- Tim Notier
Looking for an epic motorcycle route through some of the most remote landscapes of South America? Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile via Lagunas Route is the route for you and should be on every Adventure Motorcyclist’s bucket list!
It is known to be difficult, especially for large motorcycles, and there are no gas stations, towns, restaurants, or any other amenities for over 400 miles of desert landscapes. The route is rugged, cold, beautiful, and will surely test your limits. But some of the most rewarding memories are earned after pushing your limits, the bike’s limits, and overcoming the challenges that you face along the way.
There are a few options to choose from to traverse the remote southwest region of Bolivia: an eastern track said to be easier with less sand, and a western route that was more difficult, but also believed to be more picturesque. Of course, we chose to take the western route. The last outpost before the Lagunas Route was a town called Culpina K, a good place to stock up with several days’ worth of food, water, and as much gasoline that you can carry. A five-liter plastic bottle filled with gas along with a matching five liters of water was strapped to the bike, as they are both equally important for the 3 days it takes to ‘comfortably’ cross the Lagunas Route.
The first day started with compacted dirt roads, but after a few hours of easy riding, we turned off the main gravel road to head south and started to ascend. Our new route turned into a rutted passage filled with large rocks I had to dodge while keeping enough momentum to crawl up the steep hills. It was definitely a high-clearance vehicle path, and my bash plate kept grinding against massive stones which I didn’t avoid in time. But we steadily made our way up the terrain and onto a high-elevation altiplano where we found ourselves staring out at snow-capped mountains in the distance.
From our vantage point on top of the altiplano, it seemed like we were looking down at an aerial map in a fantasy book. As I spun around 360 degrees, I saw different terrain, from mountains and lagoons to deserts and canyons. I envisioned titles in a large papyrus font hovering above the land, reading, “The Marshes of Madness” or “Canyons of Solitude,” with small towns that spread across the domain with names like “Broken Shield” and “Widow’s Keep.”
It was as if we were living out our own Choose Your Own Adventurebook, and I was quite satisfied with my choices so far. I had successfully managed to avoid the page that read: “You chose wrong. Your adventure ends here.” We continued down the corrugated road that cut through a flat desert with ten miniature Mount Fuji lookalike mountains surrounding us. We passed a pink lagoon and breathed in the strong sulfuric air that overwhelmed our noses and stung our eyes. It felt as if we were on one of the moons of Saturn, exploring its exotic alien surface on our lunar rovers, complete in our astronaut-like suits of gear.
The only negative of our amazing ride were the sandy washboard roads that shook me to my bones. It wasn’t the most difficult road we had been on but riding for hours on bumpy corrugations of slippery sand was uncomfortable, plus it was terrible for the bikes. I imagined all the bolts on my motorcycle slowly turning counterclockwise from the never-ending vibrations. The only way to avoid the worst of the corrugations in the center of the road was to ride along the very edges, but that was where the sand was the loosest, causing me to fishtail uncontrollably in complete fear. All I could do was concentrate on staying upright and try not to wipe out in a cloud of dust and sand.
That night, we pitched our tents next to the lagoon with flamingoes in what was extremely barren and hostile terrain. At an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet, the wind was so intense that strong gusts nearly upended my tent while constantly blowing sand into my eyes. As I sat down shivering over the stove to make hot water for tea and coffee, I could barely flex my fingers and saw that the skin around my nails was bleeding because they were so dry.
But the extreme weather came with an exceptionally beautiful panorama. Massive mountains and volcanic rocks encased the strangely colored lagoon where we camped. Far in the distance was Cerro Tomasamil, just one of many perfectly cone-shaped mountains that surrounded us. But this particular mountain had a flat-disked lenticular cloud hovering above its peak like a giant UFO. It out of this world landscape couldn’t have been more fitting. After a hot meal, we into our tent to get out of the wind to retain enough body heat to go to sleep comfortably.
Day two of the Lagunas Route started off with more of the same washboard roads for hours on end, but after successfully navigating through another bout of ruts and rocks, we bumped our way along windswept valleys of sand between colorful mountains. The terrain was becoming more desert-like the farther south we went, and we passed more lagoons of pink and blue amid the reds and grays of the rocky wilds. In the middle of the afternoon, we entered the Valle de las Rocas, or Valley of the Rocks, and twisted through what seemed to be an art exhibit of sandstone sculptures created solely by nature. The large stones had eroded into strange shapes carved by wind, sand, and time. The results were like Magic Eye illusions, in that if you stared at them long enough, a full sailboat or an M4 Sherman tank would materialize, or one of the simpler formations like the Árbol de Piedra; a sandstone pillar with a wide top that resembled a 22-foot tall, deep-fried elm tree.
It was a stunning landscape that we could have taken in for hours, but there was a fairly strict schedule to keep to based on the limited amount of food and water that we were able to carry. After lunch, Marisa and I slowly made our way towards the campsite pinned on our maps. That was when we hit the worst stretch of sand of the entire route. It was a mixture of deep sand and finely crushed volcanic rock, and it was impossible to distinguish visually between the firmer, compact sections and the loose, bike-swallowing segments. It looked like the soil in a farmer’s field that’s just been turned by a gigantic plow, leaving behind two-foot-tall trenches on the sides of narrow paths. I had to pick a channel and hope it wouldn’t turn into fine dust that would make me wipe out, and changing “lanes” was nearly impossible because of the height of the mounds on either side.
It was a stimulating ride through fantastic scenery as we continued through the endless stretch of madness. I kept dropping the bike as it flipped from side to side like a fish out of water, and it was beginning to take a physical and mental toll on me. What was only supposed to take us four hours took us over six, and we all knew that we needed to get to the wild campsite before the sun set.
Finally, we pulled off the road and into an isolated canyon just south of Laguna Colorada and went to sleep early in order to give ourselves as much time as possible to make it to the border the following day. The night was cold, silent, and dark, as if time itself had frozen on our remote moon of Saturn.
The third day was to be our last on the Lagunas Route, and the day that we would cross into Chile. But we knew that there were still major challenges ahead. The usual morning chitchat was replaced by solemn silence as I decided between using the last of our water to make coffee or saving it for later. I figured we deserved a hot cup of coffee before filling up my tank with the last of the gas that I had.
It was slow progress, but we made our way towards the Chilean border. Sulfuric steam drifted out of mud pits and caverns as we passed the Sol de la Mañana geysers. The colorful earth was just as cracked and scarred by the dry air as our lips and faces
But the closer we got to the border, the more intense the winds became. It was brutal up there, and the wind cut straight through the layers of my jacket, causing me to shiver the entire ride. Our spirits and hopes rose to new levels when we saw the Chilean customs office. I pulled into the building, which was shaped like an airport hangar, and knew that we had made it through the worst of it.
Marisa and I looked at each other, both of our faces red from sunburn and with flaky skin, and I noticed that bits of moisture around our watery eyes and running noses had dried into white crusts. We looked like we had just been through the pits of hell.
It was a surreal experience that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. The memories made in a land full of volcanos, canyons, and colorful lakes will not soon be forgotten.
We can't thank our subscribers enough for all of the support, kind words, and feedback as we create content while meandering around the world!
- Tim Notier
♫ Raindrops on helmets while riding through jungles
Bright sunny days that make us feel humbled
Tight gravel roads that twist through hillsides
These are a few of our favorite rides. ♫
Marisa and I have had the wonderful opportunity of riding through some fascinating places. And as we look forward to our next journey into a far away land, we are taking a glance back at a few of our favorite places that we have already explored. And I think the number one contender, in a very particular order, is our ride through the Bolivian Salt Flats!
We hope that you enjoy the ride down memory lane alongside us!
The Bolivian salt flats are the largest in the world and can be seen from space. But we were ground level to the wonders that they held and were excited to ride across such a surreal landscape. This adventure had been long awaited, and Marisa and I were in good company with our newfound friends Brendon and Kira that we had met while traveling through Peru.
The four of us headed to an entrance to find that the salt flats were surrounded by a wide moat of salty water. Just beyond our reach, across our newest obstacle, was a view to what seemed to be an endless stretch of flat, dry salt spreading all the way to the horizon.
Thousands of tire tracks spread out in every direction, but there was no way to determine where to go once out in the open. We wanted to find the mirrored section, where a thin, one-centimeter layer of water collects on the surface, transforming it into a massive reflective mirror that makes for jaw-dropping, dreamlike photos. But once out there in the endless landscape, it was hard to navigate anywhere, and our routing apps weren’t much help as there were no roads to guide us from point A to point B.
We just had to pick a cardinal direction and follow it. There was a large area to cover, more than 4,000 square miles, but we hoped to get lucky as we rode across the hexagonal patterns of salt on the otherwise featureless surface.
There are a couple of “islands” in the middle of the gigantic region, and we all agreed to make our way towards them. So, we picked a mountain on the horizon and kept it between the handlebars until we were close enough to adjust our bearings.
I watched the needle of my dash-mounted compass bounce around as we maintained a northwest course. A warm feeling of comfort overtook me when I glanced at the compass to verify that we were still on track. It was a gift from a fellow world traveler, Christian Vogel, who had stayed with us in our house near Chicago five years prior. Our dreams of adventure were only in their infancy at that point, and over the course of only five days, Christian shared his tales, troubles, and all the ups and downs of traveling the world by motorcycle. He urged us to set everything in motion and to dream big, never to second-guess our choices, and that we didn’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to do it.
While sharing stories of our own brief travels, it became apparent that I got lost frequently, and that Marisa absolutely hated the cold. So, on the day of his departure, he gave us his compass, which also had a thermometer.
“This is so you never get lost, and so that Marisa doesn’t get cold,” he stated.
It was tear-jerking stuff.
Now here I was, more than five years later, looking at his gift, using it to guide us in the direction of complete bliss. And like the golden compass it was, it led us to an area that was completely mirrored.
The horizon ahead of us was cut directly in half in a perfect mirror image. We entered the thin layer of water, and I pulled over to stare out in astonishment. I could barely tell where the land began, and the sky ended.
“Okay, this is pretty cool,” I said.
This was another time when riding with another couple proved invaluable. We traded cameras and took pictures of each other riding on what seemed to be marbled glass.
It felt like we were floating in oblivion, skating on a fantasy of ice and sky as we splashed through the dream-like landscape. It was a magical experience as we rode in wide figure eights through the mirror of clouds. We took our time in the abyss of reflection, jumping, skipping, doing cartwheels, riding in circles the entire time, never wanting the dream to end.
But as with all dreams, this too had to come to an end. We knew the salt water could not be good for our bikes and could see it already crystallizing over the engine. In fact, as we rode farther through the mirror, Brendon pulled us over to tell us that our exhaust pipe had completely crystallized over in salt. I looked at my tailpipe in shock as there was only a pinhole left for the exhaust to escape through. I took out my pliers and pulled the salt out like brittle teeth, trying to avoid having it fall deeper into the exhaust.
“Okay, let’s get out of here please,” I said after realizing that the dream was turning into a potential nightmare.
The water got deeper and murkier as we made our way towards a different exit. The last two miles was the equivalent of riding in ankle-deep sludge that was 99% salt. I slid around the muck, trying to keep the bike straight while praying I wouldn’t drop it. Everyone had enjoyed their experience, but now we all desperately wanted it to be over.
A tour bus drove ahead of us towards the exit, and it created deep gouges that I tried to keep my front tire between. I bounced around the ruts of the bus’s tracks and was completely terrified of wiping out at any moment.
The growing stress forced me to pull over, I had been white-knuckling the handlebars and just needed time to collect my nerves.
“This is really bad,” Brendon said as he pulled up next to me.
“I thought we were riding through heaven, but this is hell,” I replied.
“It looks like the exit is just over there,” Brendon said, pointing to where we could see cars parked in the distance.
A few miles farther, a peninsula of land emerged from the water, and I knew that the end of the pain was near, so we set off to get to dry land. Brendon and Kira were in the lead, and I was only concentrating on what was directly in front of me. When I looked up ahead, I noticed that the Haks had made it to dry land and had parked the bike. Brendon hopped off and ran towards me mouthing something while waving his hands above his head, but all I could hear was Axl Rose welcoming me to the jungle via the speakers in my helmet. I figured something was wrong, so I came to a stop and turned off my music as my front tire sank two feet into a massive trench of salty sludge.
“What were you saying?” I asked Brendon as I panicked.
“I was telling you not to go this way,” he replied. “But it’s too late now, there’s no going back.”
As Marisa jumped off the bike, she found herself nearly knee deep in salty sludge. The water was nearly up to the tailpipe as I entered the deepest part of the pool of salt. I gunned it to keep momentum, but the bike was sinking as I progressed forward. If there was one place in the world not to drop the bike, this was it. Marisa pushed from behind as I rode out of the cesspool that was an electronics-eroding and metal-corroding pond.
With both Marisa and Brendon now pushing, we successfully made it out of the salt pond and out of the Salar de Uyuni.
“Car wash,” I said more to myself than to anyone else. “We need to get to a car wash as soon as possible.”
“I’m beginning to think that wasn’t a good idea at all,” Marisa said.
The Bolivian Salt Flats had lived up to everything I could have imagined, and the memories will stay with us for the rest of our lives. One of the pictures that Kira Hak took is the cover of my last adventure motorcycle book, “Blood, Sweat, and Notiers.” We did encounter a few mechanical issues because of the ride, but like many of the struggles we had along the way, we wouldn’t alter any of our decisions. True adventure is trying, sometimes failing, seeing magical places in this world, and getting through the difficulties that all build up to a lifetime of memories!
It has been fun looking back at some of our favorite rides as we are in the final preparations of our next adventure. There has been so many wonderful memories made, and we are confident that there are just as many ahead of us.
Marisa and I can't thank you all enough for being a part of our journey, and we can't wait to share more memories from around the world!
Tim and Marisa Notier
With the bike not starting from our ride through Bolivia's salt flats, we were in a bit of a predicament. Our dear and wonderful friends who'd stayed by our sides throughout it all, Brendon and Kira Hak, were on the verge of overextending their visa in Bolivia, and needed to go. Unlike us, their bike was fully functional, and their plan was to take a difficult, but gorgeous route south and out of Bolivia: the Lagunas Route.
But as Tim and I found ourselves immobile in the town of Uyuni, we knew that if we didn't get our bike running before they had to leave, we would not want to do such a challenging road by ourselves with a questionable motorcycle. Our plans and dreams of riding the Lagunas Route were now falling apart.
So the pressure was on for Tim to fix the bike, and he needed to do it by 11:00 AM the next day, which was checkout time for the Haks and the latest possible moment before they had to leave.
Yes, it looks awesome: the mirror effect of the largest salt flats in the world during the wet season. But don't let the surreal image of us riding through the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia fool you, because it has rendered our motorcycle immobile.
The amazing photographers who took this shot are our friends Kira and Brendon Hak, the fellow KTM-riding duo called the Adventure Haks. We met up with them for Christmas in Sucre, Bolivia, and then headed south together a few days before this epic failure-of-a-ride.
We entered Bolivia a little more than a week ago, excited for this new country of dynamic culture, mountains, and jungle. And to celebrate the holidays, we wanted to be in the white-washed colonial city of Sucre to meet fellow motorcycle travelers and friends for Christmas. That gave us nine days to get there from the Peruvian border and see all the fantastic sites in between. So we were a little rushed, but it didn't seem to be an impossible task. At least in the beginning.
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