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Cafayate, Argentina
September 17, 2004

Leaving Bolivia, Part II

Outside of Uyuni, truck spews a dust storm in its wakeMonday I spend writing, taking a two-hour nap to ward off the rigors of the previous night on Wilmaís living room floor, and meet her driver, Jose, who hops on the back of my bike as we drive the streets of Uyuni looking for a place where I can change my oil. I have the filter and tools, and acquiring the oil is simple, but disposing of the used oil is my main concern.

At around 7pm Iím back at Arco Iris for dinner, only to find that there has been a slight change of plans. A tourist from Caledonia, an island off the coast of Australia, Iím told, needs an English translator, and Wilma has volunteered. He is presently at Laguna Colorado, on the Salar, and at least a half-day from Uyuni.

Tuesday night we will stop in Tupiza, on the way to Villazon, and by various estimates anywhere from four to eight hours from Uyuni. That has been a problem from the start. I just canít get a handle on the actual distance from Uyuni to Tupiza or on to Villazon. My Bolivia map has no distances indicated for secondary roads, and using the scale, it could be anywhere from 150 to 250km (90 Ė 155 miles) to Tupiza, depending on the twists and turns. Wilma, with Jose driving, will leave about 2pm, after she talks to the Caledonian tourist. At 9am Tuesday morning Iím on my way.

By the way, while Iím writing this three days later, with spring well advanced, and at a sidewalk table on the shady side of a sunny street in the small Argentine town of Cafayate, Eric Clapton belts out ďTears In HeavenĒ on the stereo system. If only I could sing. Do you think the government of Argentina is enforcing Claptonís copyrights? Letís see, Microsoft estimates that 98% of its software in China is pirated. To my entreaty, ďhay, helado?Ē (is there ice cream,) the waiter assures me that there is Swiss vanilla. For my efforts Iím treated to a well-melted Eskimo pie. Nah, Claptonís not getting royalties, and National Geographic wonít pick this up. Iíll keep my day job.

With my Argentinian biker friends, Roberto and Jorge, at the Atocha bridge.  The road's in the river, but at least there's a bridge.The road from Uyuni towards Tupiza is both unmarked and unremarkable. Itís simply a graded triple-track that heads across the vast desert that surrounds the town. In fact, I ask twice to ensure that Iím on the correct one of the two desert tracks that head east from Uyuni. My only saving grace is that in La Paz I purchased a map with much better detail than my highway map, and it shows the railway line on the left-hand side of the road, until it crosses the highway just east of the pueblo of Atocha, about half-way to Tupiza. With a compass and knowledge of the railroad line, I should be fine, even without signs. The gravel surface, while very rough from the washboard, is acceptable, particularly without the heavy bags, and I make good time.

My second real break of the Villazon journey, meeting Wilma was obviously the first, occurs about thirty minutes out of Uyuni when I stop for an approaching truck. It is spewing a veritable dust storm in its wake, and I pull over rather than be engulfed by the following cloud. As I re-bag my camera, a motorcycle appears in my rear view mirror, and I motion it to stop. Up pulls the first of two Honda Transalps, which I noticed yesterday in Uyuni, while Jose and I sought a location for the used oil.

The road to Tupiza is in the riverbed for about 10 miles around the village of AtochaJorge, and his buddy Roberto, up from Salta, Argentina just two days ago to visit the Salar, are now returning. We agree to ride together. Iím happy that I wonít have to tackle it alone, and with full bags.

Around sixty kilometers (35 miles) into the trip I look for the road to turn north and cross the railroad tracks, but that never happens. However, the numerous sidetracks are clearly inferior to the double tracks we are on, and since the Argentineans have ridden the road before and press on, I continue as well.

About 100km from Uyuni the road is blocked and following vehicle tracks, we detour to the riverbed. Itís 500 meters wide (a quarter of a mile,) and thankfully, less than a foot deep in most places. Rocks and sand, each plentiful now, make up for the lack of water, and we ride in the riverbed some ten kilometers (six miles) to the pueblo of Atocha, where we make proper introductions on a long bridge; the only paved surface for hundreds of miles. As an aside, I find the modern, paved bridge incongruous in an area where the highway proper runs through the river. Jorge Brandon, the older of the two Transalp riders, is an attorney, and Roberto, his sidekick, a contrador publico; a CPA like me. We share a few words in common, and motorcycling is a fraternity, so we have little difficulty both maintaining a dialogue and establishing rapport.

While on the bridge, Jorge says ďButch Cassidy, aqui (here)Ē and draws a finger across his throat, indicating that Butch and the Sundance Kid died in Atocha. If so, they got their just rewards for a life of crime. Atocha may literally be the end of the earth. But if not in Atocha, then certainly close by. The mining company whose payroll they robbed was from Tupiza, our destination. Iíve heard San Vincent, a nearby pueblo as the location of their demise, but weíre splitting hairs here. Weíre in the riverbed for a bit less than another six kilometers (four miles) when the road reappears.

The bike in Villazon, after 200 miles of dirt, rock and sandMaybe twenty kilometers (twelve miles) past Atocha there is a fork in the road, and to paraphrase Robert Frost, ďtheir passing is really about the same.Ē We stop, not certain which fork to take. However, the only discernable physical feature out here is a prominent mountain, perhaps ten kilometers (six miles) away. The left fork appears to head north of the mountain, while the right goes east. Of course, there are no signs. As we consult our respective maps, itís apparent that we need to keep the mountain on our left. When stopped, an approaching truck confirms our choice, and we head east.

At about 160km (100 miles) the road to Tupiza begins its 1,000m (3,300í) plunge off the Altiplano to the valley that contains Tupiza, on a tortuous and circuitous route with lots of sand on downhill turns. We proceed cautiously, but move forward. Roughly two hours from Tupiza, Jorge, the lead rider now, pulls over at a wide spot, and on a small-unrolled tarp, Roberto lays out crackers and canned ham. Sensing lunch, I add a can of tuna and some cookies. There, by a dry streambed, on an appalling double-track route through the desert, we break bread. Iím still smiling now as I think of it.

Of course we make Tupiza, which turns out to be 220km (135 miles) from Uyuni, in over six hours. After securing the bike and a quick shower, Iím walking from the hotel to the plaza for dinner, when Wilma and her entourage, now including Jose, Sabrina, a babysitter and Roberto, the hostal owner, pull up by the curb. They made the trip in less than four hours in their Toyota Land Cruiser. Relieved to see me, they are concerned that I took the wrong fork past Atocha. We agree to meet the next morning for breakfast. Returning from dinner I share dessert with the two Argentine Transalp riders, who explain that theyíre leaving first thing in the morning. We trade e-mail addresses and bid each other a safe journey.

Over breakfast, Wilma explains that they will leave for Villazon in two hours, rather than the following morning, as originally planned. If Iíd like, theyíll take my bags and meet me at the border. Of course, I accept. The 100km (sixty miles) from Tupiza to Villazon is much less demanding, and I make it in two hours.

Wilma, Sabrina, Jose, Roberto and babysitter in Villazon, before I crossed into ArgentinaWe all have lunch together before crossing into Argentina, and they stand by as I retrieve my hard bags and repack the bike. With several rounds of photos, handshakes and hugs, we wish each other a safe journey.

Jose is staying in Bolivia with the Toyota, while Roberto joins Wilma, Sabrina and the babysitter for the bus ride to Salta. They see me through my exit from Bolivian customs and immigration, and I lose them in the crush of travelers crossing into Argentina.

Would I have made it to Villazon without their help? Certainly. Was the journey made easier and more enjoyable because of their assistance? Absolutely. Do I have a memory that will last a lifetime because of their involvement? Without a doubt.