Thursday, February 27, 2014

February 26-27, 2014, Calama, Chile to Chanaral

Immediately upon our arrival in Calama we notice this is one busy and prosperous city. With a population of 150,000 and who knows how many workers who travel to Calama to work in the many copper mines in the area including one of the largest open pit mines in the world. The truck traffic from points west and south of Calama reminds me of highway 63 between Edmonton and Fort McMurray with trucks moving everything required to keep multiple copper mines operational. Even the buses that move the employees from town to the mines sites are similar to Fort McMurray. A few Canadian companies have a presence here including KAL Tire and at least two huge Finning (Caterpillar) operations that we saw.
Our two days in Calama gave us the opportunity to have our laundry done, do a little work on the BMW and rest the knee and ankle. It's a town that has everything you could want except for a signal bulb for the BMW and a map of Chile.
We get an early start (6:45 am) for Chanaral. The highway to the coast is awesome but then anything is better than Bolivia's roads. Within an hour we are on a toll road with a speed limit of 120 km/h and need to do 140 just to keep up with the locals.
The Atacama desert is 1000 km long strip of land along the Pacific coast of Chile known to be the driest hot desert in the world. The soil in a region we drove through is comparable to that of the planet Mars.
 The Mano del Desierto sculpture in the Atacama desert stands 36 feet tall and represents emotions like injustice, loneliness, sorrow and torture.
 The Atacama desert is completely void of any vegetation but you can find abandoned shoes there.
 The Pacific Ocean with soft white sand beach at Chanaral, Chile.
 Lighthouse above the town of Chanaral.

February 24, 2014, Uyuni, Bolivia to Ollague, Chile

Our route from Uyuni to Bolivia according to the maps is on two highways which sounds straight forward. Once again, within an hour of leaving Uyuni the road turns to wash board and more sand. Very little to see other than scrub, rocks and sand, some wild burros, llamas, sheep and their herders, guanaco and a lone flamingo.

We reach San Juan at noon and after discovering there is no place to eat we pull out the M&M peanuts and have a quick bite before proceeding. At this point we are expecting to see road signs indicating the direction to Chile, in the end we never did see a sign for Chile nor did we see a sign indicating what highway we were traveling. After riding for an hour we are unsure of our direction and we return to San Juan where 3 people give us directions on a path into the desert. After 10 minutes we return to San Juan as the path may lead to Ollague but we can't ride the sand. We come upon a family of three with their motorcycle broke down on the side of the road and stop to assist them.

Repaired and ready to go, the chain had come off the rear sprocket and was jammed onto the axle tensioner. Not sure how long they were working on the problem but he was frustrated. I just put the transmission in neutral and pulled the chain backwards to get it off the tensioner and back onto the sprocket.
 They tell us to go to San Pedro which is an hour away, when we get to San Pedro we are told the road to Chile is towards San Juan. Half way back to San Juan we stop and ask a truck driver for directions and he actually has a picture of the turnoff on his cell phone. We find the turnoff this time, it's about 4 pm and the road is carved out of the desert sand and mountain rock. We come upon a very elderly man and Diana is unable to understand anything he says. I see a woman tending a herd of sheep and walk half a kilometer and come back to the bike and Diana more confused than when I left. We debate about the different paths that may lead to Chile and decide to continue until we finally see a glimmering roof of a building in the distance. When we arrive we see four girls aged 2 to 8 running for the house and returning with mother. Diana and mom get talking, the hands are pointing, the arms a waving and finally a map is drawn in the dirt. I pick up parts of the conversation but am unsure of when to turn etc. Before leaving I open the pannier so as give the girls pencils that have Canada flags painted on them. They immediately spot the 2 bags of M&M peanuts and think they are getting candy. I feel really bad about not giving them the candy but also knew that would be our supper if we couldn't find our way through to Chile. In the end they were all delighted with the pencils and the older girls had the 2 year old saying Canada repeatedly before we departed. I'm sure they talked about us for the remainder of the day.
The mothers directions and estimate of time to reach the train tracks was fairly accurate. Once we reached the tracks the GPS was able to tell me we were 30 kilometers (as the crow flies) away from Chile. We finally see the border and are so relieved to make it with an hour to spare before the border closes for the day at 8pm. This was absolutely our most disconcerting day of our entire adventure (so far). 
Anyone know what this crop is?  (see answer at bottom of page)
After doing some research on this route I have found blogs where guys have crossed the salt flats trying to find Chile and ended up riding the railroad tracks to get there because they couldn't find the road.

We find a hostel, the elderly owner makes a dinner for us, huge bowls of chicken soup and a cold salad plate of potatoes and vegetables which are certainly better than a small bag of M&M's and freezing overnight at 3600 meters above sea level  (which seemed like it could very well happen).
After spending the night in Ollague we are off to Calama, Chile for two nights before heading south to Santiago, a journey of 3 to 4 days.
Salt gets dried in piles before getting trucked out to markets.
The Atacama Desert in Chile, looks like a moonscape with virtually no vegetation.
(The crop pictured earlier is Quinoa and grows in sandy desert area's)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 21, 2104, Uyuni, Bolivia

We start our day in Villa Loza, just south of La Paz. The temperature on the Altiplano is once again 5 degrees C. and we layer on the clothing for a 7 am start with the intention of arriving in Uyuni early in the afternoon allowing time to explore the town before dark. We make good time and arrive in Huari at 11 am (a distance of 200 km) which included a stop for breakfast.

Shortly after Huari we come across a sign for Uyuni which is 164 km's and the road turns to sand. The sand has the consistency of flour and is 3 to 6 inches deep making riding difficult due to the uneven base under the sand. We try riding beside the road like other vehicles are doing but end up doing a low speed crash in the sand when the front tire sinks and we loose control. It's all Diana and I can do to upright the bike and carry on. About an hour after the first spill we take a second one at about 30 kph, this time my left leg gets caught under the bike and it takes a couple minutes for Diana to dismount and for me to pull my leg out. This time we wait ten minutes for a passing vehicle to help upright the bike.

 The whole 164 km's was mostly soft sand and at times washboard gravel which prohibited getting the bike out of first gear. In the seven hour journey we saw less than 20 vehicles and while having a rest we admit to each other that we've been eyeing up the culverts as an option to a hotel room if we can't make it to Uyuni. As soon as we get to the hotel we apply ice to the knee and ankle and hope the pain subsides.
 Pink Flamingo's, but not the lawn ornament variety.
 Vicuna's grazing next to the road.

The knee is still not up to riding so we book a tour that will take us to the train cemetery and the salt flats on Sunday.

The Salar de Uyuni salt flats are the largest in the world covering 12,106 square kilometers and sits at 3653 meters above sea level.
 Salt statues in the salt museum.
 Most of the buildings were built using salt blocks in the same manner as bricks.
 The salt flats look very similar to a frozen lake in late spring, dirty edges and honeycomb patterns.
Reflections in the standing water.

February 19, 2014 Death Road (Camino de las Mueretes), Bolivia

Wednesday and we are taking the world’s most dangerous road, Camino de las Mueretes, otherwise known as the North Yungas Road or Death Road. It’s just over an hour from La Paz to the turn off and the scenery is spectacular with some snow-capped mountains that only support small shrubs and vegetation and the valley is deep with steep walls.
The elevation at one point is 4650 meters and we descend into the valley and exit the highway onto death road. The temperature has risen dramatically from 5 degrees C at the summit and when we stop to remove some layers of clothing we understand why. The wind coming up the valley is blowing warm, humid tropical air up from the valley floor.

Locals waiting for the bus at the Death Road junction, when I asked for permission to take their photo most of the women disappeared but when I was handing out Canada lapel pins the woman were right in line for a pin. 
 When driving the death road you drive on the left side of the road, this forces the descending vehicle to be on the downhill side of the cliff which unless you are crazy forces you to slow down when passing another vehicle.  The ascending vehicle has the right of way and it doesn’t take long before we encounter the first oncoming vehicle, a dump truck. We are on a section of road that is only wide enough for one vehicle, we can’t backup like a car and I don’t have the balls to stop on the cliff side and instead maneuvered the bike into a ditch on the uphill side of the road leaving about half a meter between us and the truck. Getting the bike out of the ditch proved challenging but we did make it.

The road has seen some improvements of late with modern guard rails and concrete culverts to reduce wash outs from the waterfalls and don’t get me wrong, it’s still damn scary to look over the edge in most places. For those who are interested here’s a link to a website with more details:
Cyclists coming through he waterfalls.
Diana hasn’t had any issues with altitude sickness but, I, on the other hand am always dehydrated and need to be careful when getting up from sitting as I can lose my balance if I stand up too quickly.
 The bike and I were fairly clean after riding through a series of waterfalls that dropped a few hundred feet onto the road.
 A few water crossings to deal with today.
We stayed at a hostel at Coroico ($24), just a half block from the central square. We met a twenty something couple from Australia during happy hour, Jessie just received her law degree and Daniel is taking his masters in environmental science. They are backpacking South America and shared some of their experiences with us. We had some concerns beforehand about how noisy the hostel might be but the rain must have started just after midnight which drove everyone inside. In the morning it’s still pouring hard and we decide to have a leisurely breakfast and wait for the weather to break. About 10 am we make a dash back to La Paz, this time via the new highway. The new highway has some erosion issues and while driving through a construction zone the front and rear tires decide to take different ruts in the mud and we take a closer look at the mud. We happened to have the GoPro camera mounted on my helmet which caught most of the incident. (See the video titled The Safer Highway to La Paz)
 It takes us almost three hours to maneuver our way through La Paz as there is some type of festival happening. While climbing onto the bike after lunch a bus pulls up behind us and all of a sudden there are hundreds of people swarming the bus with a police escort trying to control the crowd and reporters. We think it may have been a soccer team or politician on the bus but didn’t wait around to find out.
For dogs in Bolivia every day is attack a gringo day and today is no different with three dogs doing their best to bite the buckles off my riding boots. Fortunately, between our boots and riding pants we shouldn’t have to worry about getting injured from a dog bite. 
We have over an hour of video from Death Road but due to the internet or lack of we are unable to edit and post it on the blog. Once we have decent internet we will post it and advise. (sorry Sharon, you'll have to wait a while to see over the edge).
PS So far we have ridden just over 17,000 km (10,600 miles), replaced two rear tires, fallen from the bike three times, lost count on how many times we’ve had stomach issues and witness extreme poverty on a daily basis which for me is overwhelming.         

Saturday, February 22, 2014

February 17, 2014, Good bye Peru, Hello Bolivia

It’s time to move on again, destination Puno but when we arrive we find a city in total disrepair and decide to travel further south along Lake Titicaca. The first hotel is out of our budget and we find a hostel run by an elderly couple, it’s clean, it’s in the country surrounded by farms so it should be quiet and we get a home cooked meal of rice, ground beef and vegetables. The downside is there is no hot water or heater and the temperature is 5 degrees C, we get a few extra blankets and climb into bed right after supper in order to stay warm. For breakfast we are served quinoa with warm milk, buns with jam and tea. Before we depart they ask to take some photos of us on the bike in front of the hostel so they can put our photo on their web site.
 Herders hut in the foothills of southern Peru.
 Lake Titicaca in the background.
 Lake Titicaca, at the southern end of Peru is the worlds largest high altitude lake at 3808 meters and 8400 square kilometers.

 The plan is to cross the Bolivian border today; it’s a cold ride and within an hour we run into an inch of snow on the road but, fortunately it didn’t last long. We arrive at the border and get through both Peruvian and Bolivian immigration and customs in less than an hour; it was one of the easiest crossings we have experienced. We no sooner get across the border and get attacked by dogs on six different occasions, all of which are full size dogs like labs. We make a run for La Paz and get stopped by the police twice, both policemen are pleasant and they just want to look at our importation documents for the bike. We’re on our way but only after telling them of our travels from Canada.
 The following are views from our hotel room in La Paz, Bolivia.
Mount Illimani at 6402 meters
 La Paz is only 1.5 million people but it seems like all of them are on the streets and jay walking is a national past time. We don’t have GPS maps for Bolivia so once again we are driving blindly and need to ask the locals for directions. After an hour of searching for a hotel we decide to blow the budget and check into the Radisson Hotel for a couple of nights.
Took the bike to BMW to have an oil change and get four other items fixed. After 3-1/2 hours and $240 I leave with only an oil change that should have taken less than an hour. Pretty much the same work ethic as Panama, everyone walks around looking busy but nothing gets accomplished. The service manager (the only person who speaks English) disappears just minutes before the bill is presented to me.