Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Off The Beaten Pass to Ruta 40

When the cloud of dust clears, I see Azure on the ground against her bike. Her foot hurts but she seems ok. David puts a smile back on her face by showing her the distance to pavement with his thumb and index finger. I look at the bull dust hole that took her out and wonder how it is possible that this happens now after all this dirt in the past couple of days. I lock the Gobi case that came off during her pirouette in the sand, back where it belongs and fix her mirror. Azure gets back in the saddle and, in a lot of pain, makes it to the perfect tar that is waiting for her on top of the hill. We are all enjoying the smooth black material under our tires and rapidly roll down the mountain with the volcanoes in our mirrors getting smaller and the temperature getting higher every second.  San Pedro de Atacama is like an oven but we are glad to be back in civilization and in a country where they are happy to sell us clean, good gasoline! 
After 4 days of dust this was pure joy!
After taking care of customs upon arrival in town, David and I hunt for a place to stay while Azure stays with the bikes. Every place is shocking expensive ($40USD+), but the decision is made easy when one of the hostel owners, upon hearing that Azure has hurt her foot, comes running with a bag of ice. It is nice to talk to people again and we get lots of questions about the journey and the bikes. A good night's sleep later, we are already missing the silence and solitude of the Lagunas. 
Ice Ice Baby! ...and still smiling!

See that little sparkle in his eyes? He's sure to be in the next generation of adventure riders!
We stock up on water and food and ride to the Valley of the Moon. A hefty admission fee and loads of backpackers on bicycles make us turn around and set out for the Sico Pass to Argentina. We have mixed feelings about “missing out” on this touristy highlight, but Azure's foot still isn't in good enough shape to go walking and none of our budgets welcome high price-tags. When the sun sets, we see a red, rocky outcrop in a furthermore empty desert and we know we made the right decision. Aside from some furry creatures we have our very own valley of the moon. After a simple noodle meal our smiles get even wider while we sit back in our comfy chairs and enjoy a full moon rise over us.
The good thing about the heat is that you have to stop for a sip of water now and then and you get to appreciate your bike and the surroundings from a different perspective.
The paved riding was short lived, but we're loving the dirt on Sico Pass.

That looks like an awesome place to hide from the wind. The gravel track leading up there was a bit deeper and more loose than anticipated...
David claimed his spot on top of a rock.
Sunsets are overrated!

Oatmeal for breakfast on this chilly morning.
 The landscape does not disappoint but the corrugations are getting old fast. After a nice stop at the most efficient border crossing in South America and another one at a checkpoint where Azure almost steals the guards dog, we're in Argentina! Annnnnd it is back to corrugation. Azure, still in pain and lacking patience for the concentration today's ride requires, slams on the brakes and takes a siesta on her bike while David and I have lunch in the sand.
All the work that goes into...
...Taking this shot. Welcome to Argentina!
Best Border crossing ever, complete with soccer table! First window; check out of Chile. Second window; check in to Argentina. Why is there no waiting line when you want one!
This smelly dog ran along Azure's bike for about a mile before giving up and returning home with a disappointed look on his face.
Even though I've lost count of how many times I've done this, I am still excited to cross this little line now and then. ;)
The "I am done with corrugations" pose...
Finally we make it to a small town, San Antonio De Los Cobres. There are no ATMs and the gas station doesn't accept cards. We're directed to change money at a hotel nearby. The rate is not great, but it means we can fill up our tanks, get some food and get on our way. A sign directs us to the beginning of Ruta 40, a famous road that runs along the Andes and stretches for over 3000 Miles. They are planning to pave most of it but for now it is back to eating dust. Soon we are facing a 16.404 Ft pass and we have a bit of an argument about what we should do. Clouds are coming in on the horizon and I want to make it over the pass before the weather comes in. Azure and David have had enough and want to call it quits as we ride past an idyllic campsite. I push for riding the pass before setting up camp and reluctantly, they give in. 
Not quite from kilometer "0" but this where the fun starts! Ruta 40. In some sections they have a sign with the remaining distance every kilometer. Quite a tease if you have a couple of thousand k's to go to Ushuaia.

The road is back to back hairpins all the way up and the views are spectacular. The clouds look threatening though and we can’t wait to be going down again. The other side of “Abra del Acay”, the highest pass on Ruta 40 is different. The road up was good and wide enough for a truck. The road down is washed out, more like a track, with steep drop offs and to top it all off, strong gusts of wind. Azure is in heaven! (not) and I opt to turn down my headset as she expresses her frustration at me for pushing us over this pass. The going is slow and the steep drop offs are quite frightening. In some places the cliff next to the road has collapsed onto the road and we have a hard time getting by. Many stream crossings later we arrive at the ruins of some buildings. Just when we're about to set up camp a 4x4 stops and warns us to get out of there. “The rains that fall here will wash everything out” the driver says. Tired and exhausted and with the protection of the ruins, which, it seems, have stood their ground for many years, we decide to take our chances and we pitch our tents. Not long after the heavens open up.
Drying our gear after a night of heavy rains. It was nice to sleep in a house for a change ;)
We are thrilled to see blue skies in the morning and after drying our tents, we continue rolling down the pass. We come across some Frenchies that are going in the opposite direction on their bicycles. Respect! It is a beautiful day and the landscape is getting more colorful as we ride into a valley. Massive cacti are everywhere and the road conditions have improved dramatically. When a sign welcomes us to a wine region Azure is the happiest person on the planet.
The side of the road had collapsed in many places making it an "interesting" ride down.

Respect for the Frenchies!
Our kind of road...
Complete with colorful graveyards in the middle of nowhere.

We rode up and down this section 2 or 3 times... just because we could!
As close to heaven as Azure can get on Earth.
While David is digesting his first Argentinian "Asado", Azure answers questions about our journey.
She is less happy when we end up at a fast flowing river. We look at each other and conclude that this must be why the group of guys 5 kilometers back were shouting at us. Ok they had some beers in their hands but they obviously meant well. :) David heroically attempts to cross the first small obstacle. He makes it through but his bike almost completely disappears in the rushing water. “No way” I hear Azure say. David, upon returning from checking out the big crossing, has come to the same conclusion. We have lunch on the side of the road and back track to a bridge over the river. Just for the record, there were no signs. We fill up gas on the other side of the bridge and talk to big group of dirt bike riders that give us advice on how to continue. A car stops and a man comes walking towards us. “Is this yours?”, he asks, showing me my bush craft knife. What?!? No way. How did I loose that? Hold on… How did you find me?!? He says he found it on the road. I must have left it on my side case after lunch. But that was 10 miles ago! How did you know it was mine?!? Thankful, I accept my knife and put it back in its sheath...
Can we try them all!?!
We stop at a small, Belgium style, brewery in San Carlos before heading into Cafayate. The “Hecho mi Burro” beer is fabulous and the setting just perfect. After stocking up on a variety of "Burros" we ride into Cafayate to find a place to stay. We work on the bikes, taste some wines and have delicious empanadas. Friends of ours had recommended we ride a road leading Northeast out of town. With a few hours of daylight left, we marvel at some of the most spectacular landscapes we've ever seen. Deep purple and dark red rocks form the horizon and we just don’t know what to do with ourselves. Then David disappears in some sand dunes and we follow only to find the biggest smile on the face of one of our best friends. Happiness. Only a bike ride away!
Someone is excited about his first wine tasting tour ;)
So are we! Especially Azure as I am her DD :/
No better way to end the day than a sunset ride.
Argentina is surpassing expectations so far.
Looking for David ;)

Take that smile off your face!


Friday, September 16, 2016

The Lagunas Route

The bikes are heavily packed, ready for a multiple day adventure. We only just start riding out of Uyuni when we see a familiar car: The Nowhere Men, who we have come across many times in Peru have caught up with us. We talk for a while and Azure, upon hearing that the guys are looking for a fuel canister, happily donates her “barrel” to their good cause. It is noon when we finally ride out of town. 

Soon we are riding on dirt and we make one more stop at the last gas station we'll see for several hundred kilometers. Although there is nobody else there, the attendant is adamant that Azure rides her bike up to the pump from the correct direction. Are you kidding me!?! “Ok, stay calm”, I hear through the Sena. She rides her bike around and parks behind David’s, and once she's convinced that her kickstand will stay put on the downward slope, she begins to get off... but rather than stay planted on it's kickstand, the heavily-top-loaded Transalp follows her and winds up on top of her, nicking David's fender on the way down, thereby smashing her windscreen to pieces. Fortunately, David’s bike is ok. I give the man a look. “Are you happy now?” I am angry with the guy and Azure is feeling really bad for her bike and seems to be in a lot of pain herself since the Transalp landed on top of her on the concrete. Not the right mindset to start the Lagunas Route later on. But we fill up with some of the filthiest gas we have ever seen, have some lunch and get on our way.
A shattered world. What was left of Azure's windscreen. Let's hope we don't get too much wind from the front.
The landscape is barren but it is beautiful in its own way. We are just starting to enjoy the day again when David points at Azure’s front tire. It’s flat! It's her first time getting a flat while riding and we're all a little perplexed that she didn't notice it. We are not even on the Laguna’s Route and we already have a flat. David and I do a record job at changing the tube while 4x4’s race by, their tires throwing rocks in our direction. Finally, with enough excitement for one day under our belt already, we make it to our turn off. We deflate our tires and take one last deep breath before starting our 350km battle with the sand. The stories we've heard from David and other riders have ensured our blood is already pumping.
Nothing but starting a ride and having a flat before you even get to the tough part.
Tires deflated, all fueled up and ready to go! Bring on the sand!
Our worries are swept away as we're distracted by the beauty that surrounds us, and we mentally settle in to riding the loose sand and endless stretches of corrugations. We get to an intersection and we have no clue where to go. David has heard of this rock formation but he is not sure where it is exactly. We choose the track bending off to the right and soon plow our way past a small laguna with flamingos heading towards a red rock formation looming on the horizon.
This may just look like a lot of sand and some bushes but it is magical to ride here.

Especially when this is on the side of the road.
What does your feminine instinct say Azure, left or right?

The instinct (or David's GPS) said right and it took us through deep loose sand towards a moon-like rock formation in the distance.
From afar, the road appears to end at the red fortress of rocks but some bad weather seems to be closing in so we keep riding in search of a shelter from the storm. When we get closer, the road winds through the rock formation and we find a magical place, which we unanimously decide to call home for the night.
As we get closer to the rocks it looks more and more like a fortress.

Azure comes in a little bit later after striking up a conversation with the local flamingos.

"If you guys build me a table I'll cook dinner"! Deal on! Brought to you by Hepco&Becker, complete with faucet and sink! :)

Rio de Janeiro, Check!
My life does not get any better than this!
It takes a special girl to get out here in the middle of nowhere and share the warmth of a campfire.
We truly enjoy our new happy place and even consider staying for another day. But after climbing the rock formations by foot and bike and after filling up our tanks with “#%*#”, we get on the track again. Azure is much more confident today and even though the going is tough, the beautifully colored landscapes and cloud formations put a big smile on our faces. 
The alarm sounds off early this morning... and does not stop!
Our new favorite campsite!              
Get down here David! Yes, he is up there with his bike.

I can't believe we actually put this stuff in our tanks... Yes, we tried filtering it, but the filter didn't appear to capture anything... Oh Bolivia.
Another day in paradise.
Shortly after crossing through a town that has erected a toll-gate, we begin to climb up a steep mountain pass. The Twin has no trouble with the altitude but the Transalp refuses to go any further. With David's expertise, we check the air filter and the sparkplugs. The sparkplugs look terrible and we replace the 3 plugs that we can access easily. The air filter is absolutely choked with dirt and dust. How is it possible that I have not checked this for such a long time and let this happen? After a little roadside TLC we try to start the bike again. She starts right up and sounds a hell of a lot better. Completely exhausted because of the altitude, we get back on our bikes and ride up the pass. Have I mentioned how stunning this place is?!? WOW!

If ever you get a chance to ride with David... Try to keep him with you for as long as you can...;) Not only is he an all-around great guy, but you won't find someone with a better attitude towards flats and breakdowns and the other "bumps" of overland travel. Nevermind that he's a whiz mechanically. Thanks for your help buddy!
David's "2 cents" were definitely worth more than that.
Azure and I are both rolling our Sena cameras all the time yet somehow we managed to miss this little spill!
Azure 1 - David 1 - Roel 0
When we get to Laguna Colorado, one of the highlights of the Lagunas Route, the smiles literally get washed away when the clouds open up and lightning streaks across the sky. The “red” laguna is not even visible. It is cold and we feel miserable so we start looking for a place to camp. Not far from the laguna we come across a canyon. We consider the risks of flash flooding for a while but with no other place to hide from the winds we ride in and find a nice flat spot atop a rock and settle in for the night. 

Epic landscape, but no fun riding through this kind of weather.
The next morning we sit on the rock, sipping coffee and soaking up the sun while we watch our gear dry. David says; “Life does not suck!" And he is right. How blessed are we to be out here, doing what we love best, all by ourselves, enjoying nature. With a blue sky over our heads we backtrack to Laguna Colorado and even though, because of the season, it does not show its red color, there is a pink hue on the horizon formed by thousands of flamingos foraging in the water.
The sun brought out this beautiful smile after being miserable and cold all night.
After a night of rain the weather is looking promising this morning.
This little canyon turned out to be the perfect hide-out for the night.
What a magical place!
Just when you are enjoying peace in the middle of nowhere, two of those damned bikers show up! ;)
We leave the laguna behind us and start riding to a customs checkpoint. We want to check our bikes out of Bolivia here since the border crossing we’ll take further south tends to be unmanned and David had encountered a problem with this during his last ride through the Lagunas Route. We wait a few hours for the official to come back from lunch. When he finally shows up he makes quick work of our papers and informs us the migration office will be closed until 4 PM tomorrow due to elections. Great! Oh well, it just means we have to spend some more time in this little peace of heaven. 
No words can describe...
The best 180 I ever made. Somehow I lost a Gobi in the process... Damn that was a slippery road.
Azure 1 - David 1 - Roel 1
As you can see, waiting 2 hours for the border official at a border that we are not really checking out at was a highlight of my experience on the Lagunas Route.
This "homeless guy" had made himself comfortable outside the customs office. ;)
Don't you know it is dangerous to stop in the middle of the road on top of a hill?!?
Ok, I get it. What a view!
In a small settlement, we find a natural hot spring. It does not take long before we are out of our gear and enjoying the warm water. We buy some more water so we don’t have to ration it while we wait for the officials to open the border the next day. As the sun starts to set we ride past “Dali’s Rocks”. They look completely out of place in the sandy desert-like landscape. The colors of the mountains change every minute with the setting sun and we are beside ourselves when we find an old animal pen made out of rocks in which we can set up our tents and enjoy the spectacle, with a little shelter from the raging wind.
 A nice hot spring is all you need after a couple of days on the Laguna's Route.
Dali's Rocks in the distance.
This definitely is my kind of art!
And we get to camp in the painting.
The morning is filled with making coffee and bannock bread. We have time to kill so why not. For my first attempt, it turned out pretty well. We wish our supplies allowed us to stay longer and explore more of this amazing region but we have to make our way back to civilization. We ride around Laguna Verde, a green lake with a majestic Volcano in the background, before we head for the border crossing just down the road. 
Bannock bread for breakfast. A big thank you to my brother for giving me this recipe 7 years ago!
A good place to stitch some gloves.
We might as well be riding through some African desert here.
How the vicunas manage to live out here is still a riddle to me.
We kept the best for last. Welcome to Laguna Verde!
What a ride to get here! But it was worth every country and every kilometer.
Ever seen a horizontal rainbow before?
The last miles of dirt, dust and corrugations!
The border official upon seeing the map: "You guys have got to be crazy"!
Welcome to Chile!
The officials love what we are doing and in seconds our passports are stamped out and we are about to be on our way when Azure realizes her tire has gone completely flat, again. We quickly change the tube in the shade of the building and head for the border and pavement, Azure leading the way. After days of loose sand and corrugations we share our excitement over our Sena intercoms. It has been an unforgettable ride. We are both thankful to have been here with our bikes and with one of our best friends. On the top of a hill we see a road sign. Almost there! We survived the Laguna’s Route! With only 400 feet of dusty dirt to go I’m just chatting it up over the intercom when I hear Azure yell: “Wooaaah, Auw”!