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Posts tagged ‘Uyuni’

Ruta del Che

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Santa Cruz, 9-Jul-2010

Bolivia is quite a tumultuous country, especially in its central & east parts: cities/states vying for more power or autonomy from the federal government of Evo Morales, different cultures and societies feeling repressed or showing hypocrisy vs. others, villages and communities fighting for their survivals from the controlling hands of the state government who in turn are in a “lucha” vs. the federal bureaucracy and corruption.  Miners, exporters, cocaleros, farmers, bus drivers, etc,… seem to take turn in waging daily strikes and blockades throughout the country.  How does this affect us?  Well, our route will be leading us to the heart of these problematic areas.  But we were lucky: the on-going road strikes to & around Potosi were suspended for a few days allowing us to head there and the riots in Sucre have also been repressed. (Fast forward 1 month: strikes are still on-going in Potosi wrecking havoc with tourists traveling the La Paz/Sucre/Potosi/Uyuni routes.  330 tourists are still trapped in Uyuni, no gas available, not even to go on the Salar tour)

Kilometer 24,588; Potosi, 22-Jun-10 @ 16:45. Potosi is famous for its Cerro Rico; No other mountain in the world contained such richness and affected the history of the world as much.  The Spain monarchy and its economy were so dependent on this silver mine that when one of the ship heading to Spain full of silver was attacked by pirates, it was an economic catastrophe.  It is estimated that since 1546 up to 6 million people (mostly slaves) have died while working in the mine and up to 45,000 tons of silver extracted.   Cerro Potosi is still mined today via cooperative and the working conditions are still as dangerous as the old days.  These workers do not expect to live beyond 40 due to contracting silicosis, yet after talking to a few of them in the city, it’s a voluntary choice they take. To roughly quote a drunken miner: “I prefer dying at forty with some money vs. living worthless in these streets”.  To each his logic I guess.   In Potosi, the main attraction is to actually visit the mine, and we went on a tour as happy tourists:  walking inside the mine, crawling through narrow passages, dropping into holes to see men at work, hearing miners blowing dynamites to shatter rocks in search for silver.  But the real shock came when in one of the mine’s side tunnels we met a 13 year old kid, exhausted and barely conscious from dehydration.  I gave him my water bottle which he gulped down in seconds.  I asked him what was he doing here? “My dad is an associate, he owns this tunnel and he makes me work here…”  He starts at 6:00 every day.  And where is your dad? “Drinking in the village”.  It was 11:00 AM!   That was a hard fall back to reality; this boy will not live to see 30.  We demanded to exit the mine immediately, which our guide reluctantly accepted.  For them, this is normal.

Unfortunately, my riding buddies left the next day.  They are great company and we had fun times but their schedule is more constrained then mine.  Most riders I met were on a tight schedule: drop in, check the big attraction then keep on riding.  And as you have noticed I got the luxury to linger around, stopping in many places and visiting + enjoying each town to its fullest.  Here, there was the famous mint museum, churches, convent, monastery from the colonial times, the local market… A few days later, when I called the guys from Sucre, they were already at the Bolivia/Peru border…. crazy!  They could only spend 1 night in each city on their way north.

Kilometer 24,748; Sucre, 25-Jun-10 @ 17:25. Sucre, the white city, is probably the most beautiful city in Bolivia.  Charming streets to stroll in, a fascinating market (with lots of food stalls 🙂 and a lively night scene.  It’s also the cradle of independence and history of Bolivia and the city is very proud of this heritage.  And to make it even better, I bumped again into Carmen and we spent the next 4 days just chilling, going on the normal visits and just “living it up”.

My route through Bolivia will now take me east, doing a detour to Santa Cruz.  There are some amazing parks in these eastern provinces but most importantly, I wanted to retrace and visit the last villages/places where Che Guevara fought, was captured and then executed.   It wasn’t to be that easy: On my way to Samaipata a police checkpoint told me to take another route which will save me 100Km.  Kilometer 24,898; Aiquile, 29-Jun-10 @ 13:40. True enough, my map showed another gravel road cutting through the country.  And how’s the route condition? “Tranquilo, with the moto it’s the same as the current route”.  During my whole trip I always got the best advices on which routes to take, but not this time.  The gravel and dirt road was pretty good for the first 20Km but then, it turned for the worst.  I should have u-turned but I just thought it will be a small bad stretch.  Well, it turned out this was not a drivable road, it was mainly used by the local mines and couple of villages.  I was driving in ruts of sand, crossing rivers by going down their banks and driving through their beds, heading up and down mountains where the mines are located and passing bulldozers clearing the roads.  I had sand flying from the front wheel all the way up to my knees as if I was driving in water.  I never subscribed to do a Dakar!!  It was the hardest driving conditions I ever faced, absolute hell.  This 120Km stretch took me 5 hours and caused me to fall… twice.  Downhill, through sand, with a 230Kg bike & luggage, exhausted, I just could not hold it: the front wheel dug in the sand and flipped me sideways.  And it was a bad fall: part of my front brake lever broke so did the bike shift lever.  To shift gears I needed to twist my ankle and hit the peg, which rarely worked.  I passed a few small villages, asked if I could stop and sleep anywhere as I was exhausted, but people just looked at this dust & mud covered dirty guy and immediately refused to accept me in.  Thanks guys, just add to my pain.  I finally reached the main road and stopped at a police checkpoint to see if they will let me in.  The boys actually accepted that I crash in the barracks, but when their commander saw me pulling in, he insisted that it’s against regulation: I could not stay with them.  And since when Bolivianos have regulation? 🙂  It made me laugh and at that moment, somehow, I felt absolute ease and calm.  Strange, but I was in peace.  It was already 19:00 but I just took a break at the local street side resto-bar, had a drink chatting with a couple of locals, then put on my helmet, blasted my favorite music and kept on riding.  And it felt so good riding under the stars.  I also got a tip to stay at Andoriña hostel in Samaipata and it wasn’t to disappoint; the place and managers were amazing.  I took a shower, went to the plaza to eat then headed to bed and slept like a baby.  Kilometer 25,136; Samaipata, 29-Jun-10 @ 20:45

I chilled the next day in Samaipata and hiked to the mystic pre-Inca site called El-Fuerte with Valeska and Regina.  Then late afternoon, I went to the local welder and worked on a quick fix to my foot shifter.  Hey, I was going to ride the “ruta del Che”!  Very few people actually do this route even if a lot of tourists actually want to.  The issue lies with the roads leading to La Higuera:  it can only be reached by narrow mountain roads via infrequent/non-reliable local buses.  So either you need lots of time on your hand or your own transportation or take a private tour (which charges U$D150!!).

… keep reading about my Ruta del Che after these pics.

Photo Album

or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.

Visual Sensory Overload

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Visual Sensory Overload

Uyuni, 21-Jun-2010

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.

Ride up


Photo Album

or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.