Riding the Superhighways of Salt to a Better Tomorrow

Everyone in Bolivia is an asshole.

Well, not really but that’s the basic gist of it anyway.

Che Guevara called the Bolivians animalitos, or little animals, and then got killed there…maybe a little bit of karmic comeuppance but he wasn’t that far off.

It’s not to say that shit is all that different in Bolivia than the rest of Latin America or that it’s a bad time in and of itself…but it might just be a bad scene. Everything just comes to a head there, all the filth and ignorance and poverty and downtrodden miserableness of an entire race of people. You get tired of making excuses and a body starts to pine for the southlands and the soft light of the second world.

We’ve made Argentina and, on first glance at least, it is what seems to be the Promised Lands. Maradona, the Tango, Patagonia, big fat steaks. And inflation. Everything is about 10x the price of the rest of Latin America. The Argentines have a little personality, some swagger even, and it’s earned. No one’s eating guinea pigs here or living like a bug. There’s soap in the bathrooms and legitamate hot water showers to rule the roost. There are even bidets, bro. We don’t even have those in America. So as we recline, sipping some box wine and sleepily, greedily digesting a nice fat steak, let’s take a ride back through time and reminisce on good times memory bliss.

Who runs Bordertown? Entering Bolivia lo so many moons ago, Lake Titicaca glimmering in the distance.

Riding the CB down into the cauldron of central La Paz.

La Paz: A lot of the buildings in La Paz have got some character to them, antiquated and crumbling with live wires running everywhere yet rarely lacking charm.

Leaving La Paz: La Paz is the highest capital city in the world or something like that. It’s definitely the biggest highest place in the Americas and one of the more messed up places we’ve come across thus far…although not in so much of a bad way because it’s all good bro and we had some good times there, we did. Rolling on the throttle the altiplano stretches forever it seems, a vast blanket of high altitude nothingness cordoned off on all sides by snowcapped mountain ranges sometimes glimpsed through the haze of the far away. Up and up. When arriving in La Paz by way of Peru and Lake Titicaca you can’t really see it at all until you’re right on top of it. You’ll eventually approach some nondescript wastelands of poverty and dust, stray dogs and women selling fruit and cheap goods on the side of the road. This could be any shitty town in Latin America but it’s El Alto, the poorest and highest part of the city at about 4000m and still part of the altiplano. Then all of a sudden El Alto parts and you drop down into the gigantic bowl that is central La Paz, more than a thousand feet down into the center of it all and then almost two thousand feet down to the really nice areas where Evo lives, wheel bearings screaming the whole way. All the while Illimani towers in the distance, a huge fucking mountain, dominant always but just one of many that encircle the city. Down on the floor it’s all chaos and traffic and pollution. Traffic lights don’t work and cops are always afoot or riding three-up on Chinese motorcycles, all dolled up in their handsome riot gear and blocking off streets at random. Markets spring up out of nowhere and make entire neighborhoods impassable. Slick cobblestone streets lead nowhere. It’s all good though and we like places like this. All the weirdness of Indian America comes to its end here as fat women in bowler hats hawk greasy llama fetuses and garbage bags of coca leaves from poorly constructed street stalls. It all should be embraced, at least for a little while, then pushed away into the gutter where it belongs. We did our time and then the rains started to come. No one wants to be around this place when it’s pouring rain all the time, least not atop a CB500T with slick tires riding up cobblystone streets, fording rivers of garbage to places that even God doesn’t want to admit exist. And that was that, the rains came and we were off. Legend has it that the land of Maradona was glimpsed from the top of Huayna Potosi and that the bug had started germinating ever since. WIth and wink and nod, we were off.

Tihuanaco: The last of the great megalithic ruins of a forgotten world. This was another place that I had wanted to see since time immemorial. The result was that it was not that impressive after seeing Sacsayhuaman and all the myriad mystical ruins of old Peru. Even the Peruvian fertility temple with its charming stone penises was better than Tihuanaco. But look, it’s interesting nonetheless for those that have an interest in this sort of thing. The Tihuanacans were into some pretty serious shit way back when, before the Incans arrived on the scene. We’re talking guest appearances on Easter Island and what not. Heyerdahl knew. The original masons bro, for real.

Coca museum: The Coca Museum in central La Paz was comically awful. It resembles a high-school science project display with photos printed from a printer that was running out of ink, all pasted on plenty of oak tag. There are free coca leaves and lejia though…although this stuff is basically free in Bolivia anyway. Another guidebook misstep.

Mercado de Brujas: or ‘witches market’ where you can buy dried llama fetuses for use in your black magic rituals. People will often bury them under a new house or building for good luck, although the more common ritual is burning them with incense in front of your business or home to bring good luck or ward off evil spirits or something. Better to mock the whole thing and drag one around La Paz on a string like it’s your pet before depositing it on top of a mountain.

Weird scenes inside the Silver Mine: Riding high atop the cozy 4700m high hamlet of Potosi is the Cerro Rico, a huge hill worked since ancient times for the precious metals and minerals within. Something like a million people were worked to death inside this thing by the Spaniards and their Annunaki masters greedy for gold and today people are still pumping it for tin and silver. The conditions within are hellish. Thousands of tunnels and shafts are bored into it and none of them are safe. A perfect tourist attraction. Deep inside and walking under a rock arch supporting the weight of a cavern it was explained that the miners make these supports out of rock instead of using wood because it’s cheaper. Yea sure, I guess. We’re in Bolivia. If you’d like to play tourist for a day in the 3rd world you can pay ten bucks and you get to go inside, dodging carts and scurrying workers while being led around by an ex-miner. Everyone who works in this thing is dead from silicosis within 10 or 15 years from inhaling all the dust. To combat this, and to garner some good fortune, the miners pray to the devil, or Tio, and little statues of him are everywhere inside the mine, always surrounded by cigarettes, alcohol, and coca leaves. All the statues have boners all the miners are drinking moonshine, smoking unfiltered ciggy-poos, chewing coca leaves and exploding dynamite. And yes, the legends are true, you can buy dynamite on the street in Potosi. It’s like a dollar a stick. We exploded some inside the mine. A weird scene no doubt, but one meant to be seen.

Salares: Sometimes they sell you gasoline in Bolivia and sometimes they don’t. They have this law there that they can only sell gasoline to vehicles with foreign plates at three times the normal price. It works out to about $5 per gallon. That’s fine I guess and they’re all supposed to sell it to you but most of the time they won’t because they don’t want to fill out the receipt or just because they’re assholes. So you have to ride around to different stations looking for gas. Sometimes you get lucky and someone will sell it to you right off the bat and sometimes you get unlucky because there just isn’t any gas at all. We got stuck in Uyuni waiting for gas for a couple days like this. Uyuni is a dusty little carbuncle of a town sitting on the edge of the world’s largest salt flats, windblown and barren and forgotten at the end of the earth. The scene is apocalyptic, offering up a good prep for the upcoming end of days. Powerful winds whip up off the flats, fueled by an opressive radioactive sun hanging in a cloudless sky. At night the sun drops and so do the temps; shit gets ice cold. It’s like being on Mars except with garbage everywhere and bread that tastes like gasoline. It’s all good but it would have sucked big time if we hadn’t been tooling around on the flats beforehand, having made it out there to realize a dream before the mini gas crisis. A mindbendingly epic ride in one of the most surreal places on earth. Nothing but salt, punctuated here and there by a few cactus strewn islands, forever. With the speedo finally broken on the CB, there was no way to tell how fast we were going and it is anyones guess. 150-160 mph? It’s probable. There’s no telling. Faster than the speed of salt as the mind bends and the salt blends into obscurity a million miles away.

bYe-bYe-bOliVia: Exiting Bolivia down by old Ollague and Chile way, one stares down 250 miles of testicle-shattering dirt roads. This is not a popular border crossing by any means and between Uyuni and the next town in Chile there is nothing in between, no gas, nothing. It’s all high, dry desert and an empty plastic bottle that once housed vegetable oil was sourced as an improptu gas tank for the long haul to the second world. Surprisingly, the road on the Bolivian side is in better condition and we’re cruising in 5th gear on stretches, past salt lakes and pink flamingos until the border at Ollague. This place is a real outpost, a windblown dessicated train-yard that shouldn’t even exist, in the middle of the Atacama desert. Volcan Ollague puffs its stuff out in the cloudless distance and we say goodbye to Bolivia and enter Chile, unrecognizable in these parts from Bolivia save for the fact that everything is 20x more expensive. Wine is cheap though and a bottle was sourced at the border as we prowled the desert in search of shelter in the waning light of the Atacama. And as luck would have it, shelter came that night came in the form of an old nitrate mine just sitting there all cute and abandoned-like at the end of a sandy road. Sampling local spirits on border crossing days has now become a rite of passage and a god-given right of the lonesome adventurer and even though we don’t really drink wine, a beverage mostly relegated to usage only by moms or Frenchmen, it was felt that such would be an appropriate tipple for the occasion. So there we were, seemingly at the end of the world in the cold night of the Chilean desert, drinking wine from the bottle and pieces of roof into a roaring fire in a stone fireplace in the Atacama. Mein wine in the mine, it’s mine. Don’t touch!

Flamingos

Border outpost at Ollague

First night in Chile and chilly willys abound in the cold Atacaman night

 

Better than a hotel and free, although I’m probably sterile now from breathing in all the saltpeter dust. Better off anyways and we venture on.

 

 

 

 

Finally hitting pavement after another 120 miles of terrible, sandy Chilean washboard dirt roads was sublime and the CB rolled on, in Chile now but pointed towards end game Argentina. Camp was made once more out in the Atacama and in the ice cold frosty morn and with frost bitten fingaz the CB and me cleared Paso Jama and entered Argentina, mission nearly complete, descending out of the Andes and into an Argentinian spring.

8 responses to “Riding the Superhighways of Salt to a Better Tomorrow

  1. Happy to have stumbled upon your blog, some great reads. Happy travels.

  2. manboy — who is the WE u are referring too? did u find travel partner ))
    u make bolivia seem so gloomy – it still remains high on my list – for the mountains of course )

    be good – enjoy argentina

    • that’s cause Bolivia IS gloomy!

      look, if you go there dont forget to bring up a llama fetus to deposit on the top of each peak…it’s tradition!

  3. Hola Amigo – que tal?
    Thx. for the update mate – good to hear you’re still having a blast. That said, I totally relate to your Bolivian experience – for good and bad. I see you crossed the Ollague border as well – quite a marvelous landscape eh? But yeah, I guess it all depends on the circumstances – especially the weather. Well, if you crossed into Argentina now, I can tell you that you’re “adventure” times are over. You’ve gotten back to civilization and one of the clearest indications is that you again see vehicles with only one person in them and yes, you already noticed – the general price level is rediculous.
    I’ll try not to generalize the total Argentinian population – nevertheless, be aware that lying and taking advantage of people is a fairly big part of the culture there – they even admit it themselfs, of course always with reference to “the others”.
    Dono what your plans are, but if possible, you must go visit “Pollo” – or Jorge (his real name) – http://www.laposta-azul.com/la_posta_index1.htm – in Azul, 300 km south of Buenos Aires.
    He – and all his companeros – are the most loving people we met throughout our Argentina adventure. Genuine motorcycle enthusiasts.

    Patagonia is – well how to explain – several thousands of kilometers of complete nothingness. There’s absolutely nothing there and how weird it may seem, it was the only place – on our entire trip – where we had issues with the fuel situation.
    Safe travel bro – let me know if you need any input regarding the south.

    • Lars old pal, how are you you old Dane!?

      Although it sounded dreadfully negative, your advice has been absorbed haha but you might as well be describing every single person in Latin America…

      Like I told you before, I can’t imagine how fucking awful those roads would be in the rainy season. Big props for riding them all dude!

      haha the one person in the car comment made me laugh…it’s true

      made B.A. at last…

      gonna enjoy the fruits of civilization for a bit before making the next move, whatever that may be

  4. I’m chewing coca leaves right now as I read this post. Wish I had a baby llama fetus to deposit instead of this comment though.

    • …weird. Im chewing a llama fetus right now wishin’ and itchin’ for some hojas de coca. Shit’s all waxy, gamey and shit, shit.

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