Visual Sensory Overload
Our plan was to get an early start, cross the border to Bolivia and try to reach Uyuni today. Although “only” ~310Km separate us from our destination, these are Bolivia roads and it is expected to take us ~7 hours (buses need 10hrs). An initial delay due to Laurent’s bike low oil level meant we were at the border crossing at 10:00… only to find it closed? Wassup? “Che, es el Mundial”. It was Argentina’s 2nd group game, vs. South Korea. Just great! I went wondering around the checkpoint and following the cheering (and swearing :), I reached the custom’s barracks. Here were all the custom agents huddled around a TV screen. They gladly opened the door for Laurent and I to enter and watch the game :). Luckily, Argentina was winning and when the final whistle blew and our celebrations over (you’ve got to join them, don’t even think otherwise), we asked if we should head back to the bikes and get the paper work started. “Tranquilo… Maradona is going to give his analysis of the match. Then we will listen to Mesi, Teves, Veron,…”.
Finally, half an hour later the border opened. On a bridge/path parallel to our border, hundreds of Bolivian man and women were hauling on their backs merchandise from Argentina to Bolivia: food, juices, hygiene products, beer (lots of it), cellular + electronic equipments… it resembled an ant’s path. As soon as we crossed the quiet Argentinean border we were faced head-on with a bustling Bolivia: People everywhere, some (especially women) dressed in traditional dresses, sidewalks filled with vendors, food stalls everywhere, taxis and other cars honking madly… all this in less than 50m. Incredible! After all, they are practically the same people in this split town across both countries, yet different politics transform and shape the society distinctly. My first impression? I liked this authentic Bolivia. As for us, we had another hick-up. Paul, as a US citizen, needed a VISA to get into Bolivia but they do no issue one at the border. So he had to cross back to La Quiaca (Argentina) and get one. The remaining 3 of us waited in no-man’s land guarding Paul’s bike and waiting for his return… only to see him being stopped by the Argentinean custom. When he crossed back to Argentina, he effectively entered the country anew but he did not go and get his passport stamped. Luckily, a 5min explanation solved the mater and we could finally cross into Bolivia.
12:15pm and we were on the road towards Uyuni. First stop: Tupiza, 100Km away; Kilometer 24,066; Tupiza, 17-Jun-10 @ 14:15. It actually took us 2hrs to get here and since the road will only get worse as we go along I lobbied hard and got agreement to stay in Tupiza for the night. We found a good hotel with a pool and chilled (literally) by its side.
It was a good decision not to keep riding towards Uyuni. The following day it actually required us 7.5 hours to arrive to destination: Not only because the gravel and sand road made it very tough riding but the scenery was just amazing and so diverse, we stopped way too many times to admire it and snap pics. Our ride started through a green and fertile valley surrounded by brilliant red rock hills, then headed up sinuous mountain roads to reach the dry altiplano where for the next few hours we were riding on top of high plains and ridges. A truly mesmerizing and unique sceneries. The earth here is so rich in minerals that the rainbow of colors the cordillera takes is breathtaking. We had tremendous views across the surrounding mountains & volcanoes and down to the deep valleys and dry river beds below. Our road then descended a little toward the high deserts (still @ 3,800m), passing dunes and herds of llamas, even being faced by a sandstorm. The road condition here turned nasty as we had to ride on undulating bumps rattling the bike to pieces and shaking our bodies as if we were riding a lawn mower! We also crossed so many sandy patches giving each one of us a few scary moments. And the dust from incoming traffic, from the wind, from the guys ahead,… was blinding, sometime forcing us to stop in our track as we could not see the road or worst an incoming bus. I was riding fast & ahead of everyone as on these roads, to reduce the vibration amount, I stand up and pull up on the handlebars to offload the front wheel and accelerate until reaching a speed where the wheels, especially the front, stay on top of these bumps. By the time we arrived to Uyuni we were covered in this beige and reddish dirt and I was praying our bikes air filters will withstand this dust better than our noses and lungs.
Kilometer 24,311; Uyuni, 18-Jun-10 @ 17:15. Once in Uyuni we were flooded by the infinite number of Salar tour operators. But at Tito tours, we immediately knew we would have a winning option to visit the Salar. We decided to book the whole LandCruiser for only us 4 (vs. the 6 tourists usually) and have a customized tour with Tito himself as our guide/driver. We rode in comfort (that 3rd row of seat can’t even fit a hobbit) and we also agreed to do the Salar tour in the opposite direction than the other agencies allowing us to visit the sights at different hours from anyone else. This was only possible with a few tour agencies as a lot of tourists will want to cross to Chile on the last day (vs. returning to Uyuni), forcing most tours to do the circuit counter clock wise to accommodate them. As for the Bolivian salar and altiplano tour itself, just check the pics.
or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.