Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Sep 30, 2014 – Oct 2, 2014
No hay gasolina, the returnOne of our concerns leaving Uyuni that morning was fuel. The route we had planned would take us first through the Salar before veering South toward the Argentinean border through the Eduardo Avaroa park. All in all we were looking at 535kms with no gas station in sight. On a good day, the IMS tanks on our DRs give them a 320kms range, we were 215kms short!
As the Zebra was conjuring nightmarish visions of hours spent pushing our stranded bikes under the Bolivian sun, I concocted what I felt was a perfect plan; we would acquire two large 5 liter bottles of water, giving us an extra 80 kms range per bike and cajole the driver of one of the many 4×4 driving around to loan us the missing 25 liters, perfect!
Armed with that sound plan we left Uyuni and entered the Salar at Colchani. The experience is hard to describe, within a few minutes the town disappeared in the distance leaving us with no visual landmark to orient ourselves. The salty surface of the Salar bears the tire marks of previous explorers, creating fugacious streets and avenues to unknown destinations. Freed from the diktat of stakes and milestones, I resorted to my aviator’s training and opted to follow a straight magnetic bearing to reach our first waypoint the Isla Incahuasi.
What was it like riding through that endless white flatness you may ask? This short video might give you an idea.
The outline of an improbable rock of sizeable dimension eventually broke the perfect white line of the horizon. Soon the contour of Isla Incahuasi became clear like a green oasis piercing the immaculate canvas of the Uyuni flats. The Zebra and I played hide and seek behind the cacti and took a thousand pictures before settling for lunch on a large slab of salt erected as a table.
Fed and entertained we headed South toward the tiny village of San Juan, ignoring Ruta 5 and the easy entrance into Argentina via Ollague.
Farewell civilisationIn San juan we took a kit-kat break at an astonishingly neat grocery store. Rumour had it that we might be able to purchase fuel there. The girl running the place soon informed us that while they indeed had a few barrels of the precious liquid, we would have to wait for her aunt to return to conclude the transaction. 30 minutes later and no aunt in sight we started roaming the dusty streets of San Juan in search of a good soul with fuel to spare. A fellow motorcycle rider agreed to sell us 5 liters and we acquired another 10 liters from the only mechanic in town. The Zebra sighed in relief, the odds of pushing our bikes through the border had decreased.
Laguna HediondaA bit later than we had wished, we resumed our journey South towards Laguna Hedionda where we were hoping to pitch our tent for the night. Friendly llamas greeted us as we crossed the village of Copacabana and begun discovering giant granitic marbles tossed along our path. As the sun went down, volcanic gravel replaced the packed dirt we had been riding on so far, offering a tired Zebra with unwelcome riding challenges. A brutal crash tolled the bell of her dwindling energy, making us both regret not setting up camp earlier under the warm shelter of rocky hills. The Zebra valiantly pushed through ignoring the freezing night breeze and the wobbles of her front tire struggling for traction.
It was close to 10 pm when we finally spotted the Laguna Hedionda and the Flamingo Ecolodge. The kid in charge of the vacant premises warmed up a tea to thaw our bones and kindly offered us to pitch our tent in the shadows of the hotel walls. The Zebra and I joined forces to set camp in a record breaking time, we were soon asleep, despite the roaring wind blowing outside.
The comfort of our sleeping bags was hard to abandon the next morning. Yapping tourists brought by 4×4 tours broke the quietness of this magic place and convinced us that it was time to get moving. We kept our rpms low to not disturb the flamingos scattered across the lake and were promptly reunited with the harsh reality of another taxing day of sand riding.
The Zebra has gone missingRed rolling hills that would have been right at home on Mars greeted us as we passed the Hotel del Desierto. A mixture of fine dust and sharp rocks conspired to hinder the Zebra’s progress while I reverted to my usual strategy, more gas. Carried away by the speed I soon reached a rocky formation that marked the end of this dirt field. Standing at the top of the rocks I take in this eery landscape and expect to see the Zebra appearing on a hill crest. Several long minutes went by and the familiar thump-thump of the Zebramobile could still not be heard. “She should already be here” I told myself as the fear of another fall started creeping up in my mind. I jumped down the rocks and launched my DR on the GPS trace I had followed. Still no Zebra. I spent the next half hour sweeping through the red hills slowly coming to the realisation that the relief could easily conceal a motorcycle. I parallel tracked my route, pausing regularly to listen for exhaust noise, and after what felt like an eternity found the Zebra, luggage spread out around her bike, tears streaming down her face. After a long hug she told me she had indeed fallen down and was unable to pick up her bike. Growing worried that I might be lying under my bike unable to rescue her, she took all the luggage off her bike and muscled it upright. Luckily the Zebra was unscathed but this remains one of the scariest moment of our adventure.
Entering Eduardo Avaroa National ParkAfter that I kept the Zebra in sight at all times as we replayed our Baja strategy, Zebra rides ahead until she is out of radio range, then I ride pass the Zebra until I am out of radio range and repeat. Why not ride side-by-side you may ask? Riding in sand is similar in many ways to water skiing, at slow speed you are plowing the water, it is safe but exhausting, at high speed you are planing on top, it is easy but a mistake results in a serious spanking. While it is easier for me to drift though sand at 90km/h, the Zebra feels safer at 20km/h. Shortly thereafter a rudimentary gate marked the entrance of the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. The location of the entrance seemed random since landscape and trails were identical on both sides of the barrier. One thing changed though, our wallets got lightened of $50 an exorbitant price to access an unmaintained desert. Obviously Bolivia needs money.
The park harbors remarkable landmarks though, starting with the Arbol de Piedra, and including the lagunas Colorada, Blanca and Verde, Sol de mañana geothermal field, what might be the highest aduana in the world and finally Dali’s desert. The challenging terrain and the strong winds incited us to ride through rather pitch our tent for another night, something we might have regretted if it wasn’t for the fabulous sunset that welcomed us into Chile as we rode down from the Bolivian Alti-plano into San Pedro de Atacama.