From Sucre we decided to head back into Argentina. As we did not want to back-track along the same roads, we decided to take a different route and travel through the town of Tarija – this would also mean we could avoid using the border at Villazon which was unpleasant and super slow.
The roads in Bolivia were so much better than we expected, they seem to have paved a lot more of the major routes now so some of the horror stories about ridiculously long journeys are becoming a thing of the past – at least on the routes we took!!
We did come across one stretch on the way to Tarija which hadn’t been quite finished – they were working on that though. They had very kindly spread thick sand all over the road as part of their construction works…..thanks, bikes and thick sand are a great mix 🙂 Dan tried to ride along the side as much as possible….and we hoped this didn’t go on for miles!!!
Thankfully it didn’t. It returned to regular gravel road…..and then came to a halt at a river! Mmmmm, we watched a truck ride through and it looked fairly deep so decided (actually ‘I’ decided – Dan wanted to take his chances with the bike through the water!!) to try and find a route to a bridge we could see further up the river. After getting a bit lost we found the road to the bridge – although the it did look like it had seen better days and no one else seemed to be using it – but it was fine – despite the large gaps between the planks it was structurally okay 🙂
A new tunnel had also opened which reduced the travel time to Tarija….and it had stunning views on the other side!
We had previously met a group of Canadian bikers when we first arrived in Bolivia who had taken this same route, but had problems buying gas in the town of Tarija. The had been refused at every station they tried and ended up having to get a local to go and fill up some cans so that they could fill up their 5 bikes!!! This had always been something I had worried about – the fuel situation in Bolivia is kind of strange. Foreign registered vehicles are supposed to pay 3 times the local rate per litre and should be given a special receipt. But for some reason some gas stations just refuse to serve a foreign registered vehicle. We had previously read some tips and advice on this website by some other overlanders who have done a good write up! http://www.liferemotely.com/trip-shenanigans/bolivia/276-the-art-of-buying-gas-in-bolivia-.
Our experiences of buying gas whilst traveling in Bolivia had ranged from sometimes paying the local price, sometimes paying the full tourist price and sometimes paying a rate somewhere in between after a bit a bartering.
For some reason Tarija does seem to be one of the more difficult places and after being denied service at the first two places we tried, we did manage to get fuel on our third attempt!! Here’s Dan doing his best to try and get service after initially being refused – a queue started to form behind, people started to gather around us, we tried being super friendly and nice, then tried ignorance, then tried just not moving out of the way from the pump…..no joy here though – eventually we got bored and left!!
The next day we enjoyed our final ride through Bolivia on the way to the border….Bolivia had been amazing, and although we didn’t get to see everything we had planned, we had really enjoyed the places we visited.
The ride to the border took us back down to a lower altitude as it twisted alongside a river….there were a few obstacles to avoid though – lots of fallen rocks and animals to avoid!!
The border at Bermejo / Aguas Blancas was much quicker and easier so before we knew it we were back in Argentina. Most probably our last border crossing with the bike….woohoo 🙂 I dread to think how many hours of our lives we’ve spent in total at borders over the past 9 months!!!
Our first stop was the picturesque town of Salta. We decided to hang around for a few days and take in some sights whilst figuring out a route to take around Argentina.
After reading some other blogs and information online, we decided the best route would be Ruta 40 down to North Patagonia. Ruta 40 is kind of Argentina’s version of Route 66 in the USA. The more I read about Ruta 40, the more I loved the sound of it…..crossing through loads of national parks with spectacular scenery, we were in for a treat.
Before hitting Ruta 40, I had read about a route from Salta to the small town of Cachi which would take in another couple of amazing routes – we hit the road to ride Ruta 33 and 42.
The day started off well with a mixture of tarmac and gravel…..along with great views.
Then we hit Ruta 42, little did we know what we were in for!!
It all started off very civilized….nice gravel road and stopping to take photos with the cactus…..
Then things got interesting…….the nice gravel road was no more!!!
Riding in a straight line became a bit tough….
At least the scenery and views made up for the hard riding conditions 🙂
The wheels were now caked in the muddy, sandy, clay like red stuff!! No tread anymore….
As we went around each bend and over each brow of a hill I hoped that the nice gravel road would reappear!! I even suggested turning around – I guess I’m not as adventurous as Dan, as he was enjoying himself and wanted keep going. I knew this section of road was about 30km and we had taken ages to just ride 8km…….how much longer would the rest take?…
The answer to that is ‘a long time’!! For the first time on this trip (apart from the stationary topple over in Nicaragua which we don’t count) the Transalp was on her side….only a very slow speed incident, but our first proper ‘off’ none the less.
Having picked the bike back up, the Transalp and ourselves were now looking pretty dirty!! No harm done and we needed to get going….we were still not even half way along the road!!
It got worse before it got better……
Oops…it happened again!
But then Dan realised why it was proving so hard to ride, yeah, the roads were bad – but the problem was that all the clay like mud stuff had clogged up under the front mud guard and the front wheel wasn’t moving.
So….take the mud guard off – problem solved 🙂
We managed to stay upright for the rest of the ride!! And eventually the nice gravel road did return….happy days!!
We made it to Cachi in one piece 🙂
The next day was another day of off-road….but at least this was mostly dry and not muddy – with the mud guard re-fitted we hit the road on Ruta 40.
It’s amazing how the scenery changed throughout the day….we took so many photos – the views were incredible!
Time to take a break and relax!
The scenery changed yet again, it’s hard to describe how spectacular this route really was 🙂
We spent the night in the town of Cafayate….a really nice tranquil little town – I could have stayed here longer.
The next morning we headed for the town of Belen, a less exciting ride in terms of scenery and the roads were all paved….so an easier day for riding – apart from the fact we got a puncture!! Still it’s our first one since California back at the start of August so we shouldn’t complain really….
We were on our way again in no time. We spent the following night in the town of Chilecito after another easy day on nice tarmac roads.
That night it rained….and it rained hard!! Maybe the most torrential rain I’ve ever experienced – the nice little guesthouse we were staying in developed several leaks in the roof as the rain was so intense!!
Our plans for the following day were hampered as we headed for the town of San Jaun via the mountains. There was evidence everywhere of the amount of water that had fallen overnight – not because everything was flooded – the water had all subsided, but the rivers and streams had carved out new and deeper paths overnight. We barely recognised the road we had driven in on as a small stream had created a ledge and small cavern through the road. This was easily passed, but less than a hour into our journey we came across a road block. It seemed that the road ahead was not passable due to problems further along – probably a landslide I would imagine. And where we stopped you could see that a small (now non-existent) river had risen up and over the road and swept through a family home.
There was evidence everywhere of the problems that must of occurred overnight – quite a few buses were abandoned / ground-out on the sides of the road….I was amazed that there was no sign of the water considering how much there must of been just a few hours before!!
We had to take a different, longer, flat and unfortunately less interesting route, diverting from Ruta 40.
We’re now in the wine region of Mendoza….time to check out the local vineyards and unwind for a few days before continuing south to Northern Patagonia….I wonder what the roads will be like further south 🙂
Now…….off to get some wine!
San Pedro De Atacama was nice but after 5 nights and food poisoning from one of the restaurants (never eating ice-cream again!) we brimmed the tank, had our passports stamped, cleared customs and headed out of town in the direction of Argentina’s border 100 miles down the road.
We half considered taking the off-road route to Bolivia instead which takes a couple of days but the recent heavy rain and flooded salt flats along the way would make it too tricky.
On the way we achieved a new high of 4830m and rode past salt lakes with flamingos and the odd volcano.
We planned on passing quickly through Argentina on their good asphalt and taking the road north to Bolivia.
We only spent a day in the country but took in some good sights along the way.
Wow! I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this country later on if it is more of the same!
Unfortunately Argentina’s border to Bolivia isn’t as spectacular. It took five hours of waiting at the Villazon border for Argentina to do their stuff. I think there was only a dozen people in front of us but the border guys were so disorganized, it was like everyone first day on the job.
The Passport Control and Aduana guys were giving contradictory information to us and a few other bikers that were waiting patiently in line. That’s when I lost my cool with one guy who was sat behind a desk playing with his mobile phone. It could have gone one of two ways – he could have made us wait even longer but as it happened he took my temporary import paper, looked over at the bike and waved me onto the next window. Thirty minutes later, we were on our way with a temporary import permit for Bolivia.
We were expecting to ride dirt for much of our time in Bolivia as we had heard there was only 400 miles of sealed roads in the whole country. As it happens they have now sealed a few of the main roads through the country.
It seems strange to see beautifully sealed roads surrounded by mud houses though!
We arrived in the city of Potosi and planned on exploring the worlds highest city over the next few days.
Before we arrived in Potosi, we had heard about the mine tours so booked ourselves in to see what all the fuss was about.
We had to sign the involuntary voluntary disclaimer before we began……
First stop is the miners market to pick up supplies.
Everyone stocked up on cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves and dynamite………yes dynamite……
Everyone gives the alcohol a try. 96% and pretty disgusting.
We get kitted up ready to explore….
The guide shows us around the refinery plant…
A worker adjusts the mixture of cyanide and some other dodgy chemicals…..
Lisa hands a bottle of soda to the workers that are extracting the mineral from the rock….
We then take a bus to the the mines at Cerro Rico.
This mountain has quite a history. It has been mined since the 1500’s, firstly by the Spanish who gained vast amounts of silver. They say that enough silver was mined to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain with more left over to carry across it.
African and indigenous slaves were used to mine the silver during Spanish colonialism and the terrible conditions caused an estimated 8 to 10 million deaths.
Our guide stocks up on coca leaves in his cheek pouch before we enter one of the mines….
It doesn’t take long to realise that health and safety doesn’t apply here. There are very few supports in the tunnels.
We stop to chat to miners that have already started celebrating the Miners Carnival which starts the next day….
Another miner prepares some dynamite…..
The miner lights the fuse while we take cover around the corner. I’ve got to admit that it was a little scary sitting there in the dark while waiting for the explosions. They were bloody loud and echoed through the tunnels. Nobody has ever mapped the hundreds of tunnels that have been mined in Cerro Rico and it is thought to be like a Swiss cheese. There is concern by geologists that one day the whole mountain will just collapse.
After a couple of hours underground, we resurface and hand over some gifts to one of the miners. Looking at the dodgy stain on his jeans, I think they started partying a while before….
We all cram into a small mud hut while more coca leaves and alcohol is passed around.
It’s considered impolite to refuse alcohol and you are supposed to drop a bit on “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) before drinking. Lisa misunderstood (so she says) and poured it all on the ground to the miners amusement.
I think most of the tourists sighed with relief when the alcohol finally ran out but then they found another bottle and cracked it open…..
After chatting in broken Spanish to the miners and sharing more of their drink, we took the bus back into town.
What we thought was just another tourist attraction turned out to be a real eyeopener.
Men usually start working the mines in their teens (some as young at 12 even though it is illegal), they breath dangerous gases, asbestos and silica dust and face dangerous conditions every single day. Some earn barely enough to get by and the average life expectancy is just 40 years old.
It’s possibly the worlds worst job and a visit to the mines will put things into prospective. Getting up on a Monday morning for your 9-5 office job doesn’t look so bad after all….
We walked around the famous National Mint of Bolivia the next day.
Among the exhibits was a painting used by the Spanish to help bring Catholicism to Bolivia. They portrayed religious figures around Cerro Rico. I wonder if they would have still bothered if it wasn’t full of Silver?
The Mint is no longer used as it is cheaper to have Bolivian currency produced in Chile. It was also once used as a prison but is now just a museum.
Interesting/uninteresting fact for you: The dollar sign is thought to originate from the Potosi monogrammed mark on pieces of eight (PTSI)
These are the only remaining metal rolling mills from the 1700’s in South America which are still intact. Three machines with the help of 4 mules were used to roll the silver to 0.5mm thickness ready for the coin cutting process.
Iron chests with 12 locking mechanisms were built by the Spanish to transport the silver back to Europe.
Later that day, the Miners Carnival was now in full swing….or is that full swig?
Free WI-FI in public areas…..in a 3rd world country!
We have been in Sucre for about a week now as a Spanish language refresh was in order, so booked in for some lessons at a local Spanish School.
Break time at school. What to do with a bag of water balloons on a third story building?
More dancing and festivals through the week….
We’re getting back on the bike tomorrow, not really sure where yet but that’s half the fun.