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El Tanque: A Russian Conquest of Latin America

Having recently left Bolivia and entered Chile, I was astonished by even more incredible snowcapped volcanoes and breathtaking vistas that had me constantly stopping in admiration. In this region of South America, many of these high-altitude alkaline or saline lakes host flocks of Andean Flamingos. For another two days, I was able to enjoy this barren paradise before making my way to Antofagasta along the coast of Northern Chile, where I managed to catch the Dakar Rally.

Having recently left Bolivia and entered Chile, I was astonished by even more incredible snowcapped volcanoes and breathtaking vistas that had me constantly stopping in admiration. In this region of South America, many of these high-altitude alkaline or saline lakes host flocks of Andean Flamingos. For another two days, I was able to enjoy this barren paradise before making my way to Antofagasta along the coast of Northern Chile, where I managed to catch the Dakar Rally.

Photo Credit: Tyler Keys

Tyler Keys
April 4, 2013
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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I looked at the steep slope in front of me, littered with large boulders, deep ruts and debris, and wondered how I’d gotten myself into such a mess. I had already walked up the trail to check if my big Ural would make it around one particularly large boulder in the center of the narrow path. It was going to be close; I would need to veer the sidecar’s wheel over the edge of the track in order to squeeze by. Without waiting any longer, so I didn’t scare myself out of it, I started up the engine, made sure the bike was in 2-wheel drive and opened up the throttle.

Hitting the incline in second gear, the Ural easily blasted up the hill without losing any speed. The flawless tenacity of the 2-wheel drive kept the bike in the line I was aiming for as I weaved around the stones and rode over the branches strewn in my path. There was a split second of trepidation as I went around the largest boulder, the sidecar’s wheel dipping off the track as I swerved, then elation as I brought it back in line and crested the peak.

Riding through Mexico turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, especially after hearing and reading the countless horror stories. Never once in that alluring and charming country did I ever feel threatened. The people were always welcoming, and Mexico has such a wide variety of habitats and terrain to explore that one could easily meander through it for several months without getting bored.

Riding through Mexico turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, especially after hearing and reading the countless horror stories. Never once in that alluring and charming country did I ever feel threatened. The people were always welcoming, and Mexico has such a wide variety of habitats and terrain to explore that one could easily meander through it for several months without getting bored.

I continued riding along the rough track, going down the hill, around a tight bend and then approaching a small river. As I got nearer, I realized that I had a problem: the rustic concrete bridge used to cross the river was covered by a massive mound of dirt that had been dumped on it. Going into the river was an absolute no-go—it was sunken down several feet and the banks were entirely too steep to traverse the river. Turning around was not an option either. Before the hill I had just climbed, I had barely made it through a long patch of thick mud. On such a remote track where I hadn’t seen anyone for some time, I wasn’t about to try my luck in the deep mud again. Fortunately, I had a solution: the Ural’s standard-issue shovel, which I had stowed inside the sidecar’s trunk. Three hours of digging later, drenched in sweat, I rode over the newly cleared bridge and crossed the river. Soon afterwards, I was on a dirt road wide enough for big trucks; I had stumbled back on the “main” road.

That happened in Honduras. I had crossed into the country from El Salvador via a remote checkpoint earlier that day. At that point, I had been riding for about 2-1/2 months, having started from my hometown in California and traveling through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador. My plan was to go all the way down to Ushuaia. I still had a very long way to go. Over the course of my trip, I had received an unbelievable amount of attention. The big Ural and its sidecar, covered in gear and perpetually filthy, was an object of curiosity and intrigue. Everywhere I went, people would stop what they were doing and gawk. At checkpoints, the police and military officials always wanted to have a look at the Ural and ask me about it. Getting held up for photos was also a constant occurrence.

It took me about nine months to get down to Ushuaia, and in that time I rode more than 17,000 miles. With the maximum speed of the Ural being around 55 mph, I typically got bored on paved roads, so I explored plenty of off-road routes, especially in Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Throughout all of my off-road adventures and shenanigans, I found the Ural to be remarkably durable. I was riding a 2007 Gear-Up and, when it was in 2-wheel drive, the thing was absolutely unstoppable. After getting through a particularly nasty section of road in Colombia, the locals who had helped me nicknamed my motorcycle “El Tanque.” From that point onwards, the name stuck: The Tank.

Despite my moments of doubt, when faced with unmovable boulders, un-navigable rivers and seemingly impassable bridges, I was incredibly happy and, on several occasions, shocked at what the Ural could handle. And even though I nearly lost it when the bike’s final drive packed in and was expensive to fix, I’d have to say that it is a very tough machine. As long as the track is wide enough and the water crossing isn’t too deep, it can handle a surprising amount of abuse.

After a fun-filled day of getting gleefully lost amongst the muddy tracks in the southern portion of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, I stumbled across Playa Coyote, a remote beach that boasted breathtaking views with hardly a soul around. To top it off, there was a local family nearby serving freshly cooked seafood and ice-cold beer from their home. The perfect end to a perfect day.
There is an incredible array of dirt tracks in Peru. Some of my favorites were in and around the Cordillera Blanca Mountains. Of the many routes available to enter the Cordillera Blanca, I decided to take the gravel road that went through the Cañon del Pato (Duck Canyon). Leaving the coastal highway, the lonely road enters a dreary arid desert landscape where not a soul was visible. I gradually gained elevation, riding along a gravel road that weaved amongst crumbling rocky outcrops and occasionally passing by small-scale coal mines with workers covered head to toe in black soot. When I entered the incredibly constricted confines of the canyon, I went through more than 40 roughly blasted tunnels. Halfway down one of the dark shafts, as I rounded a bend, I came face to face with a big dump truck. I’d never been as happy as I was at that moment to have a reverse gear on the Ural.
There are plenty of opportunities for some exhilarating off-roading in Costa Rica, including the ride around Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. The track into Corcovado from Carate was 40 kilometers of superb dirt and mud with some exciting steep slopes, plenty of tight bends and no less than 13 river crossings. At this particular one, there had been a brief, intense downpour only moments before.
In Colombia, when I took a “shortcut” along the route between Mompos and El Banco, I found myself at a point where the road simply dead-ended. For locals on their smaller motorcycles there was a path, which I took, only to discover that it led to a narrow bridge constructed of roughly hewn wooden planks. Underneath the planks was a tract of deep swamp. With the help of a couple I was riding with that day, along with some friendly locals who pulled up, we managed to scavenge around for some more planks for the sidecar’s wheel and balanced it precariously on bits of shrubbery that were growing out of the water, inching the motorcycle along them while the others tried to hold the wood underneath the sidecar wheel and direct me. One false move and the sidecar would’ve plunged into the water.
When I was in Bolivia, a new law had recently been introduced stating that foreign-plated vehicles could only purchase fuel from specially licensed fuel stations. Of course, very few stations have that “special” license, and when I was passing through Challapata, neither of the two stations in town would sell me fuel. So I had to hunt around and content myself with some black market fuel I found being sold on the outskirts of town.
Approaching this high mountain pass in between Huancavelica and Lago Choclocacha, Peru, I had the pleasure of enjoying this never-ending expanse of stunning scenery all by myself. On the several occasions I stopped the bike and turned off the engine, not a sound could be heard. It was one of the most serene rides of my entire trip.
In Bolivia, I stumbled across some of the most enjoyable, as well as some of the roughest, off-road riding in South America. In southern Bolivia, I made the mistake of taking the dirt road that runs between Challapata and Uyuni (NOT via Potosi). It turned out to be the most horribly corrugated road I’d ever ridden in my life. It was tiring and frustrating, and I completely underestimated the time it would take to complete the 120-mile stretch, during which a flat tire didn’t help. At the same time though, the high desert panorama I rode through was nothing short of spectacular. The myriad hues of browns, oranges and reds reflected the diverse landscape all around me: lofty bluffs and buttes, winding river beds and depressions, diverse species of shrubs and cacti all under an endless crystal blue sky. I passed by remote settlements and had to stop for wandering herds of inquisitive alpaca. And, of course, there was one of the most sublime sights of South America: the Salar de Uyuni—the world’s largest salt flat.
After getting incredibly bored riding through the largely flat and mundane desert region of Northwest Argentina, I woke up one morning and decided to take the next available pass over the Andes. Paso Agua Negra was no different from the many other Andean mountain roads I’d ridden through in its unparalleled beauty and fantastic isolation. Not long after entering Chile, I found myself riding along a broad valley blanketed with vineyards. I originally thought they were for wine production, but after stopping at what I thought was a small fruit stand, I immediately learned that I was in one of the largest Pisco (grape brandy) producing regions in the world: The Elqui Valley.
After over 17,400 miles, 10 (yes, TEN) flat tires, one blown up final drive, a wrecked clutch, one stripped head bolt, a carbon-encrusted exhaust valve and countless hours of near constant maintenance, quick fixes, minor breakages, rain storms, gale force winds, rabid dogs and suicidal cows/donkeys/llamas/chickens, from sea level to over 16,000 feet, on road, off road, rivers, mud, deserts, jungles and mountains, I had finally reached the end: Lapataia, about 12 miles southwest of Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego National Park. I could ride no further south in the Americas. Would I do it all again? Without a shadow of a doubt.

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