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)
Camping in a third world country always is an interesting proposition. You could be seemingly miles from anywhere and any population yet somehow someone shows up bringing a huge dose of curiosity. Last night while setting camp we were visited by three passersby and their eagerly aggressive and loud dogs. After a quick PodCast recording, I feel asleep. My senses awakened me twice in the middle of the night to the sound of footsteps. Nobody bothered us. Packing up the next morning a local campesino man, Marco, paid us a visit. Clad in worn sandals, a fading sombrero and sporting a machete and pack made of animal skin and fur, he spoke good Spanish in an area where perhaps most of the villagers speak Quechua — and indigenous language the ex-coca farmer and current president Evo Morales is requiring all school children to learn.
I’ve been in Bolivia for two weeks. And while questions of my origin and country are commonplace, the conversation never gets too heavy — that is, into issues of politics, religion or humanitarianism. But here I am stuck between two water crossings 50 miles from the closest town that might have one hotel, a mile outside a town that has no telephone, internet and where only a few privileged have electricity and Marco asks about the war in Iraq. I’m stuffing my tent back into its bag and he enquires as to what I might find to be a solution. This gets complicated with my poor but developing Spanish language skills. This question never came up in metropolitan Sucre, buthere in the middle of nowhere, Marco manages to blow my mind.
Gas stations are difficult to find. Little ladies sit in darkness surrounded by 55 gallon drums. Anyone got a light?
The trucks on the road spew gravel, dust and sand. Getting behind one of these on a series of switchbacks taxes patience and concentration.
I managed the third water crossing unscathed and continued down the road. It was 7am. According to my calculations we had 52 miles until we hit the major paved road. But as I unfortunately learned five hours and 52 long miles later, this was simply the town that had the hotel. We still had another nearly 20 miles to go.
Did you read that? Verdad. We managed to track 52 miles in just over 5 hours. Making a good clip you’d surmise, huh? Well with every mile closer we moved toward pavement and Santa Cruz the road turned into fine sand and suffocating dust. We certainly moved faster than the trucks traveling this by way. But the aggressive, fearless and faceless drivers in cars would blast by leaving us in visually unpenetrable dust — and this says nothing for the grit in our teeth and the asphyxiation of our lungs.
The road climbed up and over, descending and ascending in and out of valleys. The agriculture was richer but the roads got tougher with increasingly looser sand that deepend between the truck and car tracks and piled up high on the shoulders. The switchback turns were worse. With deep and loose sand that played tricks, our tires just squirreled uncontrollably as we white knuckled around the turn. We beseeched our bikes didn’t slip and fall, or worse, fail to make the turn for fear of falling only to slip off the slide of cliffs usually hundreds of feet high.
To keep my bike upright meant intense concentration following a sure and steady line — intensely working hard to inhibit any potential target fixation on those huge dropping cliffs. But blazing cars would often leave me in a cloud of dust where I couldn’t see the road. I’d either have to stop or push on hoping i didn’t accidetally dive into a deeper pile of sand or run into a car coming the opposite direction. At one point I found myself climbing a steep sandy incline in a cloud of dusty. I couldn’t see anything. As the dust settled I found myself precariously close to a car; nearby was Jeremiah stopped and shaken. A lunatic rider had tried to pass the car I barely missed nearly running into Jeremiah.
The sun drove the temperature to nearly 100 degrees by 9am. Combined with the dust this heat dehydrated me at frequent intrevals. Fortunately I was carrying sufficient water. Last night’s sleep wasn’t adequate enough for the stamina and concentration for this type of riding. By the time we rode into Saipina – the place I thought the pavement would begin – I was exhausted. And upon learning we had another 20 miles of this I was heartbroken. Jeremiah eagerly downed a coke, a few pieces of bread and contemplated an empanada.
“Allan you’ve got to eat something,” he quipped.
“I’m too tired.” I moaned. Complained. And nearly cried. If it wasn’t bad enough to be faced with muddy roads on day one of my return to the road, tthis second day facing mile after mile of dust and varying depths of slippery and squirrely sand did me in. I was besides myself. With all the churches in this country I faced a willingness to convert and pray for the almighty pavement.
I downed half a coke and gave the other half to young boys who were oogling our bikes.
Despite the dust, trucks and mental overhead negotiating a tough roud, the vistas are outstanding.
The vistas were stunning, for sure. We’d passed through red rock canyons that reminded me of Utah, dry hills with tall cactii reminiscent of the central highlands of the Sierra Madre outside Durango, Mexico and fertile irrigated valleys like Northern California. Vistas aside. The ride was so taxing it became nearly impossible to enjoy. At one point I got stuck behind a huge dust spewing truck that made it impossible to see while forcing me to slow to a crawl. I had to pass. This was a hard decision. Knowing the unpredictable mounds of sand that trace back and forth over these roads I’d risk plowing into a plile that could potentially washout my front tire and send me down for a sandy faceplant. But I had to get out of the dust. I pushed forward. Sure enough the sand got me. My bike squirreled back and forth like a sidewinder whisking through the desert. But I kept it up and quickly but treacherously passed the annoying truck and its wake of dust. But to these hands and legs and this fragile and fearful mind it felt for sure I’d fall. And if I did, the picture wouldn’t be pretty: imagine 18 wheels about as tall as my motorcycle churning down the dustry trail with my bike and body in tow.
When we got to the pavement I was in heaven — sort of. My tires were way under inflated for tarmac. Jeremiah rendined me that we had only 15 miles of pavement until the turn-off for Vallegrande — which would take us another 30 miles down a dusty, dirt road. It was 1:30pm — six and a half hours since we left camp this morning. We’d traveled about 70 miles.
Just off the main Plaza and across from the Catedral in downtown Sucre a street is lined with cafés and bars. Whether mototravelers, backpackers or tourists on guided jaunts, if you stop in Sucre you will find yourself here. Perhaps the most popular among all groups – including locals – is Joy Ride Cafe. Founded in 2001 by Dutch-born Gert van der Meijden, Joy Ride is Sucre’s central meeting point for travelers. They offer mountain bike tours, paragliding, guide tours and more. Gert has been in Bolivia for more than seven years and as such is extremely familiar with Sucre and the entire country. I met with Gert several times over the two weeks I spent in Sucre and had the opportunity to interview him for a WorldRider PodCast edition. You can download the PodCast here or by click the icon. For those of you subscribing to my PodCasts in iTunes, it should be available for download.
Listen to the PodCast by clicking the PodCast logo below.
Every night I stopped by Joy Ride Cafe the place was packed. A fine tuned bar and restaurant offering local recipes as well as those traditional “gringo” meals for the less adventurerous world diner. A very successful business with three levels, the first a traditional bar with a unique loft, the second a courtyard patio with natual lighting, and the top floor is a tony lounge where on certain days of the week travelers lounge in giant bean bag cheers sipping beer or exotic drinks to large screen feature films.
You’d think Gert had it all here. But I learnd is ready to take on a new challenge. Not that Bolivia doesn’t interest him anymore, but he’s ready to move on. That’s why he’s looking to sell Joy Ride Cafe. Though not officially on the market, he revealed his desires during our meetings. I’m sure some ambitious world traveler would find the prime real estate and very successful business an interesting proposition.
Check out the latest PodCast from WorldRider. This edition features an interview with a lovely local college student in Sucre and comments from my favorite restaurant in Sucre, El Chaqueno.
If you don’t speak or understand Spanish, just skip along to the second half. This PodCast weighs in at less then fifteen minutes.
Listen to the PodCast by clicking the PodCast logo below.
Pouring over maps, weather forecasts and intelligence culled from other travelers, internet sites and local people Jeremiah and I decide to make a break for the Salar de Uyuni, the highest and largest salt flat in the world. By taking this route we’ll have a chance to spend a day or two in Potosí, the highest city in the world (though there is a town in Tibet that’s higher), and once the richest city in the Americas due to its massive silver and mineral mines. This route would take us to the Salar and then we will head south into Argentina through Laguna Verde and ultimately allow us to relax in the hot springs of San Pedro de Atacama before heading down through the mountains to Mendoza then on to Santiago.
A solid plan, but it means blowing off the most dangerous road in the world.
The journey to Potosi could take anywhere from 8-10 hours we’re told depending on weather, number of stops and average speed. We get an early start and stopping toward the top of the rim of the crater that overlooks the city of La Paz I smell gas – petrol!!! And it’s not the first time. When I stopped in that small market in Peru on the way to Puno I had smelled it, but figured it was from a beat up old pickup parked next to me. Then I smelled it again when I pulled over to take photos of the snow covered road outside of Copacabana. And finally, the ferry captain had commented that he smelled Peruvian gas as we wheeled my bike off his dilapidated boat.
This time I would take no chances. It had to be something with my bike. I feared my gas tank leaking. But pulling over just outside La Paz and after negotiating to buy a handful of dishtowels from a street vendor, I soaked up a pool of gas that gathered under my seat near the intake and return hoses of my gas tank. It seems that the hoses weren’t snug and therefore not tight. A couple twists on the clamps with the screwdriver and we fired Doc back up. Taking the opportunity of this unplanned downtime, Jeremiah and I performed routine chain maintenance and checked tire pressure. The fix for my small gas leak was the easiest repair to date on my bike. But the whole ordeal robbed us of nearly two hours. We had to get to Potosí by twilight.
For the first couple hours we seemed to dodge the massive storms we could see surrounding us. Huge thunderheads, massive rain and bolts of lightening added the drama for the ride. But wherever the storm moved, the road appeared to move away form it. Lucky. Feeling confident and cruising at a good clip we passed this beat up mini-station wagon with llamas tied to the roof and stuffed in the back. Poor guys. I guess headed to higher elevation.
After a quick lunch in Ururu we were pelted by a massive hail storm complete with the ubiquitous golf-ball sized stones pouncing the pavement, our appendages and bikes. As the thunder shook the road and lightening bolts were littering the road ahead of us we make a prudent decision to turn around and wait for the storm to subside at a nearby gas station.
Proud of the hats that define the heritage local indigenous people of Bolivia,
this sculpture greets travelers atop a traffic circle in Ururu, Bolivia
Impossible to capture the massive hail stones on camera,
but use your imagination as we took shelter at this gas station.
for the next 4-5 hours the rain played with us. On. Off. On harder. Off. Then pouring. Then hints of sunshine. Problem with rain like this it makes me very hesitant to stop to take photos. All my mind can think of is get me out of here. Riding through valleys and the altiplano we finally started climbing slowly. The terrain reminded me of northwestern Arizona and in parts like Southern Utah. Deep red rock canyons, and foliage starved rocky mountains. Passing remote villages at one point we come to a road block that turns out to be a toll. The rain is falling hard, it’s freezing and I can barely get my fingers nimble enough outside my gloves to pull a couple Boliviano coins out of my pocket to pay for the toll. Peering through an opening in the rotting wood structure the attendant with fingerless gloves exchanges a couple receipts for my coins and we move on.
The scenery is breathtaking and we finally ride into Potosí just at twilight. Success.