Bolivia is to motorcycles what the Bermuda Triangle is to ships. It tried to strand me in the desert and it tried to drown my friend. Outside of La Paz, the infrastructure is practically nonexistent and many of the “roads” are little more than treacherous overland tracks across some of the most harsh and desolate terrain imaginable. The 3,700 m (12,000 ft) elevation makes every task twice as difficult as it should be, the sun is relentless and blinding during the day while the temperatures are freezing at night, and it is a totally wild and incredibly cool place.
The road leading from the Peruvian border into La Paz wasn’t actually all that bad. It was bad enough, however, that I picked up a flat rear tire somewhere along the way. The problem became noticeable only a few blocks from my hotel. Unfortunately, La Paz defies all laws of physics in that every point in the city is uphill somehow. I tried to limp the few blocks up an impossibly steep hill to the hotel, but with the stop and go traffic, heavy load of gear and rider, and flat tire, the clutch decided to give out. Five days later, I was fixed up and ready to get on the road again.
The road from La Paz to Uyuni is a work in progress. Where it is paved, it is great. Where they are still working on it, the detours are desert tracks through sand and gravel and are nearly impassible by anything but a four-wheel-drive vehicle. When my one-wheel drive vehicle hit a patch of desert sugar sand, I was unable to throttle through it and both tires ended up buried to the brake rotors. After unloading the luggage and doing some digging, I was able to power through and continue on.
Shortly after, I hit a patch of sand that was so deep and so light that, despite my best efforts, sent me forward and sprawling into the desert, leaving the bravely struggling Triumph on her side in the sand, rear wheel spinning and sending a geyser of white desert sand into the blazing blue sky.
Luckily, the only witnesses to this inglorious dump were a herd of alpacas, which saved some embarrassment. Also, the landing was soft, which saved broken bones. These facts, however, presented a new set of problems. It was unlikely that the alpacas would be of any help in getting the bike upright and dug out of the sand.
I didn’t have to wait long for a group of helpful locals to pass nearby in a pickup truck. We soon had the bike upright and with some digging and pushing and a healthy application of throttle, the Triumph was on her way again.
I arrived in Uyuni to find a friend waiting outside a hotel next to a red Land Rover. I met Dan at the Costa Rica/Panama border crossing. Dan, a tattoo artist from Long Beach, California, is following roughly the same route as me on a BMW 650GS. We’ve kept in touch via email and have crossed paths a few times.
“I had a hell of a day,” he said.
“Couldn’t have been worse than mine,” I thought.
Then I discovered it had been. While riding on the Uyuni salt flats, he had broken through the salt crust and that’s when the mud underneath had tried to swallow the bike whole. With the help of a local ex-pat Brit motorcycle mechanic named Robin (and owner of the red Land Rover), they had managed to get the bike back to town, but it was going to need some repairs.
The Uyuni salt Flats are the largest in the world and so large (roughly the size of Lebanon) and so flat that satellites use the surface to calibrate their instruments. The salt flat is not just a layer of salt over earth, but rather a sheet of crust over a briny solution, that is thought to contain 60% of the world’s lithium supply, and floats like ice over an enormous lake full of corrosive metals. It is a mind-bending place. I decided to visit with a guide.
We made it about an hour and a half out of Uyuni before his 650GS decided to quit again on the side of a desolate gravel stretch through the desert. I said I’d ride ahead and see if I could send a truck his way, while he would try to flag down a ride to the next town. Unfortunately, there was no next town except for the lonely border outpost several hours away. I drove off with Dan and the white BMW growing smaller in my mirrors on the side of the road in the Bolivian desert.
I eventually arrived at the Chilean border, after riding across washboard roads that felt like riding a jackhammer, volcanic ash/sand the consistency of talcum powder, disorienting dust clouds, whipping winds, freezing temperatures and enormous pits full of desert sand and gravel that made it nearly impossible to keep the bike upright.
While I was filling in my paperwork at the Chilean customs office, I looked out the window at the parking lot to see a Toyota Hilux pickup with a white BMW 650GS strapped down in the bed and Dan walking toward the door with a crazy grin on his face.
Another hell of a day, I guess.