Andes Trail Stages 47-51, Oct 3-7, 2019

Stages 47-51 of 109, days 66-70 of 142

Photos on Strava:

DescriptionDistance in kmDirt kmClimb in mEFI
South America4,63276252,797
Andes Trail4,35075349,187X

It’s been an exciting, sad, excellent and frustrating set of five days riding, but these days are likely to end up being the most incredible experiences of the whole crazy 142 day tour. We had 3 bushcamps and a very basic hostal, and one of the highlights of the tour, crossing the immense Salar de Uyuni.

Stage 47 was relatively straight-forward, leaving Oruro in a big group and riding about 70km to lunch. Kirsten and I ended up riding together across the altiplano and loved seeing so many wild llamas. After lunch, I thought it might be a mistake but I went with Jens and Andrew, both riding fast and strong – me not so much. But I hung in there by referring to rule 5. It got worse after about 100km when Chris and Wytze caught up. The pace increased and rule 5 came in to play a lot. At the end of the track, there was no camp, so we loaded tomorrow’s course and followed it as Rob warned we might have to, “not far”. Finally we found the “Finish” flag and rode up to a nice flat, scenic spot in the middle of nowhere. We were early so had a long time to eat, set up tents and I hiked up a little hill to get cell coverage to upload Strava etc.

I think a nap came into play later, then the wind picked up around dinner time and it was kind of cold (everyone wearing all their clothes and freezing) while eating. A hasty retreat to the tent right after was in order, then a long sleep.

Stage 48 was one of those interesting ones with a choice: the “Rob” route was 90km with about 72km dirt. No support. In 2016, the riders had to push though deep sand for 5km. Rob said “for very strong cyclists”. The alternative was 150km of pavement with the lunch truck. It was pretty clear to me: 150km did not sound like a plan. We split off after less than 10km onto Rob’s dirt road. After about 35km we stopped at a bridge with wild llamas all around, so picturesque. The dirt was fine so far, smooth and pretty fast.

A few more km down the road we entered a village and it was weird: the road in the village had lots of deep sand. In fact I barely managed to ride it without dismounts. Kind of a dismal place really. Then there was 200m of super soft sand to get back on the road and I somehow made that ok (Michael called me a bad word when he saw me make it successfully). The road then continued, and was rideable initially. But the sections of sand got worse and more frequent. Soon we were dismounting routinely and pushing 50-100m or more at a time. Up and down, for a long long time.

At a couple of points the road was completely washed away and the detours were pretty funny.

Finally at the top of a hill we could see the next village and knew there had to be a 2wd and motorcycle-accessible road from there. So we had lunch, then continued pushing.

Lunch time

The two villages are 8km apart and maybe 3km was rideable although some of that is sitting back a bit to float the front wheel and turning a low gear hard with the bike sliding along randomly going left or right – takes quite a bit of energy. Luckily we are acclimated to the 3800m altitude and have strong legs. For a normal person from sea level it would not be fun. Finally we could ride and did a couple of steep climbs into Aromas. We passed a covered soccer field, then at the bottom of a hill, saw Wytze and Jens sitting next to Chris, down and not moving.

At the bottom of the hill there was a sand pit and Chris was distracted by some kids playing when he hit it. He went over the handlebars causing a broken hip although we didn’t know it at the time. He was in lots of pain and we couldn’t reach anyone by phone. Most of us had no reception. Finally we decided Jan, Andrew and I would continue to camp and get a rescue going. A local told us there were no taxis and getting a car there would take two hours. So we took off, following Rob’s GPS track. Initially it wasn’t too bad but the “road” got worse and worse. Sometimes it was just a faint pair of tire tracks, like someone had driven a truck there a couple of years ago. At one point, we were climbing and there really was no track at all, just the purple line on our Garmins.

Yeah right, that’s a road!

I checked and we were 8.76 km from the Chris marker and 4.00 km from the paved road. So we kept going, amazed that our bikes and especially our tires were working so well. There were a bunch of cactus plants, close to the ground, with deadly spikes. Also a weird spikey plant that looked like it should be in Africa not Bolivia. We had to dodge these all the time to avoid flats. Finally we got to the paved road – it is just amazing where we went and that Rob thinks this is a reasonable route. We had been stopping at each hilltop to see if we had coverage to get a message to camp, but no.

We got onto the pavement and had about 10km into the wind to camp which was right next to a giant metor crater. Luckily Henk was aware of the accident and Wijnand was already headed there in the other truck to get Chris. Guillermo had done some magic and landed us a little building to cook inside – we had delicious soup and snacks, took crater photos, sent up tents, and greeted more riders as they came in. Four of us walked down to a little shop for beer and paying was pretty funny as the shopkeeper was a very tiny blind woman who wasn’t very clear about prices and couldn’t tell how much we paid her. Finally it worked out that 4 large beers would cost 60 Bob ($8.70) but then she said “I’m not selling the bottles you know.” So we took the hint and sat at her little table in the shop and had a very nice time drinking Huari beer. Back up at camp the second truck with Chris aboard arrived and he was really in pain. An ambulance later came and took him to a hospital for x-rays.

Guillermo and Dr. Bill went along to help. Then it was dinner time and all seemed well except David and Yvonne were nowhere to be seen. They were on the 150km route which had only one turn, so something must’ve happened. We all squeezed into the little building and ate a great dinner, and about at the end of that, they arrived via taxi having somehow gone the wrong way. I don’t know how far they rode but the taxi ride was 60km.

Stage 49 was much easier, 36km along the paved road to a town called Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Andrew and I started out at the back and cranked until we caught Jens. We rode together and somehow managed to catch Wytze, all alone, missing Chris, out in front. We rode with him a while then he took off, too fast. It was uphill into the wind, with continually changing views of Cerro Tunupa, 5400m. Lunch was at the main square in town, very relaxing in the sun. As we arrived first, we got to relax a long time, then ate, then relaxed more. Finally it was time to go and we headed off on the dirt road. It was a little sandy so the many riders on mountain bikes had an advantage. We rode in a pretty big group, relaxed, stopping for photos – and for Rob to fix a flat on his bike. It was sandy but all rideable even with my relatively skinny tires. There were three climbs up to a pass where we could FINALLY see the amazing salt plain called Salar de Uyuni. It was immense – we could only see a fraction of its nearly 11,000 sq km expanse.

Our first view of Salar de Uyuni

Lots of photos were taken, then we blazed down the rocky road to Tahua where we bought beer for camp. Camp was just by the edge of the salar, on beautiful smooth grass, with many llamas grazing. It was the most amazing camp site yet I think.

Camp by the salar

After delicious soup and snacks and beer, we set up tents, then I screwed up and fell asleep, forgetting that I was on dinner duty that night. Luckily it was too windy to really do the normal weekend thing with table cloths etc. Each person came up and got their own food, both courses. First, homemade tuna patties with tasty spicy sauce. Then potatoes and onions and eggs, with sausages for everyone except me. Rob then announced that due to the cold, we would be washing dishes the next morning – very unusual but I was off the hook for that too! I hightailed it to my tent and watched a TV show, then slept long and hard. At night all the water outside froze as it was -5℃ (23℉). Luckily inside my tent it was warmer and my water stayed liquid.

In the morning it got warmer fast, probably because breakfast was at 8 instead of 7. I washed a lot of dishes, then we had breakfast and I washed those dishes for good measure too. Finally around 9:15 we got to start riding. From camp, there was a sort of ramp out onto the salt, maybe 500m long. We had seen vehicles going both ways and now we took it. As soon as we hit the salt I knew it was going to be a great day.

You don’t sink in and it is not slippery in the least. Many people who are used to riding on snow were amazed at how un-snowlike it was. But it looks just like it! We rode a little, then stopped with both trucks for a million photos. This felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was so great. We had 40km of this to an island, not visible from our camp, for lunch. We cruised along in a big group, starting at 20kph, and gradually ramping to 30 since Wytze can’t help himself. It was so fun – after we stopped and I reduced tire pressure. Just a few psi was all it took to change a bumpy kind of crappy ride into a nice one.

The island first looked like a mirage, then a real island, then it got bigger and finally we could see large cacti on it and cars driving around. We veered left off track when we saw our two trucks. But as we arrived, all was not well. Both trucks looked tilted strangely. It turned out that one had got stuck and the other did too trying to rescue! Boy were they stuck. Rob rode up and just said “Shit”. There followed unloading of one to reduce weight and a bunch of unsuccessful tries to get it backward or forward. The salt is just too thin and there’s too much soupy mud near the edge. While Rob tried for a solution, we had lunch, looked around the island a little, but decided against the 30 bob fee for climbing the trail to the summit. Soon there was a plan and it was time to go. We would continue as planned to the hostal on the salt, 60km away. Our bags would be brought on a bus, with the non-riding staff (2 drivers, cook and assistant). The trucks would be dealt with tomorrow or the next day.

So we took off and I kind of expected everyone to ride together since we had 60km to go to an invisible target, no support and no Rob. But everyone went off on different vectors. Wytze, Jan, Tom and I took the direct route and could see Bastiaan way off to the left and Jens and Andrew way off to the right, just a few pixels each. We rode and rode, sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth, always super cool. It was just so amazing. Salt was being thrown up though and our bikes, clothes and everything got caked pretty well. The hostal started out as a little white pixel, so far away, after riding maybe 40km. As we got closer it resolved to a building with some flags but it took a longer time that I would’ve thought.

We arrived and took photos then explored this amazing hostal. Almost no one stays here since it has no water and very limited electricity. Food for our group had to be brought in from Uyuni since the trucks were stuck with our dinner on board. The inside has white sand on the floors and the walls are made of large salt bricks. The bedrooms are very basic, three beds per. Andrew and I shared with Wytze. We found that big beers were 20 Bob ($2.90) each, and soon everyone was taking turns buying pairs; we called it the rule of two. The afternoon passed very pleasantly this way. No showers, nothing really to do except hang out and chat about the amazing day we’d just had. We had a few snacks but not the usual soup. It got dark and cold outside but stayed ok indoors. Eventually around 7:30 we saw headlights outside, then pots of food were brought in. We had chicken (three weird veggie slabs for me) and rice and veggies and lots of beer. Then it was time for sleep and I was mighty tired. I got up in the middle of the night and walked outside in my underwear – the Milky Way was incredible. Orion was up in full detail, so many many more stars than you usually see.

In the morning, we had the luxury of an 8 o’clock breakfast. It was the normal Bike Dreams muesli with yogurt and bread with jam, pb, etc. We had to wait for a truck to come and pick up our baggage so we headed outside and took a bunch of funny perspecive shots out on the salt.

Finally it was time to leave and we cranked about 10km across the salt to the “shore”, then turned right toward Uyuni. The ride totalled 35km and took 1:16. The town is medium sized (pop 30,000) and we quickly found the Hotel El Tonito. I rode the paved part with Wytze, Jens and Lucho, at about 32 kph into the wind. Wytze just pulled the whole way! We unloaded the truck, then some others started to arrive and we checked out our rooms for the next two nights. Minus the climb to the 3rd floor, the room is great, and its best feature is the shower. I had to wash my hair about three times, then use conditioner then it felt like I hadn’t felt in a long time. It is so nice to be clean. We had sandwiches and drinks downstairs, then I settled in to repair my phone. I had been kind of horrified to see that it would no longer charge starting the night before. Remembering my son Beau’s advice when he faced the same earlier this year, I looked for a toothpick in the kitchen. Finding none, I harvested a spine from a cactus in the garden, then lay on my back with my headlamp on full double beams, staring into the charge port. I couldn’t really see anything but rooting around with the spine, white crap started to fall out! That looked like a good sign so I continued for maybe 10 minutes until I thought I had it all out. Sure enough, I plugged it in and it worked! And both wifi from the hotel and mobile data from some Bolivian network work too, so I was doubly on line, for the first time since stage 47 on the hill above camp. I wrote a while while the others went out for coffee and cakes, then a bunch of us rode over to an Auto Lavado shop and for 10 Bob each, the guy pressure washed all the caked salt off our bikes. Then he covered them all in soap and rinsed that off.

Back at the hotel we had a chain etc cleaning and lubing session. We’ll see tomorrow if that is enough and we are good to go. Around 5, Martin ordered us a pizza for a dinner appetizer and we had it with a round of pints of IPA. Wow, it was so fun and tasty. We ended up staying in the hotel dining room until after 11, eating a pile of pizzas and drinking at least 5 pints each. We did take a little break and walk a few blocks in search of ice cream. We found nice chocolate cones, then back for more beers. When you buy beers for many people, it turns out that many people buy beers for you. Our cup was running over and it was truly great. We took a quick break when Rob, Henk and Wijnand came in with the trucks and unloaded more baggage, then back to drinking and eating. What a fantastic night. Everyone was just loving our life together. Some continued later but I know better!

First truck pulled out of the muck
Trucks successfully make it to Uyuni

4 thoughts on “Andes Trail Stages 47-51, Oct 3-7, 2019

  1. Very much enjoyed reading about the salt bigger than Bonneville with free llamas. Rule 5 is good advice! Those Italians take their religion seriously ! Love and Hugs from Carol ( out walking ) and me ( getting ready for a visit to see Larry and Roger in Colorado tomorrow ). DSAN and CSAN RVNVUSA !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, Dude. This seems like the BEST part of the trip so far. Amazing stories and very sad to hear about the bad bad fall and consequences. Good job riding super super careful. Keep it up, buddy. The head is the weakest like in this operation. If it gets tired and you get sloppy all goes to SHIT. Two trucks being stuck is just BAD. They seem to have their stuff together to still get you food and all, things moving along. Amazing organization is what it takes to pull this stuff off. I am with you in spirit.



    *Live Simply*

    * _O (` |> ,|. `-‘*

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s