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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.


  1. Loving your blog, mate. Great writing, keep it up!
    Best of luck for the rest of your journey.
    --Mike (Mockery@PSB)

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