Thursday, April 10, 2014

3rd time over the Andes: Chile to Argentina (April 2014)

It was during our break in San Pedro de Atacama that we discovered Teeny had a back tyre puncture.  First one of the trip.  Lucky it was there because our glue in the puncture repair kit had burst somewhere along the road, and we needed to replace it.  That evening we discovered what an earthquake really feels like.  The ground beneath us swayed back and forth as did the trees around us for at least 3min.  We found out in the morning that the earthquake epicentre was about 500km away from us and registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, a 2m tsunami had hit the coastal town of Iquique and many people had been evacuated.  
First flat of the trip

The culprit
 We left San Pedro de Atacama late in the afternoon after bumping into Kath and Rob who we had met at the Honda dealership in Santiago.  It was great to catch up with them and hear about their travels through South America.  We needed to do customs and migracion in San Pedro de Atacama as we were planning to do Paso Sico over the Andes.  This took a little longer than planned and we only hit the road at 1:30pm.  The great tarmac for 80km was well enjoyed and we could concentrate on the scenery instead of the road.  We climbed back up to 4400masl passing smaller salars and lagunas.  The ride was beautiful and we camped near to some rocks trying to escape the chilly breeze again.

 The next morning we entered into Argentina, and the road got pretty rough with corrugations again.  We were happy when we arrived at San Antonia de Cobres excited for the next days ride which would be off the main road and hopefully have less corrugations.
Some adjustments for the altitude
 Ruta 40 is well known by travellers as a spectacular route along the Andes.  This section was our first taste of it and it was amazing.  As we climbed up and over the mountain, in the distance we could see Salinas Grandes which only 2 months before we had been standing on.  The valley then became a beautiful mesh of colours as the switchbacks took us deeper into the valley and running parallel and many times crossing over the river.
We arrived in Cachi and loved the tranquillity of the town with the greenest plaza we’ve seen to date.  A hearty meal and off to bed to continue on Ruta 40 the next day to Cafayate. 

Road works

I like big butts and i can not lie ...!!!!!

 The drive through el Cajon valley towards Cafayate took us through odd rock formations and little towns with cowboys and farm workers.  We arrived in Cafayate, went back to the place we had camped before and enjoyed a delicious braai with tender meat that we had been talking about during our time in Bolivia.

Beautiful Bolivia…with a little surprise! (March 2014)

In the morning we waved goodbye to our Colombian friends who had planned to start walking and hopefully catch a lift to the Migracion office.  We packed up quickly and as Teeny put her shoes on she got more than she bargained for as a frog jumped out of the shoe…needless to say she was jumping around the place with the customs officers giving her a very squiff look!

The drive to the migracion office was on beautiful tarmac and the scenery didn’t seem to change much.  We walked into the office at 10:30am impressed we were so early and prepared with our Bolivianos to buy our visa for Bolivia.  This is the one country in our travel plans through South America that requires South Africans to get visas and all our research had shown it would be easy enough to get at the border.  Smiling we handed over our passports to the lady officer who asked if we had our visas.  Ummm…no but we have money to buy one here.  Her reply shocked us: No you are not able to buy a visa here you should have gone to the embassy in Mirascal, you have to go back to get it, I can not issue you a visa here.  OH! So, in broken Spanish we plead with her and to enforce our shock and dismay at this news Teeny started crying saying the road back to Mirascal is “muy malo” (very bad).  She doesn’t budge, saying that to issue a visa requires an ID photo, photocopies of your passport, yellow fever certificate, credit cards, proof of accommodation and a letter of invitation.  So we head out to the bikes trying to figure out if we were going to travel the 300kms back to Mirascal only to return again.  After 20mins of deliberation, she came out to us with a plan.  Nick can go into Bolivia to the first town of Villamontes (about 60kms) away and get all the paperwork we need to apply for a visa.  Shew 120km return sounds much easier than 600kms, but the fact that Nick had to go alone was not great!!  We got a list of everything she needed from us, it all seemed easy except we weren’t sure if the person who we needed to email for the letter of invitation would reply today.  Regardless Nick headed out while Teeny sat at the border hoping with all her might that the endless number of negative scenarios running through her head wouldn’t become a realisation.  
future rider in training

waiting for the cow to jump out of the bushes !

 Waiting 4 hours watching people go in and out of the migracion office with their passport stamped, explaining your story over and over again to the curious onlookers and not being able to contact Nick was definitely one of the worst ways to spend half a day! It was such a relief when he arrived back again! We had everything, except of course the letter of invitation.  We went into the office and a man now sat there.  He was happy with everything but then asked where the letter of invitation was.  So we explained that we had emailed them but we have got no reply.  He then tells us that it was “muy facil” (very easy) we just needed to write a letter inviting ourselves into the country in Spanish.  Huh?! Still not sure what he meant he still he tells us he will call a friend and we must wait outside.

So we sit for another 1.5hrs.  Then he calls us inside, looks at all our paperwork again closely and then looks at us and says: Its getting late and you need to go.  Give me money to buy a gaseosa (soft drink) and I will write the letter for you and issue you a visa….ahhhh FINALLY!! Muchas Gracias Senor! And that was how we entered Bolivia…only 8.5hrs at the border! We laughed as we drove off thinking that of all the borders we have ever crossed, that one corrected our track record of only easy crossings!
Turns out that 20kms of the 60kms to Villamontes is on a loose gravel road, and in sections the road is being taken over by thick bush, not quite the easy 60km into town that she had explained!  Arriving in town we went in search of an ATM.  We found 4 but all of them would only accept Visa cards…thank goodness one of our cards is a Visa card! We started feeling like Bolivia didn’t want us to visit…however we found a lovely hostal with a very friendly host, and learnt that there would be live music in town in celebration of fathers day.  What an excellent way to end a rather trying day!

The rain started at midnight, and continued throughout the next day, so we decided that it would be best to wait it out as the next stretch to the town of Tarija was on a dirt road with possibly loads of muddy sections.  We wandered the central market looking at the old singers being used to repair clothes and shoes, fresh fruit juice stalls and all the latest American labelled clothes and shoes for sale.  A little room Peluquerio (hairdresser) one man show…right Nick time for a haircut! All off…and just in time for the chilly temperatures we are about to travel through! 

  It was super busy when we arrived and somehow we managed to navigate the narrow streets past the plaza and on to a pleasant hostal in the centre.  We enjoyed a small meal after our big lunch on the road and enjoyed a locally produced wine.
In the morning our visit to the tourist information office was helpful although the map they gave us of southern Bolivia was very basic.  The plan was to head towards Potosi and depending on the road see how far we could get.  Climbing up to 3000masl we travelled slowly on the 125s, but then we hit a valley at about 2500masl which was an exquisite red clay colour. The bikes moved along well at this altitude and we were surprised at the good quality road.  Before we knew it we were climbing higher again and the temperature dropped as we arrived at one of the highest cities in the world, Potosi, at 4070masl.  A mining town at the base of Cerro Rico (mountain rich) filled with silver that has been mined for years.  The town doesn’t seem to have been built based on a town plan as narrow roads zigzagged all over the place and some turned into dead ends or sheer banks to the level below.  A very interesting town but we could feel the effects of the altitude making us move a lot slower and feel a bit sluggish. 
The next morning we decided to look for an ATM that would give us USD so we would be prepared for exchanging in Argentina (your money goes much further if you exchange on the black market and get the ‘Blue Dollar’ rate).  Unfortunately no luck, so we got a few supplies we would need for the next week wild camping around Uyuni and beyond.
Cerro rico

 During a few research sessions we had found out about a thermal pool about 20kms outside of Potosi, and decided we should spend the rest of the day there acclimatising to the altitude.  Ojo del Inca is located in such a beautiful setting, and the temperature of the pool was much hotter than the thermal pools we had swum in in Chile.  What a fantastic afternoon relaxing in the sun.  In the late afternoon 4 locals arrived and set up camp next to us.  We were invited over to join them for a drink and listen to them playing the guitar and singing. Under the stars, listening to local music and chatting to these 4 interesting men was great.  It was such a pity that Teeny started feeling ill.  She went to bed early and it was about 3 hrs later that the night of hell started.  She couldn’t keep anything down, not even a sip of water and couldn’t fall asleep either.  The only good thing was seeing the sunrise the next morning!  Weak and battling to sit up without wanting to faint Nick asked the 4 guys if they could help us get back to Potosi.  They were so kind and without a blink of an eye made a bed in the back of their truck for Teeny to lie on and one of them drove her bike back to Potosi.  We were so lucky to have met them, and when we got back to Potosi Nick went to the chemist to describe the symptoms.  Yes, she has altitude sickness, and if you aren’t sleeping you have a slight case too.  Take these pills with food, once in the morning and in the evening.
Ojo del inca thermal pool

 The next 2 nights we slept and started to feel better.  The pills had odd side effects making our fingertips tingle and made soft drinks taste awful, but at least we were sleeping and Teeny didn’t feel so nauseas.
We left for Uyuni, glad to be on the road again and heading to a lower altitude.  As we entered into the mountains the sky got pretty dark and we decided to put our wet weather gear on.  Lucky we did because no more than 10min later we were driving through a hail storm!! Brrrr…and wet shoes! Thank goodness the other side was sunny!!  The rest of the drive to Uyuni was on a great road sparkling like diamonds weaving its way through the hillside.  We turned a corner and there was Salar de Uyuni lying ahead of us! Arriving late in the afternoon we went directly to the train cemetery 2 km outside of town and watched the sunset and set up camp for the night.  
hail storm

Check the hailstones on the Alpacha's back!

protest on the road into Uyuni

Train graveyard

 What a freezing night, right we need another blanket! Back in town we bought something to keep us warmer at night before heading into Salar de Uyuni.  The dirt road out to the entrance of the Salar was pretty good, and when we passed the last little town Colchani we drove out onto the Salar.  Phenomenal landscape, you drive deeper and deeper into the Salar and can not see the end of it, only the islands that look like their floating in the middle of the salar and the mountains far in the distance surrounding it.  You cant help but stop and take picture after picture.  We were surprised to find a few water filled holes that were quite deep, and although it is possible to travel any which way you like on the salar  we thought the hard crust pentagon/hexagonal shapes of salt were quite rough on the tyres.  So we kept to the main tracks through to Inca Huasi island.  A weird piece of land filled with cacti that are said to be over 900yrs old.  We decided to camp near the island for the night near a pile of salt blocks after hearing that the Salar is used for illegal trafficking of goods and for this reason people drive at night without their lights on.  We figured having a few objects in the way would be more comfortable.  An amazing sunset, another freezing cold night and spectacular sunrise…we were blown away by the beauty of a massive slab of salt.

self timer no......


GOT IT !!!!

 The next morning we drove 20kms further to Isla Pescada, another island on the Salar.  We climbed the hill and had a slightly elevated view of the Salar.
We drove along and made a few more stops and quite a few more pictures and just marvelled at the amazing wonder we were in. On one stop Nick suggested that Teeny get onto the bike and he take a video of her riding along the Slat flats, as she went to put on her gloves she found some thing in one of them….surprise !! Yes the setting was perfect, just the two of us in the middle of the salt flats and Nick got down on one knee, thank goodness she said yes!! We drove back to Uyuni town and booked into a hostel for the night, and went out for an engagement celebration dinner.
Isla Incahuasi

A2A in slat bricks !

Shoo she said YES !!!!!

Cleaning off the salt 
 The next 3 days we spent travelling across the harsh Bolivian altiplano.  It is a landscape filled with the most incredible scenery: snow capped volcanoes, colourful mountains, surreal lagunas with red, turquoise or white shades, flamingos, alpachas the rock rabbits.  It was truly magnificent to travel between 4000-5000masl through an ever persistent chilly wind, badly corrugated dirt roads and plummeting sub zero temperatures during the nights where our water froze in the canister.  The views as we crawled out of the tent in the morning in the beautiful setting we had found to wild camp made the hard experiences of this section of road totally worth it.  We loved and hated every minute of the trip and were torn when we descended the 2500m back to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

The bridge we used to cross the river

The road through the river we managed to avoid

I'm taking the sheep to bed too bloody cold !!!

Frozen water bottle

Lunch break hidden from the wind trying to warm up in the sun

Laguna Colorado

Bugger that was deeper than i thought !!

5020m just to drop off a piece of paper at the aduana (customs) - about a 10km detour off the main road!!

Don't hit the sand bank on either side of the road...oh and the middle mannetjie!

Laguna Verde