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.