Limping Out of the Bolivian Desert

January 21, 2016

It was getting late in the day. I was still an hour or so from the border with Chile, and it would be dark before then. I began looking for a place to camp.

There is nothing out here. Nothing to hide behind from the wind. Most of the ground is rocks. Not exactly good tent space. I came alongside the Laguna Verde. It’s deceiving how a piece of land can look green in the distance and when you get there it is just shards of rock.

For much of the past 100 miles or so I had been on my toes, literally and figuratively. The road constantly went from fairly hard-packed to dangerously loose in the blink of an eye. Ruts from four-wheel vehicles dug through the deep, loose gravel, making the bike squirm uncomfortably at speed as I attempted to either power through the shorter stretches, or gently back off the throttle and maintain enough momentum but at a slower speed to make it through the longer ones. I kept thinking how miserable this would be on the Super Tenere or any large beast of a bike.

Finding some firmer footing, I rode along at about 40 miles per hour alongside Laguna Verde. Suddenly I hit one of those deep “pits” of gravel in the road. The front end dug in, and the back end began to come around. Before I could react, the rear swapped the other direction, and off I went, face first into the sharp gravel. My Shoei and Klim gear did a good job of protecting me, although the face shield of the helmet flew off on impact with the gravel. Unfortunately, my left ankle got caught up somewhere, somehow and I immediately knew when I hit the ground that it wasn’t good.

I sat there for a minute or two assessing the situation. No hurry to get up since there would be no cars coming. The only hurry was that it was going to get dark and I needed to find a camp spot.

I slowly got to my feet, and realized that only one foot was going to be useful in picking the bike up. It was a struggle, but I managed to eventually get the bike back on its’ wheels, and me on it. No damage to the bike, that I could see. I very cautiously started off again.

Ahead several miles, at the southern edge of the lake, I could see what looked to be a building. I decided I would see if someone was there. If so I would ask to camp next to their house. If not, perhaps I could camp in their house.

As I approached I saw two buildings, one on each side of the road, with the road blocked between. Two men sat outside the building on the right, wearing uniforms. I rode up and said “Buenas tardes”. They were in a good mood, as their day was about to be over. This was the Bolivian Aduana checkpoint, several miles from the border. I could go no further today even if I wanted to. I told them I had injured my ankle, and asked if I could camp next to their building. They agreed, and one of the men went inside and returned with a pole that I could use as a cane. At this point, I was having trouble just walking, so I gladly accepted it and set about pitching my tent.

It was a cold night at 15,000 feet elevation, but I was surprisingly comfortable in my tent. I was able to get my ankle out of my boot (not without some pain), and it had swollen to look like a baseball. I took one of the two painkillers I had in my kit, along with two ibuprofen, and wrapped my ankle with the ACE bandage from my first aid kit. All in all, it could be much worse. I slept fairly well, in between propping up my ankle again and contemplating how I was going to get out of there.

The next morning my ankle was considerably larger than normal, and I still couldn’t put any weight on it. I very painfully forced it back into my boot, slowly packed up, checked my bike out of Bolivia, and climbed onto the bike to head for Chile. The guards thought I was nuts for continuing on, but how long could I camp next to their guard shack in the desert?

I immediately realized I couldn’t bend my ankle to upshift, so I had to put my foot in front of the shift pedal and use the heel of my boot to kick the shifter up. For the most part, I remained in second and third gear, not wanting to take chances with the gravel.

As soon as I crossed the actual border, the road turned to pavement and I headed down the hill to San Pedro de Atacama, a Chilean town in the middle of the Atacama desert. I had planned to camp here, but in my current state, climbing in and out of the tent was difficult. I found a hotel and checked in, then headed to the local hospital.

San Pedro de Atacama is a quaint village with a large tourist population, and the center of town is pedestrian only. The bank (ATM — I needed Chilean Pesos) and the hospital are both within this pedestrian area. Which meant I had to walk/hobble to the bank and the hospital. Ouch. After getting some money, I went to the hospital only to find that they don’t have an x-ray machine. The nearest one is in Calama, about an hour away. The nurse looked at my ankle, felt fairly certain that it was just a bad sprain, and gave me an anti-inflammatory injection. Back on with the boot one more time, and I returned to the hotel intent on a few days rest with an elevated foot.

The hotel owner offered to have her husband or son drive me to Calama for another examination and an x-ray, but I declined, telling her that if it didn’t look and feel better in a few days maybe I’d take her up on the offer. She sent her son to the pharmacy to get some ibuprofen and a coke for me. I propped myself up and started searching for wi-fi.

This morning the swelling is going down, although I can still barely walk on it. But I’m headed in the right direction, I hope. Perhaps in another couple of days I’ll be headed east, into Argentina, and south again.

A couple of random observations:

  1. All of the previous border crossings I have done go like this: Arrive at border, check bike out of country (Aduana), check self out of country (Immigration), cross border (usually a river, or a bridge, or a line, or a gate), check self into country, check bike into country, ride into next country. This one is different. Miles before the actual border, you pass Bolivian Aduana in the middle of nowhere. You have to stop and check the bike out here. Then you continue for several miles in Bolivia until you arrive at the actual border, where there is Bolivian Immigration. You check yourself out here. There are no Chilean facilities here. You have to ride another 30 or more miles to the town of San Pedro de Atacama where the Chilean Immigration and Aduana are housed in the same building in town. Makes it pretty easy to miss a step if you aren’t paying attention. It also says to me that even the Chileans don’t care about the land nearest to Bolivia, and I can’t really blame them.
  2. My first experience in a rural foreign hospital left me with a sense of what Mexican and Latin American nationals must feel like in a hospital in the US. You have to trust that the language skills and interpretations are good enough to get what you want and need without getting something you don’t want or need. It can be a somewhat frightening experience, and at some point you have to put your trust in the system, and hope there is a system. At the end of the day, for an emergency room examination and a shot, I paid $21. My insurance co-pay would have been more than that in the US, and then I probably would have received another bill for another couple of hundred dollars later. Far more simple than trying to use the insurance I paid for, although perhaps I will consider applying for reimbursement yet.


12 thoughts on “Limping Out of the Bolivian Desert

  1. Pat! You’re scaring us. Ouch is right. Glad to hear you’re feeling better. Rest up for a several days, don’t push it. Medical facilities in the third world (is Chile considered third world?) sounds dicey. And yet, you always seem to find internet service. It’s a crazy world.Our friend Maria Montello, is doing her fourth year of volunteer work in Cambodia and has mentioned the total lack of good medical care in that country. She said if you are “in need” you best get to Vietnam or Thailand. Remember that when you reach Southeast Asia.
    It’s hard to believe that at 15,000 feet you weren’t freezing. You must have a very warm sleeping bag.
    Take care,
    Rick and Linda

  2. If it was any easier, it wouldn’t be an “adventure” and everyone would do it! 😉
    All good. Just need a little more time to heal. Probably stay here in San Pedro another day or two.
    It is pretty amazing how accessible internet is here. Not always a great connection, but some connection anyway. Of course that wasn’t the case in the desert in Bolivia, but then I wouldn’t have expected it there.
    Hey, stuff happens. It’s two wheels. I could be driving one of those monster MAN Dakar camper trucks, but it just wouldn’t be the same. Still enjoying the ride…
    And yes, I have really come to love my MSR tent and Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed sleeping bag.

  3. Pat, I can’t imagine how bad the soft sand/dirt spots were. I hate that feeling of hitting something soft and knowing either you’re going over the bars or swapping ends. One time I did it trying to “ski” across a section of Coleto creek on my YT125 with a 175 cylinder adapted to it. I hit it as fast as I could muster, maybe a whopping 40 or 45. I wish I had video of that crash. At least the water was about a foot deep so it broke my landing.
    I do hope you take it easy for a few days and that it gets better quickly. I don’t see how you are able to get enough oxygen at those altitudes.

    When you were ferrying across Lake Titicaca, I was looking at what I could see of the ferry and wondering where your life jacket was? And then almost getting tweaked getting off of it…

    The old joke in Victoria was, if you had a motorcycle accident (this was the generation of my brother Jimmy and Tim L.), whomever had last received the book “How to Ride a Motorcycle” in the hospital, had to forward it to the next poor fellow lamed up in bed.

    And by the way, your Mama was right about so many things. I miss her and think of her fondly. What a great person she was!

    Get well,

    • The oxygen at altitude is definitely a problem, but I’ve been above 10,000 feet for so long now, it’s less of a problem. I had two nights where I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was having an anxiety attack…it felt like an elephant sitting on my chest and I couldn’t catch my breath. Sitting up in bed helped. Hard to sit up and sleep in the tent though. Other than those two nights, I’ve slept really well in the tent above 14,000 feet. I don’t try running marathons at this altitude though. Just picking the bike up ran me out of breath.

      Life jacket? On a boat here? Ha! I watched a fully loaded passenger bus going across the other way on a similar barge, and thought, “It wouldn’t take much for that thing to tip over, and nobody is getting out of that bus”.

      Will have to get a copy of “How to Ride a Motorcycle” next time I’m laying around with nothing to do but heal. Might learn something…. 😉

    • Yeah, kind of a shame. Uyuni is worth seeing. The “Laguna Route” that I did from Alote to the border is incredible scenery. I wasn’t much impressed with the rest, but if you enjoy the big cities more, Sucre probably is worth seeing. Not for me. Just the overall hassles of fuel and my initial dealing with the border guys turned me off. I wouldn’t recommend skipping it, just be prepared for it.

  4. So, after posting about my ride from Alota to the border via the Laguna Colorada/Laguna Verde “road”, I received several emails from people who said “Man, I’m glad I didn’t go that way.” Huh? Okay, first, I guess I should’ve looked at the map better. I wasn’t really aware that there was another way. For me, this was THE way. Turns out, if I had stayed on that dirt road that all the buses and trucks were on, instead of turning off at Alota, it would have taken me to the border with Chile further west/north, and obviously it’s a better road. It also would have bypassed San Pedro de Atacama, or I would have had to circle back around to it, which really wouldn’t have been a problem.
    But in all honesty, the road I took, while loose gravel and sand, and challenging, was incredibly scenic in a vast, stark, apocalyptic, totally alone sort of way. Would I do it again? Yes. Slower. And I would start first thing in the morning from Uyuni, not spend half a day playing around on the salar. Do that the day before. Which would allow me to do the whole thing in a day, easy. Would I do it on a Super Tenere, or a BMW 1200, or similar? Probably not, unless I planned on doing it in two days, and camp in between, and took it really slow, and rode with somebody else, because with all that deep gravel, you’re probably going to need help picking it up. Would I do it two up on a big bike? No way. Miserable.
    So thanks to those that pointed out there is another way out of Bolivia. I’ll definitely keep that in mind on the next lap.

  5. Chile! So not the third world! One of my favorites. Land of some of the best wines in the world! Glad your resting up and healing. Thinking you have new respect for fesh-fesh.

  6. Hey Pat, I just got caught back up on your travels. How exciting! I don’t think so far, I have seen anything anywhere else that would make me want to go there as have your picture and descriptions. Wonderful! Do keep posting regularly, be careful out there in more ways than in two or three. Stay vigilant and, as if, I could do anything for you from my perch. . let me know.

    • Thanks Tommy. Hope to be back on the road tomorrow. Looking forward to points south, especially Patagonia. I might say otherwise after the wind and gravel roads down there, but right now it’s calling my name! Cheers,

  7. Hi Pat,
    Blows my mind. Prayers your way that you heal up quickly and continue. Really bummed that Bolivia was a bit disappointing. I still look forward to making that trip someday and even further South.
    Heal up my friend & press on. Really enjoying your travels.

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