Tierra Del Fuego

Day 45-51 - February 18-24

Day 45 – February 18

Potosi, Bolivia to Tupiza, Bolivia
We spent the morning in Potosi at a museum whose name translates to “The House of Money.” It was a mint used by the early Spaniards to coin silver before sending it back to Spain (after extracting it from the poor Incas). The museum’s collection—which was loaded with Christian paintings, among many other things—was a schizophrenic catch-all of artifacts donated by locals hoping to fill the big, empty building. We were given a tour by a guide who spoke with a thick accent and, as is not uncommon here, freely displayed her anti-American attitude. The rolling mill that rolled the thick 2.5” billets of silver down to 1/8” was the most interesting part of the museum. Here is the gear reduction system for the mill – the gears are made out of wood:

Each mill was set progressively tighter, and each bar of silver would go through twelve mills until it reached the proper thickness for minting into coins. There were approximately twelve donkeys or mules in the basement providing power. Here I am, assuming the role of the donkey (no jokes please – that would be too easy):

The wreck of one of the large Spanish ships was found in the last fifteen or twenty years off the Florida Keys, and the guide snidely remarked that the Americans kept the treasure and only returned a few coins for their museum.

Walking back to the hotel, we browsed through an interesting supermarket that was basically a collection of booths (many offering the same items) in a very large building. Business was thriving here, but I was struck by how inefficient this market was from a labor standpoint; nonetheless, it was still much more efficient than the roadside markets we’ve seen.

Within the market were various snack bars . . .

…and various staples you could purchase in bulk:

As we left town, we saw the city sanitation workers attempting to keep the road clean . . .

. . . which was only a slight improvement over the vultures we saw dining on a dog in a town square three weeks ago in Peru.

We drove east along nasty roads towards Tupiza – we experienced just about every condition you can imagine. First there was red mud (slippery-slidey), then dust, then more rain. We crossed some streams – one of which appeared too deep for the motorcycles – but we all made it through. There was so much spray that water got up my sleeves! I was quite surprised that the engines did not stall out; apparently, the intake is comparatively small with a filter and air box through which water can flow without getting into the intake of the engine.

We arrived in Tupiza to find it filled with tourists – mostly young people. We met several young people from Canada and several from Colorado and other US locations. We didn’t understand the attraction of this small village until we met a young man who explained that this is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise at the hands of the Bolivian Army. Another person said that the attraction was the horseback riding. My suspicion is that the attraction of this town might have to do with the ease of obtaining some sort of controlled substance here. I have no proof of this, but I have heard that the policy on illegal drugs in Bolivia is fairly loose – Morales, the president of Bolivia, was active in the trade associations related to growing coca – a key ingredient of cocaine.

Day 46 - February 19

Tupiza, Bolivia to Salta, Argentina

We got up at 5:00 a.m. while it was still dark and saw a youthful crowd returning home from the previous night’s carousing activities. One young lady we had spoken with the day before was sheepishly returning to her room (the walk of shame) dressed only in a towel! Another young man from Colorado vividly described to us his night of debauchery.

Cars arriving after us had blocked our exit, and it wasn’t until after daybreak that we were finally able to obtain the keys to the cars that were blocking us in.

Our ride today was 350 kilometers, the first third of which is under construction. The road evolved into a single lane and was extremely dusty, sandy, and (in the good parts) gravelly. Competing for the single lane of this road were huge double-decker buses and heavy trucks. It was virtually impossible to pass and required patience, courage, foolhardiness and luck to take on these vehicles. The dust almost certainly trashed my Sony single-lens camera. No one wanted to be passed because it meant breathing in more dust – we abandoned the polite manners we previously displayed on the smooth highways. There were also a number of aggressive drivers that would shift towards you if you attempted to pass them.

The second section of the road was straight flat desert, which made up for the overly exciting first segment of the day.

The third section wound up a mountain pass through a beautiful rainforest on a one-lane road with traffic moving in both directions – fortunately, there were no trucks to dodge, but the hairpin turns were exciting.

The border crossing took several hours and required more patience than we had remaining:

There was a dramatic difference between Bolivia and Argentina – the roads in Argentina were in excellent condition with wide shoulders on each side and no trash. There was also a noticeable difference in the quality of the farms and the prosperity of the people.

Salta is a beautiful city and was a wonderful introduction to Argentina. We stayed in Salta for several days to decompress.

Day 47 - February 20

Salta, Argentina

We spent the day in Salta and spent a great deal of time on our bikes, first cleansing them of the incredible amount of dirt they’d accumulated.

While we were washing the bikes, we watched a large procession of men and women in Argentine gaucho outfits parading into the city center for a festival celebrating the victory in The Battle of Salta, fought on February 20, 1813. Salta was the retaining wall against the Spaniards, who tried to enter these lands from the north.

The wide rawhide in front of their legs was intended to protect them from thorns.

We then proceeded to a shop to change the oil in the bikes. . .

. . .and made a real mess out of this nice man’s shop.

He had just installed a compressed natural gas fuel system in his car:

It’s a carbureted car, so it didn’t have the complexity of the system we are building in Cleveland – it only has one natural gas inlet into the manifold. But it works similarly to ours – it starts on gasoline and, when the engine is warm enough, switches to natural gas with the heat of the engine heating up the natural gas as it decompresses. He installed it all by himself and was very excited to tell us all about it. In the cities here, all of the gas stations also have natural gas – but not in the country. Here is what the natural gas pumps look like:

The interesting part about this guy’s system is the math. He bought his kit for $700 and spends only $1/day on natural gas compared to the $6/day he previously spent on gasoline. He is obviously delighted with it. There are many sources for natural gas kits in Argentina, because all the urban gas stations sell natural gas fuel and the difference in price is dramatic.

Our natural gas system does not require a filling station and will be introduced in 2.5 months.

The next step was changing out the tires on the bikes. We were able to find both a front and back tire for my bike – my back tire was totally bald (the front was not necessarily needed – but it is recommended to have a matching pair). The others kept their knobby tires on the front and got road tires for the back. These tires will tide us over until we are able to obtain new sets of knobbies further on in Chile.

Day 48 - February 21

Salta, Argentina to Camp Londres

We got an early start out of Salta. . .

. . .and drove on a well-maintained highway through some beautifully fertile areas.

The gendarmes stopped us to check our papers – they had just picked up a couple of guys on sport bikes that had roared by us (for once we were innocent!).

The road ran into the desert and through the mountains. . .

…and I made a new friend.

We had lunch at the Argentine version of Geneva on the Lake, surrounded by a large group of sport bikes with unprotected riders and passengers.

This is a serious road rash waiting to happen.

We couldn’t find a hotel that evening and ended up camping beside a beautiful stream where we took a swim.

I needed to tighten up a bunch of bolts on the back of my bike which had loosened due to all the vibration from the road:

We built a fire and cooked a number of items including sardines, biscuits, and some freeze-dried packages that Roger had brought along.

Roger’s Jetboil heater was again a spectacular success. The cross ventilation on the Hilleburg tents was a great help during the hot evening. Even so, Vince got 15 insect bites, and his arm looks as though he has leprosy.

Day 49 - February 22

Camp Londres area, Argentina to San Juan, Argentina

We had a wonderful rest sleeping in the tents – much better than in a motel room but a little less convenient. I was low on gasoline and didn’t feel I could make it to the next location, so I went on ahead in search of a gas station. Although I didn’t find a gas station, I did locate someone who had gas in a barrel and dispensed it in a one liter Coke bottle. Concerned that the octane level wasn’t high enough in this fuel, I only got four or five liters—enough to cover me for about 120 miles, at which point the others would also be running out of gas.

The ride to San Juan was largely desert:

We rode over two mountain passes and stopped for lunch in Cafayete.

Most of the ride was through the high desert. . .

. . .on some interesting gravel roads with tight corners.

We got into San Juan before dark, cleaned up, and went in search of a restaurant:

We found a great restaurant that had an intense way of barbequing – the coals that fall through on the left are dragged under the grill to the right (maybe this is the way we should cook chicken at Whiskey Island!):

Day 50 – February 23

San Juan, Argentina to Uspallata, Argentina

We departed San Juan early the morning of the 23rd:

Vincent delighted the young children manning a roadside with his Canadian flag (inspired by the Canadians beating the Russians in hockey). . .

. . .while Helge generated more film for his DVD.

We headed into the desert. . .

…and passed through sporadic splashes of trees in small metro areas (the shading in the top of the pictures below is my finger – I didn’t have this problem with my single-lens reflex):

We stopped for lunch at a nice roadside stand then continued on through some rugged terrain . . .

. . . spotted with tunnels.

We made our way to a long-toothed resort outside of Uspallata, Argentina . . .

. . . and Roger decided to rest before we checked in.

Day 51 – February 24

Uspallata, Argentina to Santiago, Chile

We got a 7:00 a.m. start and headed up into the mountains on the road to Chile. The camera I am now forced to use (a pocket Olympus) does not do the scenery justice:

On both sides of the road were enormous slides that reminded me (though on a more giant scale) of the dunes that fall into the Au Sable River near East Tawas, Michigan – those are perhaps several hundred feet high and these are several thousand feet high.

The slides are interrupted by rock outcroppings. The rock itself is soft and has a clay-shale structure. It obviously erodes easily with the freezing and thawing of temperature changes. The quality of the rock, sand, and shale determine the angle of repose of the banks. They are extraordinarily dramatic – it would be fun to run and slide down the sides of these banks – but I’m in no shape to take them on.

We stopped along the ascent at an old hot springs tourist attraction that is now closed:

To the right of the church pictured here was a hotel where the hot springs visitors stayed. What is amazing about this is that an avalanche completely leveled the hotel, killing a number of people, and left the church, only a hundred feet away, untouched. The guide at the park, in his broken English, called it a miracle.

As we continued our ascent, we caught a glimpse of Aconcagua . . .

. . . the highest peak in the Americas and the highest peak outside of Asia. We passed some hikers taking off for a closer view, and Helge, Vincent and Roger climbed a kilometer or two up to get a better look. We can see the summit behind this small hill.

A helicopter was ferrying supplies to the hikers:

Instead of taking the new asphalt road that leads to the top of the pass (a little more than 12,000 feet), we choose the old gravel road.

There were no guard rails to protect us, but we were treated to beautiful views of the sliding mountain. . .

. . . and the mountains in the distance.

At the peak, we saw more stunning views of glaciers creeping down the sides of the distant mountains:

And of course the summit would not be complete without a Christ sculpture:

We had a wonderful ride zigzagging down the mountain:

It felt as though we were riding into the bottom of a teacup, surrounded on all sides.

The descent is dramatically steep – with the added twist of gravel on the corners.

Passing through customs (done the right way – with Argentinean and Chilean officials both in the same room), I was treated to my first-ever complete search. I have not previously experienced this type of search, even along the Silk Road – every bag and pannier was completely emptied and their contents were spread out on the ground – they wanted to see everything. Perhaps I should clean my leathers and shave more frequently to look more respectable.

A short way down the mountain we stopped at the Portillo ski resort. We had a wonderful lunch and could look out at the steep runs and the hostile environment. This is where the US ski team practices during the summer.

A short while later, we arrived in Santiago and checked into the Crown Plaza hotel. Here we plan to have at least one days’ rest. My third camera has failed, which is extremely upsetting. (This was my video camera, POV, which was able to record at the press of a button and would also record the previous and following minutes after the button was pressed. It was also a good tool for providing a chronology of the day.) The second camera that failed was my single-lens reflex, which was good for taking pictures on the fly. Hopefully my remaining camera will suffice and last the remainder of the trip (I may purchase another single-lens reflex while in Santiago).
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