Day 86 – Santiago Del Estero, Argentina

We crossed into Argentina from Bolivia three days ago at La Quiaca.  We left a land of dusty unmarked tracks, mud huts, frigid temperatures, and empty desert.  We entered a land of smooth four lane highways, mouth-watering steak, cabernet sauvignon, white linen, and hot showers.  When we finally hit asphalt at the Argentinian border, I had had forgotten what it was like not to struggle through sand and rock.  I had started to think that jarring washboard was a relief, if only because I didn´t have to worry about dumping the bike at any moment.  And dump the bike I did a lot in Bolivia.

Bolivia was tough.  Every day was a physical and mental challenge.  I am glad that it came as late as it did in our trip.  If I had hit Bolivia with the same timidness as I did my first gravel road back in Missouri (I believe), I’m not sure I would have made it through.  At any rate I would have dropped the bike every 20 metres.  All the training I went through previously on the trip, from riding on the sandy beaches of Mexico to the rocky slopes of Volcan Cayambe, was put to the test in the frigid Bolivian desert.

We rode through sand deep enough that the rear wheel would easily dig itself in past the chain.  When this happened, the only way to get the bike out was to push it over and then pick it back up after sand had filled in the hole where the rear wheel was.  Even then I needed Ted pushing to budge her at all.

We rode between the rails of train tracks for miles.  It was either that or ride across the rocky desert.  Sometimes, we would have to ride over bridges with foot-long gaps between the splintering railway ties.  What if one were to give way…

There are no fences in Bolivia.  Many times we set off across the open untracked desert in what we thought was the right direction.  Sometimes we were right, more often we were wrong.  Even with a compass, it was easy to get hopelessly lost.  This is because even if you know that there is a town due west of where you begin, usually a geographical feature like a mountain range or a canyon will stand in your way.  Sometimes you get so far off track that when you finally stumble into a village and ask where you are, the locals have to unfold your map to find it.  That’s if you’re lucky enough to find someone that speaks Spanish.  Many villages are populated entirely by Amerindians who do not speak Spanish.  Our map was worse than useless. More than once it showed tracks connecting places that in reality were not connected at all, forcing lengthly backtracks. 

The weather in Bolivia is as harsh as the riding surfaces.  During the mid afternoon sun you could be lulled into complacency.  But nightfall tells a different story.  The temperature plummets to -20 degrees Celcius.  It is dangerous to be lost with the sun setting and no shelter in sight.  This happened to us more than once.  If we had stopped and camped, we would certainly have been at risk of hypothermia.  We were not equipped for winter camping.  Luckily each time we found shelter.

The most amazing stroke of good luck came at the end of a particularly hard day of riding.  We had been trying to enter the Salar de Uyuni from the north.  Early on Ted had snapped his clutch cable, requiring repairs in the field.  (Why on earth didn’t we pack spare cables?).  We had set out early in the morning from the town of Rio Mulatos.  We had been lost most of the day, but just as the sun was setting, we had found a village that was actually on our map. 

I had already dropped my bike three times in deep sand.  Ted had crashed twice as well, each time aggravating his injured wrist.  He was in a lot of pain.  The last time he had dropped his bike, I found him sitting in the darkness where he had fallen, making no effort to even stand up.  He later said he was ready to give up and spend the night right where he was beside his fallen bike.  I helped him get his bike up and told him we needed to find shelter.  Hypothermia wasn´t nice. 

We had been told that the town of Uyuni was 2 hours away.  That was 5 hours ago.  We were both exhausted.  It was after 10 PM.  It felt as cold as the dark side of the moon.  We did not even know if we were following the right track across the uninhabited wasteland.  The more tired we got, the more the sand seemed to grab at our tires.  The back end would fishtail and we´d be forced to put our feet down to keep the bikes from going over.  It was exhausting.

Just when I was starting to think we’d be forced to spend the night out in the frozen desert, I saw some lights in the distance.  Civilization!  I led us towards the lights like a moth to flame.  The lights were coming from a building on a rocky island rising from the salt plains.  I immediately thought that it must be a hotel.  I’m not sure why I thought this because it was an odd place for a hotel: in the middle of nowhere with nothing around it.  I rode around the island until I found a way up.  We parked the bikes and walked into the warmth.  It was indeed a hotel.  A hotel made entirely out of salt.  The owners were incredibly friendly and opened up the restaurant just for us.  We were fed a gourmet meal.  The tables, the chairs, everything was made out of salt.  There was even salt in a shaker on the table.

Our room had a hot shower, thick warm blankets, and even a heater.  The beds, of course, we made out of salt.  The surroundings seemed so surreal, and were such a contrast from the frozen wasteland that we had emerged from, that I wondered if I had really crashed out in the desert and was now in a hypothermia-induced coma.  Maybe this was what it was like to die from hypothermia.  

On another day we rolled into a mining town at the bottom of a steep valley just as the sun was setting.  Ted’s front tire had just gone flat and we were again lost.  We were immediately surrounded by dozens of people.  We were probably the most exciting thing to happen to that town in a long time.  When we asked directions, we discovered that our map was wrong (again) and we would have to backtrack.  Luckily there were beds for us in an old building where the miners ate their meals.  We ended up eating meals with the miners between shifts.  In the morning they welded my luggage rack which had broken during one of my falls and helped us change Ted’s tube.  They were thrilled when I gave a couple of them rides on the back of my bike.

Bolivia was the most challenging country of the entire trip by far.  And yet all the hard days of riding, the painful falls, the primitive accommodations, the bone chilling weather were all way more than worth it.  Despite the tough conditions, Bolivia is my favourite country of the trip.  It was pure adventure.  The scenery was so otherwordly, so untouched by the human hand, that it was easy to imagine that I was exploring another planet.  I felt like a character from a Larry Niven novel, exploring a strange new land by motorbike.

I have so many vivid memories of Bolivia.  My bike down again.  So frustrated that I kick sand at it for minutes.  Drinking coke and eating crackers in a mud hut village in the middle of nowhere, kids surrounding our bikes.  The vast blindingly white Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world, so big that it can easily be seen from Space.  Riding across the white salt at 110 km/h with my eyes closed for what felt like minutes (but was really only about 10 seconds).  Doing a standing airplane.  Riding while squatting on the seat
.  Yers, there was time to play too.  Stands of giant cacti, surreal rock formations.  A volcano towering above the white sea of salt.  Who would have thought that this trip would take me to 13 countries plus another planet?

If Bolivia was the climax of our adventure, then Argentina is the relaxing denouement.  We are only a couple of days away from Buenos Aires and the end of our trip.  I am saddened that it is nearing an end.  More than anything I would like to continue this adventure.  The world is an exciting place full of pleasant surprises.  There is so much to see and never enough time.  The world is much friendlier than I thought when I set out.  People on the whole are kind and decent.  This trip has given me hope for this planet.

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