BOLIVIA ON A SUZUKI DR650: PART 3
BY: OLIVIER DE VAULX
Leaving Quetena at 7 am in 5F makes us feel the toughness and the resilience of the people living here all year long. We don’t complain, at least openly, about the shivering cold, and start the last leg of our loop through Bolivia. Today, we’ll go in the direction of the border with Chile to see some of the most visited lagunas in Bolivia. Soon after leaving town, and after having navigated through a majestic canyon, we reach a high-altitude plateau. There, we’re blessed by a powerful palette of saturated colors. Around us, it’s only turquoise waters and red mountains. The colors are so intense that a few miles further we encounter a place called Dali’s Desert, named after the famous Spanish surrealist painter. As we stop to snap a quick picture, a fox appears suddenly, maybe curious about our Fox head logos on our gear. Not afraid one bit, he stares at us riders as if we were little princes ready to adopt him… alas, we read the book and we’re not falling for the little redhead. Instead, we push further South toward Laguna Verde.
After riding across vast plains covered in salt, we descend on a rocky trail toward the distant lake. There’s a bunch of 4x4s coming in the other direction, which means that tourists are leaving... nothing to complain about! Since it had been too easy so far this morning, a flat tire tries to slow us down for a few minutes, but we won’t let it and we just tie it down to the rim with the help of three Upshift utility straps; a good trick to keep going when you don’t want to waste time waiting for the chase truck! There’s nothing to do against the wind, though, and we reach the shores of the green laguna wishing for some kind of wall to protect us. There’s nothing out there in terms of shelter, but the view makes up for it. We ride slowly around this jewel, alone, not speaking since our voices can’t cover the wind noise but taking it all in with our eyes wide open. It’s time to go back 30 miles to pursue our journey but this time with the gusty breeze on our backs. We’re not on bicycles but it still makes a difference!
Pumped by this easy way out and the absence of tourists, we decide to stop by the hot springs. There’s no one in sight and we have the place to ourselves. The water in this natural spa is warm, a perfect temperature that would incite us to take a nap. Yet we can’t get enough of the million-dollar view from this natural pool and we all laugh like kids, perfectly aware that at this instant we are the luckiest gringos in the world! Staying on the topic of geologic wonders, we start our bikes and head toward a canyon full of geysers. A cloud of heavy smoke is coming out of the earth, spreading the smell of sulfur as if it was the devil’s breath. In big mud holes, boiling water lets go of huge bubbles of gas finding their way from far below. Once again, the large palette of colors catches the eye, like a little Yellowstone without the tourists. We keep going, following a trail that brings us just above 16,000ft. This is the highest any of us have ever ridden a bike or walked. We’re getting used to these extreme elevations but nobody would dare to try a pair of running shoes here: we’re all short of breath with just high-fives.
It’s time to go down towards our next stop, the Laguna Colorada. It seems close by when looking at the map, but the trail has been literally destroyed by an armada of 4x4s. On the soft terrain, deep ruts, berms of soft gravel, and washboards are putting our motorcycles to the test. With the lack of oxygen, this brutal ride brings us close to getting arm pump and blisters on our hands! Stopping at the only authorized parking in the area, we walk at a close distance from the abundant wildlife. Flamingos, llamas, and vicuñas all live together in perfect harmony here, and the scene is reminiscent of a lost paradise. The vibrant color of the red water, caused by the shrimps and contrasting with the green algae on the shore, makes the scenery look even wilder. However, the clock is ticking and we leave this lost world reverie, riding around the laguna to exit this national park. It takes a while to circumvent the reserve, but it gives a better idea of the size of this incredible laguna. The dirt road we try to follow is still a mix of sandy, silty, and rocky sections, and we sometimes just ride a few hundred feet on the side, where the dirt is softer and untouched by the four-wheelers.
From Villamar, we start a long day on the pavement to reach the Salar of Uyuni. The uneventful hours pass slowly, and we resist the urge to take a nap as we’re surrounded by the raging sound of the mono-cylinders revving at 80mph against the wind. Grilled meat at Uyuni to feed the riders and gas in the tanks, the troop is ready to try the crossing of the famous Salar at the end of the day. In front of us is a slightly worrying flat and seemingly infinite white surface of salt that we need to cross for about 60 miles. A granite slab carved on a rock reminds the travelers of some recent accidents and gives everybody pause. Riding on this dry lake is easy, there’s nothing much to do but open the throttle. Yet, disorientation is a threat here, and the distances and speed are pretty difficult to evaluate. Before any change of direction, it’s wise to check your surroundings for another rider that might be in a crossing path. Then, leaning the bike to circle back to some friends riding somewhere behind your back, you end up doing a huge radius, at first unable to close the distance with the tiny dots appearing far away, and suddenly being so close you need to make an evasive move. This is a very peculiar feeling, like being free and lost at the same time, safe and unsafe at once. Accelerations are felt but not seen on this white vastness, and without the speedometer, we couldn’t guess our actual speed.
This exhilarating experience suddenly stops when the dry lake finds itself progressively covered with a thin layer of water. It makes for nice reflections in the settling sun, but it also creates a lot of salted projections on the bikes. A quick stop shows the intensity of the problem: even while riding at low speed, the engine gets literally showered by the front wheel, and an incredible amount of salt already covers the exhaust and the cylinder fins. The sunset is long past now and the darkness around us is total. Our headlights barely light up a few yards in front of us, and even though we’re still on a fully open surface it would be easy for claustrophobic people to feel trapped. There are four inches of water now and we ride at 10 mph to preserve the bikes as much as possible. This is an excruciating pace, especially since our boots are leaking which make our feet swim in what feels like a couple liters of salted water. Getting cold, a bit anxious, we aim toward lights that shine weakly on the horizon, like mariners looking for a safe harbor. Our situation is not really different from sailors, especially when Maurice explains that we can’t go in a straight line to the lights, but need to follow some kind of an S-shaped line to avoid muddy areas where we could lose our bikes. What started like an enchanted journey is starting to look more and more like a horror show!
We finally reach the shore, leave the bikes in the backyard of our lodging, and discover the warm universe of the legend of the Salar herself, aka Doña Lupe. This short woman, dressed in the traditional costume and the round hat, has the skin of a two-century-old person, but the smile, the energy, and the kindness of a young lady. She welcomes us with hugs as if we were long-time friends, installs us in our rooms whose walls are made of salt, and prepares the unavoidable soup. In the morning, the decision is taken to avoid going back on the Salar. The poor Suzuki’s are clogged with salt, and since there’s very little water in Jirira, there’s no way we can clean them up. After playing a bit with a young vicuña fed with a baby bottle by Lupe, we go explore the backcountry. The trails are silty, and there are some more little salty lakes to cross, but our air-cooled engines handle the ride with no protest despite the salt covering every inch of metal.
When we reach the bottom of a small hill and swap our boots for a pair of hiking shoes, we’re suddenly reminded of the altitude. Climbing on foot is not easy, but we’re rewarded by the ruins of an old village, with small houses built without doors! People probably entered using the small windows. Realizing that the place was probably left untouched for centuries, we are almost not shocked to discover mummies around the corner. The bodies are undisturbed, still with some skin on the bones. The locals come here on weekends and have parties and celebrations around these centuries-old corpses. The culture here is not about hiding death but more about keeping the dead close to the living. Anyway, since going down is easier than going up, it’s time to go back to Lupe’s.
For our last day on the road, it’s almost only pavement up to La Paz. After having been cleaned up at the next village, the DR650s are once again pushed to their maximum, their riders using the fact that speed limits and radars are irrelevant in Bolivia. Still, one would be foolish to relax their attention too much: there are holes on the road, and one bent rim is here to prove that they are no joke. Arriving at the Bolivian capital, the journey seems to be complete. But the city is spread out on miles and miles, and there’s still a fair amount of slaloming to be done. From these large boulevards we see the mountains surrounding the city, and try not to smell too much of the exhaust gas from the diesel engines. After crossing the whole length of El Alto, we descend toward downtown La Paz. We’re not in a cable car this time, and that’s a good thing since the winding road unfurling their tight corners through the city is worth a supermoto track. The big trucks are slow on this downhill and we overtake with ease, leaning our nimble bikes like jet fighters in a dog fight.
The last dinner at Maurice’s house is the opportunity to debrief the trip. Enjoying an indecent amount of meat and french fries, followed by the inescapable Rocky ice cream, we all look for superlatives to describe our experience. Alas, our vocabulary doesn’t include words that can fully transcribe the diversity of landscapes, the vastness of the sceneries, and the range of extreme temperatures we encountered during three weeks. On the other hand, these moto adventures endured all together made a lasting impression in our group, that one could easily describe using common words such as friendship and… gratitude! Our stomachs are full and just a few hours before our boarding time back to the USA, our only conversations are about when, not if, we will come back to this enchanted land.
Riding in Bolivia
Flying to La Paz from the USA requires at least one stop, usually at Bogota or Columbia, since the airport can only be reached by night because of the elevation. Visa requirements depend on the country of origin, with US citizens having to pay a $100 fee. It’s easy to change cash at local ATMs, with one dollar being roughly equivalent to 7 bolivianos. High elevation, temperature change, and rough terrain are reasons why these motorcycle adventures are not for beginners but rather for experienced riders. The bikes are Suzuki DR650s in perfect condition and equipped with Trail Tech Voyager Pro GPSs. A 4x4 vehicle driven by two mechanics follows the group to provide assistance and carry the rider’s luggage. All information can be obtained on Moto Trails Bolivia’s website: www.mototrailsbolivia.com/en