Pouring over maps, weather forecasts and intelligence culled from other travelers, internet sites and local people Jeremiah and I decide to make a break for the Salar de Uyuni, the highest and largest salt flat in the world. By taking this route we’ll have a chance to spend a day or two in Potosí, the highest city in the world (though there is a town in Tibet that’s higher), and once the richest city in the Americas due to its massive silver and mineral mines. This route would take us to the Salar and then we will head south into Argentina through Laguna Verde and ultimately allow us to relax in the hot springs of San Pedro de Atacama before heading down through the mountains to Mendoza then on to Santiago.
A solid plan, but it means blowing off the most dangerous road in the world.
The journey to Potosi could take anywhere from 8-10 hours we’re told depending on weather, number of stops and average speed. We get an early start and stopping toward the top of the rim of the crater that overlooks the city of La Paz I smell gas – petro! And it’s not the first time. When I stopped in that small market in Peru on the way to Puno I had smelled it, but figured it was from a beat up old pickup parked next to me. Then I smelled it again when I pulled over to take photos of the snow covered road outside of Copacabana. And finally, the ferry captain had commented that he smelled Peruvian gas as we wheeled my bike off his dilapidated boat.
This time I would take no chances. It had to be something with my bike. I feared my gas tank leaking. But pulling over just outside La Paz and after negotiating to buy a handful of dishtowels from a street vendor, I soaked up a pool of gas that gathered under my seat near the intake and return hoses of my gas tank. It seems that the hoses weren’t snug and therefore not tight. A couple twists on the clamps with the screwdriver and we fired Doc back up. Taking the opportunity of this unplanned downtime, Jeremiah and I performed routine chain maintenance and checked tire pressure. The fix for my small gas leak was the easiest repair to date on my bike. But the whole ordeal robbed us of nearly two hours. We had to get to Potosí by twilight.
For the first couple hours we seemed to dodge the massive storms we could see surrounding us. Huge thunderheads, massive rain and bolts of lightening added the drama for the ride. But wherever the storm moved, the road appeared to move away form it. Lucky. Feeling confident and cruising at a good clip we passed this beat up mini-station wagon with llamas tied to the roof and stuffed in the back. Poor guys. I guess headed to higher elevation.
After a quick lunch in Ururu we were pelted by a massive hail storm complete with the ubiquitous golf-ball sized stones pouncing the pavement, our appendages and bikes. As the thunder shook the road and lightening bolts were littering the road ahead of us we make a prudent decision to turn around and wait for the storm to subside at a nearby gas station.
Proud of the hats that define the heritage local indigenous people of Bolivia,
this sculpture greets travelers atop a traffic circle in Ururu, Bolivia
Impossible to capture the massive hail stones on camera,
but use your imagination as we took shelter at this gas station.
for the next 4-5 hours the rain played with us. On. Off. On harder. Off. Then pouring. Then hints of sunshine. Problem with rain like this it makes me very hesitant to stop to take photos. All my mind can think of is get me out of here. Riding through valleys and the altiplano we finally started climbing slowly. The terrain reminded me of northwestern Arizona and in parts like Southern Utah. Deep red rock canyons, and foliage starved rocky mountains. Passing remote villages at one point we come to a road block that turns out to be a toll. The rain is falling hard, it’s freezing and I can barely get my fingers nimble enough outside my gloves to pull a couple Boliviano coins out of my pocket to pay for the toll. Peering through an opening in the rotting wood structure the attendant with fingerless gloves exchanges a couple receipts for my coins and we move on.
The scenery is breathtaking and we finally ride into Potosí just at twilight. Success.