Bolivia: Cochabamba ( 29th December to 1st January ) – by Joern

 

Knowing the road is paved and in good condition all the way we decided to do the 515km to Cochabamba in one day, taking an alternative route through La Paz to avoid the chaos on the main road. We arrived late afternoon and were greeted in perfect English by Michael from France who runs the hotel.

It was self catering with a nice big common kitchen area and as we needed to go shopping for breakfast he promptly escorted us to the supermarket and showed us a couple of nice restaurants on the way. He figured he needed a walk anyway. What a nice guy.

Our plan was to stay two nights and then go celebrate New Year in a lodge at one of the national parks in the tropical part of Bolivia, but as everything is fully booked we decide to stay in Cochabamba for New Year.

Also we like the city. It has a nice vibe to it and is in much better condition than what we have experienced so far except for Sucre. Michael explains that Cochabamba is known for having the best climate in the country, so this is where a lot of the rich people live. Especially in the area north of the river. That is within walking distance and sure enough. Across the river the houses are large and properly built, with kept gardens and clean streets. It looks very European. The city itself is full of life and everywhere the sidewalk cafes are full.

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The nice climate is due to the fact that the city is located at 2500m altitude between the Altiplano and the lowlands. On the Altiplano it gets quite cold at night and in the lowlands it is tropical and wet. We are after all just 17 degrees south of equator.

So here it never gets really hot or really cold or really wet. Basically it is spring all year round and we enjoy walking around in shorts and t-shirt during the day and in the evening we just put on a long-sleeved t-shirt.

We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve at Novecento, a nice Italian restaurant. They advertise a three course menu that looks nice and also we simply like the atmosphere there, so we sign up and reserve a table. The event is listed as starting at 1900 so that is when we show up. As the first ones there, we figure “what the hell” get our table and order our food. At around 2100 when we dig into our desert the place is almost full. We are out of there shortly after 2200 and go back to the hotel to find Michael and some friends in the kitchen cooking.

Bolivians like late dinners. We are promptly invited to join and accept.

As the outdoor barbecue is fired up and midnight approaches, people start dropping by with fireworks, snacks, drinks and I smell a couple of funny cigarettes as well. Michael places a bucket (as in an actual bucket) with Sangria on the table and we can just help ourselves if we so desire. Don´t bother with pouring it, just dip you glass in it until it fills. Chilled and easy-going. I like that.

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This is my first new years eve in a warm climate as well, but contrary to Christmas where the snow and cold was just missing, a warm New Years Eve rocks. Standing in the yard in my t-shirt with the BBQ going and watching the fireworks with happy friendly people around me. Yeah, I could get used to that. As neither Lorraine nor I are big party people we head off to bed at little after 0100. Besides we are off towards Santa Cruz the next morning.

As we get up the next morning, I take a look in the garden. Half finished drinks on the table, leftover food and empty bottles everywhere. All that´s missing are guests sleeping under the table.

Lots of traditions are different from country to country, but New Years Eve seems to be universal.

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Bolivia: Copacabana, Lake Titicaca ( 27th to 29th December ) – by Joern

The road from Oruro to La Paz is straight and flat and perfectly paved. If nothing else that is good for getting a lot of kilometres done in a short time. The main road goes straight through La Paz so we expected some traffic, but nothing like what we actually got. The road has three lanes, but if you drive close enough there is room for five cars next to each other. So that´s what they do. Bumper to bumper, mirror to mirror we crawl through the city. If all five “lanes” were moving it would not be a problem, but they are not.

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This picture does not even begin to show the carnage, but by the time I decided we needed pictures we were half way out the city.

There is an abundance of taxis and they simply stop in the inner lane to try and pick up passengers. When that lane is all full of taxis the next just stops in the second lane and at some point also the third lane, leaving only two lanes, which is actually only one, for traffic to move along. It took more than an hour to move a couple of kilometres through the city until I finally adapted the Bolivian driving style. Screw everyone else. There is only me and I do whatever it takes to move. If I block other people, I really cannot be bothered to give a shit.

The unfortunate thing is, that it worked and we finally made the turn off. The road leading out of the city towards Titicaca is one of the main traffic ores in and out of La Paz so obviously it is hardly maintained. At some point it becomes dirt with huge potholes and only one track to get through. Gives us time to take a closer look at the surroundings and we are not impressed. There is no sidewalk, just a road and then 10 – 20m of simple dirt besides it before the houses, which with few exceptions are in bad condition. And garbage in bags or not just thrown all over. We pass through a two-lane roundabout where the outer lane is now used as a garbage dump. There is a truck unloading as we go through. It looks pretty official. I guess they simply ran out of space to put it.

We decided that La Paz does not look like a place we will stay in on the way back.

After the chaos we a happy to finally be in the countryside with normal traffic. There are two ways to get to Copacabana. Go south around the lake via Peru or go around north without entering Peru. Since the rental car is not allowed into Peru we choose the northern route which includes crossing the lake at the small town of Tiquina.

It is a short crossing that takes about 15 minutes on simple flatbed vessels. Calling it a ferry would be a bit of a stretch. It is more like a small piece of road with a railing and a small outboard motor. We drive on via a couple of planks. Undocking is done by hand with long sticks and across we go. There is no regulation of traffic. If a ferry happens to be a bit faster than another they just pass and on the other side it is quite the rivalry to get a spot for unloading. The quicker you are the more trips a day you make.

P1020562 Some Pictures of the ”ferries”

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We were not really sure if this one got any customers.

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As sick as a dog and feeling extremely sorry for myself. At first we thought it was altitude sickness but decided that it was just bad food and the altitude making me feel twice as bad.

On the last 30km to Copacabana there are more beggars on the side of the road than I have seen anywhere else. Old people or kids (for maximum emotional effect) are lined up in alarming numbers with their hands or hats out. I am assuming it is the Christmas rush and the fact that this is where a lot of Bolivians with money have summer homes, which has brought them out. I try to make a rough estimation of their numbers on the way to Copacabana but about halfway I stop at 100.

In Copacabana we stay in Hostel Las Olas. A fantastic place that was recommended by Will and Stewart. Apart from simple hotel rooms there are seven suites and each one is a separate building with a unique shape. Square, round and even one shaped like a snail with spiral roof and everything. We get the one called “tortoise” and that is actually what it looks like. Round with two floors and large panoramic windows with a lake view. It is funky and cool and we love it. It is after all my birthday.

P1020594 The gorgeous little Tortoise

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P1020596 The view from the Tortoise

P1020590 Watching sunset from the Tortoise

P1020604 The friendly garden alpacas

We spend the day just chilling and checking out the town. There are lots of restaurants and Lorraine takes me out to dinner to celebrate. The place is very touristy, but at the same time also nice. Just like San Pedro de Atacama they have managed to not get run over by mass tourism and large hotel chains putting up ugly seaside resorts. There are a few large hotels, but they are nicely integrated and don´t stand out as misplaced.

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Copacabana, you can see the strange shapes of the La Olas cabanas in the background

P1020659 P1020657 P1020644  The local market

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P1020630 Joern being Joern

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Since it was close to new year all the vehicles in the town were decorated and then being blessed by the local priest

The lake is so large it is just like being at the ocean which makes you forget, that you are 3800m above sea level. Once you start walking up and down the many hills you are reminded though 🙂 The last day we make an excursion to the very tip of the peninsula and are struck by the incredible diversity in nature within such a small distance.

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We stopped for an Inca Cola on one of the false ”floating islands” We think the Bolivians are jealous of the attraction of the  Peruvian floating islands so have just created their own little versions and made them restaurants.

P1020709 P1020717 Gorgeous lake Titicaca

P1020744 P1020688 P1020712 The perfect spot for a picnic lunch

P1020669 The Lake Titicaca Flamingos

All in all we really enjoyed Lake Titicaca and especially the little Tortoise cottage.

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Bolivia: Sucre to Oruro ( 25th to 26th December ) – by Joern

In the morning we set off for Oruro. We knew from Will and Stewart that part of the road was going to be dirt, but forgot to ask about exact details from where to where.

P1020522 stunning Bolivia

It seems impossible to get a reliable map of Bolivia. We have yet to find two different products that agree. The one we have is different from the one we borrowed from a german couple in San Pedro de Atacama, which again is different from Google maps that then differ from my Mapsme app on my phone, which is the one we primarily use now. We have had roads marked as dirt roads be paved and villages on one map be simply missing on another.

After just 30km the road turns to dirt. There´s 320km to go to Oruro and all we know for sure is that the last 30 – 40km are paved as well. Could be a long day.

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As with most of the dirt roads we have encountered so far, it is slowly being upgraded to paved, but that just means lots of detours due to road work. One of these detours is the most demanding section we have had anywhere so far. It has been raining and still does. Only light rain, but enough to make a dirt road muddy. This detour takes us around a bridge over a stream and has a steep and slippery drop down to the water where we can not quite judge how deep it is. On the other side is a climb that is also a left bend and also muddy.

I am driving today and my biggest worry is the climb. Since the drop is too slippery to brake on anyway I won´t, but if I do not make the climb, we will slide back down to the bottom and basically be stuck there until someone comes by with a vehicle that can pull us out.

Ideal would be one of the bulldozers they use for the roadworks, but are they working on christmas day at 10:00?

I have practically no real offroad experience in a car, but figure the same rules apply as on a bike. Look at where you want to go and DO NOT STOP.

On top of everything the tires have almost no pattern left. We noticed that already taking over the car, but the rental company probably want to save some money by keeping the tires on as long as possible and told us they were good. We´ll see.

I look over at Lorraine. She has got her adventure face on and just gives me a nod of approval. Do it. I go over the side, stick it in second gear and head for the water crossing. The car drifts a little sideways. I hit the gas and it stabilizes. As we approach the water we can see that as expected it is only a few centimeters deep. Good.

Then the climb and I apply some more throttle and adjust the revs with the clutch if needed. Not exactly by the book procedure, but there is a very real risk the hopelessly underpowered cage we are in will stall if there is any kind of change in grip on the hill. The car slips and slides, left turn, just a few more meters now and before we know it we are through and safely back on the track on the other side. I have done it all in one breath and breathe out again. Lorraine puts a hand on my shoulder and gives me a ”well done”.

Challenging road, yeah – whatever.

P1020530 one of the many interesting rock formations we’ve come across

The rest of the trip is easy. Lots of ripples in the road which slows us down, but nothing challenging. Just slow progress. We are getting hungry, and in the small village of Ocuri Lorraine finds a store that has supplies. Sort of.

She comes back with our christmas lunch. Two bananas, a can of pilchards in tomatosauce, for dessert a lovely chocolate cake that is not yet past expiration date and last but not least a nice vintage mineral water. Yummy.

About 20km later we find a nice spot with a nice view and have lunch. The pilchards are eaten straight out of the can with plastic forks like a couple of hobos. The chocolate cake cut with a multitool. Not the ususal christmas lunch feel, but we get a good giggle out of it.

P1020535  our ”awesome” Christmas lunch

P1020540 Joern did the ”cooking”, what a man

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Our progress has been so slow we start realizing, that unless the road improves dramatically, we will not make it to Oruro before dark and might have to sleep in the car. The map shows a road connecting this road with the main road between Potosi and Oruro coming up. We know the main road is paved, but the connecting 35km road is marked as ”secondary dirt road”. The one we are on is a ”primary dirt road”. So the question is, if we should swap 150km of dirt road for 35km of even worse dirt road. Will it save us any time at all? Problem is solved shortly after as we reach the connecting road and it turns out to have been freshly paved and is in perfect condition. So much for map updates.

P1020537 Finally asphalt

I get out of the car and kiss the asphalt. 30 minutes later we connect with the main road to Oruro and arrive just before dark. Oruro is the least interesting place we have been so far. Absolutely nothing looks charming. We find a hotel and the only open restaurant in town. Good business model. There is a 45 minute wait for a pizza, but we sweat it out, eat and head back to the hotel. Next morning as soon as possible we are out of there.

Bolivia: Sucre ( 23rd to 25th December ) – by Joern

 

The drive to Sucre was a quick and uneventful 150km. We check into the “Kultur Berlin” Hostel which was recommended by Will and Stewart.

P1020520 The hostel also came with it’s own very friendly rabbit.

P1020472 The addict getting her fix

It is a very nice well kept building with mostly multi-bed dorms as it is very popular among backpackers. We are a little less adventurous and have booked a little cabin in the yard. We probably go to bed earlier than party prone 25 year olds 🙂

The next day (Christmas eve) we sign up for the big group dinner at the hostel and go take a look at the city. Of all the cities we have seen so far in Bolivia, this is the nicest. Charming old houses and cleaner streets than anywhere else we have been. There is a local legislation saying, that all buildings in a five block radius of the centre has to be white. Makes it a bit monotone to look at, but since none of the materials used to built houses are naturally white it also means all houses in that area are properly painted and maintained.

P1020457 Lovely Sucre

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One of the museums and a great example of the architecture

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P1020454 The largest frying pan I’ve ever seen.

Due to Christmas there is quite a crowd in the city centre. Hundreds of people are lined up for what we initially figured would be Christmas blessings at the church, but turns out to be some kind of support for the poor. Gifts for the children or food most likely. Interesting to notice is, that all the people lined up are in traditional indigenous clothing. Not all indigenous people are poor, but it looks like all poor people are indigenous. I make a mental note to read up on Bolivian history.

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As for some of that history we get it at the local museum. Sucre is the administrative capital of Bolivia, La Paz is just where the government is. The guide, being from Sucre, makes very sure that we know the difference. Sucre is where the declaration of independence was signed in 1825 and we get the opportunity to take a look at the real thing. The museum is also home to the very first argentine flag, which is the reverse of the one we see in use today. White with a light blue stripe in the middle and no yellow sun. It was the first early design and there is quite an interesting story as to how it ended up in Bolivia that I cannot remember in detail.

P1020511 General Bolivar. Largest bust we’d ever seen

P1020495 The declaration of independence

P1020506 The beautiful museum

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We also went to see St Theresa convent which was quite interesting

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As we left the convent we caught these two monks climbing out over the locked gate  … no comment

This is my first warm Christmas. Something I always wanted to do. Not sure why, most likely just because it is different from what I know. Have to admit it feels a little strange. I mean, it is nice to be able to walk around in just a t-shirt, but it seems the northern hemispheres ideal has spilled over into the southern hemisphere as well. The main square is full of  artificial pine trees, inflatable snowmen and fake sleighs with wheels. Even Lorraine, who grew up with Christmas being during the summer, feels that a real Christmas has snow and long dark evenings.

We go back and get ready for the big 50 person dinner. We end up sitting next to the only people even remotely our age. Michael and Renate from Germany. They are really nice and we have an interesting evening before retiring to the room before the all night party kicks off. Also we plan to leave not too late as we have a long travel day ahead of us.

If having dinner with a bunch of backpackers was a bit of an alternative Christmas eve, but it was nothing compared to how the Christmas day lunch would turn out 🙂

Bolivia: Potosi ( 21st to 23rd December ) – by Joern

The road to Potosi has been paved recently and the southern road is definitely being prepared for it as well. So far Bolivia has been the country with the worst roads, but it seems there are serious actions being taken to improve the infrastructure. Not just the roads. In every city we pass through, even the small ones, there are lots of half finished houses. Some being worked on, some not. We cannot determine if there is a boom in the building sector or if the half finished houses are remnants of a boom that never came, and in two years they will still be there, taken over by animals and plants.

After the 200km of demanding gravel road driving to Uyuni the perfectly smooth road to Potosi is a welcome change. I do find myself missing my bike again as it is a 200km twisty bonanza. C’est la vie.

Upon leaving Uyuni we pass the checkpoint where we pay 10 Bolivianos and get our little piece of paper to be stamped at the following checkpoints. We have quite a giggle about that. Given the extent of the work needed to construct a road like this, it is totally acceptable to pay a toll. It is the way it is administered we find a little funny to say the least. At this first checkpoint we are asked how far we are going. We say Potosi, pay 10 Bs and get a receipt. You would think we could then go to Potosi before the next checkpoint, but that’s not how it works. Twice on route we pass other checkpoints where we simply show the receipt and then get a stamp on it.

Ok, move on.

On the long section from Santa Cruz to Tupiza we at some point had so many stamps on our receipt, we started wondering where they would put the next only to see the next checkpoint cut a hole instead of stamping. After that we decided to get a game going. When we arrived at a checkpoint we would bet on “stamp” or “cut” only to once again be cheated as we watched the attendant attach another piece of paper (without having to pay extra) which was then subsequently stamped and cut accordingly. By now we have quite a collection of various receipt with random holes and stamps on them. Definitely a job creation project of some sorts.

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On the positive side we never had any problems at the checkpoints. Contrary to Lorraine’s experiences in Russia where she was simply pulled over and had to pay made up tolls or fines, all the Bolivian checkpoints are official and there have never been any issues or corruption to be paid. Even at the ones where we had to show a drivers licence as well, the Swiss one worked fine. We both had international drivers licences made beforehand, but no one seems to be interested. They study the Swiss licence a bit and look at the pictograms and then go “ok” and that’s it.

At an average of 4050m Potosi is one of the highest located cities in the world. I say average as it is located on a very hilly section of the mountain. The roads are quite steep and also quite narrow. The little engine in the Suzuki is clearly short of breath as are its passengers.

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Some of the narrow streets our little Suzuki had to navigate.

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I’ve put my bike in many a hostel or hotel foyer while travelling but this is a first for our car.

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The Bolivian ladies still wear traditional skirts and hats with the traditional blankets wrapped up and hung over their shoulders. These are mostly used to carry babies in but often other good.

At this altitude just walking to a store and back gets me gasping for air and I apply the simple principle of walking at half pace than normal. Takes a little longer, but keeps me from getting exhausted. Potosi has an interesting history. The city is located at the base of a mountain named Cerro Rico also known as “the rich mountain” as it contains the largest single deposit of silver ore known to mankind which is also the reason why the city exists at all.

P1020379 The Man eating mountain

In the colonial days the silver mined in Potosi was the largest single source of wealth for the Spanish empire. We get the entire story about how it was mined, processed and minted into coins at the colonial mint, which is now a museum. One of the best I have ever visited. The guide has obviously done his homework and explains in perfect English how complex the whole process actually was. Just as an example the presses used to press the values onto the coins were designed and built in Austria before being shipped on galleons across the Atlantic and then carried on mules or lamas more than 2000kms from Buenos Aires to Potosi. Horses apparently have problems coping with the altitude. There are samples of original silver coins, tools and scales from back then and lots more very interesting items on display. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area.  If you are interested in architecture the building alone is worth a visit. It is stunning.

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One of the original presses used to press the silver plates that then go to the coin presses

P1020421 P1020410 The fantastic museum

The mine is still in use today and two days later we met a German geologist, Anton, who had done a tour of the mine two days before we arrived. He was appalled by the conditions in the mine and the complete lack of overall coordination. Each team of miners is simply given a target quota and can then start blasting where ever they feel fit. The result is not surprisingly frequent cave-ins which have resulted in the mountain also being known as “The mountain that eats men”. It is normal practice to bring gifts to the miners if visiting. Preferred is alcohol or dynamite. Potosi must be the only place in the world where you can go to a kiosk and buy an ice-cream, a cold drink, a bag of unprocessed coca leaves and a stick of dynamite.

As for the coca leaves they were also available at the hotel as part of the breakfast buffet. They help cope with the altitude and no, you don’t get high from chewing them. They actually work and the tea is quite tasty to boot. The coca leaves tea is available everywhere on the Altiplana and we consider bringing some home with us as more of a novelty really, but decide against it. Not all custom officials may find it amusing.

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Since it was Christmas time in Potosi the city square was very well decorated. It was fantastic to see the effort put into Christmas in Bolivia, the decorations and the donations to the poor. We came across queues and queues of people lined up to get Christmas gifts for their children from the local charities. It made us think about how these kids would probably cherish this one gift for the entire year, compared to many kids we know who would receive so many gifts  they wouldn’t even remember who they were from.

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I felt more sorry for the old or crippled people in Bolivia who seem neglected. Everyone gives to the cute kids.

The St Francis monastery

 In the catacombs of the monastery

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Dead baby lamas in the local market (not sure what they are for)

P1020353 Bolivia is nut about the Dakar 🙂

 

 

 

Bolivia: Uyuni (19th to 21st December ) – by Joern

Uyuni is one of those places that most likely would not exist if it was not for the tourist attraction next to them. It basically consists of either tour operators, hostels, restaurants or bars and is kept alive by the Salar du Uyuni. One of the most visited attractions in the world and by far the largest tourist magnet in Bolivia. It is also what has brought us here as we both have the salt flats on our bucket list.

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Waiting to meet up with Will and Stewart from England, we made an afternoon visit to the train cemetery on the outskirts of town. Due to a collapse in the mining industry in the 1940s lots of trains were simply abandoned in Uyuni and left to rust in the salty air. Rumour has it the actual train that was robbed by Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is there as well. Quite a few of the trains were old steamers from the turn of the 19th-20th century, so who knows. Gave me a reason to relive some of my childhood fantasies pretending to be Sundance (he was much cooler that Butch, at least in the movie).

Graceful and athletic I jumped on one of the old coal tenders and then ran forward and hijacked the train from a surprised driver. What can I say, growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional. If you are a train enthusiast with knowledge about the old machines you could probably spend days here.

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Joern pretending to be Sundance robbing a train

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P1020200 The train graveyard, just a big kids playground

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Back at the hotel Will and Stewart had arrived back from the flats. Two British bikers we met at the MCN bike show in London in February, as they were getting ready for a tour from Alaska to Ushuaia. Just like Lorraine they had Altrider sponsoring them with protective parts for their bikes, and when they heard about our plans we figured we would meet somewhere on the way, which turned out to be Uyuni.

They had been on the road since March and had added Australian backpacker Natalie to their pack. We had dinner together and just swapped stories (they had way more than us) and talked for hours. Simply awesome people and despite only having met them once before it was like being with old friends.

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I would love to have spent more time with them, but they had arrived a day before us and were heading south the next day. Seeing their two fully kitted dusty GS’s parked in front of the hotel made me feel a bit sad about having left the Africa Twin behind as I sooooo wanted to go on the salt flat on a bike instead of in a car, but hey. Shit happens, deal with it.

Next morning we parted ways again with big man hugs and headed for the nearest entry to the salt flats at Colchani. Entering the flats is like driving on to another world. Driving in the mountains there is always either a valley or another peak close by. On the Salar the horizon opens up and wherever you look there is just a white flat surface. As we started driving towards the “island” in the middle the village behind us slowly disappeared under the horizon and left us in a world where distance and direction does not exist. Turn 360 degrees and it will look the same the whole way round except for a few mountain peaks in the far distance.

P1020279 P1020276 P1020269 🙂 🙂 🙂 say no more

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Judging how far away another vehicle is, is almost impossible since there are no reference points at all. No plants, trees, animals, hills, nothing. The Salar is in fact so flat that it is used by astronauts on the ISS to calibrate their distance measuring lasers. The entire 11000 square kilometre area varies only a few meters in height and is due to its size easily visible from space. We did of course stop for the traditional trick photos of making small objects appear large or vice versa due to the lack of sense of distance, and also had a taste of the crust. It is VERY salty alright.

There was also something fascinating about the thought that we were basically driving on the world’s largest empty parking lot. I could have closed my eyes while driving without having to worry about hitting something. Swerve left or right, who cares. The closest solid object is 50km away. And on top we were 3650m over the ocean. 1000m higher than the highest mountain pass in Switzerland. And it is flat as a pool table!! About 65km later we reached the Isla Incahuasa. It is a small oasis of rock and cacti with a few houses for exhibits. Not overly exiting so after a short visit we headed back simply following the trail we came on.

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Salar du Uyuni. Been there, done that, did not get the t-shirt though.

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Bolivia: Tarija and Atocha (17th to 18th December ) – by Joern

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Tarija

Leaving Villamontes meant two things. Our first meeting with Bolivian dirt roads and the beginning of the climb from the tropical lowlands to the more temperate altiplana. A climb of more than 3000m. Dirt roads are also less travelled roads which meant the scenery got even better and you just feel closer to nature. Also even more butterflies and other animals. At one point a large lizard crossed the road.

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Given the small 1500cc engine in the Suzuki progress was slow but steady and the scenery spectacular (again). Not that we mind. Gave us time to really see the variety of the landscape and the slow change from green vegetation to the brown colours of the highlands. We even managed to spot patches of purple soil. No idea what causes that, but just goes to show the incredible variety in this country.

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Halfway there we hit the paved road again and could relax a bit before finding our hotel and spend the night in quite uninteresting Tarija.

Atocha

We set off early in order to reach Uyuni while there was still daylight, but due to the road being the worst condition so far we made less progress than expected.

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P1010990 Some hectic dirt roads with scary drop offs.

P1010965 Guess who was driving, no wonder we didn’t make it to Uyuni as planned.

At around 1830 we arrived in the small mining village of Atosha located very isolated at around 3500m altitude halfway between Tupiza and Uyuni. With only one hour of proper daylight left and still 100km to go on a quite demanding road we decided enough was enough. To add to that there was a badly marked detour in effect as the road was being upgraded to pavement all the way meaning lots of sections were simply blocked by heavy machinery. We found a hostel or more precise “the” hostel. There was another, but it had been closed down and now just looked like something out of a scary movie.

P1020053 Rather different bus stop, but nice.

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P1020028 Our hostal

P1020035 The train station which looked rather abandoned.

I would estimate the population to about 500 people. Most of them probably born there and will die there too. Talking about which, typical for Bolivia the graveyard was an almost upbeat and colourful place. Lots of colours and displays with objects relevant to the deceased. I like that a lot better than the gloomy and depressing European ones. I ended up actually enjoying this unplanned stopover, as it gave me a glimpse into a world so different from mine it is hard to imagine. People gave us the odd look, but nothing scary or intimidating. Most likely just surprise at these strange looking foreigners who seemingly of their own free will spent the night there. Contrary to popular belief the Bolivian people are very nice and friendly just reserved or shy. Every person you greet will greet you back with a nice warm Buenos Diaz and a smile. The women generally first avert their eyes smile shyly but always greet you back. We found one open restaurant with a very basic menu. Not surprisingly chicken. Places like this are predominantly self-sufficient and chickens are cheap and easy to keep.

Road to Uyuni

The next morning we found the correct detour along the riverbed by asking a local 4×4 going the other way. As soon as they realized we were foreigners they started guessing where from. Germany being the number one guess, so obviously we are not the first foreigners visiting after all.

Upon learning we were a Dane and a saffa one of passengers promptly got out and came over with a big smile and greeted us. Lorraine got cheek kisses and I got a gangsta style handshake as he wished us safe travels. How friendly was that. As usual the warnings we had received that Bolivians are not very open and always want something turned out to be complete bullshit.

P1020072  Another rather colourful Bolivian cemetery.

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P1020083 Our little Suzuki driving down the river bed out of AtoshaP1020101 We saw these sulphur patches in the river bed outside Atosha and were not sure if they were natural or waste products of mining being washed into the river.

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P1020016 More stunning scenery

I am glad we did this section of road in the daylight as it was very scenic and also turned into quite the safari. We spotted lots of Vicunas, wild donkeys, a curious owl and a whole family of rheas a big emu-like bird that we had never seen before.

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One of many Rheas we saw on the road this one had a lot of little chicks

P1020123 The curious little owl.

At around 1400 we arrived in Uyuni and settled into the hostel.

Bolivia: Santa Cruz and Villamontes (15th to 16th December) – by Joern

The decision to ditch the Africa Twin had not been easy. I felt a little nostalgic, but nothing more. I have enjoyed many a trip on the bike, but at the end of the day it is a lifeless object and we were both confident it was the right decision. It also meant entering Bolivia at the airport in Santa Cruz instead of at the border to Argentina.

We found the Europcar office at the arrival, which turned out to be nothing more than a freestanding counter manned by a single person who did not speak a word of English. Granted, I should have prepared by learning more Spanish than the about 25 words I at this point have learned, but still. A car rental agency at an airport might suspect the odd non-Spanish speaking customer arriving. Anyhow, we managed to communicate and get the contract signed. All carbon copy forms filled out by hand, as she had no computer and no internet. Welcome to Bolivia. Obviously the Toyota RAV4 I had reserved was instead a Hyundai Tucson. I have yet, at any car rental in the world, to receive the actual car that is pictured on the webpage. It is always a “similar”. I am seriously wondering if they really have those cars at all or if they are just bait.

Lorraine was immediately sceptical of the size of the car. She likes smaller cars that are easier to manoeuvre and my failed attempt to park the car in the very small garage at the hotel convinced us to go back the next day and swap it for a Suzuki Grand Vitara, two door model, which, let’s face it, also looks a little more like adventure than a family car that just happens to have four-wheel drive. Happy with the trade we headed south.

P1010865 Our little Suzuki Grand Vitara 4×4

Some of the stranger sights in Santa Cruz: We saw many many Mennonites in Santa Cruz there are roughly 70000 Mennonites in Bolivia primarily from German and Dutch descent with a few local converts. It was easy to spot them but very difficult to get photos as they were reluctant to pose and quickly walked away when spotting our camera.

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P1010846 An old constellation in a park in Santa Cruz

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One of the stranger feats of architecture spotted in the city

The original plan was to head for Sucre, but instead we opted for a more adventurous route that would take us in a loop south to Uyuni and then save Sucre for the trip back to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is located in the tropical part of Bolivia in the lowlands which was clearly visible as the mountain landscapes we had driven through the past two weeks was now replaced with rolling hills and lots and lots of lush vegetation. We quickly also noticed the presence of millions of white small butterflies that just seemed to be everywhere. As we crossed a riverbed and stopped for photos Lorraine stood for a moment with her hand held out and within seconds a butterfly had landed on her finger and just sat there and had a rest. Unfortunately for the butterflies the count of white spots on the front of the car also increased rapidly.

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Just some of the millions of butterflies. We literally spent 2 entire days driving through swarms of butterflies.

At the little town of Villamontes we decided to call it a day and found a nice hotel that had a kind of colonial look to it. So far all towns we have passed through including Santa Cruz had a beat up look to them and this one was no exception. There is the occasional newer or well restored house, but a lot of them look badly maintained if at all, built of clay or wood with a simple roof of metal plates. Of course neither heating nor isolation is needed.

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The ordinary buildings and streets of Villamontes.

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The lovely town square.

The town squares however are the exception. The one in Villamontes was absolutely stunning and as well kept as anything you will see in Europe. Stone arrangements with plants trimmed in different figures, little patios, benches, playgrounds, sculptures and what looked to be a scene for music, weddings whatever. What a contrast to just two streets down. And of course decorated with nice lights and a Christmas tree reminding us of the season.

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This will be my first Christmas on the southern hemisphere, so to me it is quite confusing to sit outside having dinner enjoying a nice summer evening the week before Christmas.

Argentina: Salta (11th December to 14th December )

Getting back on the road to Bolivia after our stay in Susques we were in fantastic spirits which sadly would not last very long. About 100kms down the road Zulu, the Africa Twin cut out once again. DAMN we both just sat on the road devastated what to do now. No way could we take a sick bike to Bolivia as the only option for mechanics would be in Potosi about 600kms away on some pretty bad roads. Also meaning that if we got stuck we’d have to spend a very cold night at about 4000m. So we decided to turn around and take the bike to Salta 120kms.


We met some very cool Brazilian bikers along the way … Brazilian bikers’ rock 🙂


We limped the bike in, stopping every 15 to 20 kms for 3 to 4 minutes, seeing if the bike would start and if so going another 15 to 20kms before it cut out again, and sometimes it would even do 50kms. We got to Salta after 7pm, found a hotel and quickly got on the net to find a mechanic. The following day we had a chat to the mechanic, bearing in mind this would be the 3rd time the bike was fixed. The mechanic didn’t have a clear cut definitive idea what the problem could be, but said he could look at various things. Since the problem is extremely intermittent, and the bike runs perfectly for anything from 100 to 300kms before cutting out, there was no way to even check if the things the mechanic does would fix the problem, let alone having to wait weeks if he needed a spare part. Also the mechanic we took the bike to in Calama was very good and we were not sure a new mechanic would find anything that the other one didn’t, since they had no way to test the bike. The main problem was also that Joern now had just over 3 weeks before he had to be back in Switzerland for work.
Wow what a dilemma, decisions decisions. We debated for ages as to what to do. If we had all the time in the world with no deadlines the decision would have been easy, get the bike fixed, test ride it and risk taking it to Bolivia. But with only 3 weeks left of our honeymoon and not wanting to spend it waiting on mechanics and being very untrusting of the bike Joern decided to leave the bike. He also decided that it was just not practical to ship a broken bike back home. The bike is a 1996 model with 65000kms on the clock and is very sick. So he found a buyer and sold the bike for spare parts, quite possibly for more than it was worth definitely more than what he’d get for it in Switzerland.
When he took Zulu to the buyer I cried and cried. So strange it is a metal object, has served its purpose and this was the right decision but I just felt the same way I felt when my last cat died 😦

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Being a fun, positive, awesome, modest couple 😉 I knew this would not stop us. So we bought 2 flights to Santa Cruz in Bolivia, organised to hire a 4×4 and flew to Bolivia. I would see the salt flats if it killed me 
We made the most of our time in Salta, organising a place to store my bike for 3 weeks, changing brake pads and sightseeing. Oh and not to forget eating ice-cream, doritos and watching movies.

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Sorting out what to take to Bolivia. It is incredible that all this fits on 2 bikes.

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Iglesia Nuestra Senora de La Candelaria de La Vina , or The Blue Church of Salta. Magnificent.

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P1010824The Cathedral of Salta

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Chile: San Pedro De Atacama (7th December to 10th December )

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P1010709 Wild donkeys of the Atacama. We came across a few of these herds of donkeys which I at first thought belonged to the nearby villages. However I was told that most of them are wild herds, cool.

We decided to ride up to Chaxa lake, which has the flamingos, as a test ride for Joerns bike. The ride was great and the lake flamingos stunning. I loved seeing them, there are 3 different species of flamingo in Chaxa and some have the brightest pink wings which you can see when they fly. We met another German biker (we seem to be meeting a load of Germans on this trip, which is cool) He bought a bike in Antofagasta and is touring around Chile for a couple of months. Travelling by bike is becoming very popular. Sadly we did discover that Joerns bike was not fixed, so knew we would have to take it to Calama to the mechanic. Unfortunately the following day was a bank holiday so we had to spend another chillaxing day in San Pedro de Atacama and take the bike to Calama the following day. We decided to do the Astronomical tour and it was great. We got to see some star constellations through a telescope and also saw the Tarantula Nebula which was great.

On Wednesday we got up super early and headed to Calama to get Zulu the Africa Twin to the mechanic. Calama is not a fantastically interesting town but it was okay and we were more concerned about the bike than sightseeing. The mechanic was great and we got Zulu back before 7pm with a clean carb and jets as well as some tuning done to help him cope with the altitude.

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A walk on Mars

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There are a load of shines all along the roadways in Argentina and Chile. They are for the people who have died in road accidents. This one was the largest and most elaborate we saw. It was very sad though as the person was only 22 when he died.

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Excited to be back on the road again we got up early and headed for the Argentinean border. What an awesome day. The border crossing was easy the weather great and once again the scenery stunning.  Since a picture paints a thousand words I think I’ll post pictures of the landscape instead of trying to describe it.

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We spent the night in a tiny town called Susques but found the cutest little biker friendly hostel with the biggest Cacti I have ever seen.

P1010760 The cute little hostalaria with the largest cacti I have ever seen

 

In Siberia I stayed in a 1 goat town, in Chile a 1 horse town and now in Argentina a 1 Lama town and this is the Lama.

  This church looked like it has a Donald Trump hairpiece

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P1010788 Joerns favourite road on the whole trip

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