Independence Day

Torturing the bikes going from Bolivia to Chile to Argentina

Our short stay in Bolivia had been just that — too short. As the Laguna Verde disappeared around the last mountain in Eduardo Alvaroa, a small hut appeared on the horizon with nothing around it but a ceremonial red and white pole, it’s only purpose to symbolically block the suggestion of the road that we were currently on. With having to work in such a bleak place, we forgave the border guard his mid-afternoon nap and subsequent confusion when we asked to leave Bolivia. An extra-legal bureaucratic request of an exit fee later and we passed through the pointless barrier, 30 bolivianos lighter, looking for the ultra efficient and moneyed Chilean immigration control.

However, our old friend Chile is never one to miss an opportunity for a genital-foot contact event, and this time was no different. We drove down the brand new asphalt road worried that we had somehow missed the building:

“It’s got to be around here somewhere.”
“If the Bolivians can be arsed to put a chap at the border then surely the Chileans can.”
“Hang on, I can see a building on top of that hill… Ah it’s got Chile written on the side, that’s got to be it!”

We veered off the road onto a gravel track that looked a million times better than the sand we had just conquered in Bolivia, heading for the shiny building at the top of a very modest hill.

“Shit, this gravel is getting a bit soft”
“You know the drill — POOOWWWEEERRRR…”

Ten seconds later all three bikes had stalled. Obviously continuing the last fifty metres down this particular track was not a viable solution so I turned around to head back to the tarmac road. At the same time Didier and Tibet tried the gravel roads on the left and right. All three of us were silently racing to the building, hoping that we had chosen the winning route. As I was cruising round the smooth tarmac bend at top speed watching Didier burning out his clutch in the I was feeling confident of the win until Tibet (the bastard)’s intercom crackled into life:

“There’s a guy here who is saying that the building isn’t ready yet.”

This was annoying for two reasons:

  1. Tibet (the bastard) had won the race
  2. Chile had gone to the effort of constructing a decoy immigration centre just to piss us off.

I’m going to get you Chile.

After the decorator informed us that we had to go to San Pedro to get stamped in, the anger soon gave way to excitement at the prospect of the hundreds of tarmac twisties for the extremely rapid descent down onto the plane. However, Chile had chosen to make the Andes wheelchair accessible, and this road was their ramp. With gravity torturing our poor 250cc engines (they’re like an engine, only smaller) to the brink of oblivion, we rolled into San Pedro de Atacama around half an hour later, the only substantial loss being Tibet’s number plate.


When we were researching our trip through Eduardo Alvaroa it became clear that the only town of any reasonable size in the area was the tourist trap of San Pedro. Given our experience of places like Huacachina, our expectation was a town overrun by westerners. All of our expectations were met — all the european tourists you could shake a stick at and all of the associated crap that comes with it.

However, San Pedro soon started to show a pleasant vibe. After asking at five hostels for a room and finding one only on the sixth attempt it dawned on us that it was independence day — the culmination of a week’s worth of morning television hosts trying to get people excited about large quantities of raw meat and very un-energetic traditional dancing.

The crap TV obviously worked. After meeting a couple of tourists at the hostel and having a ludicrously meaty dinner we headed out to the fair to watch some un-energetic dancing live. As this was far too much fun, Tibet and Didier tried to temper the mood with some disgusting ice cream and white wine cocktails and a horrifying round of guinea pig roulette. This particular attraction seemed to be very popular with the locals and involved spinning a guinea pig around in a box, releasing it and seeing which prize it runs to.

The next day, with a touch of hangover in the air, we set about finding a welder to sort out the luggage racks destroyed by the Bolivian gravel roads. A pleasant breakfast and a walk in the sunshine later we found the only chap claiming to work on veteran’s day. Here’s the simple ten step procedure for how one fixes a rack on a bank holiday:

  1. Get customer to remove rack,
  2. Go and watch parade for an hour,
  3. Return for beer, long piss and offer beer to patiently waiting customers,
  4. Have another rest at the parade with beer,
  5. Forget how to walk (but not weld, crucially),
  6. Have a beer to level-up welding skill,
  7. Stick some bits of metal to the rack,
  8. Impress random woman off street with oxy-acetylene tricks,
  9. Get customer to re-affix rack while beer,
  10. More pissing (+beer).

Four hours later and now pitch black, we headed back to the hotel, equal parts bemused and annoyed, wondering how long this set of shonky welds would last. (It turns out they have been some of the most durable of the trip!)

Fraud is fun

The next morning we prepared to head to Argentina, the final country on our journey, and the point at which we would turn around and start heading back north to Huanuco, our starting point. We had been advised that the Argentinians were not as keen on a general attitude of laissez-faire and so after some debate we kicked off the day with some light fraud by making Tibet a new licence plate. We decided to make it look as fake as possible, reasoning that this approach was least likely to land us in hot water, so five minutes with Inkscape and a trip to a dodgy printers later, we were practically legal again.

Before we left Chile (hopefully for good this time) we had a quick trip to the moderately famous Moon Valley, 10km out of town. As we sailed past all of the tourists on their mountain bikes in the noon heat we felt glad we had at least our under-powered bikes. We were conscious of leaving enough time to get to Argentina, so we sped through the valley, only stopping when we got lost near a dangerous looking salt mine. Of course having a look was obligatory so that’s what we did.

Salt mines are fun, but also a bit terrifying

Back up the wheelchair ramp to Argentina we pass by the Chajnantor array, one of the biggest telescopes in the world. I was pretty gutted we weren’t able to make the weekend tour that they do, as it was Monday and we were running out of time.

After a bit of cocking about up at the top and discovering a new, super fast pose that gave me the fastest bike (for a bit anyway) we crested the last hill and coasted down to the Chile-Argentina border. This border was by far the most efficient border we have come across — six windows next to each other made collecting the magic stamps super rapid (for Tibet and me at least). How can they afford such an amazing system I hear you ask? Well, it turns out that Canada pays for it. Didier was whisked off into a back room where he ‘rented’ a bit of computer off some friendly chaps to put his name into a database for the bargainous price of $100.

(Incidentally, no-one gave a crap about Tibet’s number plate.)

Upon completion of this generous act Didier came to meet us in the gas station down the road. After a refreshingly awful coffee we decided to push on to the next town despite the fiery sunset reminding us of the impending darkness. Didier and I left the station while Tibet had a fight with a rope, which he was losing before Didier went to rescue him.

Tibet shows some initiative, Didier clears up the mess.

With Tibet suffering an abundance of embarrassment and his bike a loss of power we decided that it would be best if Tibet were to draft behind me until the hotel in order to spend as little time as possible riding at night in the cold. Two hours of careful speed management followed ensuring that we stayed a sensible distance from each other — not too close to be dangerous, but not too far to fall out of my slipstream. Despite our best efforts occasionally the wind would conspire to separate us. Each time Tibet fell out of my slipstream, Didier would pick him up and they would draft each other so Tibet would be delivered to my care once again. Finally, eventually, some lights appeared on the horizon in the otherwise complete darkness and we could make out a steak and beds sign hung above a door.

Freezing cold and excited for our first Argentine steak we bundled into the restaurant with all of our bags to the bemusement of the locals all of whom sat in silence while an old video of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner at the UN waffled on about the Falkland Islands. The waiter waddled over to inform us that they only had one type of steak available. A bit disappointed we dutifully ordered it medium rare and munched on the anhydrous bread rolls while we waited. Then the steaks arrived well done. Bastards. Then as we were chewing on our beef, an entire rack of beef short ribs appeared for the employees. Bastards.

At least it wasn’t Chile.