After conquering the infamous and otherworldly ‘Ruta De Las Lagunas’, we found ourselves in the small desert town of Uyuni, right next to the massive, fabled ‘Salar de Uyuni’, a perfectly white salt flat which extends for 10 600 square kilometres, providing one with an unsettling sense of disorientation as the horizon becomes flat and white in every direction. The site is a huge draw for a massive range of tourists, backpackers and overlanders from all reaches of the globe, all of which come to take the classic Salar photos of distorted perspective: People eat cars, run away from plastic dinosaurs, hold their friends in their hands and climb out of plastic juice bottles… you get the idea.
Uyuni, the actual town itself, to put it lightly, is not. very. nice. Also known as ‘Satan’s Armpit’, it exists solely to provide tourists with a place to stay and a way to book a tour when visiting the Salar. The food is expensive, and terrible, the hostels are expensive, and terrible and the locals are just plain miserable. That is on the rare occasion you actually manage to spot a local amongst the hoards of Korean tourists decked out in white gumboots, white gloves, white sunhats, surgical face-masks and matching tour t-shirts. To be fair, if I had to live in Uyuni I would also be a miserable arsehole.
Getting a short back and sides in Uyuni
I wish I had more from the actual town, but you’re going to have to settle for this
After a fair amount of trial and error and trying our damndest to enjoy this horrendous place, we managed to find the one sole vestige of decent food and good vibes in this entire den of despair, the aptly named ‘Extreme Fun Pub’. This became our go-to during our stay in ‘Pooyuni’, making our two night stay feel less like two weeks, it is a must for anyone traveling to this God-forsaken town, I would specifically recommend ordering the biggest burger you can get you hands on, and Meg had a particular penchant for their coca mojitos. In case you were wondering, coca is like a religion in Bolivia, it helps with everything from altitude to indigestion and is consumed in every form, from tea, to sweets to chewing it. It is also the main ingredient of cocaine, so you know its good.
The Extreme Fun Pub – The last outpost of fun (and llama sperm) in Uyuni
Megan’s poison – the coca mojito
That Mojito doesn’t know whats coming…
A bit ragged from the road into Bolivia, a beer will sort it out…
The South Africans were here – they even have a shot for the ‘Sprig Box’
As luck would have it, we had arrived in Uyuni and therefore the Salar, in the rainy season. What this meant, is that, to our great disappointment, we were unable to get pictures of us holding our bikes in our hands or Meg being squashed my giant boot against the striking white earth and clear blue sky. Initially this was really upsetting to us, but luckily we were fairly rewarded with the biggest, most stunning mirror that you could ever hope set your eyes on. When flooded, the Salar causes the Earth to mirror the sky in every direction, the horizon disappears completely into a panorama of moody clouds on blue sky, providing you with the eerie feeling of flying on your motorcycle as the clouds open up in front of you. With ‘up’ and ‘down’ becoming rather ambiguous terminology, the ground drops away, and infinity opens up before your eyes. It is truly an awe-inspiring feeling.
About to brave the giant mirror
Riding into the clouds
Zoe and the Mommy Frightener – our homes on the road
And our trusty, bomb-proof Canon 7D
This is the view from the bike
Being silly on the Salar
Even with a more-than-generous helping of ‘awe’ to go around, there is a small issue with riding the Salar. As you might have picked up already, the Salar is made of salt, a lot of it, and as any Dakar competitor knows, (Sorry Riaan) salt eats motorcycles. So our little excursion involved getting the bikes coated in oil before the Salar, then literally and after much deliberation, rolling through the water to take some pictures and then rolling out. On getting back to Uyuni the bikes had to be high-pressure washed at least twice over in one of the many wash bays. We also decided to dismantle them to a degree, cleaning brake callipers, electronics and chains amongst other components with a toothbrush before greasing, oiling and reassembling everything from the bottom-up. It was a late night in the garage, with a greasy salchipap dinner, but completely worth it to be able to leave Pooyuni in our dust the following morning.
Trying to not break my bike getting in and out of the Salar…
Another attraction of Uyuni is the train cemetery just out of town. Old trains lie strewn across the desert
Meg exploring the trains
Our wheels hit the road at 8am and we were immediately confronted with our first Bolivian fuel hurdle, which has become a dreaded situation amongst overlanders. In Bolivia, the fuel is subsidised by the government, making it extremely cheap, about 50 USc per litre cheap. So what’s the problem you ask? Well because the fuel is subsidised for the Bolivian people, it isn’t subsidised for everyone else. The gringos are meant to pay a gringo-price, just over 1$ per litre, and with this, a whole bucket-load of Bolivian paperwork, which is ten times worse than normal paperwork, needs to be completed just to fill your tank. The solution to this is a complicated one and comes with a few options, all involving a jerry-can:
- Pay the gringo price without a receipt and let the guy pocket the difference, at east you save some time§
- Wait at an official ‘YPFB’ gas station for the guys to fill in all the paperwork, and then pay the gringo price anyway, you loose time and money
- Pull up to the actual pump in any gas station and be denied any gas at all
- Or, as we chose: Pull up outside the station, away from any cameras, leave your helmet on. Confidently take a jerry can to the pump and ask for the gas in Bolivianos (local currency) and not in litres, try to act like this is completely normal and you do this every second day. Get him to fill the jerry can whilst listening carefully to his instructions about which pump to use and which truck to hide behind so as to avoid the CCTV, and then leave a small tip. This worked every time for us, and we never got denied gas, or had to pay a gringo price, a very proudly earned notch on the belt
This might sound like a massive pain, but everything comes with a benefit, in this case, every fuel stop was an exciting mini-mission, usually filled with laughs, plus, the added time made it a nice break from riding.
After the first of many gas missions, we made our way over the dirt highway out of town, with much surprise, and without any prior warning we were suddenly confronted with a stunningly beautiful stretch of tar, something highly out-of-the-ordinary for Bolivia. It was the road to Sucre, a wide, flat, curvy piece of black beauty through beautiful scenery and otherworldly views. We rode this dream for a good part of the day, until it ran out about half-way to Potosi, becoming riddled with potholes, loose rocks, trash and all forms of animals, domestic or otherwise. One thing we noticed in particular was the abundance of homeless dogs. The strange thing about these dogs was that they all looked well fed, and all had their corners, even on the remotest stretch of road, nowhere near any human settlements. We later learned that the dogs all worked their corners like little hairy prostitutes, waiting at designated points for trash and food scraps to be thrown out of passing cars or trucks, which was quite obviously a common occurrence.
Potosi is a brutal little mining town close to the beautiful colonial city of Sucre, where literally millions of miners have lost their lives within the nearby mountain, which has become known as ‘the mountain that eats men alive’ pretty evil stuff. In the last 500 years 8 million people have lost their lives trying to mine silver out of this beast, many as young as 6 years old, when their mining lives begin, only to be dead by 30 years of age due to silicosis from dust inhalation or being hit by a mining trolley. The miners also feel that the mountain is a place without God, and even though they are Catholic, they worship the devil when entering its depths, leaving offerings of tobacco, alcohol and coca at satanic idols on the way in. It is a rough place, with a dark history, all of which is documented in a great documentary called ‘The Devil’s Miner’, I highly recommend watching this, it is guaranteed to make you appreciate your life and life in general far more afterwards.
The Devil’s Miner
For us, the road to Potosi ended with a bang. The bang being a Bolivian ‘speed-bump’, which is basically a glorified name for ‘unmarked, camouflaged curb in the middle of the road for no apparent reason’. It was only a few kilometres down the same road that I realised what damage the ‘speed-bump’ had done. On a lonely bridge just outside Potosi, I came to the shocking realisation that the rear shock/suspension was toast. I was leaking foul-smelling black fluid all over my bike and the road surface, which smelled even more beautiful once it had burnt on the exhaust. I was now riding a smelly pogo stick, and had joined the worryingly large club of traveling motorcycles who have had a rear shock give up the goose.
After coming to the realisation of what had transpired, we considered stopping over in Potosi for a night or two to assess the damage and plans for repair, but on riding through Potosi, and seeing what it had to offer, I decided, quite promptly, that this was not going to happen. Others have told me that Potosi is actually quite a nice town, and maybe it was the route I took through the town, but to me it looked thoroughly like hell-on-earth, trash everywhere, homeless animals, homeless people, sewage in the streets, unmarked roads ending in gravel heaps, and one out of four locals begging at you on a moving bike whilst trying to manoeuvre over a said gravel pile to try and get into a fuel station. I was not impressed. Looking back, I think I merely wasn’t used to Bolivia yet, spending some time in the country numbs you to madness and mayhem, which also seems worse after having spent the last few months in Chile. If I had had a problem with my front wheel I would have made an honest attempt to ride through Potosi and onto Sucre on the rear wheel alone, a world-record wheelie all the way to Sucre.
I was sad, disappointed, and anxious, a new rear shock was going to impact on both our time and more importantly, our money. I was also secretly really happy, because now I had an excuse to buy myself some awesome Touratech suspension, which would otherwise be a really hard sell on Meg, as it normally is with anybody’s better half.
So I rode that smelly pogo stick to Sucre, bouncing merrily over the speed-bumps, a bizarre and clown-like sensation which will put an irresistible smile on your face, no matter how bad your mood. It is ridiculous and hilarious and you feel like an absolute putz, the universes own way of cheering you up in a bad situation.
On arriving in Sucre, we were taken completely by surprise. The city is neat and clean, the buildings are painted and the central plaza is beautiful, well maintained and full of huge, leafy trees, all the time retaining the insanely low prices that we had come to expect from Bolivia. We also found a fantastic hostel by the name of Pachamama and moved right in for the long haul. Little did we know our ‘long haul’ definition of a week or two was about to be severely altered.
Sucre’s main plaza
Pigeons: targets for young children since time began
You see some great things in Bolivia: like riding on a motorcycle side saddle, whilst speaking on the phone and carrying a dog, with no sign of a helmet
The viewpoint over the city
The view out over Sucre
The witches market
The witches market
Some interesting remedies
And the selection of fresh fruit and veg is unbelievable
A local muso
Sucre’s narrow streets
On doing our research, we found out that Touratech Peru had the part we needed, and that it would take five days to get it to us, ‘that’s cool’ we thought, ‘five days is nothing!’, and it actually did take five days… to get to customs.
Customs, or ‘Aduana’ as it is known around these parts is an absolute nightmare, and significantly more so in Bolivia, where red tape, unpredictable working hours and a general lack of common sense is the norm. If I had known how bad it was going to be I would have taken a bus to the Peruvian border to fetch the part myself. After the five days it took to get the part shipped to Bolivia it took a further five days to get it couriered to Sucre, which had to be done by a special handler as we later learnt due to the shock’s declared value. After organising this shipper with much difficulty, the shock vegetated in Aduana for a staggering 18 days. Paperwork was lost, the package was lost, etc. etc. To make matters worse we were trying to perform this miracle feat during carnival, which had a record number of official public holidays, in between which, people just decided not to do any work at all. Good times
So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
And join the carnival we did. We were sick and tired of running around town for two full weeks being pelted with water balloons on every corner or having buckets of water dumped on our heads from the balconies. We had to have revenge. This started with a rather misguided attempt at retaliation by myself, when returning fire using an unexploded water balloon. I, by mistake, missed my target and instead hit a respectable old woman. I’m not proud of it. No matter how beautiful the shot. And it was definitely a good one. We had a few days where we selflessly supported the black market water balloon trade, got payback for past injustices, danced around with the locals, and had copious amounts of ‘Leche de Tigre’ or ‘Tiger Milk’ poured down our throats.
The sounds of carnival: This is what we had to put up with all day, all night, every day for over two weeks
Getting in on the carnival
Buying an ammo refill
Meg had a blast
And she wasn’t the only one
The moment of impact
Urban warfare in Bolivia
Locals, and more than enough Leche De Tigre
Apart from frustrating us to high Heaven, the time in Sucre allowed us to see every attraction there is to see, as well as eat at all the best restaurants in town, which are all amazingly cheap. We also had the blessing of meeting a host of awesome and interesting people. Amongst those that we met were Felipe and Silvanna, a Chilean couple who were traveling from USA to Chile and Argentina on a V-Strom. We had a great few days with them, plus we saw them again later when they returned to Sucre after Silvanna broke her leg when the motorcycle slipped on a muddy road near Uyuni, an unbelievable story that you have to read, teaching us that a bike problem is always better than a body problem. You can read about their adventure <HERE>.
We also met Martin Lampacher, who would soon become a very good friend and travel partner. He made a great first impression by doing an A-grade strip show in front of a mob of ravenous Bolivian girls on ladies night. He removed the army uniform in great style to win free beer and a night’s free stay at the hostel. He also, initially, confused the living hell out of me by being a born and bred Italian who’s first language is German, for about two weeks I had no idea where Martin was from, this all made sense later on. Martin is currently traveling from Chile to California on his BMW R1200GS, and you can find his blog HERE.
Martin was even on form with the ladies before he showed off hi talents on stage
Martin about to wow the audience for free booze and lodging – check out that sharp uniform
The girls were ravenous – the gringos got it bad
The other notable characters we met were Erich, a crazy Alaskan, Marco, the most Italian Italian I have ever met, and Roland and Liran, a German and an Israeli who had teamed up for a while on their journeys through the continent. Roland is riding a Triumph Tiger, and is currently on his way through Africa, making us maddeningly homesick as well as furiously jealous on a constant basis, you can follow Roland >HERE>.
So after carnival, Megan promptly got back to harassing the DHL employees and making regular death threats to the Aduana. You can only eat so many Tucumanas from Condor Café…
After spending a month in Sucre, after all the chores we could think of were done, and the novelty of ridiculously cheap prices, abundant fresh fruit and veg and abominable internet had finally worn off, we made one more trip down to DHL to try our luck. Lo and behold, my shock had arrived!
THE SHOCK ARRIVED!!!!
I thanked my lucky stars, kissed the box and nearly got hit by a car as I danced for joy in the middle of the street. We were mobile again! We owe a huge thanks to Ivan and Ines at Touratech Peru for getting me my new baby, and dealing with all of the headaches that the Bolivian customs had to offer. We couldn’t wait one more minute. Within record time, the shock was in, the sag was set and we left the very next morning, surprisingly sad to see Sucre in the rear-view mirror, it had been our home for a month, and we had really come to love it.
Our next stop was Cochabamba, and meeting up with Martin to finish off Bolivia and head into the mystical, ancient Peru, where our trip would move well past its adolescence and test us in ways we never thought possible.