There’s an app called iOverlander that is both a blessing and a curse. Five years ago, when we started this journey, the best thing available to us was a brick-like GPS with a community made map that included simple symbols for camping and routes for riding. Don’t get me wrong, this was invaluable and made life so much easier than it could have been. Anyways, iOverlander is an app that tracks your location on your phone even without internet connection, like the brick GPS. In addition to a little symbol, however, you get reviews of each place with details and, often, pricing. This is a blessing, because there are a lot of times, approaching a border crossing or a police checkpoint for instance, when having a little extra info could save you a lot of trouble. Knowing that you can’t have fruit with you at certain points in the road or that you need to have a certain amount of cash on you could save you fines or needing to turn around and find an ATM in the previous town.
The other side of that is a loss of a sense of adventure. Obviously, we’re not the first ones to do this trip. I’m not disillusioned into thinking that we, in any way, were discovering completely new things, but you really lose the sense of your trip being unique when you see that 20 people have written reviews on the campsite you chose at a distance while riding past. It’s now possible to look ahead with iOverlander and remove a good deal of uncertainty that was inherent in the first leg of our journey. We used the app frequently, despite our reservations… more specifically, I used it frequently despite Aaron’s reservations.
We felt rushed leaving Peru and weren’t sure what the entering process would be like when we got to Bolivia, but everyone was relaxed and friendly. We mentioned that we were worried about the border closing, but they assured us that we were fine and that they didn’t mind staying open a little longer to get us in. They actually said, “We’re not like those Peruvians over there.”
Aaron left the USA with a passport with very limited space for stamps left, so he was a bit upset that they took an entire page for their visa, but other than that, we had no problems at the border. In fact, when Aaron tried to pay for his visa with a $100 bill, they told him they don’t accept those. I gave Aaron a wad of Peruvian Soles to add to what dollars he could muster and they just accepted it. I think they recognized we were having a rough time.
We rode into Copacabana and stopped at the first hotel with a listed price outside that seemed reasonable to us. We checked in and walked over to the square and found a restaurant to eat some trout. It was a celebration dinner, but was actually very economical.
Copacabana is basically all the things we wished Puno was. From talking to the business owners in Puno, we learned that Peru has certain laws that make things difficult. In Copacabana, there were more outdoor eating areas in restaurants, water sports on Lake Titicaca, and there was a much more relaxed atmosphere. We wanted to stay longer than just the night, but the extra month we’d been forced to spend in Peru weighed heavily on us and we knew we had to leave in the morning.
Aaron and I had both set aside plenty of time to complete the ride, so it wasn’t needing to get home that was pushing us. From the very start of our trip, we’d seen pictures of the Bolivian salt flats and we’d read that the surreal mirror effect that happens when just the right amount of water is settled on the flat white salt only occurred at the right time of the year. This time of the year just so happened to perfectly coincide with our original timing. We were now over a month behind what we’d planned for.
In addition to this, we were getting dangerously close to their winter months. People kept saying that riding motorcycles south through Chile and Argentina in July was dangerous or impossible. We didn’t necessarily believe that, but we weren’t looking to try to prove anyone wrong if we could avoid it.
So the next morning, we woke up and packed the bikes. While eating breakfast, we talked about how we really should have just taken the bus here once in a while instead of sitting in Puno. During the whole week of Easter, for instance, absolutely nothing happened regarding our confiscated motorcycle case because no one was in the offices. But we felt it was important not to dwell for too long on what we should have done and we wanted to get the adventure back on track.
Copacabana isn’t connected to the rest of Bolivia, so you need to get a ferry. The ride from Copacabana to the ferry was amazing. Maybe it was just because it was the first decent ride we’d been on with our motorcycles for over a month, but we stopped frequently at lookouts to take pictures of Lake Titicaca and scenery. We’d almost come to loathe Lake Titicaca after seeing it every day and wishing we were anywhere else, but now it had regained some of its beauty in our eyes.
We pulled up to the dock and I started walking to an office that had some tourist-looking people standing about, but Aaron called me back pointed to a man with a boat who was motioning to us. We pulled the bikes up to his long wooden boat and he said he’d get us across for a cheaper than expected price, which we were aware of from iOverlander.
We then had a very strange encounter at the first gas station we came across. We weren’t in dire need of fuel at that moment, but we’d been told that gasoline in Bolivia was scarce and that you should always get it when you see it. We were also told that, being foreigners, sometimes you have to pay a lot more than Bolivians.
We weren’t entirely prepared, however, for being told that we weren’t allowed to have gasoline at all. But this is, indeed, what we were told. At first, for a significant amount of time, the woman working at the station completely ignored us. When Aaron made this more difficult by approaching her and asking about fueling up, she simply tried to wave us away and told us that she could not serve us and that we needed to keep going. This confused and upset us, so we did not leave. Instead we tried to make a case for us not really having a choice in moving on, as our vehicles run on the thing that she could give us, but was choosing not to give us. “We are almost out of gasoline, so if we leave here without it, we won’t get far,” was our basic plea. But this plea fell on deaf ears, or more accurately, unsympathetic ears. We parked at one of the pumps and refused to leave.
When other people pulled up behind us, they were directed to go to one of the other pumps. When they asked what our problem was, we told them and some of them offered to help us, but the woman refused to allow them to help us by doing things like filling a container to be given to us out of sight.
The “sit-and-make-yourself-a-problem-until-things-work-out-for-you” technique that had worked so well in countless situations on the trip was not being very effective this time. This might have something to do with the mounted cameras the woman would point to occasionally. But we just couldn’t believe that it would be completely illegal to sell gasoline to a foreigner. Different prices seemed insane, but sure, whatever, but to prohibit foreigners from having fuel was beyond us…
We eventually left. 15 to 20 miles away we came across another station and they fine selling us gasoline. They got a little spooked when we asked that they fill the extra containers we had, as this does seem to be illegal throughout Bolivia in some way, but when we explained that we wanted to get to Uyuni as soon as possible and that we just wanted to make fewer stops, they relaxed a bit. I guess maybe they thought we were hoping to sell it or something. The whole gasoline system in Bolivia still confuses me.
We wanted to go to Uyuni because that’s where the salt flats are. It was a shame that the salt flats are so far south in Bolivia, because it meant completely skipping La Paz and the Death Road, which we still hoped to ride. We were worried that the salt flats were going to dry up any day. Even when we were in Puno, we’d stop by the tour booking locations and ask about the state of things down in Uyuni. We were convinced that it could all get dry and then it wouldn’t be nearly as nice.
So we rode into La Paz just because it was the fastest way south. We stopped, however, because Aaron wanted to change his oil. We stopped again when we decided we would like to have working cell phones. And we stopped a third time when we realized we were within four miles of a Burger King.
I need to rewind a sentence here to complain. The first place we stopped at to get SIM cards we were told that, being foreigners, we were not allowed to have them. Which was perplexing. Then, at the next place, we were told that we could only use one specific brand of coverage, Vivo. Now, this struck us to be awfully similar to the gasoline situation. Also, by our own experience and what we were told by locals, Vivo is not very good service.
Once we left Burger King, having sated a craving caused by not having any proper form of fast food for about a month and a half, we headed south towards Uyuni. We realized that this meant we would have to turn back north if we wanted to ride Death Road, but we were happy to be riding, so it didn’t matter that much to us if we added a few extra miles to the journey.
La Paz is an interesting city. For one thing, it’s up at about 12,000ft elevation. Wikipedia says that it is “located in a bowl-like depression surrounded by the high mountains of the Altiplano.” So you take winding roads to get down to the center and then you wind back up to leave. They use a form of public transportation called the Teleferico, which is a system of “aerial cable cars”. These facts were about all we could observe by the short riding in and out of the city that we did. I mean, we didn’t know they called the cable cars the Teleferico at the time, but we saw them moving above us as we rode past.
We rode until it started getting dark. Then we started looking for a place to camp. We wanted to find a place that was either so far away from the road and people that we wouldn’t be bothered, or a place fairly close to a farm or something so that we could ask the owners for permission. The first place we checked told us that we could not camp on their land because of their dog. I looked down and saw a cute puppy and asked if this was the dog they were referring to. They laughed and said that the dog they were talking about was much larger and wouldn’t like us being there at night. So we left.
We then took a dirt road that led to a small group of houses. We rode to what I suppose we would call the town center and were met by about 12 people that lived around there. They told us we could camp right there on the pavement in the middle of square of the ‘town’. We felt like that would be really weird, as people probably use the area from very early in the morning and we’d just be on display all night, as most of the houses there would have clear views of us from their front windows.
We kindly declined the offer and rode a bit further and found a farmhouse. We asked if we could camp there and, after the man asked his wife about it, they agreed to let us set up camp within their gated area.
That night, as we settled into the tent, I used the apps on my phone to gauge the distance we were actually adding to our journey, if we really wanted to go back to La Paz and ride Death Road. It’s 340 miles from La Paz to Uyuni. So, riding back up and then back down makes it nearly 700 miles. This, according to the app, was about 16 hours of riding. The app was often too optimistic, though, so my guess is that it would be 18-20 hours.
So we sat in the tent outside the farmer’s house and weighed it all out. Could we postpone the salt flats a little longer? We were certain, at that point, that if we rode further away from Death Road that we wouldn’t be returning. For both our sakes and the sakes of the motorcycles, an extra 18 hours of riding just didn’t seem worth it.
We agreed that we would wake up early in the morning and ride back to La Paz. We would check in to a hostel and drop off the majority of our bags and ride up to Death Road immediately after.
And that’s what we did. We chose a popular hostel that had a restaurant in it with familiar western foods, dropped our bags in the storage area and went up north to Death Road.
At one point in time, it was the only road to get to Yungas. This meant that buses and trucks and larger vehicles would take the road regularly. There’s another, safer, road now, so Death Road is mostly just a tourist attraction.
“What kind of crazy person would choose to go to a place called ‘Death Road’?”, you ask? Well, for starters, thousands upon thousands of tourists visit the road yearly. Mostly, these days, it’s bicyclists, as hostels like the one we were staying in offer daily tours. You can get a “I survived Death Road” t-shirt and other similar souvenirs.
Beyond the danger, it’s got some amazing views and an interesting history. As far as dangerous roads go, we found that it was well groomed and a good deal more pleasant than many that we had ridden on the journey. We could definitely see how the sheer cliffs would be… unforgiving if we did somehow lose control momentarily.
An important rule that is regularly posted on signs along the road is that, just in that area, the inside is reserved for ascending and the side nearer the drop is for descending. I’m sure this has a purpose. In addition to that valid purpose, it also served to freak me out on several occasions when I’d forget this and go the wrong way into oncoming vehicles.
At two locations on Death Road, there are ziplines that you can pay a little extra to ride on. We decided to take the shorter of the two, I think it was less than $10 per person. After hours of moving along the ridge and being careful with the edge, it was fun to jump off.
When we reached the end of Death Road, we hit a fork. Naturally, without really knowing which way would take us back out towards La Paz, we chose the wrong way. Aaron and I agreed that this Death Road adjacent road was actually a fair deal deadlier than the actual Death Road. It seemed to just be a residential strip, as we saw some houses and then children walking home from school. The road was not nearly as well-groomed as Death Road and, while there weren’t quite the same ridiculous heights, it was surely high enough to cause death. Also, there were several slick water crossing areas.
It took about five miles of this before we decided to stop and ask which way we needed to go. The boys told us it was much easier to turn around and go back the other way than to continue onwards to the point where our current direction would bring us to asphalt, so we turned around.
We got back to La Paz and settled in at the hostel. Over the course of the last month and a half, Aaron and my interactions with other people were fairly restricted. We spoke enough Spanish to get by, but conversations didn’t usually extend past a finite list of topics we were comfortable with. We didn’t go out to too many tourist places, if we could help it, because those were more expensive and we didn’t know how long we’d be stuck. This hostel was packed with travelers and after really only talking to one other person for so long, it was nice to have options.
During our time in Puno, while we were reaching out for any contacts that could possibly lead to having any information or help with having our motorcycles returned to us, we were told that we should get into contact with the embassies in countries we were planning on traveling through. The rationale here was that, in Peru, we were introduced to our embassy as a problem. If we made contact before we became a problem, we would already have friends that would be willing to help us out. Ok, so that’s a bit of an oversimplified rationale, but it’s more or less accurate. Also, contacts with the embassy could help with spreading awareness of Task Force Dagger.
To our surprise, when we sent emails to the US embassy in La Paz, we were asked to come meet up with some people for breakfast. So, we had one day at the hostel and then, the next day, in the morning, took a taxi over to the embassy and had breakfast with three men who work at the embassy.
One of the men, after hearing about our trip so far, casually offered to have us stay at his home for a while. He said he had plenty of room and he was sure we’d be more comfortable at his place than at the hostel, which we admitted was a bit loud for us at night. We said we’d keep in touch and, if we were going to stay in La Paz for much longer, we’d definitely take him up on the offer.
That night, our hostel held a karaoke competition and Aaron received the prize of first place, which came with a coupon for a free steak for his rapping skills.
The main reason we thought we needed to leave La Paz was to make it to the salt flats before they were completely dry. We were assured by a man who works with motorcycle tours in the area, however, that there would almost definitely be some reflective properties there no matter when we arrived, so we felt that we could probably take our time. In hindsight, we probably should have been more worried about winter in Patagonia than not having the best possible pictures from Bolivia, but that didn’t weigh all too heavily on our minds at that time.
We met up with our new embassy friends, along with his family and some coworkers, at a very American styled sports bar. We ate wings and got to know everyone. We got a lot of good advice on motorcycle mechanics and routes throughout Bolivia as well.
Afterwards, we went to our new friends’ house, where we spent about two weeks. There was a party that we thought would be a good opportunity to meet new people and there were enough things in and around La Paz to keep us busy. Also, just living in a house for a while and spending time with the friendly family was a very nice change of pace for us.
We visited the Devil’s Teeth, which is a mountain peak that overlooks La Paz. It was unseasonably wet for Bolivia at that time of year, which was reassuring to us in regards to the salt flats. This also made this little ride up the steep, clay-like mud much more difficult than we expected. We had a couple falls and left the peak muddy and with motorcycles in a bit worse shape than they arrived
We then got the motorcycles to the mechanic that was recommended to us. We both had three or four things that we wanted checked out. Simple things, mostly, like replacing broken levers and replacing our deteriorating seats. My front suspension needed some help, so I asked about it and, after a quick phone call, the mechanic was able to tell me that I was very lucky, because the replacement parts were available, but they were the last ones in all of La Paz.
With the extra time in the area, we wanted to visit Sajama National Park, which is a couple hours away from La Paz, so we took about half our gear and figured we could camp somewhere out that way.
Sajama is Bolivia’s oldest national park and the area we visited was around 14,000 feet with mountains surrounding us ranging up to over 21,000 feet. There are volcanos, geysers, hot springs, and an array of unique plants and animals.
It’s right on the border of Chile. In fact, the border is the closest place to get gas, so we stopped by more than once while we were in the area.
The first night, we rode out to try to find some hot springs to set a camp up next to, but we didn’t have much luck there. We met up with some other adventure riders who told us that there were some difficult water crossings and some rough mud in the park. While we knew this wouldn’t stop us from exploring wherever we decided we wanted to go, it did influence our decision to head back to a hotel for the night and do our exploring the morning with the daylight.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we rode as far as we could up to a mountain pass. On the way, we stopped at a field that was littered with steaming and bubbling hot springs. It smelled a bit off there, but that didn’t stop a herd of Llamas from lazily grazing all across the field.
We rode for a while after we could no longer follow a path and, in the end, had to turn around and head back because the vegetation was getting difficult and Aaron’s motorcycle wasn’t happy with the altitude.
We had some tips from our friends in La Paz about where to go and what to see in Sajama. We had the name of a man who ran a private hot spring and when we inquired about exactly where to find him, we were given a location just about a mile down the main path.
When we arrived at the spot that was indicated by the map drawn by the shopkeeper we spoke to, there wasn’t much there. The night before, we rode off the path somewhere near this place, but were turned away from the public hot springs because it was too late.
We rode off the path again and started exploring, hoping to find the secret private hot spring. And, sure enough, after some water crossings and field riding, we found it. We wondered who we were supposed to talk to about using it, but decided it might be better to just use it and happily pay the person, if they ever came up to us claiming it was theirs.
There was a bit of strategy in riding out to the hot springs, because some of the terrain was particularly difficult. At some point during our long soak at the hot spring, Aaron made mention of what he thought was the best way to get back to the path.
I didn’t really pay attention to this, but saw an area just past a creek that looked, to me, fairly even and good to ride on. Aaron had already moved in the direction he thought best, but after seeing me ride in the other direction, followed me.
I rode straight across the stream and soon was deep in some kind of marsh that was evenly broken up by tiny, steep moguls. This is, probably, the most difficult terrain I’ve ever tried to ride on. Later on in this journey, we’d experience snow and ice, but I might still have to hold that Sajama’s marshy area was worse.
At one point, Aaron was stuck with the rear wheel sunken in to the swing arm while I was stuck and unable to help Aaron, because my kickstand would just sink into the muck and bike would fall.
I tried to tell Aaron that, due to my situation, he needed to come help me first and that I would help him after, as his bike was stuck upright and he couldn’t push it over if he tried. My bike, being the opposite, needed attention first.
Aaron being (somewhat rightfully) angry, did not want to help. He was upset about me bringing us this direction in the first place and had already helped get me out of a couple similar situations. He had clearly expressed that he wanted to avoid this area while we were in the hot spring and he refused to come help me and claimed that I never help him and more stuff along those lines.
He was particularly angry because he was still dealing with pain from crashing in Peru, breaking his ribs, and some other injuries that I can’t remember when or why he had them. He was set on getting out of the hot springs, having a fast and easy ride back to the hotel, and having a relaxing night. With this no longer on the table, and with him realizing how stuck we were, he became increasingly angry.
At a standoff, I decided to let my bike just fall, in order to help lift Aaron out of the muck. I went back and tried to pick my bike up, but definitely needed Aaron’s help, which he did give. Setting the bike down as I did ended up putting a solid crack in the clutch lever, but it was still working.
From here, we slowly pushed through the mire. On about three more occasions, I needed Aaron to help get me unstuck. I was torn between thinking that riding or walking the bike would be more effective. At one point, I was stuck completely on a bump so that both tires were lifted over half a foot off the ground and I couldn’t make it lean far enough either way to knock it off. I kicked at the dirt until I could slide it down.
Aaron offered to ride my motorcycle for me, which I said he was welcome to do, and he got out of the wettest area for me, but soon after hit another mogul and the bike went down again.
None of our interactions during this time were particularly pleasant to each other, despite my somewhat frequent apologies for getting us into the situation. Even though cooperation was forced and unfriendly, we did eventually get out of the mess. While we were hoping to get back to the hotel clean and relaxed from the hot springs, we instead took an extra hour and a half, were covered in mud, sweaty and aggravated. For Aaron, this was accentuated by the feeling that his ribs were popping out of place every time he had to pick up a bike.
Once we were back at the hotel, showered and feeling a little better about things, we went to the one little shop in the town and had dinner. There, we met two Czech brothers who travel the world with their skis. They climb mountains and then ski down them. They told us we were the first brothers that they had met in their travels doing anything like them. We told them the same.
We really wanted to climb the same mountain they were about to, but it’s a climb that take multiple days and we didn’t have that kind of time.
The next morning, Aaron was unable to start his motorcycle. We tried push starting, but it was just wasn’t working. We knew the bikes took a beating the day before, maybe one of the worst of their lives, but we were hoping there wouldn’t be any lasting problems that came from it.
The shopkeeper from before offered to tie Aaron’s bike to his truck for a push start. Once that was in place Aaron’s bike started, but oil due to a ding to the cover of his oil filter (which presumably happened the previous night), burst out from it, so he didn’t keep it running.
The KLR was also having some problems starting that morning. We gave it the truck pull treatment and it started, though, and then I was off to the border crossing gas station for oil and to fill our gas bag up for Aaron.
While I was gone, Aaron spent time wrenching and fixing his oil issue.
About an hour later, I was back with oil and gas and Aaron was ready to get the bike running again.
We were on the road about thirty minutes after that. The terrain on the ride from Sajama to La Paz is amazing close to Sajama, but there’s a long expanse between the two that’s pretty boring. During the ride, though, it became evident that the fork job done by the mechanic in La Paz had failed the Sajama test.
Oil was flowing freely from the left fork on to my boot and dying it black.
Once back in La Paz, we went back to our friend’s house. It was Saturday, which was the same day as the party. Originally, we thought we would leave for southern Bolivia the Sunday after, but with the work that now needed to be done to our motorcycles after Sajama, we knew we’d be around for another couple days.
The event was great and making connections with people at the embassy was good.
Monday, because the weekend is a time for things to not be accomplished, we went back to the mechanic. We like the guy, but there were some hard truths that had to be acknowledged; mainly, either the parts installed in my forks were faulty, or they installed them poorly.
Aaron just pointed out to me that being the “Bad Guy” is always his job, but that’s OK, because he kind of likes it.
At first, the answer was, “No,” on both counts. The next question from Aaron was, “So they are only meant to last three days?” to which again, the answer was, “No.”
Eventually the disconnect there brought him to admit that the parts must have been bad and the installation was correct. He also apologized, because, he claimed, the parts I needed were not available in La Paz. I’d already bought the last ones in town and there were no more.
We believed this was ridiculous and, thanks to the connections we’d made with the embassy, a quick call to our new friend, and then his calls to his friends, led to finding the parts within 12 hours.
We had a few other issues to get fixed as well, so we left the motorcycles there for a couple days and went back to hanging out with the our friends and wandering around La Paz.
When the motorcycles were good to go, we said goodbye to our La Paz family and rode to Uyuni. The road from there was fairly straight and very easy.
We used the iOverlander app to help find a hotel that had secure parking and checked in. We were told by our friends in La Paz that Uyuni had the best pizza in all of Bolivia, so we went searching for that. We found the restaurant called Minuteman Pizza and, sure enough, it was very good.
The next morning, we went to visit Robin at the motorcycle tour shop there in Uyuni. At least, we intended to meet with Robin, as he was the one we spoke to on the phone originally, but he was off on a tour, so we met up with his business partner.
We looked at maps of the area and got advice as to how to see the most with the time we had in the area. By the end, we felt confident we had the best route possible.
Our plan from there was to go to the Dakar monument, ride to Fish Island, camp there, see if there’s anything else to do the next morning, then ride back to the entrance for sunset on the reflective pool area.
At the entrance we took, the ground turned very gradually from dirt, to mud, to salt, but once it turned to salt, as far as the horizon, that’s all you could see.
We had a direction for the Dakar monument, so we rode off that way. The first 15 to 20 minutes of riding on the perfectly flat, bright white surface was mesmerizing. Just riding circles and wandering around was a lot of fun. Then, after that introduction, it became kind of a chore. It was only a couple miles to the monument, though, and by then we were still entranced by the uniqueness of it all.
The Dakar monument is a big, salt statue made to commemorate the annual race. I can’t find much information on when it was made or by whom, but it’s cool.
After seeing the monument, we rode over to where we were told we could see the reflective pool. We were a bit worried, because people with tours at the monument told us that it was all dried up. In fact, actual tour guides told us that it was impossible now to experience what we were looking for. We were just a bit surprised, then, when we went to where we were told we could find it and it was, indeed, there.
As far as we can figure, tour guides just don’t want to ride their jeeps over to the shallow salt water pool for a good portion of the year. By the end, what I can’t be 100% sure of, but what makes the most sense from talking to many people, the wet season, which is when we originally wanted to be there, is just too wet. As there’s only about a meter of elevation difference from one end of the salt flats to the other, it’s easy to imagine that the water spread across the whole of it and makes all of it difficult to traverse.
Then there’s a perfect time of year, where it recedes just the right amount and everywhere around you looks amazing. And during the dryer times, there’s just a small pond that will still afford you some great pictures, especially at the right time of day.
We left the reflective pond and headed towards Fish Island. This, also, ended up being not how the tour guides had told us.
The islands rise up from the cracked, white earth just like a normal island from a placid lake. We rode up to what we thought was Fish Island, but we checked our map and found out that it was actually Incahuasi. Then we asked tour guides who were standing near their jeeps and they told us that Fish Island is Incahuasi. This was confusing, because on a map they are completely separate places with different names.
So we asked a little more and used some reasoning skills and came to the conclusion that this, like the reflective pool, is something that tour guides simply don’t want to go to, so they lie. From what we could learn about this particular situation, however, there’s nothing different or special to see at Fish Island over Incahuasi, so not such a big deal.
Aaron went into the restaurant in the front of the island to ask about camping, but was told that he could pay a little to sleep in a refuge instead. Then he asked about caves that we’d heard about on the island, but he was told that there were none.
So when he came out, we naturally got back on the bikes and rode to the backside of the island and found a perfect cave to camp in.
It didn’t take long to set up the tent and settle in. There’s something uniquely beautiful about the sun setting on a flat and perfectly blank horizon. Once it was dark, we could see headlights and taillights far off in the distance from jeeps on their tours.
We expected to have a perfect night of stargazing that night, but not long after the sun set, the moon came up and was so incredibly bright that we could barely see any stars at all. Given how strange and interesting everything there was, though, it was hard to be to get too angry about this.
We cooked a stew with some vegetable packs we got from a small market along with some rice and quinoa.
It got cold that night, but we had a small fire and were tucked into the cave, so we stayed nice and warm.
The sunrise was also particularly nice on the salt flat. We didn’t have any serious plans for that day, but we had heard something about a volcano, so we wanted to investigate that. We had a slow morning and, before we packed the bikes up to move on, we tried to get some of the perspective photos that we had been seeing on signs in and on every tour center in Bolivia. It turns out, we’re not that good at them.
We were now getting to the point of not being quite as enthralled by riding on the salt flats. It felt somewhat like riding on a treadmill. We’d just keep heading in the same direction for over 30 miles and objects in the distance didn’t seem to be getting any nearer at times. You could ride for miles without ever needing to look directly in front of you. I guess I wouldn’t advise that, but you’d almost certainly be fine.
We made it to somewhere near the volcano and had to get off the flats. The transition of salt flat, to mud, to earth isn’t always the easiest to navigate, which is why there are dock-like paths of packed dirt leading to ‘land’.
iOverlander told us that there was a meteorite near us as well as a volcano and some mummies. Our itinerary went from being fairly empty to being packed with lava, space rocks, and ancient people. Unfortunately, iOverlander wasn’t connecting properly with our other apps, so actually arriving at any of the destinations we were aware of was difficult. We were told later that this area has some weird magnetic properties that can mess with GPS and stuff.
We rode all around that place and on several occasions rode up into some very rough trails, following old roads just to have those roads turn into a quinoa field. Of course, this meant we had to turn around and head back.
As we continued to ride throughout the morning without actually finding anything, I was more or less content, as my plan at the start of the day was to ride around a volcano, which was technically exactly what we had been doing. Aaron was getting progressively upset, though, because he really wanted to see some mummies. I guess, in a way, I was just mitigating failure as a means coping while Aaron was fighting it in attempts to actually accomplish something that day.
We went back to the salt flats, thinking that we may have missed the obvious entrance, and came back up a different way. We followed a path that wound up a way we hadn’t been before.
On this path, we came across a bicyclist that we had met with back on Incahuasi. While this was pleasant, because he was a genuinely nice guy, it was a reminder to us that we were riding in circles and should have been very far ahead of him. He was going the opposite direction of us. He said that he thought the things we were looking for were the other direction, but Aaron had it on his GPS and we’d already been where the bicyclist indicated, so we kept going.
Earlier in the day, Aaron filled his tank up. I did not, because it didn’t seem necessary. Aaron’s tank contains about 3 gallons. Mine is about 5. We were both full when we entered the salt flats and he only added about 8 liters, which is a bit over 2 gallons. This led me to believe that I didn’t have to get gas then, because I’d just stop at the same time as Aaron.
The path we were on that we were convinced ended with mummies became increasingly steep and rocky and difficult. On one of the uphill stretches, after I’d fallen once or twice… or more than that on the rocks, the KLR started having problems that I associate with an empty tank.
The deal, usually, is that I get gasoline at the same time as Aaron, always, so that when Aaron runs out, I can give him some of mine and we know it’s definitely time to stop and fill up. This was just a short adventure, though, where I didn’t think we’d ever be further than 40 miles from Uyuni. It didn’t seem as important to me.
Aaron was again angry, both because it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to see those mummies and also because he believed strongly that I should have put more gas in the tank when he did. I was just confused, because there was no way that I should have been empty while Aaron’s bike still ran. I kept going through the math of why I couldn’t be wrong and Aaron kept pointing out that I did, undeniably, appear to be out of gasoline.
We turned the bikes around and went down the steep, rocky path back to the little village on the edge of the salt flat. I rode down nearly the whole way in neutral, believing I didn’t have any fuel left. We tried to find gasoline at the village, but couldn’t.
Then we rode out to the salt flats and came across a small trailer circle and asked them about gasoline. The man there told us to go back to the village we’d just come from. We don’t like turning back, though, even when it’s definitely the smartest thing to do, so we kept riding on.
After about 15 miles, I concluded that lack of fuel must not have been the reason the KLR stopped wanting to climb that road. Not exactly sure why it kept dying earlier, but it riding fine by then.
Aaron got to talking to some motorcycle adventurers at the monument and offered to take them to the pool. I saw some others by the flags and went to tell them as well. Everyone we spoke to there initially told us that the reflective effect wasn’t there at this time of year, but we showed them pictures from the day before and they were sold.
In fact, we’d been doing that the whole day with people on tours. No one seemed to believe that it was the right season for it and we frequently had to use the photos to convince them of it.
We made it just in time for the sunset and, thanks to the people we’d brought with us to pond, we could get some nice pictures with both of us.
Every ten minutes the colors in the sky changed and were reflected perfectly on the water we were standing in. The conditions have to be just right, as even a little wind can disturb the water and it doesn’t look nearly as nice, but that evening it was perfect.
We got back to Uyuni and had a relaxing night.
The next morning, we went to meet with Robin. He offered to let us use the garage for some quick repairs and mentioned he had a pressure washer that could help with all the salt.
Robin told us that plenty of similar businesses, renting motorcycles and the like, had come and gone from Uyuni. One of the biggest reasons they don’t last is because they don’t properly clean and care for the vehicles after they’ve spent time out on the salt.
We got the bikes clean and went to work fixing some minor maintenance things. Aaron had some issues with his taillight, which was a nearly constant problem. I had some bolts that had somehow decided to leave the KLR at some point during the last couple days, so I replaced those. We looked into replacing my rear tire, which, I think, was last replaced in Guatemala four years prior, but there weren’t any available that would fit properly.
When we told Robin about our disappointing attempt at seeing mummies, he told us that there was a place nearby with mummies that almost no one ever goes to. This seemed too good to be true, but, sure enough, once we got the motorcycles moving again, he went riding with us out to see them.
They were fascinating. Hundreds and hundreds of years old, they were likely rulers of the area. Locals visit the site occasionally with gifts for the mummies; money, liquor, cigarettes, etc. They were all on a bed-like structure in a little hut and the largest one, which still had well preserved, braided hair, had a cigarette sticking out of his mouth that had been lit like incense.
Mounted above the entrance was a mummified puma, whose task was to protect those inside.
Having seen mummies and worked on getting the motorcycles back into shape, we felt pretty good about leaving.
Before we could, though, we wanted to fill the tanks up. We were going to go through the national park to get to the border and there wouldnt be many opportunities to buy more fuel.
During out rime around Uyuni, we kept seeing a couple of other motorcycle adventure groups riding around and there was a pair of Norwegians that Aaron had spoken to the day before. They said they were going the same way we were and would like to ride with us.
We tried to contact them using the internet, but due to our not having it, or them not having it at the right time, it was difficult to organize.
As luck would have it, however, we rode right past them in town while we were heading to the gas station. So we told them we’d be right back and we could head south together.
Their names were Peter and Joakim. Peter had started his ride up in Alaska and planned to go from northernmost to southernmost points of the rideable Americas. Joakim joined him at Cusco. They were both riding Suzukis, Peter a DR650 and Joakim a DRZ400.
We left Uyuni together and headed south. The first place to visit on the way out of Bolivia was a rock garden, of sorts. Joakim was new to off-road riding and was having some difficulty with the sand when the roads turned from asphalt to dirt.
There were a few, maybe ten by the end of the day, falls and at times I thought he may have seriously injured himself, but he toughed it out and we made it to the rocky campsite just before dark. Luckily, we were going slow enough that doing much major damage to the bikes seemed unlikely. Unluckily, on one of his first falls, he cracked the coolant reservoir. Thus started the frequent updates from Joakim on exactly how hot his engine was getting, as he had a thermometer attached to it.
We took a few minutes to wander around and find an area that could provide protection from the wind and still have enough space for two tents to be set up. We agreed on a place somewhat quickly and before long had a campsite and campfire.
We made dinner and had hot chocolate afterwards. We had a good time just sharing stories around the fire as it cast shadows on the boulders around us.
Something worth noting here is, while we felt good about the state of the motorcycles after the salt flats, almost nothing else felt good. Our shoes, clothes, and bags were all, seemingly, irreparably damaged by being soaked in salt water. My shoelaces no longer fit through the holes on my boots, to say nothing of the now solid and uncomfortable state of the boots themselves, no matter how many times I washed them.
This is about the time that we started using the campfire to dry and warm our shoes and socks and whatnot. This coincides with the times that we unintentionally burned our things to a point of not being able to use them, but that didn’t happen quite so frequently just yet.
The next morning, we rode on through the national park. We were excited to see Laguna Colorado, some geysers, hot springs, and Laguna Verde.
Laguna Colorado is a completely red. It creates a stunning contrast with the bleached white terrain around it, which is caused by borax. In fact, there’s a borax mine very close to the lake. The redness of the lake is caused by algae.
We guessed that there probably wasn’t much living in the lake, because there was a tideline circling the lake filled with feathers and dead things. Because of this, it struck us as strange that there was a huge flock of flamingos hanging out at the far end of the lake.
We took some time to take pictures and video of the area and then rode on. The road was rougher before we got to Laguna Colorado. From the borax mine onwards, due to the trucks, the roads became wider and smoother.
We were looking at where we could spend the night and thought immediately of the hot springs. If we could camp there, perfect. If we had to stay at a hostel nearby, that worked, too.
We were riding particularly slowly throughout the day and had stopped way more than expected to take pictures. Peter’s clutch cable broke, too, which took a little while to fix. We realized we were getting way too close to having to ride at night, so finding a safe place to sleep was foremost in our minds.
We decided we could skip the geysers, we could see them from the main road anyways, so we got a little closer and checked them out. we saw white clouds bursting from the earth and rising into the sky. Then, since we were already there, we took a few minutes to explore the geysers.
They smelled bad, but were very hot. Signs were posted claiming that hanging around for too long would be bad for your health, so definitely not for camping. Even though it smelled like rotten eggs, I hovered my hands above them for warmth while we were there.
We turned around and checked the map to make sure we were on course to go directly to the hot springs. It was a cold day and we knew it would be a colder night. We were tired and if we were going to ride in the dark, we wanted to be sure that we were riding in the right direction.
Even after checking, we hit fork in the road and went the wrong way for about three miles. I stopped, checked, and got us turned around again.
We finally arrive at a lake with a few buildings nearby. We stopped at the first one and it was a hostel with no vacancies.
I wasn’t ruling out camping at this point, but everyone else looked to want to find someplace warm and indoors.
We walked around a bit looking for options. Aaron spoke to some workers at a restaurant and asked if we could just sleep on the floor after it closed. They were surprised by the request, but said it’d be fine and gave a reasonable price for the service.
I’m not sure why they were surprised by the request, though, as there were already two bicyclists inside preparing an area to sleep.
The restaurant was also, so they claimed, associated with the hot springs next door and they asked that we pay them a small amount of money if we planned on using the hot springs that night.
We were all cold and tired and, even though it was dark, it was still early, so of course we wanted to check out the hot springs.
We had dinner before going to the springs so, by the time we got there, it was very dark out. We couldn’t really see he surrounding area, but the water was perfect and the stars were clear that night.
Every couple hours a group of new tourists got dropped off for a couple hours, so it turned out to be a fairly busy place.
The ride in the morning to Lago Verde went smoothly.
This lake didn’t have a ring of dead things on its shore and Joakim really wanted to swim in something, even though it was very cold. In fact, the cold probably made him want to swim even more. He changed into his swimsuit and tried to take a dip, but all of these interestingly colored lakes are very, very shallow. He ran for a while, realized it wasn’t going to get any deeper, and then plopped down into the water.
Joakim didn’t swim in the red lake because of the ring of death surrounding it. I’ve just read that the water in Lago Verde, however, is green because of arsenic. Joakim didn’t die, though, and until now I just assumed that it was some benign mineral that caused the color. Oh well.
He hurriedly got back into his riding gear and we tried riding away from Lago Verde. A couple of us had ridden just a bit too close to the lake, however, and the flat, dry, and cracked earth crumbled under the weight of the bikes and mud caught the tires underneath. We helped each other get out and rode to the border, which was very close to Lago Verde.
First we had to leave the national park, which was just about within view of the lake. They had a restaurant there, which we took advantage of. We noticed that we probably wouldn’t be seeing a money exchange anywhere near this border, as it looked almost entirely untraveled. In fact, I don’t remember another vehicle using that road or border the whole time we were in that area.
We bought some Snickers and Coke in an attempt to use up more of our Bolivian pesos.
Then we rode the empty dirt road a few miles to the border, which was just a small, one-room building with a man at a desk inside.
Peter went in to talk to the man. When he came back, he told us that they do not do customs here. The place to take care of customs was somewhere around 80 kilometers back north. It was actually very close to the smelly geysers we visited the day before.
So what came next was the four of us pacing back and forth outside wondering what the best course of action would be. We went through the options:
- We ride back up to the customs office. As it was about 2pm, the ride back up the rough roads and back would almost certainly put us a day behind our plan.
- We get the stamps in our passports and pretend we don’t have motorcycles. Repercussions for this could be that the motorcycles wouldn’t be welcomed back into the country. Some borders ask to see the paperwork from the country you are leaving. We weren’t sure about worst case scenario there.
- Walk back inside and ask for help.
Somehow we ended up on option 2. I walked in and gave my paperwork to get the passport stamped and almost immediately, he asked about the motorcycle.
I started to think what the best way to talk through our situation when a couple Bolivians walked in and took the attention away from me.
We believe they spoke a little bit about us. I think they noticed that we were talking a little about them.
After the men left, the man behind the desk asked us what we were going to do. When I didn’t immediately answer, he offered an option we hadn’t considered.
He asked for our papers and told us that he would give everything necessary to a truck driver later and ask him to drop them off with the appropriate office the next day. All he asked was for a tip for the truck driver.
This was a thousand times better than any of the previous options. We gave a fairly generous tip and left the office feeling victorious.
The road hadn’t changed much at all after leaving the national park. You’d almost expect there to be asphalt, but again, this is not a very popular border.
This made the exact point where Bolivia becomes Chile all the more interesting, as the sign indicating the change was also exactly where the road became an immaculate, smoothly-paved road, almost like a statement; “Chile has nice roads.”
Bolivia was great. We didn’t expect much from it, but we’d met great people, seen some incredible mountains and lakes, and found new riding partners. We were ready to leave, though. We were especially looking forward to being somewhere a bit warmer. We’d been looking ahead on the maps and saw that from the border, there was a huge decrease in altitude which would almost certainly raise the temperature so that we could walk around in shorts and T-shirts again.