Thursday, July 16, 2009

Willy the Penguin

(Uyuni, Bolivia - San Pedro de Atacama, Chile)

Well, it took Willy the mechanic about an hour and a half to remove and disassemble the carburator, identify and fix the problem, and put it all back together again, all while Grace waited for us in the temperature controlled comfort of the Salt bar. It turned out that the carb float plunger needed to be slightly adjusted because it was overflowing the float chamber and fouling the spark plug. He charged me $6 for his time. Awesome.
After closely examining our intended route to the South we decided that both of the bikes were gonna need to re-fuel about halfway to Chile, and as far as anyone knew there was no place to purchase gas on the way. We decided to buy two 30 liter jerry cans and send them ahead of us with one of the tour groups to be dropped off at a predetermined meeting point. We had already made friends with the tour organizer at "Ripley's Tours" just off the main plaza and the guy spoke good english and appeared to understand our instructions, so we decided to try our luck with them. We filled up the cans and dropped them off at the office with plans to rendesvous with them at a Hostel on the edge of Laguna Hedionda, 2 days out of Uyuni.
We paid him $10 per can for the transport and honestly gave ourselves about a 50/50 chance of ever seeing the gas again. Although very friendly, we started to question his ability to make it all happen when he started to explain how GPS is useless in the Salar because it's some sort of Bermuda Triangle of cosmic forces. (FYI: Our GPS worked just fine.) We later found that there was a little store in Laguna Colorada that had gas for sale for 5 Bolivianos per liter. We wouldn't have made it that far before running out, but it was nice to know that we wouldn't have been entirely on our own if the drop-off hadn't worked.

The following morning, on our 3rd attempt to leave Uyuni we finally met with success and sped out across the salt flat towards the Isla del Pescado, a cactus covered land mass that stands out of the salt as a marker in the sea. It took about an hour of high speed riding to reach the rock and by the time we pulled over for a break we were chilled to the bone. Woody pulled out his camping stove (which later proved to be the most indispensable item on "our" packing list) and heated up some tea. Meanwhile, Grace and I ventured out into the barren expanse of white to have a little fun with some perspective photography.
We had been anticipating this opportunity ever since arriving in Bolivia and hearing stories from other travelers. We even picked up a couple props at a toy store in Potosi which we planned to incorporate in our fun. Have a look at our photos to see how they turned out.
It cost 50 bolivianos to hike around on the island so we decided we were plenty happy to just hang around and relax out front. When we arrived around 11:30 there were only a few jeeps lined up out front, but by departure time an hour and a half later the island was surrounded by 4 wheel drive tour groups clamoring over the rocks and joking around in various languages at their lunch tables.

We headed South towards the edge of the Salar, this time following the tour company route. It's marked very clearly by the bits of rubber that over time have been ground into the salt by a thousand land cruisers passing the same way each day. This black road led us to a well worn dirt and sand road at the edge of the Salar that wound it's way into the red and brown hills. Thus began the misery.
For the remainder of the day we were either riding in deep, unpredictable sand or chattering our way along spine compacting washboard. Honestly, you may think that these two conditions wouldn't happily coexist considering their difference in consistencies, but they turned out to be truly spectacular bed mates. We pulled into San Juan after a dusty and tiring afternoon ride and settled in for the night at Alojamiento Sol de MaƱana for 30 Bolivianos. Woody whipped up some rice and tuna with asparagus sauce for dinner on the camp stove and we crashed out.

The next morning took us South, once again fighting our way through sandy ruts and rocky hillsides. The tour companies generally spend a 12 hour day driving all the way down to Laguna Colorada from San Juan but we had decided to divide up the trip and stop for the night at Laguna Hedionda. We were planning on meeting up with our reserve gas tanks at the hostel there and we decided we would spend the night as well.
The beginning of the day was slow going and resulted in a couple low speed wipe outs in the sand before reaching a wide and flat East-West roadway that had the appearance of asphalt highway ground work. We picked up the pace and drove East through some incredible rock piles that Grace claimed looked like giant prehistoric remains. After a short time, at the suggestion of our GPS, we turned off the highway onto what would be the most violent road we had yet to ride. The unavoidable rocks embedded throughout the roadway were a true test of our suspensions and caused more than one headache.
As we reached a particularly tough section, Woody realized that his camera was missing from it's case strapped to the gas tank. The camera had all of his photos from Peru and Bolivia and would be a tragic loss. Luckily, after walking 20 minutes back down the road with his eyes peeled, he found it on the roadside at the start of the rocky section. The lens was filled with dust and didn't want to open, but at least all the pictures were there. Another 3km down the road I noticed that our GPS had fallen off as well! I backtracked on Pete while Woody walked the trail on foot and luckily I found it upside down on the trail. Two close calls in a row that would have been major downers for the day.

After one or two more minor crashes, one of which tore a sizable hole in our side case, we pulled into the Laguna Hedionda hostal with about an hour or two of daylight remaining. We were thrilled to find our gas tanks waiting for us in the corner of the restaurant, but were thoroughly dismayed to hear that the rate for staying at the hostal was FIFTY US DOLLARS PER PERSON! Now, this may not sound like the craziest number in the world, but considering we hadn't been paying more than 3 to 5 dollars per person in Bolivia thus far, we found it absolutely outrageous. Thus began the bargaining. We begged them to work out something more reasonable and we eventually agreed to pay $7 per person to sleep (with the bikes) on the floor of their restaurant. They provided some cheap cushions and Grace and I shared a sleeping bag. We did not get a good nights' sleep. The hostal owner locked us in for the night and told us to wake him up if we needed to use the restroom or get outside. This knowledge did NOT sit well with Grace and I ended up peeing in a plastic bottle at 1am.
Before heading out the next day we traded our fuel jugs for a few snickers and some processed donuts. We made a quick pace on wide open deserts, bouncing in and out of the tour jeep ruts trying to stay upright. We learned it was far easier to ride at an angle than trying to ride down a single groove. The mountains rose up in amazing shades of orange and red that reminded me of the glass sand swirl artwork on my grandma's mantle piece that would create beautiful shapes in black and white when turned over in my hands.
We slipped into the national park at Laguna Colorada without paying the 50 boliviano entrance fee and skirted the edge of the lake to take pictures of the flamingos strutting about in the bright red waters. With a little help from one of the tour guides that was parked at the lake's edge we were pointed in the direction of Huallajara where we spent the night.

One final cold night in the mountains and we were on our way to Chile. We dropped off our paperwork at the Bolivian Aduana about 2 hours north of the border and headed for a natural hot spring to soak our weary muscles. The water was spectacular and the timing couldn't have been better. We had lunch at the little restaurant there and set our sights on the border. We already had our passports stamped in Uyuni so we didn't have to do a thing as we entered our 11th country. About 5km in we hit a smooth asphalt highway that we followed 40km West and 2000m down into the warmth of San Pedro de Atacama.
Checking into Chile was a piece of cake and, just as we were getting ready to search the town for a place to stay, we ran into a fellow biker named Eric on a KTM 950 Adventure who showed us down the road to the cheapest Hostal around. Twenty-seven US dollars (Booooo!!!) got us a double room and we settled in for the night, happy to be out of the mountains safe and sound.


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