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High-altitude pistesSOUTH AMERICA


High-altitude pistes

Article published in Fuoristrada magazine in 2004.

Question: can one of the most beautiful areas in the world also offer the opportunity to drive for days on dirt roads crossing passes at more than 4000m, admiring salt lakes populated by pink flamingos and crossing suggestively monochrome deserts? Before answering, take a quick look at the images.

Read the story published in the magazine.

My debut in the magazine is certainly not one of the simplest. I am definitely not, nor can I be defined as an off-roader, but in my travels, I think I have been lucky enough to travel some of the most beautiful unpaved roads in the world and what I am going to present to you is certainly as objective beauty, memories, sensations, difficulty my favorite. Surely the most interesting and evocative stretch of the South American experience journey, which took me from the north of Argentina, passing through the north of Chile to Bolivia. So roads, open to traffic, sometimes non-existent, bypassing passes at more than 4,000m
The motorbike? A very normal Gs 1150 Adventure as standard with stock bags, luggage and on which he will put 2 spare tires, given that once you cross the border it will be practically impossible to find covers of this size. The de Sico pass is certainly the most spectacular way to leave the north of Argentina towards Chile.
“El tren a las nubes” is one of the most famous and evocative railway routes on the continent and broadly follows the road I am going to take. It all starts from San Antonio de los Cobres which welcomes me with an extraordinary light and a wind to knock down a mule as they say in Patagonia. From here to get to the border only 140km of off-road vehicles but 90, the last really challenging. The bike will float frantically and continuously in a soft talcum-powder sand without considering the wind that, in the last 20km, will accompany me to the Argentine border point.
They tell me that the wind is very strong! No, I can't do it !!
You travel at more than 4000m, between colored mountains and immense salt lagoons!
The landscape is of an extraordinary, incomparable, unique beauty.
At the Chilean frontier control, after an exaggerated phytosanitary check I am invited to lunch and informed about the weather conditions: Aeolus has decided to stop his furious hyperventilation !! Even the road, within the limits of a track at 4000m altitude (there are still 250km to go to the finish), albeit without any indication, improves. There will still be salares, dazzling colors and pink flamingos. The next day I decide to leave Atacama, but I'm really tired, I'm Passo de Sico has really crushed me.
I drive for an hour in this desert and after less than 80km I stop in absolute nothingness, I lie down in the desert and remain in contemplation of nowhere, in the hope that the heat will give me a little desire and some more energy. The stop will be made in Chui-Chui where yet another dirt road begins in the direction of Bolivia, another 400km of unknowns, with the interlude of the attempted visit to Chuquicamata.
I'm out of time. I will try again on my return.
Chui-Chui, one of the most beautiful oases in the Atacama desert, with its colonial church from 1611, the oldest in Chile. I will find hospitality in a kind of parish that houses the mentally ill from nearby Calama. It is about 5.00 pm and in less than 3 minutes they arrange a bed for me which I immediately test, losing the opportunity to photograph the church !! On Chiu Chiu's evening in the restaurant run by an affable, ruddy kind lady, who in the end will also give me some toasted corn for the trip, one of the sons informs me that I can free myself about 40 km of dirt road along an asphalted mining road and then join further north on the main one for Bolivia. The sly. Too bad that the bridge that should join the 2 banks of the river is barred, then it is unsafe.

Thanks to the help of the construction site workers, I will be able to ford the river further upstream, placing a series of boards between the two banks. The structural test of the improvised bridge will be carried out by myself plus 3 of the improvised friendly engineers.
Yes, I pass.
Eventually hugs and kisses. Way to Bolivia.
The salt pans and the chromatic effects follow one another with impressive continuity.
In Ollague, a classic border post, I immediately had the distinct feeling that the advice received on the possibility of finding fuel is absolutely a dream, an unattainable chimera! I ask, there is no gas station, in fact it has always been a problem here. I begin a slow, patient, obligatory search, which will lead me to meet after 3 visits to Chile, the first arrogant, arrogant and also rather rude soldier, who in no uncertain terms tells me that the problem is mine, mine alone and that the sale of fuels without the issue of recibo (the receipt !!! Do you have any idea where Ollague is?) is in fact punishable. I would like to ask with what.
I am incredulous as well as 208km from Uyuni and 185 from Calama with no more than 80-90km of autonomy.
Traffic up to that point? 0, zero, nada.
Eventually the situation will be resolved by Federico, the railway handyman of this remote corner of Chile. From a miraculous, fantastic, appropriate red bin with the inscription: SUPER 97 oct. From there we will take out the sustenance for my pregnant filly, pouring it with a tube, as well as swallowing a fair amount that in the days to come will drag my interlocutors into the most mere despair.
I'm finally ready to leave, but to go where?
I see myself literally forced to invent the road. A track should unroll under the wheels, no asphalt at these altitudes and in this area (as usual I would add, otherwise you would not read me on these pages), shown on the maps as a state road, the 701 to be exact. The words of the customs clerk who advised me to reach the collective (bus) which had left half an hour earlier, magically begin to take on an alarming meaning: the road disappears, disappearing.
Nothing, a trace, or rather more traces, without any reference, apart from some signal, represented by a white stone skilfully camouflaged at ground level, which cleverly merges with the salty reverberation.
Nothing! Only a few jeeps to ask for information and the usual bus that I reach but which I systematically lose by stopping to take pictures, so much so that I find it behind me after a couple of hours.
My relationship with the Uyuni salar began a few years ago with a visual shock, which then lasted for days, which took place in a photographic magazine.
I remember that it was love at first sight “one day I'll go there, maybe on a motorbike”, realizing very well the difficulties. It is logical that when, after almost 200km from the border, I arrive there, my reaction is that of a child to whom they have given an unexpected but desired gift for a long time. To reach Uyuni, half of the day I have to cross it !!
I walk a few kilometers on an embankment and then the road descends to the plain, the afternoon is pushing the sun towards the horizon.
Lights. Incredible lights!
The view sweeps into infinite nothingness, never again full of meanings: the white of the salt, the blue of the sky and the shadow of the motorcycle.

I feel a man, lonely, lucky and stupidly happy.
I am at almost 3700m above sea level, in the largest flat expanse in the world with its 12106 square km. The show is great.
I will spend 3 days in what I consider to be one of the most incredible, spectacular, evocative, fantastic places I have ever visited.
But Bolivia has other wonders in store for its visitors, extraordinary, unique at times dramatic and still a few hundred km of invigorating off-road vehicle, even if the arrival in Potosì is certainly the easiest part from the point of view of driving the entire path shown here.
Potosì, already, the city that contributed to the rise of capitalism in Europe.
It is practically impossible to talk about the dispossession process of South America without talking about Potosì. When the Spaniards arrived in the Inca empire, Peru was no longer the coveted land of gulf. The gold and silver deposits were soon exhausted. It was therefore in the upper Peru, Bolivia in fact, that the Spaniards hit the mark, won the lottery, found the ace in all! In 1545 they started the exploitation of the red mountain of Potosì located at an altitude of 4000m: the largest silver deposit in the history of mankind !!
Many recognize that Diego Hualpa, the Quechua native of Cuzco who discovered the silver of Cerro Rico, opened Pandora's box with it. He probably did not realize what he would have unleashed when he revealed his discovery of him in Centano, one of the many Spanish adventurers of the Pizarro era.
Sumaj Orcko, the most beautiful mountain, as the Quechua called it, turned out to be such a fabulous mine that CarloV in 1555 elevated Potosì to the rank of imperial city. The vein in the 3 centuries of exploitation would have produced enough to pave a 2-lane road to Madrid with silver!
The Spaniards rightly nicknamed it Cerro Rico, a rich hill. At the end of the sixteenth century. Potosì with 160,000 inhabitants, it had become the largest city in America and was more important than Paris and London. Historians agree on one point: the flow of silver from the Potosì mines to Europe was the "sine qua non" for the development of capitalism, but at what prices! The machine of nascent capitalism was fueled by the sacrifice of thousands and thousands of Indians and later black slaves.
How many were the dead?
"What does it matter" replied the European sovereigns, very happy with this mountain of silver that twice led to bankruptcy the kingdom of Spain, which went into debt and squandered with holes in it, so much so that in the end the real beneficiaries were the countries of northern Europe .
A process that can be defined as "original accumulation of capital", an unimaginable injection of liquids equivalent to 50 billion dollars, a value updated to 1970 (30,000 tons, but some say it was almost 45,000 !!), all of which, among the 16th and 19th centuries!
Given the size of the European economy of the time, it largely corresponded to several "Marshall plans".
How many were the dead? Always the same question.
The approximate calculation goes up to the frightening figure of 8 million !!!
A genocide that saw victims, Aymarà Indians, Quechua and blacks imported from Africa with the slave trade.
The “mita” was forced and free labor performed in shifts in mines in appalling conditions. Every year tens of thousands of Indians and slaves died of exhaustion or poisoned by the fumes of mercury used in the processing of silver. Yet the system and the name "myth" had been copied from the myth of the Incas. But while the children of the sun were required to work 2 or 3 years for their master, a sort of royal tax, the Spaniards organized gigantic exodus of the population from the Quechua and Aymarà communities of the valleys and the plateau.The peasants were forced to become miners. With the lands now without arms, the fragile ecosystem of the highlands was irreparably destroyed and the entire economy of the region was concentrated around Potosì.
It is clear that the miners worked underground until they died, other than "Mita Inca" !!
Soon men had to be imported from Africa due to a shortage of manpower! The silver from the mines gave greatness to Spain and gave rise to its fabulous palaces, especially in Seville where the House of Contratacion was located, leading the waltz of silver, slaves and goods.
The European economy in full expansion thanks to the "cash flow" provided by America, then generate a new capitalism.
Things are probably explained differently in the economics faculty!
At the time, Potosì was the American Byzantium.
It is evident, and many historians say so, that the Eldorado was Potosì.
It wasn't worth going to look for him in the Amazon! The exploitation went on until the mid-eighteenth century, when the mountain whose deposits seemed infinite, began to suffer the blows of exploitation until it was exhausted. Others were discovered in Peru and Mexico and Potosì rapidly declined, so much so that in the first half of the 19th century it was reduced to only 10,000 inhabitants.
The mines are still in operation.
The charm of Potosì is, in my opinion, irresistible. Difficult, very difficult to remain numb.
I will return after a visit, albeit very quick, to Sucre and I would stay there even longer if I do not have to continue the journey. There is still a long way to go.

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