road

As the fog lifts in the morning, so too the bicyclists descend, wobbling down nervously, stopping alongside to chat.  They stop only briefly though, terrified of being late for something or being left behind by their group, cutting questions off mid-senten….

To continue down the hill….to leave me to contemplate just how lucky I am to have the freedom I do.

I strap the bags on tight and jump into the saddle, click into first and ride away, along the wet and pointed stones.  Rising up and up, fresh and cool up amongst the mists which slide about the mountains and conceal the bottom of steep drops.  I stop for groups of cyclists, it looks pretty tough on the bicycles actually, and I think a motorcycle with its wider tyres is easier!  The trail rejoins the main paved route, up to La Cumbre (The Peak) at 4650m and then drops down towards La Paz.

La Paz fills and overflows a deep sandy valley of water-cut flutings.  I wonder if the houses high up will manage to cling on to these walls during the rainy season.  Sweeping around the valley the city leads from El Alto (Upper La Paz) down to the high-rise centre and beyond to the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley).  From afar at least it looks good, great even, but getting amongst the traffic is as always, rather different.  Signs are non-existent and simply finding the centre is a chore, let alone a hotel.

Entering La Paz

Eventually, after a very long search I find a hotel.  The price is a little steep, 60Bs ($9) but clean and with real beds unlike in Caranavi! As well, Juan the owner is soft spoken and friendly and, importantly of course, I can get the bike inside off the road.  Juan keeps a tight ship and the only problem is not falling on my ass walking on his highly polished floor!  As well the room has a desk, and I really miss a table and chairs and this alone is worthy of the price!  I spend a week or more here, servicing the bike and walking around the city.  Luckily there are several moto-parts shops within a few blocks of the hostal and I find that I spend almost all my time going from one to another looking for a particular part, then returning because it was wrong!  I change the fork seals, front and rear brake pads/shoes, chainset, rear wheel bearings and clean the steering bearings which don’t seem quite right.  Then, after a great day ride up to Chacaltaya at 5300m, the highest ever for Rodney and me, I fall!  Though I was lucky not to fall off the road into the valley below I bend the handlebars and break an indicator, and just a few scrapes and bumps for me..  I also discover that the rear brake shoes are rubbing on the inside of the wheel spindle and must be removed too….then, to top it all I’m sick!

Ouch!  Note the river, that’s a big drop!
Riding around Chacaltaya, this mountain is Huayna Potosi, next year I hope to climb it.

Luckily, whilst I’m staying here another British pair of motorcyclists turn up, Mack and Helen.  A really lovely couple, they were so kind and friendly and checked in on me when I was sick, and helped out with some of the repairs.  They deserve a big THANKS just for being nice!

Annnd, one of the most important things in any city, is to get in touch with the family at home, where for them the biggest news is ….”Hey…he’s been to an English pub and ‘ad Cottage Pie!”  Jeepers.

I spent a lot of time here, maintaining the bike, and chatting with Juan the hostal owner.


Main Square La Paz


Labourers wait, quite happily it must be said, for work in La Paz.
La Paz, best seen from afar…El Alto is behind, to the left is the Valle de la Luna

In the cobbled courtyard of the hostal I look up, grey clouds, a little rain drops onto my face.  I really must get to Uyuni.  But again, I’m faced with the same dilemma; straight down on good roads to Oruro and then Uyuni, a day, maybe two, or a dirt trail this time out west then turning south, crossing the Salar directly to Uyuni..  The map also shows two stars along this dirt route, signifying “points of interest”, could be good….An extra day or two won’t hurt!   Decision made!  (I didn’t realise it would take the better part of a week….but at least it was the better part!)

All three Brits are hitting the road so we all slip and slide on the polished floor out into the street.  Mack leads the way, in amongst the cars and buses which move about the lanes as freely as their noxious black smoke.  Helen is lost somewhere behind momentarily, and then I’m left behind as we reach a small incline, Rodney splutters, and for a moment I envy their powerful bikes…but not the fuel bill they just paid!

Oddly the road leads north, to climb out of the valley before turning sharply south at El Alto, the high and impoverished area of La Paz.  But for me the road is closed thanks to a teachers protest.  This means that the traffic funnels from a two-lane (or three…or four, depending on where the taxis and buses feel like driving) carriageway to one steep cobbled street.  At 4150m, 500m above down-town La Paz, the bike runs even worse. It’s so steep that if I have to stop I won’t get going again!  As I sneak through tight gaps between struggling minibuses, I can hardly breathe amongst the smell of hot engines, noxious smoke and burnt clutch.  But I do make it and escape!

Only one thing on my mind now, get to the countryside!  But the city’s reach, like a McDonalds is far and wide, seemingly joining up with the outlying sinister, chilly and drab town of Viacha.  It’s only once I’ve passed here that I feel I’ve escaped the city and can relax.  I take in huge lungfuls of clean air and breath a good clean sigh of relief.  There is nothing now, just me and the trail, which rises to a shallow crest.  From this crest I’m greeted with a fine view of the way ahead – the next two days riding – first east to Caraña and then straight south to the Volcanoes of Sajama which sit on the border with Chile.  The road is less mountainous now, passing shallow sandstone canyons and soon enough I reach my first stop; the City of Rock, in good time for camp.

City of Rock, time to camp!

I felt certain that the people, who’d been so friendly so far, would not be quite so as I progressed and my little bubble would burst.  But all the visitors to camp were friendly and keen to talk, with the disbelieving questions “What do you eat?, where do you get your water, your fuel, your food, how do you use the map!  Don’t you get lost?”  Uh, yes, all the time!  They also told me of some old houses up the valley, so I start dismantling the dry stone wall, push the bike across and rebuild it.  Then I ride up the valley, surrounded by the great pinnacles of the sandy city, to find the houses tucked in a corner.  These strange adobe houses were tall, but tiny inside, the roof making up more than half of the structure which is made from layers of large flat stones and adobe…inside one was some human bones!  I learnt later that they are in fact tombs, not houses!

One of the friendly visitors to camp
Cool Tombs

Having reached these and having no clue where the tiny trail went I return back to the wall.  From here onwards to Charanya along the lovely valley floor, still amongst these sandstone pinnacles, crossing the river several times.  Alongside the river also runs a petroleum pipe, and once I leave the river I follow this pipe a little farther, rising up a steep section of rough trail to reach the top and break through my gateway onto the incredible altiplano.

On the altiplano, lost…quite probably.
Charanya with the volcanoes in the south

The trail is feint, I’m low on fuel, water and food and have little idea if this is even the right trail!  But with no-one to ask, I have no option but to carry on.  The petroleum pipe gives me some comfort as I feel it will lead to town and when the road darts off left or right away from it at obtuse angles I feel panic rise!  I fall on a rocky and steep dry-river crossing, knocking my knee with the peg.  I look around in a little anxious shock for the petrol pipe, but can’t see it.  I take a second to check the map, feeling if I don’t I could be riding foolishly in the wrong direction.  I pull the compass out.  It looks okay and then as I scan the horizon for a landmark to fix this bearing I notice, very distant, a tele-mast.  I think those things are so ugly, but by golly I am happy to see this one! and feel great relief.

A lone truck comes up alongside, the first since near Viacha, and asks me if this is the way to a particular village. I check my map but it’s not shown there and I feel somewhat selfish when he is able to tell me that Charanya is indeed “just over there!”

When  I reach the town, I’m a little disheartened.  Wide dusty avenues and closed doors and windows.  It’s pretty bleak and the big stock up of food and fuel looks difficult if not completely unlikely!  Luckily I find fuel, not bad at 5Bs a litre, and squeeze 10litres in, though not great fuel consumption for only 283km.  Then, finally I find a little cave behind a dark door where a father and daughter work in their shop; they sell everything!  Food, drinks, toys and games, moto and bicycle parts!  Electronics, building materials…well, everything!  The father chats and also tells me the way!

Church along the way

From here the route seems easier, certainly faster and the obvious bearing is given by the beautiful volcanoes in the distance.  The villages small, dusty and crumbling, men in balaclavas to shield against the wind which picks up every afternoon, building and building to ferocious speeds.  I stop to ask a group of men the way, and they say “Hello” emphatically, and then can’t withhold their smiles when I remove my helmet and reveal my full gringoness!  They’re all very friendly and helpful and I push on to try and find a spot out of the wind, maybe near the volcano.  I find a place eventually, but only just as sun sets, meaning I’ve had a long day’s ride, and again, I’m exhausted…but in a great way!  The lingering sunset is beautiful, I couldn’t be happier!

The beauty to Sajama!

The sun rises dead ahead, and is soon turning the tent into an uncomfortable oven, urging me onwards.  Following a sandy track I soon reach the main trail which leads to the town of Sajama, sitting surrounded by tall snow capped volcanoes.

Sajama Church


Sajama square


Lagunillas, near Sajama

I wanted to follow my minor trail all the way to Uyuni, but I can’t find fuel here in Sajama, or in the nearby towns of Lagunillas and Tambo.  After a moments thought I decide to continue on in the hope that I can find some fuel later on, I should have at least 150km in the tank.

Six lanes I count here.  The original two, plus up to four others created adjacently by the locals.  Each successive one is made when the previous becomes too corrugated, thanks to the afternoon winds.  The only problem is knowing which is the most recent!  To the left altiplano, flat and desaturated green and to the right volcanoes of red, white and yellow which mark the boundary to Chile.  At the foot of these volcanoes sits the village of Macara and its beautiful silty volcanic lake, all to myself!  But again the afternoon winds are growing, encouraging me on my way towards Huachacalla after a little lunch.  The trail grows fainter as it circumvents this lake – I haven’t seen a vehicle since the one lost truck at Cranya and before that somewhere near La Paz – then crosses a salt flat, though unlike later Uyuni which is pure salt, this one is marshy and vegetated.

Another lake!  This one near Macara

Whilst the land is dry and the grass curling up parched in the fine salty sand, there are several water crossings.  Hauntingly dark water cuts deep narrow channels in this soft sand and when I stop to look they appear to be bottomless.  I ride through tentatively, wincing the whole time.  Beyond these I find huge expanse of flood damage, as if once a river flowed through taking with it the trail, which disappears completely for several hundred metres.  I rejoin the main trail again after crossing this soft pebbly sand and continue on a fine, wide gravel plinth, contemplating that this place must be ghastly in the rainy season!

Along a road that is straight as a blade, I find more tombs, numerous groups of them, restored and beautifully painted in rusty red and white.  A magnificent and lucky find, I spend a good time amongst them with the wind pelting my face.

Crumbling in the wind, more tombs.

A man.  A hole.  A pile of dirt.  Dirt to bricks and bricks to home.  It’s nice how they all make their own homes and how they do it with what’s around.  I ask him directions, is it 90º left or dead straight, and from his hole which will become a home he says, “left, to the mountain”.

Rising up from the plain on this mountain I look back and can see my whole days ride and, if I squint a bit, my camp spot from last night.  On the peak of the mountain a festival is in progress.  People labour up the steep steps to the large white crucifix, whilst others drown there lives in drink in the town at the bottom (Heaven and Hell, not so far apart?).  Once around the mountain, still high up I have fine view of the huge altiplano leading south to Uyuni, flat as a lake.  Despite all this huge space, finding camp is impossible thanks to the incredible wind, especially on the mountain.  However, I find a spot in a small quarry, barely yards from the road.

Despite the wind I found a great camp, looking out on the altiplano, and out of the wind too!

The woman hates the hill.  You can see it in her face, a bitter sneer beneath her felt hat.  Slowly she plods up, her thin ankles and cracked feet poking out beneath the black and flowery hem of her soiled skirt.  Her load, wrapped in a colourful and cleaner cloth, is bulbous and heavy looking.  She doesn’t see me, or perhaps she ignores me with my extravagant machine, which I jump aboard and roll de-clutched all the way to Huachacalla.

Women gather in the plaza of the small village.  They actually run the shops around it and so when I enter I have a short wait as they giggle amongst themselves, and the poor lass who has to serve me is jeered all the way.  They are all friendly though and I chat with them and feeding men.  No photos though, and no fruit either, “we must have run out!” says one lady as she spins wool onto a bobbin.  To top it all, there’s no fuel either!  But, in my search for fuel I do manage to find a few tomatoes, wrinkly little buggers, but they won’t feed the bike!  A man with a pick-up says he’ll drain his tank for me, but at a hefty premium.  (Always looking to make a buck, I don’t like this aspect of life here and people laugh at me if I fix their bicycle, puncture, give fuel, food, water or a lift for free.)  I knock on doors and ask in shops, until finally knocking on a big green gate the woman answers “Yeah, we’ve got some.” and I fill up for 6Bs per litre (54p)

The fuel station.
“A nice village” the map said….deserted though.

I cross the paved road to continue along the trail south.  Pure altiplano now,  absolute flatness and featureless.  The only disruption are llamas, thousands of them feeding on the short curly grass.  Then I see cone shaped houses, hundreds, maybe thousands dotting the expansive steppe.  Like in the desert distances are compressed and whilst the houses look as if they are rubbing shoulders with each other, they are in fact separated by huge distances!  Then, off to the left are sand dunes floating upon shimming crescents of haze.  Occasionally a feint trail leaves the main path, as if someone was taken on a whim, and like a rail track straight and true, the two tire marks disappear off into the distance, to the homes which look like anthills floating on this haze on the horizon.  Or maybe it was a mirage?  Possibly, and certainly strange was that whilst the distances of these features are compressed, riding distances seem paradoxically expanded!  I ride for hours – it seems – at 60-80kmh but cover only 30-40km!!

Typical houses on the high altiplano.
One of the easier bridges

A small girl in a pink jumper plays on the far side of a river, tugging a plastic bottle on a string in some fantasy world it seems.  On this side an elderly lady sits, likewise with a piece of string.  This one however, is attached to a perfect little lamb, which she feeds milk.  I ask if I can cross, “Sorry buddy,” she says, “I only speak Aymara.”….one can only guess.

The little river crossing rises in humps of sand and falls into deep abyssal hollows, dark and unknown.  I’ve crossed others to reach here, sometimes easily over footbridges.  This one has a bridge too, but it’s broken and held together with only two individual strands of wire.


…and a slightly more rickety one!

I look all over for a shallow route, leading from hump to hump but I can’t find one.  I return to the bridge and bounce on the broken section held with wires…maybe if I go really fast I’ll make it?  Or maybe the front wheel will break it and I’ll just plough nose first straight in to the river….would be funny….if I was out for a lark with me buddies.  Alas I’m not and getting stuck in the salty water is a definite prospect and one not worth considering.  But then, by the Gods, the first vehicle in three days arrives! And it’s a bike!  He shows me the line, trundling through bouncing up and down in the sand and I jump aboard Rodney and follow likewise, easy peasy!

As I ride on, I notice the motorcycle ahead returning from far out to the right, must be another river crossing.  This time however, I can only guess his line and ride out right.  It looks easy, short and shallow and so I ride in, but then all of a sudden the rear wheel falls off a hump into a little hollow and Rodney, like a stubborn mule, decides he is going no farther!  The engine bogs (high altitude remember) and stalls.  Stuck.  I beep the horn and watch in dismay as the lone motorcycle disappears along the horizon.

Stubborn mule

My boots fill with salty water as my nice new chain and wheel bearings do likewise.  “Come on Rodney!” but he ain’t moving.  I start taking the bags off and throw them to the far side, close by…tantalisingly close actually!  Luckily the bike will stand on its own and I can take box and panniers off too.  I start pushing the bike over onto its side, thinking of Ewan and Charlie doing this with their BMW in Long Way Round, snapping the frame.  Fortunately the sand is softer, and once out of it’s little rut I’m able to easily push the little fella out!  I laugh as I strap the bags back on, glad to be out and make sure to not be quite so blasé with my line choice in future!

The road is actually the gravelly bit on the left!

With the landscape so barren, it’s difficult to maintain a sense of direction and I am constantly filled with a feeling that I might be lost!  This is especially so when the road fades in and fades out, washed away by rains or floods.  Often the new trail is clear and not far from the old road, in sight, but at times these new trails dart off left or right in a whole new direction!  And then all of a sudden any signs of vehicle tracks vanish completely.  The trail drops down a vertical step and is buried beneath a huge river of wavy soft sand.  I find a more gentle slope that I can ride down and try to maintain maximum speed, but at altitude, and as it is only 125 in the first place, Rodney bogs down into the sand after a few hundred metres.  I leave him there and go walking, looking for the road.  But, wherever it is, it’s not there.

From stubborn mule to beached whale.

There are houses in the distance, but they could be 1km away or 10km!  I could run and push Rodney along, but I’ve walked a long way and have no idea how much farther this goes on for!  As I’m stood thinking I look back to Rodney and see he’s fallen over and I run back to put him upright and relieve his tears of fuel.

I eat a piece of bread.  I always do this when I need to think (or get a puncture, or stressed).  It works, I recall a really faint turn-off a few kilometres back, it could be the diversion.  I push the bike out and ride back to the turning, and take the trail.  I wonder as to how many vehicles have passed this way, 20 maybe, I think, but that seems a little foolish now.  But however many, they fade now again as I re-encounter the sandy crossing, probably the same one but it is narrower looking.  There are houses now too, and I go walking to ask if this is the correct way.  When I go though all I find are closed and padlocked doors, and a few children playing, dirty and alone, their parents in Oruro.  With no option I ride on through this soft sand and come upon a house, outside of which a woman weaves on a telar frame.  She slides a blade of polished wood – with the thread – through between layers of weave and jabs the thread down at the base with a sharp curved bone. She confirms the way is correct to Challakolta, and we chat as her two children come over, pretty tight braids curving over their scalps.  (She wouldn’t permit  photo).  Not long after and I regain the main road, I am relieved to say the least, and scream YESSSSS into the helmet all the way up the road!


The road continues in the same vain until the small village of Challakolta (I assume), where I ask two men standing in the trailer bed of a small Mitsubishi pick-up for directions.  The truck stinks of death and they look like guilty gangsters cleaning up after chopping up a body ready for the pigs! Though in this case it is just butchered llama!  “Right after the stones, south” he tells me and so off I trot.

Instantly there is nothing, no houses, no llamas, just scrubby bushes and deep sand.  I’m worried I misunderstood, but I’m sure I heard south and a quick check of the compass shows it is dead on.

South, after the rocks…he didn’t mention the sand!

I cross plains and twist through bushes on my way to a small village and, a little concerned that I’d be dead alone if I were to break down, I collect water from a pump.  I ride on and on, riding fast and getting nowhere.  Dust tornadoes rise up in the gathering winds of the afternoon, hitting me occasionally and filling my helmet with swirling debris.  I pass an old lady pushing her bicycle through the sand and think that the village must be close!  She also serves to put me in my place, me thinking the road is quite tough and her doing it as daily routine on a rickety bicycle.  Not long later and the penny drops….I reach the road which I obviously left at some point earlier in the day!  It is broad and graded gravel, fast and easy.  A little way up the road and I find a nice camp spot out of the wind in a llama coral!

Ohhh….that’s THE road!
Wind free camp!

A slow start.  Sun shines through the rocks onto the tent in big triangles.  Sleepy.  Slowly I wake up and quickly realise that I’m red hot, feeling as if I’m suffocating and quickly I tear off my cold nightwear.  I’m finding this a big problem, having little or no relaxation in camps, due mainly to weather or bugs!  Along with the long days of continuous riding between villages and shops, means that tiredness is building.  Here on the altiplano, the thin atmosphere means hot days and icy nights as well as windy afternoons!  As well, the sun boings straight up into the sky and burns with intensity.  So, with no trees and no shade on the altiplano, I have no choice but to leave the book and the diary for this morning and get going.

Typical altiplano shop, sugar, sugar, biscuits, crisps, tuna.

In San Miguel I look again for supplies.  I get bread, no fruit, and chat with Bernardo.  He farms quinua (Quinoa in English?) here, exporting it to USA, good money he says (800Bs/$110 for 50kg).  But he only spends a little time here, living mostly in Santa Cruz out in the eastern lowlands, where he operates a taxi.  Faced with the same problem as always; easy/fast or slow/hard, I ask him about the two routes from here to Salinas de Mendoza, where begins the Salar I’ve been so long “rushing” to get to!  One route is a cake walk, the other is “very sandy” and more likely to see me walking.

This isn’t Bernado….

I make a bad decision and take the sandy track.  I’m tired, too tired, and even asking for directions regularly seems a bit of a pain, but not too bad, the people are so friendly!  Then half asleep flat out in fourth (still slow on my little machine) I lose control.  The bike flips around sideways violently, and the engine stalls instantly. Silence momentarily as I try to catch the swing, but my left leg digs into the sand splitting me in two like a chicken’s wishbone.  Then I fall on to my right leg, transmitting most of the force it seems, through the foot-peg into my shin.  Ouch.  (Still, nothing broken).

I want to camp.  I’m tired.  So, so tired!  But I’ve no supplies, and the salar is within reach if I can just keep going!  I reach Mendoza and find….fruit!!!  I fill the box to brimming! and go in search of fuel…there’s even a “fuel pump”!
“You’re foreign.”
“No I’m not.”
“Your plate says Guatemala.”
“No it doesn’t…it says Bolivia…” I say with a smile…it works, and she lets me pay the regular 3.74!  Cheers love!

I think about falling asleep on a bench in the plaza, but the salar is so close now!  The map shows seven dotted lines criss-crossing the salar in all directions.  I should be able to ride direct from here to Uyuni.  But this raises a few questions: I’m not sure if the paths are clear and/or well marked or if I need GPS points.  What I do know is it is vital that you find the on-ramps and, more importantly, the off-ramps!  The edges of the salar can be really soft! I’d hoped to get some GPS points from the internet but having only just rediscovered bananas, computers seem a bit futuristic!

Approaching the salar is incredible, the stark white growing and growing before you and then filling your whole view with otherworldly white!  Down the on-ramp and on to hard white crystal….like an ice road!

Finally making it to the salar!

But beyond the ramp, there are very few tracks, those there are dart off in completely different directions.  I try to follow the clearest of them, ending up in areas of soft wet salt, spraying the bike with PVA glue like liquid which dries as hard as rock.  After a long ride, I decide this is no good and return to the village to wash the bike….and did I mention I was tired?

Washing the bike….that crap is everywhere.

I return to the Salar’s edge to camp amongst some rocky outcrops to shelter from the wind.  It’s very quiet and my only companion is a scorpion.  I kill him with my flask worried he might sting me from under the tent in the night. I fall asleep feeling guilty and hoping tomorrows trail is clearer.

Maybe it’s small bikes, but I’m always doing something to the bike,
here at camp, cleaning the brake drum which is sticking.

It is clearer….it’s also beautiful.  Quickly one begins to understand how the locals navigate, aiming towards particular mountain peaks I think.  It’s the smoothest road I’ve ridden in all of Bolivia,and in fact the entire surface of the Salar has elevation variations within one metre over the whole surface.  The salty layer varies in thickness from just a few centimetres to tens of metres.  Beneath this layer is a lake of brine, which contain up to 70% of the worlds lithium! It is also covered in some places by incredible salty hexagonal ridges (visible in the camp shot below).  Some people say that these ridges form during the evaporation cycles after the rains each year, but another snippet says:

the dissociation and temperature variation on the Salar causes the top layer of salt to contract and fracture. These fractures form small capillaries in polygonal shapes through which the low density salt water raises to the surface, crystallizing into polygonal figures.”

I tend to believe the second as this coincides with the ridges being the thinnest part of Salar, the only plae I could put a tent peg.  Anyway….It’s the biggest salt lake in the world and is 25x bigger than Bonneville Salt flats in USA!  There are several islands too, which are actually the peaks of now buried volcanoes!

In Uyuni I stock up ready to tackle the popular Lagunas Route.  To approach the route I’ll first cross the Salar a second time, though this time heading from Uyuni west.  I’d though of camping on my first crossing, as I was still pretty tired, but was concerned with the afternoon winds and the impossibility of placing the tent pegs (which are shop hooks) in the hard ground.  But when I arrive later on it is very still and pressing the engine stop button and coasting to a stop, I begin to set up.

Sunrise on the Salar

Whilst I’d set-up nice and early, after taking a million photos of the sunset, I get into the tent to make a brew.  Only I can’t because the stove is blocked!  When I go to clean it a piece of the wire brush breaks off, now it’s definitely blocked!  I spend at least an hour trying to remove this and then, tea made, I go to zip up the tent from the icy cold (night temps are -9 to 5ºC throughout the year)…but I can’t zip the tent!  All the wind and dust of the altiplano has filled the zips with dust!  Out of the tent, grab a toothbrush and the pliers.  Finally I settle in at 9pm….blinking Nora!

The instant there is light, and black wedges dart across the horizon shimmering on a bed of quicksilver.  They make a huge roar and look and sound futuristic.  They are of course 4x4s, the sound is tires running over the hexagonal shapes on the surface.  I can see and hear them for miles, and watch for a long time as they cross the Salar!  The sun casts long shadows as it rises and warms the cool night-time air.

A man sneaks up on me somehow.  I’d been watching him, and his friend walking around randomly on the salt, away from their vehicle, which must be 2km or farther away.  He asks me with theatrical hoarse voice and heavy breathing for some water.  He ran out of petrol sometime in the night, “it was very cold,” he tells me, “we had to get out and do exercises to keep warm.  It’s like a desert…there is nothing!”  I’m not sure what he was expecting, surely he knows, he lives in Uyuni!  His family are on their way bringing fuel for them and they arrive just then as he finishes the water.

I leave a three-inch strip as straight I can make it on the Salar heading west towards the volcano on that side.  I enjoy this ride more than the ride along the trail which I first took to Uyuni, something freeing about it (I do have a GPS point now though from google maps), and rather than following tracks, I’m breaking trail with something to concentrate on too, my bearing.

Once there I reach the far side, a big maze of trails and a rough on/off ramp, but not as rough as the road towards San Juan, which is heavily corrugated and painfully slow.  I’d hoped to get fuel in San Juan ready for the Lagunas route, which is a long and fairly isolated route.  I simply can’t continue without fuel, I need to fill the tank and carry extra.  The locals tell me I can get some in San Cristobal, a long detour of at least 100km.

I have no choice though but to go, and as I ride along this road, bouncing on the corrugations, something snaps….ME!  My little bike just can’t handle these corrugations, whatever speed I try and usually I can’t even apply the power into the road as the wheel skips and skips, overloaded really.  I go bananas.  In fact, I think the root of the problem is….my nice new bananas.  All I can think of is the first fruit I’ve been able to find in almost a week turning to brown liquid.  Anger builds, I shout at Rodney, my poor squire, “Hurry the fuck up…COME ON!!!!  What’s the matter with you!!!”  But the corrugations are like hitting a wall, the bike just slows and slows and, like someone unexpectedly stamping on the brakes, hurling me forward over the mudguard.

“That’s it!  Fuck it!”  (I feel like Basil Fawlty with his mini)…I stop the bike and pull out some bread, time to think.  The bread’s crap too, dry crumbs mostly from all the bouncing and the fact the silly cow sold me day-old bread.  “Fucking Indians!  Fucking Fuel!  Fucking bike! And where’s San Fuckign Cristobal!!!!”

After a moments silence, I start laughing, realising that I’m just tired and being a big fat dope!

With a bit of thought, I decide to go to Uyuni and take a well needed rest.  I find this hard though, in the past my budget wouldn’t permit me to do this, but I’ve been spending okay in the Americas and can afford to now.  But it’s still feels a little extravagant and I feel like I’m being a wimp.  Why can’t my body just keep going?

Those tiny ripples make Nick…..
GO CRAZY!  “OHHH, my bananas!!!!”

I find a hostal in Uyuni.  It’s 40Bs ($5 or so) and looks like a mix of old train-station and prison, it’s actually really nice!  It’s clean and has nice beds and even has TV!  Now, slumped on the bed I realise with alarm just how tired I am.  I can’t even move!  I can’t find energy to read and instead I watch TV all day, eat and sleep!  So good was it that I decide to stay the next day.  I get the bike washed properly at the car wash, change the oil, fix a minor electrical fault on the bike, get my shoes fixed.  Whilst doing all this, I chat with a local man who also happens to be an official in the National Park which contains the Lagunas Route.  He tells me the route to take and also where I’ll find fuel!  Next day, feeling rested and better prepared – for once – I head out towards Bolivia’s extreme south-west corner on the Lagunas Route…..more on that next time!


In the hostal, Uyuni…TIRED!
Salty kegs and boots.
The Shoe Man in Uyuni town.


And a taste of the Lagunas Route to come…