Jenn writes on 2014-07-17:
After Adam’s tour of the mine, we felt that our time in Potosí had been sufficiently completed and it was time to set our sights on a new place.
Sucre is known as “the white city” due to the high number of white colonial buildings. Although it is the third largest city in Bolivia, most of hub of activity is located within five compact city blocks. This is, of course, where we stayed. Our intention was to camp, in an effort to save some money, and to be outside enjoying the warmer weather. At 2810 meters, we hadn’t been at this low of an altitude since the ascent into the Peruvian Andes from Nasca. With an average daily temperature of 21 degrees Celsius, we were looking forward to warming up a bit.
It was a short ride from Potosí to Sucre, about three hours, through golden fields and on roads that wound down and around mountainsides. We could feel the temperature heating up, and peeled layers off as we neared Sucre.
When we arrived at the camping site, located within the city, we were unhappily surprised to find out that they no longer hosted campers, or bikers – who aren’t in cars or trucks. Or maybe it was a miscommunication that they didn’t understand that we had our own tent, but it was apparent that we wouldn’t be staying there. The man of the house was very friendly though and recommended a place around the corner that accepted motorcycle travellers, called Wasi Masi Hospedaje.
It was a little more than what we wanted to spend (140 Bolivianos – about $23 per night), but we ended up with an apartment-style room with a big, bright, airy room with a balcony, private bathroom, and our own kitchen. A good deal, I think. Especially since, almost immediately upon arrival I started to feel sinusy-throaty and abruptly came down with a rather bad head cold.
The next two days were spent entirely in bed: sleeping and resting. It was no fun, especially in such a beautiful city, with so much to see. Adam was a real trooper and stayed by my side to fetch me juice, cook my lunch, and generally be supportive in my misery. On day three I couldn’t take it any longer and went out for a walk, late afternoon, to the store. Needless to say, I felt miserable, dizzy and congested, and couldn’t wait to get back to bed.
As chance would have it, there were a few other motorcycle travellers in town, as well. Two Moto Kiwis (Andi & Ellen from New Zealand) are well-known to us from the motorcycle travelling forums, as they started their journey out on two Suzuki DR650s as well, and we had been following their adventures for some time. Adam sent them a message and soon we were making plans to join them for dinner. Despite feeling still sick, we wandering on over to their hostel, where Ellen had prepared salad and dumplings/pies for us. We sat outside and talked bikes, and recounted some trip tales for each other, until it was too cold and we were all tired.
Our original plan was to leave the next day, but I ended up staying in bed for most of the day again, aside from a trip to the pharmacy to get some cold medicine. After four days, I had had it. Not to mention we were now on a schedule to make it Buenos Aires by the end of June in order to get help from Dakar Motos to ship our bikes back to North America before they closed for vacation for three weeks in July. No more lying in bed for me. We had to get back on the road. (Yes, our trip is coming to an end shortly, as funds are running low, and Jenn is aching for a hot bath.) If everything goes to plan, we will fly the bikes and ourselves from Buenos Aires during the first week of July. Our current plan is to fly into Miami, since it’s cheaper, and we want to have a bit of a vacation before heading back home to find jobs, an apartment, and rejoin all other aspects of normalcy. From Florida we will take a leisurely route home.
In a desperate plea, the pharmacist gave me some amazing anti-mucous medicine that worked almost instantaneously once taken. It didn’t cure my cold, but it made it so that I could be upright and out of bed for longer than a few minutes.
And so the next morning we got up, had breakfast, and packed up the bikes to leave Sucre, and head south towards Uyuni. However, once we were mostly packed we were approached by a frantic owner who told us that we couldn’t leave because there was a city wide protest happening and all the roads from Sucre were blockaded. One of the previous days in Sucre we came across a large protest happening in the main plaza – hundreds of people chanting and burning things. It wasn’t like the protests back home where we wave out little placards and march in the street. She then told us that the blockades could be very violent with people throwing stones. Our Two Moto Kiwi friends even told us about a blockade in Puno, Peru that they went through and were whipped by a guy with a long horse whip. It didn’t sound like my idea of fun, but Adam wasn’t going to take anyone else’s opinion as fact (given that someone else suggested that we wouldn’t have problems), and in the end we decided that we would check it out for ourselves. As I mentioned, one more day in Sucre, would mean one less day somewhere else, and being on a bit of a time crunch we would have to make the time up somewhere.
We headed out of town. With every corner turned, I expected there to be an angry mob armed with large stones and burning everything in sight. But as we neared the edge of town and passed through smaller suburbs, and smaller towns, nothing materialized. No disruptions, no upheaval, just everyday happening. But just when we thought we were in the clear, we came across a number of cars and one truck parked sideways across the road. As we approached, the people waved at us and greeted us and told us that the blockade was just now clearing up. Hooray! But then we noticed that there was a large puddle underneath Adam’s bike. Gasoline. Apparently the clear gas line we were using from the petcock to the in-line fuel filter split wide open, spraying gas all over his leg and the road. He turned off his petcock, pulled over, and started looking through our collection of spares for replacement tubing. Which we had. And cut to the proper size. It was an easy fix. And by the time we were repaired, the blockade was gone and we were on our way again.
But not too far. As around the corner was a long line-up of trucks leading up to a right messy constipation of people and semis and a barricade made of cactus, sticks, and rocks. We approached the guys at the barricade and asked if we could pass. They didn’t seem to bothered by it, even making jokes with Adam, and cleared the way for us to pass. About 20 feet down the road was a truck parked sideways across the road. We couldn’t get by. There was a narrow shoulder on one side marred with thick thorn bushes, a deep trench on the other side which we considered but was blocked by a woman making a fire in it, or a road that followed a dry riverbed if we doubled back and went off in search of it.
After a few minutes of pondering, Adam went off in search of the riverbed road, and I waited by the truck for his report. He was only gone a few minutes before the driver of the truck showed up and offered to move it for me. He started it up, and pulled it back a few inches so that I could pass. Adam was nowhere in sight and once I had gone by the driver pulled back into his previous position. In my mind, I pictured Adam showing back up on the other side of the truck while I was now on the clear and free side. I waited. And waited. And then I heard Adam on the communicator, and he appeared in front of me. Apparently the riverbed road was a little hairy but took one clear around the blockade. Finally both clear of the obstacle we were back on the road and on our way to Potosi/Uyuni once again.
We had originally planned to do a big push and make it to Uyuni, but we didn’t even get to Potosí until 3 p.m. which meant that we wouldn’t be arriving in Uyuni until well after dark and in the freezing cold. Plus, after being in bed for 4-5 days with a head cold, I was feeling pretty tired, cold, and worn out from the day’s ride, albeit short, but eventful. We decided to stop, again, in Potosí. In lieu of a better alternative we went back to the Hotel San Antonio where we had stayed during our previous visit.
This time, instead of opting for the 200 Bolivianos-private bath room, we decided that we could save some money by getting the room with shared bath for one night. At 120 Bolivianos, it was way over-priced. About $20 (which doesn’t seem like a lot for North America, but for Bolivia it’s quite pricey), we got a cell-like room, cold and dark (except at night with the streetlight shining through the only window), and barely enough room to squeeze past each other. The shared bathroom was an atrocity – ‘dirty’ doesn’t even begin to describe the state of it. The toilets, of which there were two stalls, were smelly and filthy. I cannot understand why every single toilet bowl that I have encountered in Bolivia is coated with someone’s explosive shit stains. Every. Single. One. It’s like Wal-Mart gone wild. I should be thankful that there were toilet seats, but only one stall had toilet paper in it, which went missing by later that evening. The showers, while I am assured that they were equipped with steaming hot water (as tested by Adam) were littered with everyone’s leftover shampoo packets, soap wrappers, and hair. The water in the sink was colder than most ice cubes from the freezer. While there was hot water in the shower, I would never know because after the sun went down, it was so cold outside (no, the bathrooms were not sealed off from the outside) there was no way what I was getting naked and wet. Twenty dollars? No way. But for one night, I sucked up my anger and fear of poor hygiene, and slept it out. Oh, and by the way Bolivia – you might want to institute the practice of providing soap in your bathrooms – rubbing cold water on one’s hand after using the bathroom does little to prevent communicable diseases.
In the morning, we were off, despite more promises of road blocks. Apparently we are in the off-season for tourism in Bolivia, also known as protest season by the locals. Since the tourists largely dry up now, they are more free to have protests and block up the roads. It’s a little backwards, since June and July are the driest months here in Bolivia, which I would think would attract more crowds, but they are also the coldest months, so I guess it is somewhat understandable.
It was a little sad leaving both of these great cities – Sucre and Potosi, as both were beautiful and had a lot to offer. They each had an element of down-to-earthedness that I really enjoyed, and no pressure sales tactics. In comparison to Cusco, for example, that has many of the same elements – great churches and museums – we were not pressured to buy tours or lured into restaurants. Beautiful and very laidback. They were two of my favourite stops on this trip.
The ride from Potosi to Uyuni was great and one of the best rides of the trip so far. We took very few photos which is somewhat of a shame (don’t get me started on the pain that is photographing while piloting your own bike), but what a great road! Long curves, fast straight-aways, and virtually no traffic. I’m not sure if people were still afraid of potential roadblocks, but it was virtually deserted. The llamas crossing the road were more frequent than any vehicular traffic that we encountered. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm enough (although heated gear was still necessary), and we made it to Uyuni in about four hours with no roadblocks.
There were times that I didn’t think that I would make it here. So many times that I wanted to give in and go home, abandoning places and things that I had wanted to see, but coming around the mountain to the view of the Salar was breathtaking. Although I don’t want to put too much pressure on the experience (we all remember what happened at Macchu Picchu), I am happy that I stuck it out and made it here.
Rolling into town, I was less than impressed. It was dusty and dingy looking with most buildings looking like they had seen better days. In searching for a hotel, we first checked out the Life Remotely site, which didn’t really impress us so we moved on. We checked out places that were upwards of $60 per night, and eventually stopped at Hotel Avenida, which we had circled past many times before stopping. Turned out that it is where Adam stayed four years ago and we were sold. The room we were given was large with private bath for $20. We had been warned that the nights were pretty cold in Uyuni and definitely our first night was pretty cold – lying in bed wearing long underwear and toques.
We took a short walking tour of the town at night and discovered that, like most towns and cities in Latin America, that it really comes to life after the sun goes down. People galore were out (mind you it was a Friday night, and a Monday or Tuesday might be a bit different), food carts cooking in full swing, shops open, bars with blaring music. The personality of a place really shines at night. We walked through the main square and through various markets before having a drink at the Extreme Fun Bar. Since it was happy hour, the drink that I ordered came in a rather suggestive mug, which was a little embarrassing but once said drink started to be consumed it was really OK. A fun but risque and a bit on the wild side (I really wasn’t expecting my drink to be served in a penis mug with condensed milk dripping from the head, especially in Bolivia). But go with the flow, and you have more fun, right? Anyway…
Day two had us heading out in search of adventure. After a pretty chilly night we woke up to -4 degrees Celsius on the bikes’ thermometers. Brrrr! It seems we can’t go out here without putting on multiple layers of clothing, but in all fairness it’s probably payback from flaunting the hot temperatures of Mexico and Central America to our friends and family back home while they were all stuck in the midst of winter. Thankfully the breakfast place had their fireplace going full tilt while we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs, cheese, toast (more real toast!), coffee, and a banana smoothie. After we had filled our bellies and warmed up as much as possible, it was a short bit of bike maintenance and a bit of preparation for our quest for the Salar de Uyuni.
If you don’t know, Uyuni’s biggest draw is the Salar, located right outside its doorstep. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and can be seen from outer space. It’s surface is incredibly smooth, and is comprised of a thick salt crust layer covering a brine that is very rich in lithium – in fact it contains 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves. The town of Uyuni is a result, mainly, from the mining community and was once a major transportation hub for trains hauling minerals to the Pacific Coast. Now it is home to a pretty impressive train cemetery where locomotives were abandoned when the minerals were depleted in the 1940s.
Our first stop was the Train Cemetery, but when we arrived it was teeming with tourists so we decided to head to the Salar and come back later in the evening when the trains would (hopefully) be devoid of visitors (while it looked fun, it is hard to take good photos when others are using the trains as their personal jungle gyms). Access to the main road to the Salar is from a small town called Colchani, about twenty kilometers north of Uyuni along a corrugated dirt and gravel road with some slippery sand patches thrown in for good measure. Since I am not an overly skilled off-roader, those twenty kilometers took far longer than they should have and I was a little rattled by the time we reached the Salar. Anything that resembled a road was pretty rough with ample potholes. But there was the Salar… I had expected it to be like all accounts and photos – gleaming white in the bright sunshine, but instead it was rather brown. A thin layer of sand covered the entire Salar as a result of a sandstorm that had occurred in the area a few weeks back. I wasn’t about to let this be another ‘Macchu Picchu’ moment – it was quite a feat to have ridden my motorcycle to this place that I had wanted to visit for many years.
It took a bit of getting used to to not think of the white surface as ice but rather salt, and eventually we were skirting across the flat surface at 100 (or 130 for Adam) kilometers an hour in pursuance of some of the islands that dot the landscape. We stopped a few times to add warmer layers (it was pretty cold – bike thermometers were reading 9 degrees), but reached Incahuasi Island in about an hour. It was dry and covered in giant cactus. And tourists. After a bathroom break and quite a bit of time playing around with photos (but not the fun “playing with perspective” photos since there was a little too much brown – we circled the island then headed back to ‘shore’.
The sun was starting to set and our shadows were growing longer as we headed back to Uyuni along the sandbox road. We made a quick stop at the car wash to rinse some of the salt off of our bikes (as you know, salt is not good for vehicles, and bikes tend to have more alloys and other materials that are more easily damaged than cars), then a quick stop to fill up on gas, and then back out to the train cemetery.
Indeed, everyone had left for the night aside from a group of men standing around their car, and a couple making out in another car parked some ways away. We were the only people there to see the trains but the rapidly setting sun meant that our time would be short. I managed to get a few shots in before losing the light completely and came back to Adam who was strapping his Roto Pack water tank to the back of his bike. Apparently the mount had come loose, and the tank had been hanging from his lock. We would have to look at that later.
When we arrived back at the hotel, Adam suggested that we take one more day to do some bike repairs and maintenance, and purchase the last of our alpaca souvenirs before heading south to Argentina. The road that leaves Uyuni to the Argentinian border is 208 kilometers of dirt, gravel, and sand. It was promised to be a challenging ride. A chunk of the next day involved carefully repairing Adam’s Roto-pax mount which re-assembled with lots of Lock-tite to prevent a similar issue, and then searching town for make-shift “spacers” to repair Adam’s Pro-Moto Billet luggage rack which had somehow lost two mounting bolts. More Lock-tite. In addition, in preparation for the Uyuni to Tupiza ride, we remount our Happy Trails SU racks with a fresh coat of Lock-tite on the mounting bolts, as well as on the mounting bolts for our panniers, not without issue, but that is a story for another day.
I will end here. Tune in next time for accounts of our Uyuni to Tupiza ride and our Argentine border crossing.
Sucre photos found here.
Uyuni photos found here.