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Hola Bolivia and Solar de Uyuni

After leaving San Pedro we begin the long climb into the Andes. The higher we climb the more the bike and I suffer from the altitude. The bike feels more like an overloaded 250 than a 650. The lack of oxygen at an altitude of 4200 meters is upsetting the air to petrol ratio in the carburettor and performance is suffering. I’m feeling the same way and need to concentrate on breathing to avoid feeling lightheaded.

Over the pass and down onto the AltoPlano, the High Plane. Here I see guanaco, the native camelidae. Both the llama and alpaca were derived from the guanaco.

Onto the border town of Ollagüe and I work my way through the Chilean immigration and Customs. They check the serial numbers on the bike match my paperwork and send me on to Bolivian Immigration, 3 kms through ‘No man’s land’. Here the process begins again, and 30 minutes later the bike and I are legally in Bolivia. In broken English, the immigration official had asked me how many days I wished my visa to be for. I replied that I would like 30 days please. He suggested I have 90. So 90 days it is. Hola Bolivia!

The good, sealed road of Chile ended at the border. It was now dirt road, 230 kms to my destination of Uyuni (pronounced Uni).

To describe the road as poor would be an understatement. To be fair, the Bolivian government are rebuilding this route with a sealed road, and a few small, completed sections were really great highway, but the rest of the road is comparable to really bad Australian outback tracks. Loose sand and fine bull dust, littered with rocks and potholes. I tackle some of it in first gear and progress is slow. Halfway through I come across a couple from Brazil, they are riding 2 up on a well-laden Vstrom.

We stop for a chat; the pillion has good English and we share info on the condition of the road ahead. She is somewhat dismayed at the road conditions, and I tell her I think her partner is doing a great job of keeping them upright. She rolls her eyes and tells me they have not always been upright!

She tells me of a gas station in the little town of San Cristóbal, a small town further up the track, and I’m glad to hear about it. This pace is taking its toll on fuel consumption. She warns me that we must pay ‘gringo price’ for the gas, and the gas is crap. Bolivian petrol is only 85 octane. This gives very poor performance compared to the recommended 91 octane we are used to.

The gasoline is heavily subsidised by the Bolivian government (the taxpayer) to the Bolivian populace, but they see no reason to subsidise foreigners who are non-taxpayers, in their country, so charge anywhere up to 3 times the local price (the unsubsidised price and still considerably cheaper than in NZ) and some paperwork is required, recording the foreigners' details to complete the sale.

I’d read of gas stations who refuse to sell to foreigners because of the paperwork, and government installed CCTV cameras monitoring the stations to ensure they are obeying the rules. I’d also read of unmonitored stations charging less than 3x the price and pocketing the difference.

Upon reaching San Cristóbal, I follow Brazil girl’s directions and locate the station and join the long queue for gas. (There’s always a queue for gas in Bolivia). Eventually I’m served and the server is waving his arms about and I’m not sure what he’s trying to tell me, but he’s holding up 2 fingers and eventually I get it. The gas is going to be twice the price, and I must pay in cash. Got it. This out of the way gas station must be unmonitored. I’m happy with the price and I get my gas. I will learn that in Bolivia, getting gas is a lucky dip. You never know if they’ll sell it to you and you never know the price. My next fuel purchase would be at the same price locals pay. Go figure.

Another I00 kms on my gasping and now seriously underpowered motorcycle we reach the delightful town of Uyuni.

Many of the towns I’ve come across so far have a serious litter problem, but Uyuni takes the biscuit. Litter everywhere. Plastic bags hooked on any standing vegetation or fence. I don’t understand it. When on the road I see litter being thrown from vehicles so often. I guess it’s a third world thing.

Years ago, when riding in India, a young man at an outside cafe, served us crisps and coke (about the only thing we could safely consume). When we were finished he gathered up the empty bags and cans and threw them into the nearby stream. When I admonished him for it, he looked at me as if I was mad, shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed “it is gone!” “Yes” I responded, “Gone to someone else”, but the message was completely lost on him.

Sadly it appears to be the same here. It’s a bloody eyesore to say the least.

Uyuni is famous the world over for its dried salt lake, Salar de Uyuni, and it attracts a fair number of western tourists. Many fly in at the local airport, others arrive by coach, and many arrive by ‘private driver’, usually in a well-beaten Toyota Landcruiser, some enduring the route I have ridden and others coming from as far away as La Paz to view the amazing scenery on the Altiplano.

To cater for the well-heeled visitors, Uyuni has a couple of quite fine hotels, and it’s at one of these I choose to stay. The currency exchange is $4.6 BOL to $1NZ, and a night in this hotel sets me back just over $400 BOL, so about $90NZ and that includes a pretty good breakfast. There’s no vehicle parking (most people don’t arrive by private car) but the hotel has a deal with a neighbouring mechanic, who stores vehicles on the hotel's behalf and this is where the bike spends the night.

The next day I venture out onto the salt lake. It really is a great experience. The Salar is vast, and I manage to ride out further than the hired Landcruisers, whose private drivers are busy setting up cheesy picnics out on the salt with their clients, complete with table, chairs and sunshade.

After I’d had my fill of salt riding I headed back to Uyuni and availed myself of the services of one of the many car washes, who wash the vehicles clean of salt. The guy did a very thorough job and charged $30 BOL, about $6NZ. Bolivia must be one of the few countries where our $ works in our favour (but for how long?).

In the afternoon I visit Uyuni’s other claim to fame, the steam train graveyard, where dozens of decommissioned steam locomotives lay abandoned to the salty air. This gathering of ancient behemoths has become a tourist attraction of sorts and the opportunity is not lost on local hawkers, who set up their stalls here daily.

The next day I pack the bike and leave town. As I head over the nearest pass I look back at the Altiplano with the grubby little town of Uyuni and the Salar on the horizon. Quite a sight.


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