Birthday party in South America
The idea of travelling to discover new places with a motorcycle has always been one of my passions and in the winter of 2014 for my and my childhood biker-friend’s 40th birthday we went to South America shipping our bikes (R80 GS basic e R1200 GS Adv).
Since we didn’t have time to plan the travel and take care of the paperwork for the bikes, we entrusted Motoraidexperience with the task given that I personally know the owners.
I expressly asked to add some stop in places I already visited with a jeep, such as Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, various lagoons and the high-altitude deserts of Bolivia.
Others join the group to fill up the container and reduce expenses; in the end there are 8 riders.
Start: at 08.45 pm on hot summer evening (in Peru), February in Italy, from the port of Lima, after two days spent on paperwork for the bikes to clear customs (never again!).
Go: exiting the city to take the Pan-American highway is a nightmare; this highway crosses the South American continent from North to South. We go South heading for Nazca which we reach at 4 am after 500 km that didn’t allow distraction.
The adrenaline and the happiness of riding on this important road allow us to arrive at destination safely without slamming into any anything, which remained our greatest worry for the whole trip.
The following day we fly over the famous Nazca Lines and travel to our next stop where we arescheduled to go on a whale-watching tour that includes a visit to the Ballestas islands, but the sea (i.e. the Pacific Ocean) is rough and the tour is cancelled.
We continue our journey crossing Peru climbing as high as 4700 m above sea level and then plunging in green valleys covered in forest and a lot of mud when the scorching sun is replaced by a tropical downpour.
The roads are incredibly beautiful even at high-altitude and have perfectly maintained blacktops since they’ve just been paved, we will have to see if they will last.
The bends endlessly follow one another and the wish to open the gas is strong, but we must be careful, an unexpected obstacle, animal or person coming out from who knows where, would be a real problem!!
We reach Cusco on a hot afternoon; the city is full of flower children from all over the world and we ruin their peaceful smoking and/or drinking by passing right in the middle of this chaos on our bikes with 3 Peruvian riders who are accompanying us from the suburbs of the city to our hotel passing the important spots of the city.
The following day is dedicated to the lost city of the Incas, symbol of Peru, Machu Picchu.
On our way again, we head for Bolivia passing through Puno on the Titicaca lake and visiting the floating islands and their habitants (very touristic).
We cross the border with Bolivia after ferrying our bikes on a wooden barge.
I’ll always remember our arrival to La Paz; all 8 of us on an empty tank and while we are desperately looking for gas, all hell breaks loose in the form of a thunderstorm.
I’ve been here during a previous trip and I don’t remember it as a nice city but this time the impact is violent.
It is dark, the street becomes a river, the road disappears and everything, people, animals and vehicles go crazy.
We must not lose sight of each other … who knows what could happen if one of us is left alone …we are in South America after all!!
I still don’t know how but I skirt an enormous hole full of water … lucky me!!
We keep navigating in this chaos for a while, finally we find a gas station at the end of El Alto suburbs; with a full tank we follow the road, now paved and illuminated, that dives into the valley lighted by the city lights.
La Paz is like Dante’s hell, a cone of degradation and filth with the ever-present colonial-style square all clean and full of flowers at the center.
We get to the hotel and after a shower and dinner we hit the bed.
The new day is sunny, Enrico and I leave the group, that will stop for a day to rest, to ride along the legendary “carretera della muerte”!!
What to say: a dirt road about 4 meters wide, that plunges in the Jungas (jungle) from the Bolivian plateau, along the mountain hillside with rivers, some big other small, that cross it, a lot of mud but no big deal.
We arrive in Coroico where we eat chicken with vegetables and return along a well paved through-road.
The following days we cross Bolivia along its plateaus and valleys, bordering the Amazon rainforest, passing Cochabamba, an industrial city with nothing to see, finally reaching the splendid capital of Bolivia, Sucre - positioned at high altitude and with a perfect climate – after riding on a 100-km long beautiful cobblestone road.
We dine in a typical restaurant that includes a local show and the day after we leave for the high-altitude plateaus with deserts and lagoons where even the last editions of the Dakar have a stopover.
The land isn’t unknown to me from here on since I’ve already visited it in 2004 but being here on my bike is another story!
The stop in Potosì for gas is one of the worst moments of the trip: a filthy mining town, full of bad people, smog and traffic, so much so that the pump attendant asks us what we are doing here!!
When we tell him that we are headed for Uyuni, he recommends we leave as soon as we fill up, giving us the right directions because “a qui todo es peligroso” while indicating a person laying at the corner of the street and mimicking a gun with his fingers …!!!
Fast as the wind we leave this horrible place with a full tank (=200 km); with a stop for gas halfway we should make it.
Uyuni, the last outpost before the salar; it changed a lot in 10 years: internet points and souvenir shops all over the place, tourists from all over the world mostly with backpack, headed for or coming from Chile. The tour most agencies propose is a 3-day journey on a jeep to the Chilean border passing through breathtaking landscapes. As soon as our “carnet de passage en douane” is stamped we go to the hotel, made of salt blocks,situated on the edge of the salar. The following morning, we take on the salar that can be crossed since there are less than 10 cm of water on its perfectly flat salt surface.
The “island” of fish, a cactus-covered hill, symbol and a must for tourists, is 80 km from the edge and the same distance from the exit towards Chile. So, full gas!!! At 140 km/h I relent. Fantastic!! Motorcycles covered by white salt that hardens on the engine, rims, exhaust, frame … we’ll think about it later!!!
As we exit we get to a town with a few houses, inhabited by militaries or miners, but as we pass a guy comes out from one of the houses indicating a water pump! He was waiting for us and for a few dollars we wash our bikes removing as much salt as we can. We keep going, through deserts of rocks/sand on more or less nice tracks; we are at more than 4500 m high. The place is wonderful, as are the colors of the lagoons dotted by flamingoes, guanacos, alpacas – a type of smaller llama – and vicuñas.
We stop in Laguna Colorada, unfortunately the weather is bad so no landscapes …. but luckily, I visited it in the past!! The day after we see the geysers of Sol de Manana, mud and ground boiling at almost 5000 m from sea level. Our passports are stamped at the customs in Apacheca, 5033 m of altitude, the highest point we reach.
The last lagoon, named Verde – green – from the color of its waters, and the Licancanbur volcano on the background, herald the border with Chile.
As soon as we cross the gate, the trail becomes a perfect highway, we are in Chile a mining region full of copper mines. The road is an arrow towards the Pacific Ocean and the city of Antifagasta which marks the end of our trip. As a consequence of altitude loss and of the 98-octane gas, our motorcycles sound like they are screaming. Our last stop is in San Pedro de Atacam, the night is as hot as hell, we are in the middle of the desert, the most arid of the world. Nothing interesting here, only dust and hot. In Antofagasta, we stay at a 4-star hotel with a good restaurant … and bill!
The present for our 40th birthday ends here, we embark the motorcycles that will reach Genoa 3 months later.
Text and photos: Paolo Milanesio