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The main purpose of this blog is as a permanent record of my adventures throughout the Americas by motorcycle. Feel free to comment or ask me any questions - I'm an open book.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Paraguay is country number 15 on this trip, so it's not a stretch to say that I've gotten used to border crossings and the usual bulls**t that comes with them. From the sour faced extremists who protect the USA from all those who dare enter, to the Venezuelans who seemed to forget that they were actually supposed to work for their government paycheck, to the Hondurans who were just plain out to take my money, I've seen it all. Or at least I thought I had.

Getting out of Bolivia was easy - the only delay was that the customs guy couldn't get the printer to work. I solved his problem pretty quickly (turned it on), and headed over to Paraguayan customs, where I was told I'd need 3rd party insurance to enter Paraguay. This is quite common at borders and a reasonable request when an insurance office is next door, as through Central America. However, there wasn't an insurance office for 50 miles. I tried the old "I'll get it at the next town" trick, to no avail. I asked where I could get insurance, and he pointed back into Bolivia and said that I could buy Bolivian insurance, which would work in Paraguay. He obviously had not been keeping track of current events, as Paraguay had been suspended from the Mercosur (an economic cooperative, on which the international insurance is based). In the end, I pulled out my not -yet-expired Colombian insurance and claimed it was good for all of South America.I doubt it was true but the paperwork didn't expressly say it was limited to Colombia, and the name of the insurance company was coincidentally "Sur America", so it worked out nicely. They bought it, and I was in. I just had to travel about 150kms through virtually uninhabited scrub to get to the immigration post.

Thankfully, the road was mainly tarmac, so I made good time. Unfortunately, the other part was soft - similar to talcum powder. I almost fell down the embankment once, as the back wheel came to life suddenly. I woke up the immigration lady (the post is 'open' 24hrs, as it's her house), got the fastest stamp and return of the trip, and got booted out the door practically into Filadelfia. I was riding at night at this point, but on good tarmac and on a road so straight I'd see a pair of headlights a full 6 minutes before they'd pass. I found the hotel I had wanted, got a cheap room and passed out on top of the bed.

Filadelfia is a weird town - to explain requires a bit of a background:

Mennonites came to Paraguay by way of Russia and Canada, fleeing socialism and standardised education respectively. They were invited to settle in the middle Chaco, in what was considered agriculturally unforgiving land (nicknamed the 'green hell'), and given the autonomy and freedoms they desired. Essentially, they went bush and no one expected them to make it. For a few decades it looked like they would struggle to survive, until American Mennonite communities sent their young men south to build a road to Asuncion and market. This was done as part of a deal with the US government to avoid being sent to war, as Mennonites are pacifists. With equipment & troops from the US and Paraguayan governments respectively, these men built the 480km road, securing the economic fortunes for the three colonies. With a strong work ethic, the farming cooperatives managed to grow from barely making a living to becoming the economic powerhouses of the country - to this day, if you buy beef, dairy or a dozen other products in Paraguay or neighbouring countries, it'll have been made by one of the cooperatives. They run a very modern operation, and live accordingly, although groups in Bolivia and Eastern Paraguay dress & live in a more traditional style (as do the nearby Amish).

I could go on a bit, but I'll wrap it up quickly - despite being fiercely independent people (with a dislike of socialism), they all (around 95%) work for the cooperative, which markets and sells the goods. It's like if AWB ran the local supermarket, hotel & petrol station. They have their own government, which is slowly ceding control to the Paraguayan government. At one point not long ago, they had their own police force, education system, helathcare and more, but that is slowly becoming integrated with the rest of the country.

I DEFINITELY prefer the way the Mennonites handle their towns over the other Paraguayans. The streets were clean (as clean as dirt streets can be), safe and friendly. When the horn went off at 0700 to signal the start of the workday, you could be confident that everything was open, ready and able to help. The supermarket was so clean I would have no problems eating the really fresh produce off the floor, and the hardware store had everything I needed, and more (Jack and Annette, check out what I found below!). Worryingly, this is only really apparent in towns or businesses that are led or managed by people of European descent or Expats. The difference is palpable, and exists across Latin America - the higher the Expat population, the cleaner (and generally safer) the city. I wish it weren't true, but there it is. I love a siesta as much as anybody, but when your relaxed attitude extends to rubbish disposal - then you and I are going to have problems. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, (in Colombia it seemed to be in reverse) but for the most part it holds true.

After a day of relaxing and buying bolts and pieces for Izzy (I kept returning for more obscure bits and pieces, and they always had them in stock - better than Bunnings!), I headed for the museum to learn about how exactly a group of ancient German-speaking Canadians happened to settle in Paraguay. The museum curator spoke Spanish and German, but as soon as he found out I spoke English first, he insisted I returned the next day for a personal tour with the tourism office manager, who (amongst other languages) spoke English. When I returned at 0715 (the horn would wake even the heaviest sleeper), I got the whole lot - the history of the Mennonites & the Fernheim colony (in the Chaco there's also the Neuland and Menno colonies), a tour of the gardens and the indigenous history and a collection of local animals - turns out I had nearly run over an actual roadrunner the other day. The Chaco is the southernmost reach of the territory of the Jaguar, of which I'm very glad - they may be rare, but knowing that there's something out there at night that can hunt and kill you for food is disconcerting.

I headed out for Asuncion on a Sunday, despite the online warnings that everything (including petrol stations) are closed on the Sabbath. While predetermined Mennonite working hours exclude Sunday (and you've got no hope of an open supermarket), those laws don't apply to places such as hotels and gas stations. The Mennonite community recognised a long time ago that it was pointless to hold out against society, and if you can imagine a small country town in Oz (or Midwest US), then you can imagine the Chaco colonies. Essentially, most things I'd need (gas, food and lodging) were open everyday, and whenever I'd need. Although I probably needed a separate road.

It wasn't that the road was bad - it was pretty much all asphalt, and in good nick too. It was just that everyone else was out to get me. The title for worst drivers in Latin America is a hotly contested battle, with many countries offering reasons why they should all be denied licences, but at the moment Paraguay has it locked up (I'm in Uruguay at the moment, and unless someone in Chile attempts a driveby shooting, Paraguay wins). Maybe it was the fact that Bolivian roads don't allow the kinds of speeds these idiots reached, but whatever it was needs to be rectified. I quickly worked out that most drivers had both little experience of being on a bike, and almost none in passing them. Most bikes here max out at about 60km/hr, so ride on the hard shoulder (a feature missing across Central America). I ride at, or near the limit of 80 km/hr, so ride on the road. I generally ride on the far right, allowing vehicles to pass even with oncoming traffic. Most Paraguayans took that to be an invitation to pass by (30-40km/hr over the limit) a good 30cm from my legs, regardless of whether there was other traffic or not. When a truck passed, it was all I could do to avoid getting sucked in under the wheels. Eventually I moved next to the dividing line and drifted right as traffic passed so I always had space. This pissed off a few drivers, who while obviously don't know the dangers of tailgating a biker, understood what my middle finger meant when raised in their direction.

As I entered a roundabout on the outskirts of Asuncion, I saw conclusive proof that Paraguayans can't drive. A truck that had barrelled past me earlier had skidded off the road, cartwheeling down the embankment. I pulled up, and looked past the gathering crowd to make sure everybody was safe - there wasn't an ambulance around, so I probably had the most extensive medical kit for miles. I saw a man in the crumpled cab, and feared the worst. Fortunately, he was ok - he had crawled back into the wreckage to retrieve something. In fact, everybody was milling around the truck, making souvenirs of anything not securely still part of the truck. I only took some photos, and went to talk to the police officer who had then arrived. I explained why I wasn't surprised this had happened, and headed back to Izzy. I saw the police officer reach into his car and take out a breathalyser, which scared me a bit - If he had been really drunk (Paraguayan limits are apparently quite liberal), and speeding... Oh, and he was driving a tanker full of LPG. I didn't hang around long enough to find out whether the tank's integrity had been compromised, that's for sure.

In Asuncion I checked into the only hostel in town and took a quick shower. I asked the owner about parking (there wasn't any available at the hostel), and she told me that even in the guarded parking lots my gear wouldn't be safe. She was right - I went out to take the bags off, and saw someone had been through them. I had parked on a busy road, around the corner from the tourist police headquarters, and still got robbed. Thankfully, I have gotten into the habit of removing anything of possible value as soon as I stop, so they only took a can of chain lube and fishing rod - not exactly a big score. It still pissed me off - people had to have seen the perpetrator, and done nothing.

The next day I walked around Asuncion in the morning, and then headed out for Ciudad del Este, and tri-border area with Brazil and Argentina. I checked into another motel that seemed to be built with premarital sex in mind. The place was even called Hotel Panky. It was a good place though - for about 20 bucks I got a room with a (tiny) jacuzzi and a flatscreen tv - everything I needed, as well as an armed guard outside the garage for Izzy. I was able to watch a movie in English, thanks to the USB input for the tv. Awesome.

Ciudad del Este is an interesting city - surrounded by far more affluent cities/countries, its primary purpose is duty free shopping and currency exchange for Argentinians (Argentina is currently undergoing currency controls similar to that of Venezuela). It is also the Paraguayan launching point for two of the Latin America's greatest sights, Iguazu falls and the Itaipu dam. To access either of these means crossing into the Brazilian frontier town of Foz do Iguacu, but thankfully the whole area is a free zone - no permits or visas required. I have a Brazilian visa, but my Paraguayan visa is for single entry only. I rode over the bridge and past customs (another advantage of motorcycles - most toll gates and checkpoints have a separate lane for motorcycles that is rarely attended) towards Iguazu falls.

The falls themselves are spectacular, I'll give them that. It's hard to become a natural wonder of the world, without having the ability to take people's breath away. The big problem was that everyone in South America wants to see them too. And by everyone, I mean everyone over the age of 50. The sheer number of senior citizens pouring out of the luxury sightseeing coaches, complete with name badges of their respective guides had me bemused. I had a good chuckle to myself - I had stumbled on the world of guided, luxury tourism. A few people stared at my dishevelled look (I don't think even bleach could whiten my riding pants now), and I thought to myself "if only you knew where I've been..". I got a bit annoyed at the slow pace on the stairs to the falls though - I understand if you need the railing, and need to go at a slower pace than others, but please don't walk side by side - leave room for others to pass.

I got the required photos, and got out of there quick. As I said before, the falls are amazing, but when you're jostling for an uninterrupted view with hundreds of other people, it gets old quick. I prefer Angel falls in Venezuela, or even Niagara falls - even though there are crowds at Niagara, the viewing platform is wide enough that you can at least see the falls without having to look over shoulders.

After the falls, I headed upstream to the Itaipu dam. Here I was able to take a tour and see the inside of one of the true marvels of the modern world. Here the mighty Paraná river plunges 118m down 20 generating units, each with a capacity of over 700MW. in 2008, it produced 94.68 TWh, the most ever produced by a renewable energy source. For those of you who don't speak engineer-ese, consider this: Itaipu provides over 70% of the electrical power needs of Paraguay. And that's with less than 2 generators. The rest is sent into Brazil (both countries own 10 units each, with Paraguay selling its reserve to Brazil), where it powers 17% of the population. It is the largest power plant in the world (the Three Gorges dam has a higher installed capacity, but has yet to match the output of Itaipu), and well deserving of its title as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world. Another interesting fact: Argentina has an agreement with the two countries regulating the outflow of water, to avoid possibly flooding Buenos Aires (1000km away) in the event of a war.

However, hydroelectricity is not without drawbacks. The construction of the dam cost approximately US$19.6 billion (apparently much of the cost overruns are due to corruption and over invoicing) and took 15 years to build. The resulting reservoir stretches for over 1350 sqkm, displacing thousands of families and drowning Guaira falls, the largest waterfall in the world (by volume). Unfortunately the Brazilian government has subsequently dynamited the rock face to facilitate safer shipping, meaning that the falls that dwarfed Iguazu will never be seen again, regardless of the fate of Itaipu. Then again, to generate the equivalent energy using petrol would require 434,000 barrels every day (or 788 million tons of coal over the life of the dam so far). As with all great engineering projects, there are pros and cons, and it will be up to future generations to decide whether the sacrifice was worth it.

I got back into Paraguay, and headed to the outskirts of Ciudad del Este to get a head start on my trip down south to the Jesuit ruins around Encarnacion. Staying in a hotel next to a gas station, I was assured that the parking lot was secure, and the guard seemed to back that up. However, the next day I found out that some joker had pinched the 1 litre of fuel out of the spare container I keep for long, isolated stretches. This was getting ridiculous, and I was getting angry.

I used that anger to motivate me all the way to the towns of Jésus and Trinidad, sites of some pretty impressive Jesuit ruins. It was there I met a young Belgian family travelling throughout South America in their 4wd. I am pretty impressed by these kinds of people - I couldn't even imagine travelling in a car for a year with my siblings now, let alone when I was 6. They should be in Ushuaia around the same time I am, so hopefully we will meet again.

 I then continued on to Encarnacion, ready to cross the border into Argentina.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Bolivia Part 2: La Paz to Villamontes

In La Paz I tried to do stuff, really. It's just that at over 3500m, there's not much I could do. The city is set in a valley, and therefore there's no such thing as flat terrain - everywhere is either uphill or downhill. I'd walk about 10 paces and need a breather, only to be passed by a 70yr old woman, carrying her weekly shopping and laughing at the pathetic lung capacity of the foreigner weezing in a heap. It was embarrassing.

I did manage to get out and about eventually though, and visited the markets, buying a few things like cold weather gear and the traditional cloth women in the Andes use to carry everything, including children. It's a problem when you're travelling on a bike and want to buy something, as space is constantly at a premium. I also tried to get Kawasaki parts, but was told that they'd take a month to arrive - Buenos Aires it is, then. I also made a licence plate from a sticker and scrap metal - it stood out as fake, but did the job. Throughout my lazy La Paz days, there was always a niggling feeling like I was forgetting something...

I decided to give Izzy a break from carrying me around, and took a bus to the tourist town of Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. 160km away, the route is popular, and was supposed to take 3-3.5 hours. It took over 4.5, most of which was spent propping up a sleepy Aymaran woman. I have yet to catch transport south of the Rio Grande that even closely kept to schedule - in fact, I've spent weeks waiting for 2 boat trips and a bus journey. I feel more confident than ever that a motorcycle is the best way to see Latin America.

I didn't really enjoy Copacabana. Not because of the town or lake, which were beautiful and breathtaking respectively, or because of the locals, who were warm and friendly. It was because for every local, there were a dozen tourists.I had well and truly hit the gringo trail, and we were everywhere. It was blatantly obvious the effect that too many tourist dollars have on the local economy - gone were the local restaurants, the cheap corner stores and the relaxed way of life. In their stead was a neverending line of souvenir shops, currency exchanges and high end restaurants selling western food from english menus being practically thrown at passerbys by English speaking touts. I saw the sun set over the lake, had dinner at one of the few local(ish) restaurants, and headed back to the hostel vowing to head back to La Paz ASAP. It was around then I remembered what I had forgotten to do in La Paz - get a Paraguayan visa!

I was on the first bus back to La Paz the next morning, and quickly headed off to the embassy, via a camera shop for a quick photo. while the embassy was processing my visa, I visited the Presidential Palace and Central square. It's amazing how contrasting some of these neighbourhoods in Latin American cities can be - an affluent, leafy plaza and surrounds will back directly onto slums, without so much as a footpath as a buffer.

On the subject of visas, I've always found that they're most easily obtained while in a bordering country - my Brazilian visa took a day (instead of weeks) and cost a fraction of what the embassy in Canberra was going to charge. The Paraguayan embassy charged the same price, but processed the visa in a matter of hours.

The next day we headed south towards the infamous Salar de Uyuni. However, my laziness in La Paz meant I really didn't get moving until 1pm. I crawled out of La Paz (cruelly, you must climb to at least 4000m to get out of La Paz in any direction), and started to head south. Izzy was really struggling at this point, and I needed to keep revving the engine to avoid her stalling. Negotiating traffic in this manner proved to be hard, and eventually the inevitable happened: I clipped someone. It wasn't much damage - a tiny scratch to the back, but his van was new, and he looked pissed. In Bolivia, even the smallest accident requires the intervention of transit cops and I wasn't looking forward to having to go through all the procedures. The fact that I don't have 3rd party insurance (not required in Bolivia) may also explain my anxiety. So I asked straight up how much he wanted to finish this right here and now. He shrugged and said "50" - 50Bs is about $7. The money pretty much flew out of my wallet into his hand, and we were both on the road. The whole thing lasted less than a minute.

I was feeling quite down until I reached a police checkpoint, where I stopped for a break. A group of kids came running up, and began peppering me with questions. When I got out the printed maps of the route I was (roughly) taking, they were gobsmacked. They were so amazed at what I was doing that I sat back and had a long hard think about what I was doing, and how lucky I was to be able to do it. Here I was, in a country where most people couldn't conceive having enough money to travel outside their own village, exploring the world by motorcycle. I (and others in my financial position) are truly blessed, and need to remember that more often.

Mood suitaly lifted, I entered the lovely town of Ouro. As it happened, they were having a small festival that weekend (Am I just blindly stumbling into all these festivals, or are they on ever week?). I strolled around the town square, enjoying the various acts and entertainment, including a talented drumline.

The next day I set of for Uyuni. I made good time until I left the paved section of the road, and looked down the barrel of 160km of corrugations, gravel and soft sand. It was tough going, but rewarding. The road also claimed it's second licence plate of the trip - these Bolivian roads are BRUTAL. I am definitely getting better at riding though, and far more confident in the sand.

For those of you who don't ride: deep, soft sand is the worst surface for a bike. If your front wheel digs in AT ALL, you're going over the handlebars. The best solution I've found for such an unbalanced bike is either to crawl across in first gear (sometimes necessary with long stretches of deep sand), or to slow down a bit beforehand and then hit the accelerator hard as we cross, keeping the front wheel straight and up. Both prevent me eating sand, but the latter is definitely faster.

Eventually, I made it to the Salars and took the obligatory photos. The sun was setting (at this altitude it gets cold quickly at sunset), so I hurried into Uyuni - the town looks a nice town was built on the moon, then heavily bombed. I pulled up outside a hotel and quickly noticed a young man standing beside a KLR650. The rider (Chris) was from Kansas, and was making his way back up north to Venezuela, before heading home. I had only been talking to Chris for a couple of minutes when Nicola, one of the German girls who'd been on the boat in Brazil walked by. This trip constantly surprises me with reunions of sorts.

Chris and I ended up getting dinner together and bonding with similar stories of close calls, adventures and mishaps that can only happen to motorbike travellers. It turns out he too had turned up at the famous missing bridge in Guatemala, and knows of a few others who had done likewise. Chris had luckily found a pedestrian bridge downstream to cross the river on, as I'm not sure a 650cc engine would have easily made it. (Annette & Jack - I think you're going to have to do this crossing, it's becoming a thing - everyone's doing it). We agreed to go see the train cemetery together the next day.

We set off in the morning after distributing the last of Chirs' spare fuel - Uyuni wouldn't have fuel until Monday morning. The train cemetery was more interesting than I had even thought, and I was fascinated as I walked around and through the rusting carcasses. Some of the carriages looked in better condition than some of the cars I've passed in my travels, but that's not saying much.

I decided to join Chris for a day's ride out on the flats, and was instantly glad I had. I understand why normal tourists want to visit, but this is a motorbike adventurer's Mecca - you haven't been to South America unless you've got photos on the salar. Speeding across the flattest surface in Latin America (modern GPS data suggests deflections of metres over 160km) with another bike and rider was surreal and incredible. I simply can't describe what it feels like to be able to just point the bike wherever you want, and head in that direction - the freedom was brilliant. There were 'tracks' made by others, but we were free to forge our own path, which we did with glee. We headed out to a few islands - one deserted, and one full of people and complete with a restaurant.

At the populated restaurant (Incahari), I managed to buy some fuel from one of the many tour groups. Speaking of, we came across the first Aussies I had met since crossing the Darien gap - a group of nearly 30 South Australians were taking a guided tour through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. It was a little weird - I had become accustomed to being alone, the only one crazy enough to do this, and now I was completely surrounded by like minded people. Interestingly, it was on the salars that other tourists really noticed us - people peppered us with questions, and a few wanted photos while on the bikes. I guess we were well and truly back on the gringo trail.

After a late lunch, it was time to head back into town. As time was short and our thirst for adventure high, we decided to again leave the trails, and head directly to town, avoiding the 20km or so of corrugated road normally encountered. As we rode, the sun begun to set, and form the most beautiful picture I've seen in quite a while. It was truly bliss, as I tried to keep a vaguely straight line using my GPs, and Chris took to high speed circles (we lost sight of each other at one point, which is saying something on a flat surface 160km across!) I took some action photos and we stopped for Chris to take some better photos with his far superior but more delicate camera. It wasn't long before we discovered why the tracks avoided the straight route, as I almost rode into a lake. No problem - we were both on dual purpose bikes that had seen far too much road, and needed to see a little offroading action. We skirted around the lake, judging the outskirts of which by how far my wheels sank into the cracking salt crust. chris said he was glad I was going first (I figured the lighter bike should lead) and I was glad he was there too, in case I got stuck. We both agreed that while we are obviously independent people, travelling by motorbike is probably better with a partner. We got back after dark, avoiding riding over the local airstrip only because of the GPS maps, and both covered in a crust of salt. The bikes got a thorough cleaning, after which we headed to a bar to let the day sink in and swap stories.

After determining when the fuel tanker would arrive with the fuel I needed to keep going, I said goodbye to Chris and got one last pushstart for good luck (at this altitude, kickstarting Izzy is proving difficult). The road started off fine - bumpy, but flat and straight. Then the road went mental. It started with patches of sand so large I thought there must be a beach around the corner, then came the hills.

Bolivia truly has it all - in the space of a day I had travelled from a giant salt flat, to mountains, to a sandy desert, to something resembling Utah and the American Midwest. Spectacular red earth tepuis were bisected by gravel bed rivers, and (sometimes) the blissfully smooth black tarmac of the road. I was loving it, but Izzy wasn't. All this climbing at altitude had taken a toll on the cooling system (I later discovered the fan switch had broken, probably due to a rock or fall). When we finished in Tupiza, she had about 200ml of coolant left (of 2L). However, there was good news - at 3200m, she was already easier to start - a slow rolling start was all that was needed.

I pulled into the first hotel I saw (I'm getting less picky about hotels these days - as long as Izzy will be safe, I'll sleep on a bit of broken concrete) and scored big time. Pool, wifi, cheap rooms, and a massive garage. A garage that was nearly full. Izzy shared some space with a dozen bikes and a few 4wds, all on tours around Bolivia and Argentina. From Mexico to La Paz I had met about 5 or 6 other Motorcycle travellers, and now I have lost track. It has been great to be able to talk to people who understand the spiritual power of a good road, and the trials and tribulations of motorcycle travel. I can't help but think that the trip would have been radically different if I had rode through Peru and Ecuador instead of Venezuela and Brazil, and all the experiences I could have had, and would have missed.

I met the organiser of the trip - Andres lives in Buenos Aires and California, and hopes to ride between the two someday. He told me he had friends at Kawasaki, and told me to give him a call when in BA. As I need parts for Izzy, I would definitely do that. Apparently, he told the rest of the group that I was a "real biker". I guess doing it the tough way gets you a rep down here.

The next day I continued my descent down towards Tarija, a much bigger city at about 2000m. It took most of the day to make the 200km or so, which probably says all you need to know about the road. I actually had tarmac for about 60km all up, which was pure bliss. I also found out my GPS is trying to kill me, routing me along a road that the hotel manager called "very bad". Considering how dangerous the road I took was, I hate to think about what condition the other road would have been in.

The last stop in Bolivia was Villamontes, near the border. I didn't choose these towns based on attractions, rather that they were about a day's ride apart and big enough to have a hotel/hostel with parking. The ride there would have to rate amongst the best of the trip - the mountains gave ways to rolling hills, Izzy began to wake up and the road turned from incredibly dangerous to just incredible. Unfortunately, the Bolivian dust had taken its toll on my camera, and there aren't any photos of the hills (to this day I'm manually moving the zoom). A great ride to finish off a country full of great rides.

At Villamontes I withdrew money, and prepared myself for Paraguay and the wilderness of the Chaco.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Bolivia, Part 1: Guayaramerin to La Paz

Crossing into Guayaramerin, I started to feel better. Bolivia has always been a must see destination for me, and was probably the country on this continent that I most wanted to visit on this trip. At the heart of South america, Bolivia is where the mighty Amazon jungle is halted by the towering Andes mountains, whose high altitude plains contain the mesmerizing salt plains of Uyuni, and run down to the endless plains of the Chaco. It is one of the warmest, wettest, lowest and yet coldest, driest and highest countries in the Americas. The contrasts don't end with nature - Bolivia is one of the poorest yet resource rich countries in the world. Bolivianos have a well recognized reputation for being a hard working and tough people, yet quick to celebrate and welcome foreigners. I was excited to get off the boat and start exploring. But first, Izzy needed some serious TLC.

Once I got stamped into Bolivia, I headed to Customs, where I was told the system was down, and to return in the morning. I checked into a hotel, and started exploring the town. The next morning, I headed to Customs - still closed. It turns out it was the anniversary of the foundation of the state and the boss was watching the celebrations, but would return around 11. I've lost count of how many holidays I've stumbled into, but at least I could go watch the celebrations to pass the time.

The next morning I headed up to the closest repair shop, which was also the local Honda dealer. I reasoned that they, of all people, would know where the competition (Kawasaki) were. Not only did they know where the dealer was, but they offered me the use of their trailer, if I could get Izzy to them. I hurried back, and pushed her (she's quite light without all the gear & myself) to the dealer. It was only about 200m, but in that distance, several people stopped and tried to help me, despite my protests. In those few blocks, I could already tell I was going to love Bolivia. I got to the dealership, and the receptionist had bad news: the Kawasaki boys couldn't help me today, but possibly tomorrow. Then the Honda mechanic stepped out and had a look at the bike. Good news: he'd fix it for me. Great result. We set about pulling Izzy to pieces, and determining what had gne wrong. A trip like this isn't exactly easy for any bike, and so we went through a few periods of discovering a problem, fixing it, and then finding that wasn't the problem that stopped Izzy. I retired for lunch, returning after attending a health fair run by a missionary school (picked up some muesli and wholemeal bread - missing from the rest of the continent). Izzy now had a clean carburetor (sorely needed), but Camillo (the mechanic) eventually worked it out - the spark plug connector had worn out, and so wasn't providing the necessary electrical power when needed. Immediately I was thankful - I have the knowledge to fix Izzy, but the spark plug connector would've been at the bottom of my list, after dismantling the clutch and gearbox. what would have taken me days (and many more parts, he had done over several hours. The damage to my wallet? Less than $20. I don't think I could get a mechanic to look at an engine for that kind of money. I was rapt.

I rode back to the hotel, grinning from ear to ear. If there weren't so many people, I may have popped a small wheelie (yes it's possible, I have done it more than a few times, mostly by accident). I came back after closing with some beers, and Camillo, Orlando and I shot the breeze in the local plaza. Camillo's daughter joined us - it's worth pointing out just how safe Guyaramerin (And Bolivia in general) is: the locals all hang out after dark in the local parks. Taken for granted in Perth, it is a rare luxury in this part of the world. After the plaza, we headed back to Camillo's house, where he tried to give me a pair of boots (they didn't fit), and his daughter delighted in showing me her Disney videos for learning english. I got a lift back to the hotel, but not before receiving a Honda shirt. The next morning I headed back to Honda to say thanks, and show them what Izzy looks like fully loaded. I left Guyaramerin with two new friends, and high hopes for the rest of the country.

**For those of you who are following in my footsteps and need a service, the boys at Guyaramerin Honda (on the Eastern Plaza) can't come more highly recommended**

The Southwest corner of Bolivia has long been on the traveler's radar, but I would be starting my journey on the opposite end of the country, where an Australian visitor is not exactly a common occurrence. My Spanish would again improve through necessity, as I wouldn't be speaking English for a week (Actually that's a lie: in Guayaramerin I phoned home, and actually had to translate for some Brazilians who spoke a bit of English, but no Spanish). This is exactly what I wanted, to see a part of these countries that not many outside it's borders see. I would join the Gringo Trail soon enough, but for now I was happy to be amongst the locals only.

The first day's ride was interesting. It was pretty flat terrain, so I was able to cover about 500km. The first 100km or so was beautiful tarmac. I had to wait a bit in town for fuel - Bolivia subsidizes it's fuel at great cost, and therefore rations it out - I would pass many stations with signs of "No Hay Gasolina" hung prominently. After fueling up, I got lost in Riberalta. Getting lost in a town with only one road in and out seems a bit stupid, but when there are no signs it's easy to miss a turnoff. Eventually I got back on the road after a few attempts, only to run into a blockade.

Bolivia is somewhat socialist country, and unions/collectives have a relatively strong position in politics here. That bing said, it appears they are not above blocking a bridge to get what they want. People were allowed to pass without hindrance, but vehicles were going nowhere. As the only to La Paz, they had me by the cajones. I asked how long it had been going on - 3 days, with no end in sight: shit. I walked around a bit, and mingled with the workers (only two didn't notice me, as they were deeply involved in a game of chess). As I walked back to Izzy contemplating my next move, a young man made that choice for me by suggesting I go through the river. I had given it a thought, but dismissed it as the banks were too steep. Like 60 degrees steep. He assured me it was possible, and arranged a small posse to help me. We walked her down, and crossed the river on a submerged log, which took all my oncentration, and destroyed my nerves. Getting Izzy up the other side was another story. For the record, pushing a motorcyle up a slippery mud bank can cause bad language from up to 5 guys. I definitely heard a few swear words from the group, and may or may not have called Izzy a "stubborn, fat bitch" when she simply refused to budge. The workers blocking the road didn't say anything, just watched us from the bridge. I'm sure the aim was to block trucks, not tourists, and judging by how we were struggling, there wouldn't be many following us. I thanked (and paid) my 'crew', and headed down the road.

Down the road (after being asked several times how I managed to cross the blockade, I stopped at a fuel stop for energy for the both of us. I noticed a big bag full of leaves next to the cashier, and instantly knew from what plant they were. Coca leaves have been used by indigenous Bolivians to ward off the effects of altitude sickness, fatigue and hunger pains. It's completely legal and non-addictive. The same can't be said for it's famous derivative, Cocaine. The legal uses for the Coca plant extend beyond the ubiqutous cola drink, and it's unfortunate that one of the many alkaloids in the Coca leaf has proved to be so destructive. I bought a bag and started to use.

There's somewhat of a ritual to follow when chewing coca leaves and it takes the better part of an hour to get to the point of benefit. Overall, I will say this - it definitely helps with headaches and altitude sickness (and may numb your mouth), but it tastes horrible. If it wasn't for the impending extreme altitude, that would have been it. As it stands now, I have gone through two small bags, dozens of cups of tea, and a few lollies. The tea and lollies are actually quite nice, and while not as strong as the leaves by themselves, have managed to keep me up and moving at over 4000m above sea level. But that's another story.

I kept on heading down the lonely and dusty road, enjoying the view of the savannah. It was eerily familiar - red pea gravel, low scrub as far as the eye could see and not another vehicle for miles. I had to keep remembering to stick to the right! As the sun began to set, I came across a series of man-made waterholes and a veritable safari worth of animals: Capibaras (a large animal, resembling a wombat) and thousands of birds were all quenching their thirst in the disappearing sun. They paid little attention to me as I passed, then only curiosity when I swung Izzy around. I sat transfixed for a while - these were completely wild animals, in their natural habitat and they allowed me to stay. Eventually, they trotted/flew off, and I continued on towards Santa Rosa.

I had to fuel up again, but there hadn't been a station in over 250km. I started to panic a bit, and pull over every now and again to ask where I could find fuel. After a few failed leads and a gas station selling nothing but false hope, I found a store that sold me 6 litres of refined black gold. In 2L coke bottles. I can't say that this is new to me, but petrol sold in plastic bottles seems a little risky. I was in no position to argue, and readily poured the fuel in, all the while apologising to the motor that no doubt would soon be suffering.

I found a place that would safely take us, and promptly passed out asleep. Unfortunately, they also safely took most of my remaining cash, as I'd thought there would have been an ATM in a city of 15,000 people. When I explained this to the owner of the Residencial (a cheap form of a hotel, but above an Alijomento) when he asked if I wanted breakfast at the restaurant and I explained, he was nonplussed - he'd organize something simple for me for free. I should clarify that breakfast definitely wasn't part of the deal, so I was gratefull for the coffee and toast. I then left, for the fuel station in Santa Rosa, which turned out to have a massive line (a symptom of the fuel rationing in Bolivia). I asked one patron leaving whether there was another station nearby. He obviously took pity on me, and told me that he'd sell me some of the fuel out of his jerry can back at his house. I took one look at the line and followed him back to his place. But before we fuel'd up, we needed breakfast. His wife cooked us brekkie, with coffee, bread and eggs, both chicken and turtle. I enjoyed my second breakfast, and walked out a full and happy man. For the second day in a row, I set out thinking that Bolivianos are some of the nicest people in the world. I did leave with a few niggling worries though: I had been warned that a few years ago, some Canadians had been murdered and robbed on the stretch of road I was going to cover, and last night it had rained. Rained probably isn't the right word for this part of the world: when I say rained, water came down like someone had lifted a pool with a crane, then took to the bottom with a stick of dynamite. it's not unusual that I wonder how buildings survive these kinds of storms.

As it turned out, the first worry was unfounded - I met nothing but great people, quick with a thumbs up and a smile. They may have been smiling however, as a result of my second worry. The rain had turned what could have passed for a road into something the devil couldn't concieve in a bad mood. The previously passable clay and rocks had now joined forces in a concerted effort against my health, and turned my riding into a (for an outsider) comical series of mishaps. The mud went from too slippery to walk on, to so deep I'd worry we'd drown, and back again. And that would be in the space of 20 metres. The back wheel acted like it was attached by a slinky possessed. over the next 60 kms I dropped Izzy more than a dozen times, and narrowly avoided falling far more than that. A particularly nasty fall saw the gear change pedal (the lever operated with your left foot, for those who don't ride) land squarely on my foot, pinning me down. I managed to wriggle out, letting off a stream of curse words that would make George Carlin (RIP) blush. On a side note, that's a great thing about being surrounded by those who don't speak your language - if you feel like swearing, go for it- no one's going to care. But basically, I was very glad for all my protective gear that day. I finished that day with a grazed left knee, and a badly swollen right leg, but still able to walk.

I awoke in Yucumo, which lies at the base of the climb into La Paz. It would be the last time I'd experience warm weather for weeks,and I foolishly looked forward to the impending cool change. But first I had breakfast with some locals who told me that the road ahead was closed until 4pm for roadworks, after which I would get as far as Carnavi, not Coroico as I had hoped. I decided to partially take their advice, and left at midday, thinking that I could pass the time at a roadblock easily if it was only a few hours. But every time I reached a section of roadworks, the workers allowed me through. I had to dodge some equipment and do some offroading, but it wasn't too hard. The road itself was pretty challenging though, a never ending series of hairpin bends on a relentless uphill slope. I made it to Carnavi in the late afternoon and tried to press on, but quickly recognized it was foolish, and headed back to reach Coroico the next day.

I set off early this time, trying to make it past the roadworks before the rest of the traffic was allowed to pass, and the road becomes a chaotic deathtrap. I was making progress (although I almost needed to be dug out by a roadworks crew in a particularly bad section), until I came to a section with a couple of workers and a policeman, who said the road ahead was definitely closed until 4pm. I was going no further for about 6 hours. Thankfully, they had chosen a great spot to stop traffic - a nearby stream cascaded over a particularly beautiful cliff. I enjoyed the waterfall, and was able to wash my clothes (all caked in mud from the previous debacle of a day).

 I hadn't brought a lunch, but again the Bolivianos came through for me, and graciously gave me some of their lunch - sardines and bread. It was around this time that a van ferrying people to La Paz turned up. I got talking to one of the passengers, who happened to be part of the Bolivian Navy. Although a landlocked country (a sore point for Bolivianos, who lost their coastline to Chile as a result of war), Bolivia maintains a naval force on border rivers and Lake Titicaca, which it shares with Peru. The navy also co-operates with the other forces in the effort to rationalise coca production. As he explained it, there are particular species of Coca that are only grown for cocaine, but the law enforcement agencies are hamstrung by political macinations. I ended up having a great day at the roadblock, but at 1530 it was time to leave. I raced away, trying to get as far as possible before the traffic became a problem. I hadn't got very far when the trucks started passing by.

A bit of perspective is needed: this road is built into a cliff with a serious drop off the side. It is only wide enough in parts for two small vehicles to pass - for two trucks to pass, they must travel (one reversing) to a 'passing area'. Made from compacted earth, the amount of dust created is incredible. Overtaking a truck is heart in mouth stuff, as you can't see more than 5 metres in front of you - hence my desire to be in front! when you approach a blind corner, you just hope a truck isn't barreling around from the other side. I have been riding on some of the most dangerous so-called roads for months now, and I was worried. I made it to Coroico, and happily stopped at a cheap hotel with internet (what a luxury!). I parked Izzy, and saw proof of just how rough the road was - the licence plate had broken off. There was no way I was backtracking, so resolved to make a new one in La Paz (no licence plate on a bike is common here, and ok as long as you have documents that prove the bike is yours, like registration papers).

The next day was the big one - the North Yungas road, otherwise known as El Camino del Muerte (Road of Death). Prior to 2006 when the government finished paving one section and bypassing another, this road earned it's name as the most dangerous road in the world. Taking over 200 lives per year, the road demands respect and many truckers used to pray to Pachamama (Incan mother earth) or God for safe passage before travelling the 100km or so. Originally built by Paraguyan POWs during the Chaco war (at the cost of thousands of lives), one section was deemed impossible to widen, and bypassed with a new paved road. This section is not nearly as dangerous anymore as most traffic sensibly take the new road. I wanted to see the old road, and whispered a few prayers before setting off - adding to the blessings and prayers offered by strangers. The road rises over 3000m, peaking at the mountain pass La Cumbre (4660m) before plummeting back down into La Paz (3600m).

As the old road is rarely used, I found it in reasonable condition and not too dificult. I did however see sections that reflected the horror stories told - a section that had clearly given way, the neighbouring crosses remembering the lives taken. Nowdays, the only real traffic is tourists on guided mountain bike tours down the road. Give me a Central American trucker anyday - the tourists were impossible to predict. On these roads, you actually drive on the left, as trucks used to travel to La Paz full of goods, and return lighter. To prevent excessive damage to the road, the lighter truck travels on the outside (it also allows the drivers to see their outside wheel, preventing them from falling off). I was obeying the rules, and treating the road with the respect it deserved - and almost killed someone in the process. As I rounded a blind corner (and I would beep the horn before doing so), a tourist came flying across, cutting the corner. I slammed both brakes on but it wasn't enough - I was going to hit this guy and send him over the cliff.

In the end I threw Izzy into the ground and jumped clear, preventing a serious accident. Izzy stopped 30cm from the skid line the tourist had to make just to take the corner. I got up and turned to see who could possibly be so stupid. He stopped and asked if I was ok, but otherwise seemed oblivious to how close it had been, and seemed unfazed when I tried to explain. Idiot. The sheer drop would have been the better part of 500m at that point, and with the closest hospital 2hrs away, an ambulance would have been unnecessary - just call the Coroner.

The rest of the ride was less intense, but the other tourists were annoying. Some passed on my right (as they're supposed to), some tried my left. Some came flying down with little thought of their safety or that of others, and some stopped completely, too petrified to move in traffic. I started to get angry at the lack of respect the others were showing to the road - thousands of people with far more experience on these kinds of roads had become victims of this stretch, and these people were attempting it with no more than a 10 minute safety briefing that obviously didn't warrant listening to. Granted, they were no longer trucks on the road, but if you struggle to safely pass a motorcycle, I'd think twice about doing the trip. It says alot when I can honestly say I preferred to pass the locals in vans (following the groups to take them back to La Paz) than the bikes. I read later that 18 tourists have added to the toll while on rides, and I can't say I'm surprised. There's no way I would have started my trip here, and it's crazy to think that others attempt this when their entire experience of roads in Latin America would have been by bus, or out the window of a plane. Rant over.

Eventually, there were no more tourists, and I could relax a bit. Then I hit the asphalt, and the ride became alot faster, and alot higher. KLRs are naturally aspirated, and Izzy didn't appreciate riding higher than any of the peaks in Europe or Australasia. It was slow going when we reached La Cumbre, the highest point of the road. It was here that the gods thought it'd be funny to send snow. I had got rid of all my cold weather gear in the USA, and have an open face helmet - it wasn't pleasant. Once over though, I was able to cut the engine and coast all the way into La Paz, where I found my hotel and almost passed out - this altitude is going to take some getting used to.

This is only part 1 of Bolivia, but all of Bolivia in one post would give me RSI. Part 2 includes La Paz, Salar de Uyuni, and a route that leads me to believe the world's most dangerous road is still in Bolivia.