In which Pete discovers why the local roads are generally used only by 4x4’s, gets completely lost many times as a result of a horrible map, and is forced to decide between a risky river crossing or giving up.
Begin: Uyuni, Bolivia @ 1PM
End: Unknown Location, Valley of Red Rocks, Unnamed Road, Bolivia @ 6:30PM
Distance: 163km (102 miles) in 5.5 hours (29kmh / 18mph average speed)
I woke up early this morning, excited at the prospect of heading out on what I expected would be the highlight of my trip, a massive journey across Boliva and into Chile. The first order of business was getting fuel, however – last night I had waited in line for over three hours, only for the gas station to run out of fuel with only four cars ahead of me at the pumps. They said the next delivery would be at 9AM today, so I headed over immediately only to find that I was not at all the only person in town waiting for fuel this morning.
It was especially frustrating because I only needed 20 liters of fuel in my spare can, while most of the people waiting in line were giant 4x4’s with dual 50 liter spare tanks; the line moved forward very slowly.
I passed the time exchanging information with some of the locals as well as everything from philosophy of traveling to the differences in poverty levels between Bolivia and America. By the time I finally made it up to the pump at 12:30PM, I had found out that there was only one town on my route with a gas station and that a huge portion of my target area – the Eduardo Avaroa park – was indeed closed as a result of massive snow and likely wouldn’t open until summer. Even Laguna Colorada, my secondary destination, would be inaccessible.
I decided to see what I could see, if nothing else I’d have a grand adventure driving some of the crazy roads of Bolivia. On the way out of town I grabbed ten empanadas to supplement my meager supplies of 12 liters of water, 24 ritz cheese cracker sandwiches, two liters of yogurt, two tins of tuna, and a couple rolls of crackers as well as a few remaining packets of pasta from Argentina. That should keep me comfortable for four days if all went well…
The road out of town was unpleasant to say the least, with horrible dirt washboarding and large rocks, craters, and various other niceties staggered throughout. Within thirty kilometers a section of my frame that hadn’t been welded and reinforced broke and once again I resorted to using medical tape (I stocked up in Uyuni) to repair it.
With a very slow speed and careful traveling, I nonetheless quickly arrived at one of the most amazing features near Uyuni: the mud flats which surround the outskirts of the salt flats. At this time of year they are still slightly moist and I made an abortive attempt to drive across them instead of the road; it was not possible to gain any real speed with the stick mud just slightly gripping at my tires.
The day passed in a simple pleasant blur, this section of road being the more civilized that I’d be traveling along for quite awhile. In San Cristobal, around 60km south of Uyuni, I topped off my tank at the last gas station I would see on the trip and continued onward into the late afternoon.
Passing San Cristobal and Culpina K, the road turned from southward to westward and the west wind that had frustrated me turned into a tooth crunching smash in the face, throwing dust and rocks at me and greatly slowing my speed. The road was strangely inconsistent, at times easily wide enough for three trucks, often with occasional side trails traveling next to the road for two or even three more cars – and yet, just as often suddenly winding down to nothing, narrow and brutal as it passed up or down a small range of hills.
As the sun set, I passed Villa Alotta and made the first navigation error of the trip: my map showed a road heading south towards Villa Mar and Laguna Colorada, but I missed the turn off. In fact, I drove right past it thinking it was a small access road to a local farm as a result of the angle and the fact that it clearly ended at a nearby river.
A bit up the road I found another major 4x4 trail that turned off towards a huge section of towering red rocks, which marked my map’s notation about a “Valley of Red Rocks” along the road. I turned up it but quickly found myself mired down in my ultimate nemesis: deep sand.
There’s really no way to conquer deep sand in the mototaxi, especially when it’s a 4x4 trail with deep ruts and huge piles on the outside and middle. The moto is too wide, forcing my wheels into the side and robbing all of my power. This was some of the worst sand I encountered on my trip and mostly uphill, without any sort of hard ground underneath it. Within ten minutes I was stuck horribly twice, resorting to physically lifting the moto up and around – there was no way I was going to make it up this trail, especially in the growing dark.
The only solution would be to head back towards the main road and drive west. According to my map there was another section of road that would take me south further along and that would now be my primary option.
Darkness settled in rapidly, the strange terrain of the red rocks growing out of the desert around me causing strange shadows and shapes to leap across the road as night settled in. Even worse, the road began to wend its way uphill with sand blown across it, a constant struggle. Into the wind, through the sand, up the hill, in the dark, little Red screamed his way slowly along in first or second gear as the giant rocks and deep sand on the side of the road mocked my desire to find a safe place to stop for the night.
Twice I thought I spotted a possible route off the road, only to quickly become mired in deep sand and turn around. I didn’t quite despair because I knew I would find somewhere eventually, but with the darkness once again came her evil sister, cold. I had now ascended to over 4000 meters in the Andes mountains in early winter and night and cold were slowly whispering their words of seduction in my ear.
Then, almost like magic, the area around the road opened up widely as the climb tapered off. Although the road was still surrounded by these towering rocks, there were now many areas open between them, leading off into a giant empty and seemingly endless altiplano in many directions. Even better, this section had a lot of vegetation that helped harden the sand and after some careful scouting I determined that I could drive off the road and find a spot to camp.
Picking a large rock in the open desert to slightly shelter me from the wind, I set up my tent and began to snack on some of my empanadas for dinner. The darkness seemed to fade away as I set up camp and at first I was confused, wondering for a moment almost if I had passed the entire night in some sort of strange fugue state… only to realize I was watching the moon rise, its powerful light rivaling that of a small sun in this thin atmosphere at high altitude.
Within half an hour, the moon had cleared the rocks to the south and its light was frightening, glowing across the altiplano and illuminating everything to the point where I no longer needed my lights to finish organizing my gear and preparing for sleep. Unfortunately, unlike its friend the sun, the moon provided only pale light and no warmth to speak of.
The temperature quickly dropped well below freezing and I was forced to retreat to my blankets. My air mattress, which I had tried to patch back in Uyuni, seemed to be holding fine until the moment I actually laid on it… after which it promptly deflated. I would be left to spend a cold uncomfortable night on the ground, my only solace the sandy desert where I had stopped and the extra sleeping bag I purchased for $14 providing a small additional buffer. The night passed, not quite uncomfortably, but not without the occasional frustrated waking.
Begin: Unknown Location, Valley of Red Rocks, Unnamed Road, Bolivia @ 9:15AM
End: Unknown Location, Unnamed Road, Bolivia @ 6:00PM
Distance: 208km (130 miles) in 8.5 hours (24kmh / 15mph average speed)
It’s shocking to awake in the pre-dawn light of a cold mountain morning, seeing the air temperature inside your tent a solid 20F. It never quite seems to match with what you feel, tucked inside a quality sleeping bag and quite warm… then you reach for your water bottle to take a sip and find it frozen nearly solid.
At these elevations on the right type of terrain, however, there’s a strange mirror where the very ground that lost the heat of the day so rapidly now regains it as the brutal high altitude sun turns its scorching rays upon the earth. I doze for a couple of hours until the sun is shining hard into my tent and the air temperature is once again above freezing, only then braving the outside of my sleeping bag to begin dressing and preparing for the day.
I suppose by now I’m used to it, but I never quite enjoy it. Unpacking and setting up camp contains a certain urgency as I race the cold, but in the morning it’s quite the opposite – giving up warmth and comfort, tucking warm bits into cold bags, mentally preparing myself for a new challenge instead of recovering from one already vanquished.
Nonetheless, I’m back on the road before long. It’s beautiful here, in the sharp daylight, and I somewhat regret passing through this valley in the dark. The red is everywhere, the strange rocks seemingly at complete odds with the empty altiplano stretching around them. It’s illogical, these giant rocks dropped in the middle of nowhere, like a remnant of a strange alien experiment. As you travel amongst them, they serve as a reminder as to why we make up ideas of strange forces and legends to explain away such things: to simply accept that this is normal is more painful to the mind that a fanciful story.
I know that I’m heading west looking for another road that goes south, but there’s absolutely nothing but this road. It takes me across the altiplano towards these beautiful snow covered mountains in the distance, almost straight as an arrow, a completely featureless plain around me only broken by the pending mountains. How could I possibly miss a turn onto another road?
At the end of the altiplano, the road climbed into the mountains and the character began to change. The air turned toward a more biting cold, dropping below freezing in that strange conflict against the heat of the sun where your body can’t quite figure out what is happening to it. Speeding along you quickly freeze, like a cartoon cat turning into a solid icicle – yet stop for two minutes and you are thawed, renewed by the heat of the sun.
After passing through the first ring of mountains I realize I’m now traveling through a vast snow and ice covered field of rocks, surrounded by some of the higher peaks in the Andes. To one side is a massive mountain towering over everything, possibly the highest volcano in the region – possibly not, as I don’t actually have any idea where I am. I still haven’t seen another road south, and I’m definitely well past where it should be… confused, I continue on, but the terrain around me is so beautiful that I can’t resent the confusion.
As I’ve been traveling today, I’ve done a lot of narration for video to be edited later. At one point as I descend this long, gorgeous road towards a salar surrounded by massive mountains I stop to tell my video camera of my confusion, stating that for all I know I may be about to arrive at the border to Chile, hundreds of kilometers away from my destination.
Ten minutes later, I arrive at a small town. My map indicates that if I was on the road I thought I was on, I should be nowhere near a town. A quick check with a local confirms I have arrived at Ollague, the border to Chile, and indeed far away from my intended destination.
I meet some 4x4 tour drivers and ask them for directions. When they find out I want to go to Laguna Colorada they are shocked and clearly amused. One of them points at Red and says “On THAT? You will never make it. It is hard for 4x4’s.” They tell me that the road is closed in any case and I’d be best off returning to Uyuni, but I keep pestering them.
I show them my map and they tell me what I feared – almost all of the roads on my map either do not exist or are completely impassable. I have to return to Villa Alotta, near where I camped last night, and find the road south to Villa Mar: it is the only one.
Retracing my steps is difficult, partially because of the terrain, partially because of the cold, and partially because there’s a strong mental impact to come with realizing how at the mercy of Bolivia I am. As the day drags on, I encounter more 4x4’s and become accustomed to grinning tourists hanging out of windows to take photos or videos of me as they pass me by.
While finally descending back to the altiplano, away from the frozen wasteland higher up, I notice a 4x4 pulling off to head towards a lake I had spotted on the way up. I hadn’t been sure it was accessible, but I followed in the 4x4’s foot steps to find a stunning view of a small frozen lake, alive with birds and sound and happiness.
Nearby a large group of 4x4’s had stopped, some even putting out tables to serve lunch. Such decadence! I found myself slightly resentful at the cheerful camaraderie, their ability to share this experience with friends as they bounced across the terrain in luxury, only getting out when told to by their driver, looking at something pretty, then quickly jumping back in and on to the next amazing sight.
I know it’s not fair, and truth be told I’ve already realized that at some point I need to come back here with some friends and do one of those 4x4 tours myself: the reality is that some of these sights off the road are simply inaccessible to my moto due to sand. And really, is comfort all that much of a sin?
I descend past where I made camp last night, still in the early afternoon, still amazed at these crazy rocks. I decide to stop and take a picture in homage to one I took in the City of Rocks National Park in 2008 on my first cross-country motorcycle trip, the very trip that begun this blog and changed the way I viewed many things.
Soon after, I found the road south to Villa Mar and found my spirits lifting as I once again began to feed new dirt to Red, making distance across new terrain that would get me to my goal. The joy was short lived, however, as with almost no warning the road simply ended in a massive river.
A quick inspection showed that it was deep – very, very deep, easily a foot or more for most of the crossing. There was simply no possible way that Red could make it through, and I even had doubts that any 4x4 would be able to. I started scouting up and down the river but could not find anywhere narrow that wasn’t incredibly deep or constrained by high banks. Ironically, there was a bridge under construction a few hundred meters to the south and this was the very reason for the problem: they had dammed the river to build the bridge, causing the buildup upstream.
It may not seem like much, but at this point a lot of the stress of the past week crashed in. All the people telling me I couldn’t travel these roads, that everything was closed anyway, all the problems I’d had, knowing I couldn’t rely on my map, the cold, the exhaustion… How was I possibly supposed to deal with this? There was no way. Regretfully, searching my mind for the weakness I knew was there, I made the decision to turn around. I would explore the Salar de Uyuni and leave Southern Bolivia for another time.
As I turned around and began to head back towards the road that would take me away, a 4x4 came heading towards me. My regret was quickly shuttered, replaced by curiousity: how would they pass this river? I watched as they drove right up to the river, the driver got out and looked around, then got in and turned around… and off they went back home. I was crushed, what little hope I might have had dashed. If they couldn’t cross, how could I hope to? My decision was the right one, it was time to go home.
Once again I started Red up and pointed him in the direction of Uyuni, and once again I saw a 4x4 heading towards the river – this time from the other direction. Once again, curiousity overcame regret and I paused to watch. This time I saw a beautiful thing, the sight reverberating and replaying in my mind over and over again, in slow motion and somehow from many different angles I could not possibly have seen: this Toyota did not slow down, the driver did not check the depth, there was no such caution. Instead, at full speed, the 4x4 simply barreled into the river, throwing water tens of feet in every direction, submerged up to the doors, and tore across it and up and out. The driver and passengers waved cheerfully at me as, dripping wet, it tore down the road towards Villa Alotta.
I was inspired. With new motivation, I got off Red and began to walk the banks of the river. I found a section just east of the main crossing with a big island of mud in the middle of the river, cutting it into one large and one small segment instead of one huge segment. It didn’t look more than a foot deep and if that 4x4 could make it… before I could let myself think too much, I did the unthinkable: I pointed Red at the river, gunned it, and tore into the water.
Five seconds later, somehow, magically, I was on the island in the middle of the river. Completely soaked, my boots full of water from instinctively putting them down in over a foot of water to push on the sand, but somehow I had crossed the largest section!
All that was left was a quick six foot sprint! Engine revved, feet pumping furiously, I gunned it once again and Red dropped deep into the river. His front wheel hit the bank and bounced out but then suddenly I lost all forward momentum as the drive wheel spun and spun, sunk in a deep channel over a foot deep at the very bank. I gunned it and pushed and pushed, but I couldn’t get him out. I was well and truly stuck.
At this moment I looked up to realize that I had an audience – a 4x4 had crossed the river while I was crossing and everyone had stopped to watch! Someone was even standing on top filming my sorry situation… but they were on the far side, and it wouldn’t be easy for any of them to come help. I decided to get behind Red and push him out, but the slippery sand betrayed me.
Then, happily, my saviours arrived as another 4x4 pulled up next to me and a family and driver got out to help. Within seconds we had pushed Red up onto the bank and I was safe and secure on the far side, river conquered.
Even weirder, it turned out that the family who stopped to help me has been traveling all over South America as well, and two weeks ago they had seen me on the Salinas Grande in Argentina! A true small world.
I confirmed from them than Laguna Colorada was inaccessible, but their driver said I could park and hike in, about a five hour hike. At this point I was energized and keen on the idea of conquering all obstacles (I just conquered a crazy river!) so this sounded like an excellent plan, and off I went to the south.
Ten minutes later my feet were frozen solid and I was in very sharp pain from the cold. The downside of goretex lined boots is that just as they keep water out (up to about six inches deep or so on the pair I have), they also keep water in. I stopped to empty out my boots and tie my socks to Red’s frame to dry, then shoved my frozen feet back into the cold, cold boots and did my best to ignore the pain.
The road from here was vicious, often covered with sand, in a wide open plain with a headwind that once again tore at me. When there wasn’t sand, there were horrible rocks and even the occasional smaller river to cross. The emptiness seemed to stretch for miles, and time stretched with it. On roads like this, time has no meaning; all that matters in the sand, balancing speed and rotation, finding the safest track, ignoring the world around you but for the rare occasion when the road becomes solid and you can snatch a momentary glimpse of the strange empty beauty around you.
I passed through Villa Mar as the evening began to set in, determined to get as far as I could to make up for spending the morning going the wrong direction. Outside of town I stopped to talk to some more 4x4 drivers for directions, confirming I was going the right way and that I needed to turn right at the intersection down the road, after which I would need to ascend quite a bit.
Outside of town I found the turn and began to drive towards the mountains ahead of me. With the setting sun I knew I didn’t want to tackle an ascent tonight and instead pulled off into the empty desert, well away from the road, to settle down for the night. Knowing my air mattress wouldn’t work, I had a stroke of genius: I could remove the back cushion from Red’s rear seat and sleep on that! It was only about four feet long, but it would be enough to cushion my hips and keep most of my body off of the cold ground.
Four screws later my bed was made. I tore off my boots and dried my feet, then swathed them in dry socks and jumped into my warm bedding as quickly as possible. The slow thawing went through the now familiar stages of tinkling pain to stabbing pain to intense, painful warmth… but I was happy, warm, and safe. Tomorrow I would climb the mountain to Laguna Colorada.