Finally after enduring a broken leg, badly sprained ankle and ligament strained and twisted knee, WorldRider, Allan Karl, finally takes the road out of Bolivia. From the largest and highest in altitude salt lake in the world, Allan takes a dirt road out of Bolivia. In search of better roads, Allan is quite suprised to learn that in this part of Chile the roads are more challenging yet the vistas and the isolate desolation taxes his riding skills and mental acuity. (Total Time: 26:28)
With lightning storms blazing the evening sky and the most impressive array of starts they’ve ever seen, WorldRider, Allan Karl and fellow motorcyclist Andy Tiegs, sit on the largest and highest in altitude salt flat in the world on the Bolivian Altiplano and discuss their respective journeys to this magical place by motorcycle. After traveling more than 15,000 miles and visiting twelve countries along the way, these two motorcyclists achieve part one of a lifelong dream.
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What implores someone to quit their job and take time to see the world? Allan Karl while on his solo motorcycle journey meets and discusses the passions of travel with new friends he meets on the road. Meet a new cast of characters as this WorldRider journey of adventure and discovery continues..
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With his bike running again, Allan boards the night train for Uyuni, Bolivia. Wandering the streets of this dusty outpost on the fringe of the largest and highest salt flat in the world, he runs into three other motorcyclists — including his past riding partner, Jeremiah. At the famed Minuteman Pizza restaurant in the Totoni Hotel these motorcyclists share the stories and dreams as they plan to tackle the Salar de Uyuni.
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So stunned by the scenery, I forgot about the wind — and the road. Volcanoes thrust the landscape all around me. The vast white salt desert and oddly shaped mountains painted yet another unworldly panorama. Less than an hour ago I passed through the Chilean border and thus finally broke out of Bolivia. But what was supposed to be easy, turned out to be more difficult and taxed both my mental acuity and physical endurance.
Sharing a large pizza created by ex-Boston and now Uyuni legend, Chris of Minuteman Pizza at the Tonito Hotel, Andy and I discussed our plans. His timeline is a bit different than mine. With a goal to be in Ushuaia by Christmas and ultimately shipping his motorcycle back to the states sometime in January or February, Andy was anxious to experience Northern Argentina while making progress towards Tierra del Fuego and the bottom of the world. For me, I wanted to see San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and then tackle the northern part of Argentina and ultimately sipping wine on the plaza in Mendoza while savoring the wine region by my birthday in mid-December and then back to Chile (Santiago) just before Christmas. Plus, with my nagging leg bothering me even more after a couple days riding the Salar, I looked for a safer and easier route to Chile and then Argentina.
Let me explain. While I seemed to be making good progress on my leg with the knee problems all but gone, my ankle was still tender and bothersome. Before riding the salar I walked normally — sans limp. But climbing up on Doc reversed my progress. Throwing my right leg over the saddle requires a bit of hopping on the left (bum) foot to get into position — this with the side/kick-stand down. Then to pull Doc off the side-stand and upright requires placing a lot of weight on that ankle. Riding the bike was easy, except for changing gears. Up-shifting was problematic and painful with each up-shift pain zinged through my ankle. Ouch. The hardest part was shifting from 1st to 2nd, often losing strength and ending up in neutral. Later I solved the shifting problem, but still with a couple days of getting on and off that bike, both the pain and the limp made a return visit. Damn.
To get to Argentina Andy would take the road south of Uyuni to Tupiza and then onto the border of Villazon. This road has earned some notoriety among moto-travelers and other overlanders for its incessant washboard and numerous patches of deep sand. Sure, south of the border to Salta in Argentina the road improves and ultimately becomes paved. On the other hand, the road to Chile through San Cristobal towards Calama was purportedly a good road. Even better, my polls about the Chilean dirt roads unanimously revealed much better conditions than Bolivian dirt roads. While we both agreed it would be great to ride together, our different agendas and my physical condition forced our split after only a few days of riding together.
That morning before parting ways we both performed our respective bike inspection rituals. That’s when I noticed my vertical Jesse brackets were loose. Plus, the rubber bumper on the right bracket was gone! The bag on this side has given me alignment problems since I returned to Bolivia. It’s not the side that came off in the mud crash. Nor was it damaged when I crashed on the railroad tracks. But now it was simply hanging by the two toggle bolts with nothing to keep it from swinging like a pendulum. The road to and back from the Salar was a washboard mess and the riding pounded the crap out of me and the bike. Perhaps when we tightened the brackets in Santa Cruz my compadres who helped me at Juaquin Alvarez’s shop might not have tightened that side as well as I tightened the other. Or was it me? I couldn’t remember. But I needed to think fast and fix this nagging issue. I thought simple enough to go to a hardware store, buy a piece of rubber and simply bolt it to the bracket. Wrong. It was Sunday. Closed. With my eyes wide open walking back from breakfast I scanned the road and pathway for anything that might serve my purpose, I spotted a piece of wood. The width was right but it was too big. Andy had a hammer and a chisel, but these were packed deep into his bag. Then I noticed a spare piece of wood lying next to some plants at our hotel. The wooden stake was a spare to stake the plants. A bit thin for my purpose, but I figured a way to cut it into a couple small pieces, then stacked the them and secured it with duct tape. Then I simply taped my new “bumper” to the bracket. This secured the bag.
But that wasn’t my only post-breakfast challenge. These bikes (BMW F650GS) are notorious for difficulty in starting on cold mornings at high altitude. Sure fuel injection helps, but only after getting it started. Doc was no different. The bike strained. During the cold day before on the Salar de Uyuni, I had been running Doc with the heated grips on. So this morning the engine turned over very slowly. I worried. About to embark on a 10 hour journey to Chile — I didn’t have enough juice to start the bike. So I asked a nearby jeep for a jump. Later, at the fork in the road I bid farewell to Andy and suggested we might catch each other in Salta or Menoza. We were off — 10am
And that great road everybody talked about that the silver mining company built? It was great. in parts. But the wash-boarding was relentless at points. Admittedly, overall it’s perhaps one of the better Bolivian dirt roads. In San Cristobol I stopped at the only gas station I’d find until I got to Calama – four hours after crossing the Chilean border. I filled my spare 1.5L bottles and even put a couple liters in an empty water bottle at the suggestion of Chris in Uyuni. For the next three hours I barreled down the road toward Chile. Until I got to small pass cut through red and volcanic rocks, the only inconvenience this road presented was the slamming of washboard. But through these rocks I encountered the first deep sand. Although just small and quick patches, they were enough to send my bike squirreling and incite the fear of lost traction in my nerve endings. I remained calm and just motored on. As I approached the Chilean border I gazed out onto another expansive salt flat. With the ominous and ever present Mount Ollague( a large volcano that sits on the border of Chile and Bolivia and home to a huge sulphur mine on the Chilean side) forever in my sight to the North this patch of salt was surrounded my distant mountains and volcanoes that hung in the translucent haze of the midday sun making for a dreamlike and surreal landscape.
3pm — At the Bolivia/Chile border the Bolivian customs (aduana) officer processed my paper work and ensured that the Bolivian government had the proof and documentation that my motorcycle safely and legally exited the country. This border crossing rarely sees any traffic. Once a week a train stops here and passengers and cargo are processed by immigration and customs. During the week a handful of trucks coming from and going to the silver mine at San Cristobol pass. But a motorcycle? It was rare. And Carlos the officer was eager to hear my Bolivian experiences as he poured me a couple glasses of water.
There are no services at the Chilean border. The tiny town of Ollague exists simply for border business and provides a tiny outpost for the handful of mines that pepper the surrounding mountains. There are two roads and two blocks. No gas. No food. No store. No hotel. And as I quickly learned, no bathroom. But the Chilean immigration was a breeze. And they told me that the entire Chile desert I would soon cross was one great big bano. Three solid pounding of rubber stamps and I was directed to customs where time moved just a tad slower.
4pm — I proceeded in the direction that intuitively seemed correct but as is customary on my journey to reinforce my intuition and decision, I stopped and asked a woman if I was on the road toward Calama. She shook her head and pointed the other direction. So I made a u-turn, crossed the railroad tracks and headed into the desert. But after about 10 miles the road deteriorated, narrowed and became more difficult. I passed a small sign indicating distances to nearby towns. Calama wasn’t listed. But as often happens, the smaller towns are listed at more frequent intervals than the large, so I pressed on. A mile or so later I just didn’t feel right. Something was off. It seemed I was going more north than west. So I returned to the signs and reviewed my Chilean map. Sure enough, I got the bum steer. That woman on the street in Ollague seemingly purposely sent me in the wrong direction. I was miffed, but returned to town and headed out on the road I originally intuitively believed to be correct.
While the correct road appeared to be better, I was soon faced with the relentless pounding of washboard. A narrow path between six-inch high trails of loose gravel was hell. When it finally smoothed out, I was squirreling through find sand. Then back to washboard. I climbed to higher elevation and then descended into a valley and across a dry salt flat – the Salar de Carcote — which is sandwiched between the Ollague Volcano (19,255 feet), the snow capped Mount Chela (18,530 feet) to the west and Tres Monos (17,690 feet) to the North. The wind was blowing fiercely at more than 40mph. When I stopped I had to fight and use the bad ankle to keep the bike from blowing over. The mountains rising above the dried salt lake towered high above as I felt like a tiny spec in this desolate yet magical place. I struggled to keep the wind from blowing me into the deep gravel. Soon I was climbing high above he lake and along the rim of what appeared to be a long lost crater of a volcano. A flattened hill deep into the distance was charred and black as carbon appeared to be the remains of a cinder gone. As I shielded my eyes from the high sun where my geological knowledge failed my imagination took over. What appeared on the map to be a 30 mile ride along the edge of the Salar and up over the mountains and into another valley with yet another massive salt flat took nearly two hours. As I crested the crater like ridge a larger salt flat, the Salar de Ascotán, unfolded before my eyes. And directly to the south the powerful and foreboding volcanoes of San Pedro and San Pablo both breaking the 20,000 foot barrier yielded their diamond shapes and pushed higher into the blue sky while the sandier track become more threatening and difficult to navigate with the relentless winds refusing to yield to the loss of traction fears this motorcyclist braved for another two hours.
This Salar was more than twice as large as the previous. The mountains stretched higher into the sky. And the terrain evolved and devolved from sand, to ball bearing gravel to chunky plum sized rocks. Once again the gamelan-like pinging of rocks on the under guard of my gave me something to focus on when not battling the wind or taming the jumping of my front tire with delicate yet sure control of my handlebars. Several times my rear tire had ideas of its own and moved independently of the front. Fearing the need to plant and dab my left foot for balance, I resisted the temptation and kept both feet glued to the pegs. For most of the last three hours I’d been standing or riding in a half-standing squat position. Even with the wider Touratech foot pegs my feet were getting sore and my back tense and tired. Empty. Alone. How much longer could this go on?
I passed several roads that seemed to ride off into the horizon until dead ending at the mountains. Mines. Lots of mines. Yet there was no one on the road. I saw three cars and one mini-bus in over three hours. If I did drop this monster of bike, it’d be hell trying to pick it up — how long would it be before someone would drive by to help?
I thought back to all the people who told me this would be an easier ride to Chile. They insisted there’d be good roads – even those of dirt. Had I joined Andy, I would have been at the Argentinean border by the time I crested above the second salar. But now I was battling the incessant wind at a Chilean military check point. The kinetic and frenzied wind-torn Chilean flapped noisily and the guard firmly held his jacket in his grip as he approached the gate. It was approaching 7pm. Looking ahead to the massive and desolate plain that stretched miles to the west where in the haze distant mountains poked lazily toward the sky, I asked the guard about the mysterious paved road I’d been promised. He rolled his eyes up into his head, muttered the name of a few towns and then said, “Dos horas, mas o menos,” indicating that it would be two hours, more or less, until I was in shouting distance of my destination, Calama Chile. But ahead of me the road looked good and I asked for reassurance. He shook his head and motioned with his hand rocking it back and forth. “Cuidado.” He repeated at least four times while telling me just two weeks ago an American motorcyclist had crashed on the road I’d just braved. The lone biker had broken his shoulder. Great. He raised the gate and I pushed on.
the wind grew more intense and the temperature crept down. I still had the massive 20,000 foot volcanoes to my left but a vast wasteland of nothing to my right. The marble sized gravel provided less traction than I had all day as my front end flirted and teased me for the next hour and a half. When the gravel wasn’t turning my stomach the washboard pounded my spine. And all along the wind pushed me into the deep shit on the sides and middle track of my lane – and sometimes the opposite. I could barely get out of second gear. There wasn’t a car, bike, truck or pedestrian anywhere. Where was I? Does anybody ride this route. I remembered the railroad and the several dozen times I’d crossed my path. Most people experience this desolate landscape with their noses pressed against the windows of a railroad car. Me? If I lifted my head for a second and took concentration off the road, I’d go down for sure. Stopping I battled the wind against the motorcycle. If this was fun, I’d have the last laugh. But I heard no laughter. If this was adventure, I’d enjoyed it enough already. I was ready to stop. The massive orange and yellow orb had begun its perilous descent behind the lazy mountainscape. And I was riding directly toward it. This made it more difficult to see the the sand, gravel and rocks in the road. As I continued to ride at 20-25mph I scanned the desert wondering where I could set up camp without the wind turning my tent into a kite and sailing it off the never never land. There was no place. It was all open desert. It was getting darker. yet in the distance saw a trail of three large pipes running parallel across the plain. They ran through what I reasoned to be some-sort of pump or inspection station. But there wasn’t a car nor lights. Though I figured I could set up camp there. But I didn’t. Instead I dreamed of the mystical pavement, the big city of Calama, a cold beer, warm bed and soft pillow. I pushed on.
Then I lost the sun. Yet I cruised along with the blanket of a cobalt blue sky guiding me. I flipped up the face shield of my helmet to improve my vision. The road pounded washboard, then evolved into smoother hard-packed dirt. I picked up speed. it was almost like pavement. Buzzing along I felt okay. That is until I slammed into a swath of deep gravel. The bike spun around, I rolled the throttle and made it through unscathed — that is after repositioning my stomach back where it belonged. Then came the holes – sort of like pot holes. I slowed back down. Though it seemed I wasn’t getting anywhere, I had two things going for me during this dirty dusty night ride. First, because of the desolate lifeless desert I was passing through, there were no bugs. So I could keep my face shield up without fear of some bug meeting its maker in the depths of my eye. Thus, I had somewhat better visibility. Second, there were no cards with blinding lights speeding toward me from the other direction. With my high-beam light on, i actually had good visibility. And with a slow but steady speed I was able to navigate through the gravel, pot holes and dirt track toward Calama.
My GPS said 30 miles. It was well pushing 8pm. But little did I know at the time, it was actually 9pm. Even though Chile appears to be further west from Bolivia, it is actually in a time zone an hour later. Bizarre.
By the time I was within 15 miles outside of Calama I met my first pavement. After 10 solid hours of non-stop riding I got my pavement — and my first speeding and passing cars. But wait a minute. These weren’t just cars. These were new late model — clean — cars. Toyota. Peugeot. Spanking clean.
I was no longer in Bolivia. Then rolling into the city limits I soon was riding by a massive shopping mall – The Calama Mall – with parking for hundreds of cars. Walkways were clearly marked and traffic lights programmed. Cars and trucks actually stopped and let pedestrians cross. While the dreamlike desert landscapes complete with 20,000 foot volcanoes seemed out of this world, Calama itself was a world apart from Bolivia complete with its prosperity and massive commerce center.
10pm — It took awhile, but I found a hotel with parking, a cold beer and that pillow that seemed to be whispering, yet calling my name.
Welcome to Chile.
The sad part about this amazing journey of adventure & discovery entering Chile is that so many travelers sacrafice this route leaving Bolivia and entering Chile south of San Pedro de Atacama. While others skip Bolivia and enter Calama through the Pan American Highway. Look at these photos! Judging by the lack of traffic, travelers and life it’s too bad not more people experience this. For me, I got to see both worlds and share them with you.
As the sun sets behind the Andes, silhouetting a perfectly shaped volcano, Andy and I crack open a couple of cans of Pacena—the Bolivian beer from La Paz—and contemplate the scenery. The nearly full and brilliant silver moon casts an impressive amount of light which reflects upon the vast expansiveness of the largest salt flat in the world. At this moment, it’s also the most massive moonlight reflector in the world. The water boils on my little MSR stove. We prepare prefab freeze dried dinners by Mountain High. With our tents set up, dinner brewing and beers in hand, I am on the Salar—the Salar de Uyuni. Finally. To steal a face, or phrase, what a long strange trip its been.
Watching the sunset from our campsite on the Salt. Soon the stars revealed their glory and the chill forced us inside our tents.
The unique shapes of salt reflect the setting sun on the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
A soft-spoken, mild-mannered and practical motorcyclist in his mid-forties with a striking resemblance to a young David Gilmour, I met Andy a year ago at the Horizons Unlimited motorcycle traveler get together in Creel, Mexico.
Riding a 2000 Kawasaki KLR, Andy was planning a South American motorcycle odyssey. I was a few months into my around the world expedition. We both never thought just over a year later we would crack beers and relish the experience of riding our motorcycles and camping together on the Salar de Uyuni.
Yet coincidences, changes to plans, and itineraries, often transform impossibilities into possibilities. Throw some serendipity into the mix, and here we are.
Andy’s been tracking me through my blog for the last year. We’d exchanged emails over the past month. Just a couple weeks we thought we’d miss each. Then the unfortunate accident on the railroad tracks outside Santa Cruz, which I would hardly call a serendipitous event, changed my schedule and made the possibility of meeting somewhere in Bolivia a reality.
Andy left his home in Texas in June earlier this year. He made the trek through Mexico, Central America and now was well on his way to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. His goal? To make it to the bottom of the world, Tierra del Fuego, by Christmas.
We met these Dutch bikers on our way out to the Salt. They plan to offer tours in the Netherlands for adventure motorcyclists to be.
The gas station in Colchani was closed. Amazingly we could buy gas on the Salar. Andy fills his KLR for our two-day journey on the salt.
I reflect further on how we got here.
Check this out, there are even more strangeness and coincidence. On Thanksgiving evening while still in the tiny outpost of Uyuni, I hear a loud and familiar voice yelling from down the plaza. It’s Jeremiah. The fellow Colorado motorcyclist who was with me many months ago when I crashed and crushed my leg on the road to this place. He was with me a few weeks ago when I crashed again on those railroad tracks. And here he is again. This time he’s traveling with Asian companion. Ming is from Corvallis, Oregon, he’s taking a hiatus from his job at a tech company there.
They returned from a 4-day adventure out on the Salar. Jeremiah, with his red face glowing so much it could win a ripest cherry apple contest. It looks terrible, blistered from intense exposure to high altitude sun and that massive reflector known as the Salar. It’s he who tells me Andy is here in Uyuni. So we agree to get together for Thanksgiving dinner at Minuteman Pizza in the Tonito Hotel.
Over dinner, the four of us review maps, share plans and make decisions. Ming and Jeremiah choose to journey south toward San Pedro de Atacama in Chile while Andy and I will head west and spend a few days riding and camping on the Salar.
So that’s how we got here.
The temperature drops quickly, so we add more layers as my stove cooks. The Mountain House rice and chicken might not win any culinary prize, but for this brisk night under the moonlight it was perfect. For dessert? A couple of chocolate chip cookies and another beer.
Though it took years of dreaming, a broken leg and over ten miles riding over a painful jeep trodden, wash-boarded track to reach the salt, I did not understand how I’d feel when I got to this massive chunk of salt.
But within minutes of rolling my tires on the salt flat, I finally got it. Nothing could prepare me for the otherworldly feeling I experience now. At one moment, I felt as if I was riding over a vast field covered in snow. The next, I wondered if I was cruising over a snow-frosted icy lake.
It is freakish. While I have plenty of traction, it seems I shouldn’t.
Islands in the infinite distance seem to float in the air. Above, stratus clouds stretch across an azure sky. Then in a moment, a 4×4 zooms past me. I kept my throttle rolled on. Faster and faster, the needle on my speedometer pushing higher and higher. It IS a dream.
Yet it’s real. Andy tears ahead of me. Soon his motorcycle is a tiny spec. It disappears into the sky. There is no horizon.
For the next two days, we visit remote and deserted islands. On the north end of the lake, we explore a tiny village that sits below an ominous and foreboding volcano. The colors of its exposed crater glow in the sun, bronze, silver, red and blue. It casts a dark shadow on the village which shares its name with the volcano—Tahua.
We ride off the salt and onto the rocky and dirt track. We pass llamas, and ride along an extraordinary stone wall, thousands of rocks perfectly placed. It looks solid. In the village’s middle, we park our bikes on the central plaza. Many people are milling about, but no one seems to notice us, nobody looks. It’s weird. I wonder if while riding on the salt we fell upon a spell by an extra-terrestrial that made us invisible to these townspeople
We find a small store (tienda) where we restock our beer supply. Finally someone notices. An elderly woman, wielding a long yellow umbrella stops, looks at me and then aims her umbrella, pointing at my motorcycle, Doc.
“Linda moto,” she breaks the silence announcing that she thinks my bike is pretty.
“Donde vas?” she asks where I am going.
I tell her I’m exploring the world. Different countries, cultures, geography, and landscapes.
She shakes her head. She seems set on convincing me to go no further than Bolivia.
In her village of fewer than 200 people she says, “we have many pretty girls who like gringos.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t look further and stay here in Tahua. She continues preaching while waving her umbrella around, occasionally interrupting our conversation to greet passersby, or to scold the children who’ve gathered when they get too close to the motorcycles. She won’t let me take her photo, but her image, attitude, and friendliness will stay with me.
Photo by Andy Tiegs.
What a strange sensation riding the world’s largest salt flat. (Tiegs photos)
Later that night, after trying to make sense of the sweeping stretch of stars blanketing the sky, the wind kicks in, with it and the cutting cold forces us into our respective tents.
“Good night Andy,” I dip into a meditative trance as the wind flutters the walls and roof of my tent, making it sing and dance.
The Salar de Uyuni encompasses over 7,000 amazing square miles. It was once under the salt water of Bolivia’s prehistoric Lago Minchín. All that remains of the lake today are the colossal salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni and its tiny sibling the Salar de Coipasa–just south of Uyuni where I had crossed just days earlier.
Leaving the tiny town of Tahua on the North end of the Salar. Tahua volcano hangs motionless as a backdrop.
The next morning the rustling of Andy packing up his tent wakes to a stunning sunrise that paints the surrounding mountains and volcanoes in a deep orange and umber. I slept well despite the biting chill and the constant whir of whipping winds that have nothing on this massive salt flat sitting at an elevation of over 13,000 feet.
It would take months to explore the thousands of miles that encompasses the Salar de Uyuni, so today we focus our ride on the many islands that dot the expansive flat. On one island, Isla Pescadores, I meet a camera crew from the Sucre-based television station, ATB. The gentlemen who looked after and stored my motorcycle while I recovered from my broken leg owns this station. The station is managed by Dhery who helped me service and prepare the bike for the second phase— post-broken-leg—part of my adventure. So, at the suggestion of the camera crew, I address the camera, sending greetings to the people of Sucre and a note of thanks and hello to my friends Jorge and Dhery. Both of these guys will be surprised, and pleased to get a message from where they knew was my ultimate Bolivia destination: the Salar de Uyuni.
The horizonless and vastness of the Salar makes for optical illusions and trick photography. Perspectives are as they are – no photoshop.
The central plaza in Uyuni is a pedestrian walkway spanning two blocks in the center of town. The roads are dirt or cobblestone pavers and tour agencies and restaurants touting pizza and pasta line most of the plaza. One café blasts gringo music of The Doors, Bob Marley and others while withered backpackers down cerveza’s and exchange travel stories. Enterprising tour operators stand outside the doors and try to herd in recent busloads. Windows of these agencies proudly display testimonials written in virtually every language. More than 20 or 30 tour operators set up shop along the plaza and nearby streets in Uyuni. Horror stories of tourists taking a 3 or 4 day jeep tour where inadequate food and water supplies accommodations on the altiplano are concrete floors and no blankets and vehicles are riddled with mechanical problems — all resulting in a harrowing and unpleasant experience.
Fortunately I stumbled onto the office of Ranking Bolivia SRL on Avenida Potosi just a couple blocks from the main plaza. Here Weirmor Rameos, a well dressed and groomed man in his late 20’s sits behind a desk with a couple computers. The walls of the office are lined with amazing photos of Bolivia’s primary tourists attractions while the floor is covered in salt. A couple tables and chairs made out of 12″ thick salt blocks sit nearby a wall of bookcases with tourist information books in nearly every language.
Weimer explains that up until about 10 months ago the funding for this free service office was provided by an NGO supported with American and European funds through the Bolivian government. But the money ran out and now to support the office they have opened a cafe and bar – Kactus – and revenue from this source supports the operation. Tourists voluntarily complete surveys of tour operators, restaurants and hotels. Armed with his mouse and proficient Microsoft Access database skill-set, Weimor browsed the data of the tour operators giving me numerous ways to view the data. How many American’s gave this operator bad reviews for food, how many Canadians took this tour and how many Israelis enjoyed this tour. Rankings were based on food, accommodations, guide and overall experience. An ambitious project and if they continue hopefully will increase awareness, competition and improve overall service for visitors to this out of the way traveler’s mecca.
I chose Oasis tours for a couple reasons. They had good rankings and the ratings were based on a large number of surveys. Some other operators were ranked higher but the number of completed surveys were low. I ended up in a Toyota Land Cruiser with 3 British guys in the their early-to-mid twenties and two Swiss girls in their mid-twenties. This group of five had met somewhere in Bolivia and have been traveling together for a couple weeks. As the lone “old” guy in the group they quickly divulged how this 40-something moto-traveler fit in and often spoke in what they felt a youthful language. We spent the nights playing UNO for ours until we were all taught a Swiss card game called CAMS.
(l) solid salt blocks taken from the Salar de Uyuni sit waiting to be processed into the Salt you and I are accustomed to. (r) the infamous Salt Hotel where everything is made out of salt – furniture and all.
Sadly, none of the salt processed from the Salar is exported.
I had packed a bagful of snacks, water and a couple of bottles of Bolivian wine. We spent two nights together. The first in a small town called San Pedro where we four guys shared a room and the girls another. Outside Laguna Colorada in a National Park all six of us shared a large dorm style room. In the “jeep” We alternated days of riding in the back with the swiss girls taking the middle seats. Our driver and guide, Domingo, sported a Los Angeles baseball cap and a handful of missing teeth had been on the job for just over three months. Speaking only in Spanish he pointed out the sites and gave us basic information on the geology and geography of the area. Prior to running tours for Oasis, he worked the mines just over the border in Chile where wages are dramatically higher. Many Bolivian men from the altiplano surrounding Uyuni take jobs for 8-9 months and then return to their families in Bolivia for harvesting crops and firewood for the year. Though only 50 years old the harsh years on the altiplano and working the mines painted a picture of a much older man and quite a contrast to the 19 year old girl who accompanied us on the tour as our cook. The two would giggle and tease each other at times but soon all of us in the jeep learned that the pathetic chef would be our nemesis for the three long days we’d be riding the bad roads and enduring the harsh climate of the high altiplano.
On the fringe of the Salar is the Cemmentario de trens where old locomoatives and railraod cars from the 30’s and beyond.
Looks like they just rolled them in here and left them to rust and bake in the altiplano sun.
And to say that there were roads would be taking perhaps extensive liberties in describing the scene. There were tracks, at best. While the Salar itself didn’t provide much a problem for our jeep or any car or motorcycle, it was crossing the second Salar just south of the Uyuni where I realized and was rather thankful I decided to take the journey by “jeep”, instead of on Doc. Not that the terrain was excessively difficult or technical, it was just desolate and with long expanses of sandy desert, sharp pointed and large-sized boulders, wet sand, mud and salt and forks in the trails that only an experienced driver could successfully navigate without getting lost or stranded. The sand would wrack concentration and possibly detract from enjoying the magnificent vistas and the slower speed necessary to travel safely by moto would take an additional two days forcing camping where temperatures could easily fall below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Not that I’m opposed to this, but with a weak ankle, desire to comfortably enjoy this part of Bolivia and a passion to engage with people of different cultures and upbringings easily swayed my decision to experience Bolivia in yet still another different or unique fashion.
All of my accompanying travelers were equipped with iPods — which not only brought music to my ears but reinforced my confidence in the company and the common stock I still held. Audrey, the Swiss girl who barely spoke English carried small Altec-Lansing InMotion portable stereo speakers for iPods. Meanwhile, our 19 year old cook would play the same warped tape over and over again, singing along until all of us were ready to take numbers to see who’d have the opportunity to toss it out the window. It was time for the InMotion speakers and different music. When our music played, she’d turn hers up louder. Even before this incident her attitude was nasty. The first day she never smiled and only begrudgingly seemed a desire or will to serve us, often just shrugging when questions were presented to her. While the food was good, there was barely enough especially given the healthy appetite of 3 athletic British men. When asked for more, her attitude grew and her head shook. Mike, one of my British compadres tuned to me and sadly revealed that this woman was making the tour a miserable experience.
Domingo, our driver and guide, was quite the contrast. Always smiling and when confronted by the aggressive Swiss girls about the attitude of our cook, he did his best to turn her around. At one point during one of our overnight stops it appeared he might have been somewhat successful. She joked and giggled with me and tried to convince me to help her wash the dishes. She was Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Finally, the Swiss girls reasoned the girl must have a few marbles loose — slightly retarded. Domingo agreed. We’d often complain to other tour groups who shared our accommodation or lunch stops about our lack of food. The other groups would generously pass over their left-overs. We never had left overs.
Soon the music competition stopped and while the food supply didn’t change her attitude improved, only to dip into nasty, angry and unfriendly and the weirdest times. The girl had never been trained. And she obviously didn’t want to be there — other than to play and sing-along to the same tape for 13 times a day. Another Oasis jeep group had a marvelous cook and what appeared to be much better and more voluminous amounts of food. This situation soon turned to be a joke, a rallying cry that bonded our group together as we traversed some of the most desolate and yet diverse terrain I’d ever experienced.
Our journey started in Uyuni and headed to the Salar where we spent most of the day exploring the Salar — including the Salt Hotel — a hotel where everything was made of salt, including beds, chairs, tables and building. Then to the Isla Pescadores – Fish Island — where slope of cacti, some more than 1,000 years old provided a scenic backdrop and stark contrast to the blazing white vastness of the salt flat. Approaching this island and others as we traveled the Salar toyed with our minds and perception. Because the Salar is so flat and large, the curvature of the earth causes the islands to slowly rise out of the horizon — appearing to float in the sky. Even more, the island at once appears to be just minutes away, yet after an hour of driving you realize it’s just as far as it was and hour earlier. Two hours later we are on the island and hiking the cactus field while our imbecile of a cook prepares our lunch.
For the next two days we journeyed overland through the Andean altiplano passing lakes at 15,000 feet, desolate deserts where we wouldn’t see a stitch of vegetation for hours and then through towering edifices of coral, volcanic rock and petrified trees. Dipping into one valley known as the valley of Dali – after surrealist Salvador Dali – we gazed upon an otherwise vacant expanse of dry desert where rocks seemed placed by the painter himself at one end of the valley and then at the other a towering volcano with colors reminiscent of the painted desert in Arizona. A breakfast stop allowed us an opportunity to don our swimming trunks and wade in thermal mineral springs while distant flamingoes grazed for food. Another desert reminded me of California’s great Mojave. Flamingoes grazed nearly every lake we passed where the water comprises of high mineral content and with their necks craned and bills in the water they filter the minerals and spartan plant life that thrives on such. It’s the mineral content that gives them their unique pink color.
At 4am the morning of our third day we wake to journey to 16,000 feet in elevation where geysers sit and bellow sulphur tainted and powerful steam as the sun rises creating a wild moody and dreamlike scene. Then descending and rising again to the Laguna Verde, a strangely turquoise green lake where another huge volcano towers above framing an unreal scene only described as out of this world. Here we’re just an hour or so from the Chilean border where I bid farewell to my fellow British and Swiss travelers. E-mail addresses and hugs are exchanged as they catch a transfer to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Two other travelers whom I met days earlier in Uyuni, Roy and his wife Danielle. join me for the return trip to Uyuni. Roy originally from Texas recently completed his medical doctor internship and soon to enter his own neurological practice, while his wife a Macintosh fanatic and medical illustrator spent our final day cruising through more indescribable landscapes and small villages. Unfortunately at this time we were sans iPod and accompanying speakers and were ordained to listed to that same damn tape at list six more times as we trudged across deserts, through volcanic zones, lava flows, across rivers until finally reaching the tiny town of Alota where we met a more or less major dirt and gravel road that would take us to San Cristobol and then onward back to Uyuni.
It’s important to make note of this road to Uyuni for the fact that is was entirely financed and built by an American company who had built it along with a slew of other infrastructure improvements to gain access to the Chilean border for trucks transporting product and equipment to and from what is the second largest mine in the world — it could also provide me with an alternative route to Chile and the great Atacama desert. Fact is, this road didn’t exist two years ago. Tracking the road from the city of San Cristobol are huge towers bringing high-voltage power to the town and its mines while two major bridges span as many rivers which previously were physically impossible to pass for months during the rainy season. Along the road several signs announce traditional Bolivian villages which also until two years ago were all but isolated from Uyuni and the rest of Bolivia during the lengthy rainy season. But foreign investment not only brought infrastructure improvement but injected needed cash into these towns which now had a viable source of income from a growing tourist trade and 3,500 jobs made available by the mining company. Artisan crafts, new buildings, playgrounds and a completely restored colonial church were among the benefits brought to these towns. While the mine has been in operation for less than two years, a new processing plant has yet to open. The company also built an airstrip to facilitate transporting engineers, executives and government personnel in and out of the area.
Bolivia has joined my list of favorite countries on my journey which include Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia — while I know this is unfair for me and you as every place I’ve traveled surely has earned some special place in my heart. But Bolivia is special. And while less than 10% of Bolivia’s roads are paved and infrastructure is in an uncanny state of disrepair, it’s encouraging to see foreign investment not only take, but also given to a country that has a staggering amount of potential. While I can’t speak to the working conditions in this new mine, but given the effort provided by the company to improve infrastructure, living conditions and culture, I can only hope it serves as an example worldwide to the way to create a balance where humanity and industry can work somewhat in harmony. Though with Bolivia’s current socialist agenda and with its current president aligning himself with such a dysfunctional clan of world leaders including Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro while seizing and nationalizing its gas and perhaps soon its mining operations, just might threaten the future of foreign investment in this great country. And that would be a shame.
– – – – – – – – – – – – There are so many good pictures, I’ve posted the following additional thumbnails- – – – – – – – – – – –
You should really click and see the big versions just to get a feel of this wild terrain I spent three days exploring:
San Cristobol chuch casts its shadows while Ollague Volcano smokes on the horizon.
Arriving in Uyuni at 3am with a motorcycle and more than a few handfuls of luggage was slightly problematic for me. First, while all the backpackers aboard the train claimed their luggage from the concrete platform at the Uyuni station, I had to wait for Doc to be unloaded from the cargo car. I had split of my luggage somewhat strategically. The two Jesse bags and the BMW top case joined Doc in the cargo car while my two small dry-bag duffels and the large black duffel with my riding gear were checked with normal baggage. So with a pile of duffel bags I waited for Doc.
It was just about 20 hours earlier I awoke early to head to the station in Oruro so I could secure space for me and Doc on the 7pm train to Uyuni and south. According to the sign at the station I saw yesterday, availability for the Sunday train to Uyuni was limited. There were no more executive class tickets and only 9 tickets left for Salon class and none for the bottom of the barrel cattle car. I figured getting to the ticket office just before it opened at 8:15am would be a good plan and ensure I get a ticket.
You can imagine the surprise and disappointment when I found more than 75 people and standing room only in the ticket office. The security police handed me a number: 23. I stood in the back of the room and waiting my turn. The next number called: 62. Good god. Nervously tapping my foot I tried to hear which tickets were sold, fearing the train to Uyuni would sell out. Fortunately, an hour and a half later I was able to purchase an executive class ticket but I would have to bring Doc to the cargo “office” in order to secure space for my motorcycle. Apparently, most of the people in the station were locals purchasing tickets for Navidad — the upcoming holiday season.
So I had to do it. Exactly two weeks since the date of my accident, it was time to don my helmet and riding gear and make the long 7 block ride to the train station. My ankle still bothered me and I still walked with a nagging limp. Rubbing analgesic cream on it a few times a day numbed the pain while I had forgone the hassle of wrapping the ankle and promised myself to mobilize very carefully. I wasn’t so much afraid of riding the bike, nor climbing the 30 degree incline to exit the garage. But a barely three foot landing platform that rolled onto the street presented a slightly different problem. You see the street was in disrepair. A huge exposed ditch created a foot and a half long chasm from garage to street. It was Sunday and there was no one who could bridge the gap. Under normal circumstances this would be easy. But I am unable to plant my feet flatly on the ground. So the only way to take tackle this small hurdle would be simply to climb the ramp and at speed simply roll onto the street. My fear was not riding but the unfortunate possibility I might have to dab my foot and thus injure it further. But suffice to say it was not as much of challenge as it was to get the bike weighed at the train station’s cargo office.
And what a scene at the cargo office. A line of about 10 people, 2 taxis, a car and a truck queued up with the wildest collection of cargo I’d seen: mattresses, chairs, an entertainment center, several tables, sacks of grain, hundreds of feet of hose and tubing, countless colorful woven bags with who knows what, about 12 bicycles, a couple small 125cc motorcycles, a refrigerator and more. Nothing was boxed, crated or otherwise packaged. The foreman waved Doc and I in front of the line as another worker grabbed a 12 foot 2 by 4 and laid it down the 3 steps into the office. Normally it could be easy to simply ride down these steps. But a huge scale blocked the path. First we’d the bike part way down the steps, then jockey the scale around a bit and position the 2 by 4 up onto the scale. This took 3 of us. Then we slid the 2 x 4 with bike parlously balanced a few more inches onto the scale. Then two men lifted the 2 by 4 from the rear while another held the handlebars so they could get a somewhat accurate reading of the weight: 230 kilos. This is without any of my luggage. At one point they asked me to drain the gas tank, but somehow I forgot.
I paid the 275 Bs ($34.36) for the bike and combined with the 86 Bs ($10.75) the journey would cost me about $46. Later when I returned with my Jesse bags and top case, I simply was escorted to the cargo train and handed the luggage to Jose who secured them near the motorcycle. I was slightly miffed that they didn’t wait for me to load Doc on the train. Earlier Jose told me to get to the station by 4pm if I wanted to assist in loading and securing Doc on the car. Earlier I had examined the empty cargo train and discovered there was no place to secure tie-downs. The inside of the car was paneled with 2 x 6 boards or simply exposed sheet metal and framework. But nowhere to tie down. One of the 2 x 6’s had rotted and I figured I could thread a tie down through the gap and thus secure Doc against the wall of the train. I explained this plan to Jose and promised to be there with tie towns to help. But when I arrived and found the train half-loaded with doc wedged between various cargo and a stack of styrofoam blocks sitting on its seat, I was frustrated and concerned. Jose told me not to worry and grabbed doc by the handlebars and tried to rock it back and forth. It was secure. Though I’d heard about the rough tracks and worried things could break loose. Again, Jose asked me to trust him. What else could I do?
The cargo car in foreground and the passenger cars in the background in Oruro.
Jose assured me my bike would be okay. I guess he didn’t give the styrofoam client the same assurance.
So I had hours to wait until boarding. A quick check at the internet cafe and a few messages from jeremiah. Seems after he left me in Santa Cruz he had a string of bad luck. First, breaking down in the middle of nowhere and second getting ripped off in Sucre. He had spent days in Sucre trying to track down his stolen items but now was in Uyuni. There was a chance we’d meet there.
By the time Doc was off the train more than 7 hours later small granules of styrofoam littered the seat and many statically stuck to the plastic “tank” covers. Oh well. All else appeared okay. I fired up the bike and road it down the train platform. It was now 3:30am. The station was deserted except for a few lone passengers and cargo still loading the 3:30am train to Calama Chile. Otherwise the station was a ghost town. The parking lot was void of taxis. My plan was to load all my gear in a taxi and ride the bike to the Totino Hotel. Where do you find a taxi at 3:30am in Uyuni – a desolate altiplano desert town the thrives due to its proximity to the Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt flat in the world? Thankfully the two police officers came to my aid. After explaining my inability to move quickly due to my ankle, one of the officers jetted on foot into town and 15 minutes later showed up with a pathetic excuse for a taxi.
We loaded all my gear into the rotting vehicle, which stalled at least 3 times on the way to the hotel — the third in which he stopped. Yes. This driver had me riding Doc through the simple and small grid of Uyuni’s cobblestone and dusty dirt streets. Even after the police told the driver how to get to my hotel, the driver had to stop two aimless 4am street wanderers until he found the hotel — only 3 blocks from the station! I was snug between the covers with Doc securely parked behind locked doors by 4:30am.
Unloading Doc at the Uyuni train station; sitting on the platform waiting for a taxi.
All was good until about 8am when I was awaken and asked to move the bike. I guess sleep would have to be relegated to walking (limping) around town.
I spent the day considering my options. My priority was to get out on the Salar and ride the salt flat and camp under the stars. But I wanted to see the altiplano lakes of Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorado and the amazing volcanoes and geologic wonders of the desolate route southwest of the Salar. I had considered riding this on my bike before the accident. With safety, comfort and security as my beacons, I decided to simply join the others who make the pilgrimage to Uyuni and take a 3 day jeep tour only to return on Thanksgiving and gear up Doc for a weekend ride and camping trip onto the Salar.
The fist time I came through Oruro the experience was miserable. With no signage nor orientation from the main road to La Paz, we found ourselves running circles trying to find something to eat. Then we get hammered by the most fierce hail storm I’d ever experienced. The food we did find was miserable and I just had a bad feeling about the place.
This time Oruro surprised me. And it pissed me off.
So with the bike safely parked in the garage of the Gran Hotel Sucre in Oruro I set about to secure my belongings in my room and take a long needed shower and quick nap. Finding a decent restaurant was easy and with a belly full of great food and a beer to settle the nerves I hit the sack.
Consider this: my motorcycle was loaded onto three different trucks and took the hammering of nearly 36 hours of brutal roads in the back of a huge Volvo truck. Getting the bike off the last matchbox truck was clearly a test of patience, stamina and incredible luck. Little did I know that Bolivia would hit me again.
When the phone rang just before 8-am the next morning (Friday) I thought they were waking me up so I didn’t miss breakfast. The good folks at the Hotel Colonia Real in Sucre did this like clockwork. Even if I didn’t want breakfast I still had to make an appearance. But at the ironically named Hotel Sucre in Oruro the news was much worse.
The guy unleashed in rapid fashion a string of sentences of which I understood only a few. He was talking about my motorcycle in the garage. Perhaps, I thought, they wanted me to move it to make more room for cars. No that’s not it. He kept repeating a word “caido” which to me sounded like quedo (I stay). I asked him several times what he meant by “caido”. But nothing was coming through. Then he stumbled and said “en el piso”. Then it hit me. Somehow my motorcycle fell. At the reception desk I demanded more information. They told me something was broken. So I followed the bell boy across the street where he unlocked the garage and we wandered through the dark maze of rocks, sand, broken concrete, rebar and cement mixers till we came to the garage. My bike had been put back on the center stand. Yesterday I had tucked it into a corner of the garage and left it on its side kick-stand. All the luggage, Jjesse bags and such were in my room. All along I thought for sure my bike was safe.
But no. Even though it made the incredible journey from Santa Cruz in three separate trucks without harm, it somehow gets knocked over in the garage of my hotel. And the side kick-stand snapped off and lay beneath my bike with it’s springs and attachment plate. I was furious. This was too much. I’ve been pushed to the max. I’ve been in Bolivia a month and ever fucking time I turn around I get slammed. The staff told me the bike fell in the middle of the night. That the bell boy found it on the ground this morning. Bullshit.
I explained that I have ridden that motorcycle 25,000 miles and over 8 months and not once has the kick-stand failed me. Though I have to admit that the crew that moved my bike from Tica Tica transported it on its kick-stand on a lettuce truck through dirt and rutted roads till it gave way and broke leaving me with snapped signal light posts and a broken windshield. But here in Oruro the bike was simply parked on the dirt driveway of the hotel garage. There was no way the bike would simply tip over with force to snap and break the kick-stand. Impossible.
I asked to speak to the hotel owner. I wanted to know who was responsible; who was in the garage in the last 12 hours? They are building a huge addition to the hotel so lots of construction workers are in and out of the garage. Someone must have backed into the bike. Yesterday when we performed the amazing remove bike from matchbox truck ritual, I had wanted to park in a different spot but I was asked to move the bike. I parked the bike where the bell boy told me would be the most secure. As always, the bike was covered so there was no reflective material. It easily could have been just a black blob in the dark. I understand this. It’s unfortunate, but someone backed into it. And the sound of that 500 pound beast hitting the ground could not be ignored. But no one was coming clean.
So as any moto traveler can attest I moved into survival and problem solving mode. I would have to weld back the kick-stand. I had a kick-stand problem in Colombia when the Jesse extender (the F650GS kick-stand is inadequately short; Jesse Luggage makes an extender so the bike has a less severe lean when resting on the side stand) had become loose due to vibration and fell off. I quickly remedied this situation by finding a welder to weld a new piece and foot. The welder in Colombia did all this while I was sitting on the bike. But before he started to weld the piece to the bike he had me start the engine and attach a ground wire to the frame. This was to prevent any damage to the bike’s electrical system.
With this memory nestled in my mind, I was determined to avert potential problems and remove the remaining stub of the kick-stand. Great idea. But practically impossible with my tools. The kick stand is set with heavy duty loc-tite and removing it required heat and much more leverage. I asked the owner of the hotel if he knew a motorcycle mechanic. The staff moved into action. An hour later a welder shows up. A welder? I asked for a motorcycle mechanic. But no, this old salt shows up with a handful of welding rods and a portable arc welding machine. But it’s even more comical. It’s impossibly dark in the cavernous garage. Only two small fluorescent lights provide a dim glow at the far end of the garage. This is no problem the maintenance guy from the hotel declares and then returns with a single incandescent light bulb with a european plug. But there’s no outlet. Maintenance man to the rescue as he lays about 60 feet of “extension” cord near the bike. But there’s no receptacle for the plug on his extension cord. It’s simply two bare wires. He proceeds to wrap the bare wires around the plug for the light and while the welder and I go about inspecting the job at hand he simply holds the bare wires to the plug and thereby provides us some sort of illumination.
Then the welder tries to loosen the nut securing the kick-stand to the bike. I ask him to sit still while I go see if we can’t find a mechanic with more adequate tools. When I come back the old man is still trying to crack the nut. But he’s messing with the safety switch. Or so it appears. I push him away and ask him to wait. No word on a mechanic. After time passes and much conversation the welder insists he can weld my kick-stand back stronger than new without removing the piece in question. I ask again about a motorcycle mechanic but am assured this is a simple welding job. So I disconnect the battery and the old salt fires up his machine.
Fifteen minutes later the side-stand is welded, springs attached and moving just as new. After I reconnect the battery and re-install all the plastic parts I try to start the bike. Nothing. It’s not cold. As I click the key-switch I hear a couple clicks instead of the usual hum of the fuel pump. This concerns me. When I turn the ignition switch on, one of the warning lights fails to glow. I try starting again. The welder starts poking his hands around. You’re not a motorcycle mechanic, I’m thinking to myself. I ask him to just step back and let me figure this out. Still nothing. There’s no spark. Or no fuel. I’m not sure. But the bike is dead. I’m am so livid at this point my temper takes over and I kick a pile of stones clear to the other side of the garage. This can’t be happening. Yesterday the bike started with a half second push of the ignition. Now I’m dead. Stuck in Oruro.
There are two things that might be wrong here. One, the safety switch for the kick-stand is malfunctioning and all electronics (fuel and ignition) are disabled. Or two, when the welder fired up his torch and even with the battery disconnected the computer “brain” for the BMW F650GS Dakar fried. Scenario one was a bit disconcerting but I had the foresight to carry a replacement safety switch in my spare parts. Scenario two scared me. The cost of a new “brain” had to be hundreds of dollars. Plus, it would cost me more time in Oruro and shipping charges to get it here. A call to Mark at BMW Santa Cruz County confirmed my notion: we had to determine if the switch was good before setting into panic. So instead, I set out to find a motorcycle mechanic who could help me troubleshoot this problem. Forget the people at the hotel. I was referred to a motorcycle parts store. When the taxi arrived it was closed. For the most part, the entire country of Bolivia shuts down between 1pm and 3pm. Each city has different hours, but lunch is a big thing. And virtually no business is done between these hours.
I ask the taxi if he knows a motorcycle mechanic. No, but he thinks he knows where I could find one. Sure enough he drops me at a storefront where a line of motorcycles in various stages of repair or death sit. But the shop is closed. Next door the mechanic working on a car assures me the moto mechanic will be back by 2pm. By ten after two Edwin shows up. I suggest that the hotel garage is too dark to work and perhaps he could find a truck to bring the motorcycle to his shop. His assistant points to one of the bikes in the stack, a Honda XR250. They want to tow my motorcycle back to the shop using the Honda. Why not.
At 3pm they show up at my hotel with a large tow strap and within minutes the bike is on its way to Servicross Antaco – the ONLY motorcycle repair place in town. A crowd gathers as my motorcycle is pushed into the cramped ten by twenty foot workshop. I crack a back door in the shop and find a pile of tires, batteries, wheels, frames, handlebars and more. Ah. The junkyard. Throughout the shop parts and pieces of bikes, scooters, generators are crammed into every conceivable crevice. The brick-layed floor is missing a few and the lighting is only marginally better than the garage. But we jump into action. After removing the spark plug we find there’s no spark. Next step, the safety switch. With a wrench in his hand he starts to remove parts necessary to get at the switch. Then he spots the new weld on the kick-stand.
Speaking in Spanish he asks me if I removed the kick-stand before welding. I shake my head and say no. He shakes his head and says “oh no.” I explain that I completed disconnected the battery. He asks if I disconnected the connector to the computer “brain”. Again, I shake my head. And again, he shakes his head. Oh no.
Things are looking bleak. He explains that disconnecting the battery isn’t enough. That the best thing would have been to find him earlier and remove the kick-stand, or simply disconnect the massive computer connector. He was convinced that welding the bike fried my computer.
With the help of an electrical specialist form the shop next door they try jumping the kick-stand switch. Still no spark. Everyone is shaking their heads. The welder was a bad idea. There is no true test to see if the “computer” fried, but a clear indication would be any electrical burning aroma. So we remove the computer brain from the bike and take turns sniffing the circuit board. There’s no sign of burning. Everything looks clean. But a microprocessor, in this case my bike has a Motorola, could fry with little indication. A BMW dealer would have a computer that could easily determine any problem. But the nearest dealer is perhaps 3,000 miles or more away.
I begin thinking my options. It’s Friday so finding a BMW computer part in stock could be tough, but shipping on Friday is the same as early Saturday. Even so, I’d be lucky to get the part by the following Thursday or Friday. I suggest that we install my replacement safety switch and harness. The old switch looks bad – worn. Then we try again with the new switch. Still no spark. At this point I want to cry. Instead, I note the part number of the computer brain and start to put all the pieces of Doc back together. Doc would have to be towed back to the hotel until the package arrives.
We also fix the headlight which had been pushed in most likely when the bell boy and construction workers put my bike on its center stand. Using epoxy we try to fix a signal light post. For me, my heart sank deeper than ever before. I looked up and grey clouds, thunder and lightening moved across the sky. Things weren’t getting better. Bolivia smacked me with another kidney punch. I was hurting.
Edwin replaced the spark plug. I suggested we check the second plug. Even though Doc is a single cylinder “thumper”, the bike has two spark plugs. The idea is a hotter spark and therefore smoother running single cylinder engine. He yanks the plug out. Same thing. Then he re-seats everything. He asks me to try starting it again. With a push of the starter Doc fires up for a brief second. Then putts out. Wait. Did I hear that? Did you? Shit. It’s working. Edwin’s assistant grabs the throttle and puts his thumb on the starter and Doc shows signs of waking up. They try again. I take over explaining that there is a procedure for starting up these bikes: wait for all warning lights to go off, then start. No need to gas the throttle, it won’t help. Within seconds I have Doc thumping nicely and the engine sound is music to my ears. Handshakes go around the small shop. Doc is back.
Edwin’s assistant and the neighbor electrical magnate.
What was the problem? I’m convinced the safety switch was bad and until Edwin installed the new one, there was going to be no starting. Why didn’t jumping the switch work? I don’t know except that instead of by passing the entire harness they simply tried to force the switch open and closed. Perhaps there was a short in the cable. We didn’t check that. But since I had the new switch and I had seen the welder messing with this as he tried to pry the kick-stand bolt loose, the odds were for the switch. Why didn’t we get spark after the new switch was installed? This will remain a great mystery. But whatever it was, I’m running again and can kiss Oruro goodbye.
Back at the hotel I try to negotiate a discount because I truly believe that someone on the construction crew caused me the pain and suffering of repairing a bike that beforehand was perfect. I had to pay the welder and Edwin and his assistant. The owner said if I moved to a different room he would give me a break. Give me a break! Move? With all this shit and a bad ankle? Well they helped me move and I’m saving a couple bucks.
Yesterday (Saturday) I tried to go to the train station to arrange a ticket for me and Doc — express to Uyuni. But they were closed. But just around the corner of the train station I heard the thumping sounds of drums and staccato blasts of trumpets. I follow the sounds to find a festival parade featuring men, women in children in traditional altiplano dress. Oruro thinks itself as the folklore capital of Bolivia. Spending time watching this celebration convinced me.
So this morning I figured I’d get to the station just before they opened at 8:15 to secure my space. When I walked in every seat was full and they were calling numbers. The police officer gave me number 23. The last number called was 61. So I had to wait an hour and 62 numbers. Worried that the train would sell out or not have enough space for Doc, I tapped the foot of my bad ankle nervously as the minutes ticked. But patience paid off and my space was secure. As for Doc, I would have to bring the motorcycle to the cargo door and make arrangements there.
So my first time on Doc since Sunday November 5 I was a bit nervous. Especially since the construction around the hotel left a huge gap between the garage ramp and the road. A few large and lose stones were placed in the gap. But I managed to get up and over and take the short 7 block ride to the train station. Doc had to be weighed, which was another 2 x 4 experience as we had to balance doc on the board while it sat on the scale. Then I inspected the train. There’s no place to attach tie downs. I do find one wall where planks are nailed and a few are missing. I suggest that we can get a tie down around the board and pull doc snug against the wall of the train car. Pedro Gonzales the 40-something chief of the cargo crew assures me that my bike will be fine. I assure him it will be if we secure the bike to the only place in the train car possible. He mumbles that since the train has 5 stops, cargo has to be placed by destination. I assure him that my bike must be tied down.
I’ll be heading back to the train station in a few hours to watch and assist as they begin loading cargo. The cost for shipping my bike to Uyuni, about a 7 hour train ride, is 270 Bs, or about $33.75. They’ll probably hit me up for more Bolivianos for my Jesse bags, top box and large duffel holding my riding gear and helmet. We’ll see.
Traveling to Oruro, Bolivia by truck, Allan Karl along with his BMW Motorcycle (Doc) try to make time while his ankle and knee mend. His driver Miguel and the owner of the truck confront difficulties in Cochabamba where protesters of have blocked the main highway. Listen to the commotion as Allan tries to get to the bottom of the reason behind the blockage. This is bi-lingual as the interviews are again in Spanish.
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