In the morning we jumped on the bikes, happy to leave the crazy traffic in La Paz. The ride to Oruros was pretty fast, despite the thick traffic heading that way for the carnival. Bikes can always squeeze by faster, so we got there in 2 hours or so.
From Oruros we took the shortest way to Uyuni, which was about 100 km paved and about 220 km dirt road.
Here we made a short stop for lunch in a small town, where we eat again some delicious cheese with bread and tomatoes.
And off we went again.
Right past that town, the road was washed out and covered by a river now, as it was the rainy season.
There were only the train tracks going over, so Vasile went to see if he could pass the bikes over on the rail tracks.
But that was mission impossible, so we had to find another solution. A local kid told us there was a bridge a little bit further down, so we headed that way. We found the bridge, which turned out to be covered in water too, but at least it was paved and here we are on the other side, continuing our journey.
Overall the road was not too bad, it was packed dirt in some places but very washboardy, with lots of mud sections (the rain left its tracks) and towards the end lots of sand. But the view was magnificent.
We saw some llamas again on our way.
And the beautiful pink flamingos.
It was starting to get dark but we decided to continue until we got to Uyuni. Initially we were planning to camp, but there were not too many safe spots to camp, as there were washouts everywhere, so you could never tell when the water was going to flood again, especially that it was still rainy season. And to top it off, the storm was coming, we could see the lightnings in the distance.
Towards the end of the day we were starting to feel tired. It was peach dark, the road was all deep washboards and with a lot of sand on top, my arms were hurting from the shaking. When the road got to Uyuni, it was a challenge to find the main road towards the center of the city. It was just mud and dirt everywhere. We finally made it. The whole city was celebrating the same carnival, so everyone was in the streets singing, dancing, spraying people with water and foam. We hardly made our way through the crowds, just to realize that all the hotels were full, not one room left. We were about to head out (this was around 10:30 pm) and find a place to camp outside the city when Vasile finally managed to find a room in a hotel. They did not have water (apparently in the whole town), but at that point it did not matter anymore, I could go to sleep, and that was all I cared about.
The next day we went to see the famous salt flats. We were told they were covered in water this time of the year and we were not allowed to ride across them. Apparently some riders got stuck and lost on the salt flats some time ago and due to the fact that in the water you cannot see the tracks, they were found 5 days later. Since then it’s prohibited to ride on the flats when they are flooded, for safety reasons. We rode a bit on the side of the flats but we almost got stuck so we had to turn around. But we did ride around the train cemetery.
Even the unpaved roads in town were very muddy, with huge puddles.
While I was waiting on the line Vasile went and washed the bikes, so we did not waste time. Almost ready to leave, just one more thing. My front brake was gone almost completely, so Vasile had to replace it.
All set we hit the dirt roads again, another 212 km from Uyuni to Tupiza. Same type of roads for a while, washboards, dirt and mud with washouts and water crossings. According to Vasile, very similar to the Dampster in Alaska, just a lot worse.
The landscape is getting better and better as the road goes up in the mountains, all the way up to 4500 m altitude.
And here is our lunch stop. We made some noodle soup, had some cheese and apples as appetizers and chocolate was the desert.
And it got dark again, and just for diversity it started raining. But we finally made it to Tupiza, and finding a hotel turned out to be quite a challenge. As I am pretty blind at night, I was just following the light of Vasile’s bike. So if the bike danced, I would be like “so that was mud”, if I felt a hoop I’d realize that was a deep pothole and if I felt water splashing I would know that was a puddle. Otherwise I couldn’t see anything in advance. So when we found a hotel, we just stopped there, we did not drive around more to find a better deal. There weren’t many options anyway. The hotel we found was pretty expensive for our budget, but it was really nice. It even had a pool, too bad we did not have the time to use it.
The next day, all fresh and rested, we were on the road again, this time heading for the border. The road from Tupiza to the border was paved, so we could go faster. But we needed gas first. In Bolivia there is a little bit of a problem with the gas for tourists. What happens is, for locals the gas is extremely cheap, as the government subsidizes it. Which made a lot of people from the neighboring countries to come and by gas in Bolivia and sell it in their country. So in order to discourage this, the government imposed a higher price for tourists, which is 2.5 times higher than the price for locals. And for the government to track that and to recover that difference, gas stations must issue an invoice to tourists each time they sell the gas. They are not allowed to sell it without issuing invoice. There are cameras in each gas station to make sure that happens. And gas station employees are sometimes too lazy and don’t want to fill out the invoice or some of them can’t read or write so they cannot fill out the invoice, therefore they refuse to sell you gas under the excuse “we don’t have invoices now”. This is the problem we encountered a few times throughout Bolivia and once again in Tupiza. At this gas station the girl told us she doesn’t know how to fill out the invoice, therefore she cannot sell us gas. We told her we don’t care about the invoice, we don’t need it. She said “ok, I can sell you without invoice, but the price for you is 9.5 b” (which is 2.5 time the local price). So here she got me confused. “Well, since you don’t give me invoice, than why do you charge me the full tourist price? That’s the price for when you cut invoice. Where does that money go?” So basically what she wanted was to sell us at the tourist price, without invoice, and put the difference in her pocket. As we were already quite frustrated, as she ignored us for a good while and kept serving other customers (locals) we did not want to support this kind of dishonest ways of doing business, so we told her that we were willing to pay that price as long as she gave us invoice, but without invoice we were only going to pay the regular price. So then she said she wouldn’t sell to us, since the owner told her not to sell to foreigners anyway – which is totally illegal; they cannot refuse to sell gas to tourists, as the government is losing money this way. A long line up formed behind us, as we refused to move the bikes until she would sell us gas. I could not believe that most people were actually mad and did not understand why we didn’t just want to pay the tourist price without invoice, knowing very well that this way the money was going straight into the girl’s pocket. No one saw anything wrong with that. There was only one lady there, that seemed to be way more educated and well spoken, and she was on our side trying to explain to people our reasoning, but without much success. Now our options were: to call police (as Foreign Affairs Canada recommends to do if they refuse to sell you gas) or to go find another gas station and hope we won’t have the same problem over there. We considered the first option for a while, out of principle, but then we realized that we would waste way too much time and we needed to get to the border, plus Bolivia is a more than corrupt country, so we had no guarantee that that policeman was going to actually do his job right. Therefore we decided to go find another gas station. And we did, they had invoice, they sold us the gas, but there was only a very old man who knew how to fill out the invoice, and he was blind. So between him and the girl at the pump, after a sustained effort and team work, they managed to fill out our invoice, that went straight in the garbage. This tells me how many invoices they actually fill out, and I am sure there are lots of tourists passing by.
Glad to finally have the tank full, the last one we needed in Bolivia, we headed to the border. Despite the beautiful landscapes and rides, at this point I was so ready to leave Bolivia.