I wasn’t the only Loosenut who was looking forward to Bolivia in particular but I might have had more reasons. As has been mentioned before, I was in South America last year with my partner, Tilly, and we spent a couple of days on the Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca and during a visit to one of the islands in the lake we saw the snow capped mountains around La Paz and I expressed my disappointment that we wouldn’t be able to go there .So when this trip became a reality I was especially pleased at the thought of getting to Bolivia.
After our lovely stay in the Rosario hotel in Copacabana we rode about 150km to La Paz and had booked the sister hotel of the Rosario for a night. The following morning Ian, who had not been well the night before, still wasn’t well enough to ride so I stayed with him while Phil and Tom undertook a notional two day ride to Sucre. Ian felt better by the afternoon of the second day so we went out for a walk and a light lunch. To be honest, I think we both thought that La Paz was noisy, dirty and crowded. It wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be.
Ian and I had planned a two day ride to Uyuni and expected to be there a day or two before Phil and Tom, who would ride from Sucre to Uyuni via Potosi. As it turned out, Phil and Tom got to Sucre the first night after a marathon ride and on the second day Ian and I completed our own marathon and got to Uyuni in one day so we were still on schedule to be in Uyuni a day or two before Phil and Tom. The plan had been for Ian and I to arrange a 4×4 trip onto the Salar, as we had all alreadydiscussed the potential damage to the bikes that the salt could do.
However, in Sucre Phil and Tom had met someone called Dirk whom I was surprised to learn was not a resting porn star but apparently a bike tour guide and he had assured them it was perfectly OK to ride on the Salar and that, in fact, they could ride most of the way to our proposed crossing into Chile via the Salar. The Salar is a UNESCO world heritage site and there are no roads on it so the navigation might have been a bit ‘ …second star on the right and straight on till morning…’ but who knows? Furthermore, on the way from Sucre to Uyuni they had also met Joshua and Joana and Joshua had persuaded them that the correct form was in fact to spray the bikes with used engine oil ( wrapping the brakes in plastic bags and gaffer tape first ) to repel the salt. They were up for it! Ian and I weren’t.
In the end, Ian and I had a very interesting day on the Salar in a 4×4 and we saw Phil and Tom cruising across the flats towards the volcanic island of Inca Wasi. This place, used by the Incas for ceremonial purposes was remarkable. If I understood our very knowledgeable guide correctly, it was formed when a volcano arose in the Salar when it was still a lake. This volcano then became a home to huge numbers of coral, which coated the black volcanic rock in a thin white layer maybe 3 or 4 inches thick, a bit like an iced Christmas cake. The lake then dried very quickly, exposing and killing the living coral but leaving the white layer. Subsequently various plants and animals colonised the island ( there are several others as well ).
As far as riding on the Salar was concerned, it seems common sense had prevailed and Phil and Tom had compromised by spraying their bikes liberally with the Bolivian equivalent of WD 40 and had a good time riding around on the Salar.
So, the following morning we all set out for the border with Chile, aiming for Ollague. Ian and I had decided to get an early start as we knew this was going to be a tough day with plenty of difficult offroad sections and we were keen to ensure we got to the border in plenty of time to complete the formalities. We fuelled up the night before and were away at 7.30 in a chilly but bright blue morning.
On leaving town the satnav put us on a lovely new tarmac road. This was an unexpected bonus but we took it gratefully and scoffed at the foolish locals who had assured us the road was all ‘ tierra ‘ ( hard packed mud and gravel ). We had a couple of the usual desvios ( detours ) through some inconsequential gravel and sand and all was going well after 35 miles or so when we approached another desvio. Off to the left I led us confidently, through a bit of sand and over a slightly unexpected narrow gauge railway line, and down the embankment. At the bottom we encountered a pool of water, maybe 30 feet wide and perhaps 15 across fed by a stream. We stopped. A bus came past and went straight through. From this we estimated it was about a foot or more deep. Tricky. We decided to cross by the left hand side where the stream came out as this was only a yard wide and a few inches deep. No problem. The mud on the other side, however, stuck to our tyres and turned them into slicks so when it came to the sandy bit we were in all sorts of trouble. Ian got stuck first so I got off and pushed and then when he had reached firm ground he came back and helped me. At about 3600m above sea level this was hard work. Nonetheless, we headed for what we thought was the climb back up onto the tarmac. It had disappeared. All around us was mud and sand. This was where the new tarmac ended.
We could see a number of lorries in the distance and my attempts to flag the first two down were unsuccessful. The third one stopped so I asked him which of the three available mud and sand tracks would take us to San Cristobal, our first waypoint en route to the border. He pointed confidently back the way we had come. I repeated the question. He repeated the gesture. I repeated the question, convinced I had asked it correctly and that I was obviously dealing with an imbecile. He explained patiently that we were way off course and were in fact heading for Atocha and Tupiza and another border crossing. Into Argentina. This was a blow. So back we went, sand, mud, stream and 35 miles of tarmac.
Two hours after leaving Uyuni we were back there and this time we found the right road. It was tierra. Lots of it. And sand. Lots of it and so incredibly fine it was more like riding through talcum powder, so much so that when I managed to drop my bike in it the cloud of dust was so dense that Ian couldn’t even see what had happened! We struggled on, imagining Phil and Tom would be way ahead of us by now even though they had planned a more leisurely start. The road got better and started to climb. We went through wonderful scenery and high, windy passes and rode for ages within sight of an active, smoking, volcano. It was hard going but wonderful stuff. A few miles from the border post we came round a corner and there were Phil and Tom, admiring the view. So it was that we rode into Chile together.
The nice man in the Bolivian emigration office asked me how I had enjoyed Bolivia. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to offend him either as he had my passport in his hand.
‘Increible,’ I said.