The extended stay in Salta did me good and I managed to get my cough under control. It was great to be staying again in the 7 Duendes hostel again, especially as I already knew my way around the city so I could find everything I wanted really easily. Loads of people in the hostel had just crossed over from Bolivia and there were a few people waiting to cross over to Chile but the borders had been closed with snow for over a week causing me to change my plans and head north for the border at Villazón.
I stopped in Jujuy to see friends and went back through all the places I’d visited the year before. Like the other high altitude towns on the Argentinian Altiplano, they all have mostly indigenous populations, so when I passed through into Bolivia there was hardly any difference to be noticed at all except that Villazón is a much bigger town than La Quiaca, its Argentine counterpart on the other side of the border. The border was easy and it was cool to get preferential treatment and pass through quickly on the bike as there were long queues for the backpackers traveling by bus. I had heard that 90 days is normal, but the official only gave me 30 days. I protested but he said I could get it easily extended almost anywhere.
I had been to Bolivia once before, about 4 years ago, when I went for two weeks to see friends who were traveling in South America. I only went to La Paz and the jungle town of Rurrenabaque and I left with the completely wrong impression of Bolivia. We were mainly in the touristy places and we stayed at large hostels rammed with young travelers so the only Bolivians I got to meet were either working at the hostels or driving taxis. All the clubs, bars and restaurants we went to had practically no Bolivians and I left with the impression that Bolivians were too poor to have social lives. What a stupid idea that was! Life goes on everywhere in the world, but how much of it we see depends on how we travel. I only passed through Villazón in half an hour but the place was bright, relatively clean and people were friendly. There was some road construction going on in town but once outside I rode on pristine tarmac to Tupiza.
Tupiza is a popular town for tourists wanting to go trekking and a starting point to take tours onto the Bolivian Altiplano and Salar de Uyuni. I only stayed for the night but I enjoyed the place. Much like Villazón, Tupiza reminded me of the indigenous towns of Argentina, except with much a bigger population and bigger bolder buildings resulting in a much more vibrant place.
I was chatting to some guides about the roads ahead, but they thought I was stupid to ride my bike into the altiplano areas, telling me that the roads were bad and that conditions were dangerous. It was possible that they were just trying to get me sign up for a tour but once I showed them photos of my journeys in Argentina, they said that it was exactly the same and that I would have no problems. I refueled in Tupiza paying 3 times the price for petrol than locals. This is normal for foreigners apparently, and I’d heard that its a complete bastard to get fuel at any price in La Paz (it is more difficult but not impossible!). Later in Uyuni, a Bolivian man who lives in Chile told me that it strictly goes off the license plate as he too has to pay 3 times the price when he goes to see his family in his Chilean registered car.
I took the dirt road from Tupiza to Uyuni. It was only about 200 km but it was hard going. The first half up to Atocha was great. Twisty mountain dirt roads was fantastic views, although with the bike chugging along half-starved of oxygen. After Atocha the road became much worse. The mountains flattened out to a windy plain and the road was so corrugated that the exhaust almost fell off and the battery terminals had come undone. Riding into Uyuni, the town reminded my of the small dusty towns I’d seen in Western Sahara. Its the kind of place that people don’t hang around. They arrive for the tours and then leave as soon as they’re done, but I quite liked the place. There were two main streets rammed with tourists but loads more full of locals and cheap places to eat. The road from Atocha had seriously taken its toll on the rear suspension and I had to adjust it to stop the wheel bottoming out. I also tried to improve the carburation a little by lowering the needles a notch, which seemed to help a bit. Uyuni is normally very cold in the middle of winter with temperatures as low as -20 C at night but I had luckily arrived during a kind of heat wave were it wasn’t even going below freezing. The next day I set off to go and see the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flats and the main reason people come to Uyuni.
The streets of Uyuni were lined with Land Cruisers getting ready to take tourists onto the salar and further into the altiplano and I got to chat to some of the drivers about riding there myself. The Salar would be fine, as would the altiplano up to the Laguna Colorada but beyond that into the National Park the snow was problematic and the border with Chile was closed.
I rode to Colchani, 16 km north of Uyuni where there is one of the ‘ramps’ onto the salar, basically just a gravel road leading onto the salt. With such a wide open space, I was a little worried about getting lost, and I set a waypoint on my GPS just in case but it was really easy to navigate. I just followed the tracks of other vehicles until I got used to the surroundings and then continued west using the mountains as references until the islands in the centre came into view. People have got lost on the salar. Presumably this is much easier to do in summer, when the salt is covered with a layer of water, covering the tracks and making the whole thing act as a great big mirror.
I arrived at the main island, Isla Inchuasi and chatted to a local family who were sat having a picnic. They told me there was a shop on the other side and as I passed the corner I saw were the majority of the tourists had gone. Amongst the Land Cruisers were two small Suzuki dirt bikes, that had been bought by two Swiss lads for a month trip around Bolivia. There were places to stay on the island but with such wide open spaces I thought it would be a shame to not enjoy the solitude so I rode off to find somewhere to camp. I was tempted to camp just on the salt, but I had been warned that the locals still use the salar at night, usually without headlights as they use the lights from the various villages to navigate. I rode towards another island nearby. Its really hard to judge distances on the salar. The island looked fairly close but turned out to be 20 km away.
I parked on the island and set up camp. The sky was clear and I saw some shooting stars. It wasn’t that cold only 2 degrees but I didn’t sleep properly as I was having some issues with my new sleeping bag, but maybe there was some excitement keeping me awake too. I woke up before sunrise the next day and took a walk to some more islands to warm up. A 4×4 passed me as I walked in the middle of nowhere. The passengers waved at me probably thinking what the hell I was doing out here.
Back in Uyuni, I planned to make the most of the mild weather and go as far as I could into the lagunas route that I had wanted to take from San Pedro de Atacama. I knew that fuel would be scarce but that the 500-odd km from San Pedro to Uyuni had been done by many before. However I wasn’t so sure about doing an Uyuni-almost-to-border-and-back but German at the Inti hostel told me I could get fuel in San Cristobal and that there was lots of places to stay if needed, although the route he told me to take didn’t correspond with anything on the map I had of the altiplano that I had bought in Argentina. I set off late in the afternoon and arrived in San Cristobal pretty quickly on the super-maintained dirt road. After another expensive refuel I headed for Villa Alota, a small village near the turn off for the lagunas. It turned out that the well maintained dirt road, although not completely indicated on my map, is a main route through to the border with Chile near Calama, but asking locals to confirm where I was going was a complete waste of time. I’ve since heard this from others who have traveled on the altiplano. I guess the locals are just not in the habit of giving directions. When I asked one guy if this was the way to Villa Alota he just said ‘its far’! Luckily the people in Villa Alota were much more useful and I stopped there for the night as bad weather was coming in. I stayed in an ‘Alojamiento’, another word that was new to me but turned out to be a great place to stay. A Quechua-speaking family had rooms to rent for next to nothing in their house and I got to eat and chat with them for most of the night which was a great experience and I considered coming back the next day if I had time.
Although I had been given better directions during the night, the lack of signposts had me ride 20 km in the wrong direction until I finally found the turn off and then it was a confusing construction site and a couple of freezing cold river crossings before I was on the road to Villamar and the lagunas. The road was awful, deep sandy ruts with bone shaking corrugations down the middle, but I smashed through them with ease. I was super-focused and giving it loads of gas, although the large pouch of coca leaves I was chewing to help with the altitude may have been responsible too. Passing through Villamar, I headed up and over a high pass at about 4600m towards another salar and more fantastic altiplano scenery. Towards the Laguna Colorada, the route had become covered in snow and I followed the off-piste tracks of others, eventually arriving at the laguna at about 12:30, which was super early and I would have continued further into the national park had I have brought enough money to pay the park entrance fee. The park guards let me go through for free to take some photos of the laguna and come back, when I noticed that the exhaust was hanging on by one bolt again. I decided that the other lagunas would be best left to another time and I smashed it back the same way that I had come all the way to San Cristobal and Uyuni pausing briefly to fix the drive chain when it came off.
Back in Uyuni, I adjusted the rear shock again (it is running out of adjustment and will need a new spring soon) and got ready for my next destination. Potosí is a high altitude city famous for its silver mines that made the Spanish Empire incredibly rich. Again my map was completely wrong, but this time in a good way. The road to Potosí was newly sealed and I could take a leisurely ride over in the afternoon. The scenery was more high-altitude awesomeness until the looming presence of Cerro Rico, Potosí’s famous mountain came into view.
Potosí is much bigger than Uyuni and definitely a city. I had been unable to get hold of any maps for my GPS (I wish I had taken people up on their offers – Ludo!) but I was able to navigate my way to the hostel that I had booked using google maps. After a few wrong turns in the rush hour traffic and getting stopped by immigration, I arrived and immediately saw Veronica, an ozzy girl I had met in Salta. A group of us went out for food and then we went for a few drinks in a bar were I made friends with a drunk Bolivian couple who took us to a club where most of the clientele were asleep. Potosí is not a good place to have a hangover. At over 4000m altitude, walking around had me out of breath at the best of times. Still, the place is very popular with tourists who come to see the city and take tours into the mines in the mountain. Due to a lack of any other industry, most men work in the mine under appalling conditions with poor life expectancy. I couldn’t be bothered to go see it myself, but morning and afternoon huge groups would leave the hostel to go and have a look. Many told me they couldn’t stand being down there for longer than an hour. A french guy in Salta told me he got hurt when the tunnel they were in caved-in! Thanks but no thanks!
I’d heard that dynamite could be bought easily in Potosí and I was determined to get some for my birthday. The guy at the hostel tried to talk me out of it saying that people have accidents, that you should only use it after training and that its illegal to transport dynamite without a permit. All sound advice that I chose to ignore. walking down the road I saw stopped a taxi and asked “donde se puede comprar dinamita?” (where can one buy dynamite?) and I was taken to a street that had little stores on either side selling all sorts of mining gear, hard hats with lamps, boiler suits, pick axes etc. I went in one and asked if he had any dynamite. Immediately the guy said ‘Yes, how much do you want?’, Result! I ordered 4 sticks and enough fuse and blasting caps to use them. While working out what I needed, it became obvious to the seller that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and he asked me if I was going to use the dynamite with a guide. “Of course” I lied, although to be fair I wasn’t completely clueless as I had chatted online with my ex-army bomb disposal friend Sean, who had given me basic info on how not to blow myself up. The guy in the shop probably didn’t believe me though as he showed me how to set everything up and I left with my £4 explosive birthday present to myself. Back in the street the same taxi that I had taken to get there approached from the opposite direction. I tried to flag it down but the driver just laughed at me! I guess he wasn’t to keen on having explosive gringos in his cab. Back at the hostel I got ready to leave. A group of Belgians had come in to go on a mine tour and came to ask me about my bike. After a while I excused myself saying I had dynamite in my bag. ‘Is it a present for the miners?’ one asked, ‘no its for me, I’m gonna go and blow stuff up in the middle of nowhere’. ‘Why?’, ‘because its my birthday!’. I rode out of town for about 20 minutes until I saw a secluded road going up the side of a hill. I went up, parked and had a fun hour making load bangs and throwing dirt in the air.
I had left Potosí later than planned and possibly spent longer than an hour messing around with dynamite and it was much later in the day than I had planned on arriving in Sucre. Sucre is a bigger city and at just under 3000m, its much easier to get around. I found my way to the hostel easy enough and was impressed by all the well preserved colonial buildings that are all painted white, giving Sucre the name of ‘La Ciudad Blanca’. Veronica had arrived before me and she and two of her friends took me out to a bar for my birthday night out which involved a bottle of Havana Club and not remembering how I got home.
I had planned on staying in Sucre for at least a week. I’d heard good things from other riders who had passed through and I got the impression that it was a good place to relax and do some maintenance. There was even a free guitar festival on every night. I got some new tyres, changed the oil, adjusted the rear shock again, replaced bulbs that had been shaken to pieces by the corrugations and fitted new chain and sprockets. The drive sprocket was problematic as I had been sent the wrong one from for UK and had to get a spacer made from the old one. As I was one my way home from the workshop a guy on a scooter pulled up along side me at the lights and was asking me about my bike. We chatted, the lights went green and I rode off. He pulled up alongside me at the next set of lights and we chatted again. The lights went green again and we pulled over to talk properly. The scooter rider’s name was Pablo and he was so interested in my bike because he has the same Yamaha Tenere too. I was invited to have lunch at his family’s place where I saw some of his other bikes including an amazing 1928 Indian. Pablo’s family where really cool, they gave me loads of ideas for places to visit while I’m in Sucre and invited me back for dinner.
Sucre is a city but its not that big when you get to know it. The central 3-4 blocks have bars that are frequented by foreigners and every night we would see the same people in the same places. One thing that I was starting to notice was that a lot of ‘backpackers’ I had seen where actually on guided tours, kinda like backpacking without actually having to do anything for yourself. You can spot them a mile away because they would normally be led into a bar by the tour leader who would then throw shots down their necks to get the party started. More club 18-30 than experiencing the world if you ask me, but still, if they enjoy it. There are also loads of people in Sucre learning Spanish and I had befriended a few from the hostel. Oli, an English lad came out with me and Pablo for the only night in Sucre I got to spend with more Bolivians than gringos, albeit in the same places as everyone else.
Outside of Sucre, I took the bike and an Argentinian friend for a trip through the villages of Chataquila and Maragua. The stunning scenery so close to the city had me thinking of buying land out there (its that cheap!). You don’t have to go very far to be in the middle of nowhere. I’d only been riding for an hour when we couldn’t find anything to eat. People where looking at us bemused and the roads were twisty dirt again. Pablo told me that Bolivia is a great place to practice Enduro as you can literally go anywhere you like. The boys in Carlos Paz had had to collectively buy land to ride on and in UK I think it has been reduced to very few isolated areas.
A week turned into two. I was going to leave sooner but I kept finding problems with the bike that needed attention. The headlamps were very loose and were going to shake themselves to pieces and Pablo took me to find a welder to sort it out. I rode east out of Sucre towards Tarabuco and the roads known as the ‘Ruta Del Che’, Roads passing through the area that Che Guevara famously did his ill-fated attempt at starting a revolution in Bolivia. I stayed the night in the small town of Zudanez and woke up early to hit the dirt roads. Filling up at the petrol station I met an Ozzy rider on a 200 cc Honda who had just come that way. He told me the road was a bit tricky but totally worth it. I set off, but again without a decent map, I missed the first turn off and instead rode on to Padilla, then Villa Serrano where the Ruta del Che Starts.
The road was in okay condition, presumably due to the dry season and its twisty dirt roads took me high and low through beautiful valleys. It was getting late in the day again and I was feeling pretty tired and I started looking for a place to camp as I didn’t think I was near anywhere with accommodation. As much as I love twisty mountain roads, they are not the best place to camp. The roads are often cut into the side of the mountain and do not have much space available. I saw a suitable spot that was fenced off and lost the front end of the bike while I was looking at the gate. It just goes to show what an effect fatigue can have on concentration, either that or I’m just a shit rider! Anyway, I made it to a village before dark. La Higuera is the village where ‘El Che’ was killed and many tourists come to see where he died. The village itself is tiny. I was expecting it to be so much bigger because of all the alojamientos there but there really wasn’t anything. Still its a beautiful place that looks down into a valley and I slept well, tired from the road and enjoying the oxygen-rich air at about 1500m.
The next day I continued through to Vallegrande, where El Che was buried until they moved his body to Santa Clara in Cuba (I’ve been there too!) and on to Samaipata, another small town big with tourism. I stopped there for the night and continued in the direction of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s biggest city and Americas fastest growing city. Pablo was going to be there on business and I planned to hang out with him for the weekend, but beforehand I stopped off at ‘Gingers Paradise’, an organic farm owned by an American friend of Pablo and his family and had fun trying to cross a very wobbly bridge without falling off (I came very close the first time!).
It was only a short ride to Santa Cruz the next day, and I arrived in time to look for a place to get my panniers repaired as one had ripped when I fell off. I found a place to stay and Pablo came to meet me in the evening and we went out for drinks with his cousin and some other friends.
Santa Cruz may be the biggest city in Bolivia but it doesn’t have the a lot for tourists to do. I still managed to be there for the best part of two weeks though. I didn’t really see any sites (there aren’t many!) and I hardly took any photos but I enjoyed hanging out with Pablo and his cousin Alvaro and as always, I had some maintenance to do. I’m starting to judge cities on how easy it is to find tools, workshops, parts and the like. I changed the rear wheel bearings which were starting to make a strange noise (last changed in South Africa) and helped Pablo maintain his XT600. Pablo had suggested that we take a ride into the Chaco region, an area that he has worked in and traveled by motorbike. We were making plans to go but Pablo had a problem with his bike. The sprag clutch that allows the starter motor to engage was broken and it was impossible to find one in Santa Cruz. Luckily Pablo has 3 or 4 XT600 engines and he went back to Sucre to take one from an unused engine. I was going to do a quick ride around the reducciones, old towns in the jungle set up by Jesuits, but heavy winds and general laziness meant I never left. After 3 days of inactivity I decided to head back west, but I left late and only made it as far as Samaipata. I felt bad that I hadn’t said goodbye to Pablo and I decided to go back to Sucre before heading on to new places. This wouldn’t be so bad as I wouldn’t be going the same way and Pablo had some interesting roads for me to try out. I got waylaid in Samaipata and set out 24 hours later, passing through the mountainous area known as ‘La Siberia’ and the towns of Totora and Aiquile arriving in Sucre just before dark.
I had just missed Pablo as he had gone back to Santa Cruz that day on urgent business. I would have caught him if I had left when I said I would. I was a little annoyed with myself that I had missed him, but Oli was still in town so I got to have another Saturday night out in Sucre. Saturday night turned into the whole week and another weekend (I like Sucre!). Planning my route out of Sucre was interesting. I had intended to pass through Torotoro national park to get to Cochabamba and there were several ways of doing this. Pablo had recommended a route to me that wasn’t on any of the maps, and I couldn’t find anything about the route on the internet. Nobody in Sucre new anything about it either, and people just looked at me as if I was stupid when I mentioned it. Pablo emailed me a map of the route he had made. Confusingly, this didn’t correspond to anything either and it took Pablo’s dad Fernando to explain it to me. Pablo is a civil engineer and the route he gave me was a new road that he had worked on, hence why no one knew about it, although as I’ve said before, Bolivians aren’t the best at giving directions or any information about the road ahead. Pablo told me that I would have to cross a river and Fernando said that there would be a team there building a bridge who could help me get across. The route sounded like so much of an adventure that there was no way I was going to take any other. I left early one morning and quickly found the new road out of town heading towards the village of Poroma. There were a few cars on the road but not many. I arrived in Poroma for lunchtime and a friendly policeman came to join me. He told me Torotoro was only an hour and a half away and that there is a bridge. I would realise later that he had clearly never been to Torotoro by this road! Everyone in Poroma speaks Quechua and I tried to remember what little Quechua I had been taught in Villa Alota. I set off again. The policeman had told me that there was only one road so I couldn’t get lost, but sure enough I started to encounter junctions. Pablo had told me to just take the main road always, but sometimes the two paths looked identical, equally used and sometimes the more direct of the two was not the one I wanted. The first time this happened I rode on for about half a kilometre before seeing someone who put me in the right direction. Later I passed another junction and took what appeared to be the most direct exit but as the condition of the road got worse I convinced myself that the other road running across a different set of mountains was the main route. There were loads of little houses around, but no one to ask. I doubled back to the junction, took the other exit, descended and then rode up to the the other mountain route. I saw an old Quechua woman and I stopped to ask if this was the road I needed, but she didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I guess with the road being that new, I was riding through places that don’t usually have contact with greater Bolivia let alone gringos. In the end I was just saying ‘Torotoro’ and she vaguely pointed back to the other road I had just been on. I doubled back and although I did see other people who only speak Quechua there were a few Spanish speakers around who confirmed I was going the right way. The road was amazing, absolutely stunning, quite narrow but good condition dirt. The descent to the river was way more nerve racking than I remembered the death road to be.
Arriving at the river I found the bridge was under construction and certainly not passable. I parked up and went over to the workers to ask how to cross the river. They pointed behind me, where a 4×4 was in the process of crossing the water at 3 locations. The water didn’t seem that deep, it only came up to the bumper, so knee-deep at worst I though. I readied myself to cross but as I got to the water’s edge I had to pause. The water was very turbid and running quite fast. Deep breath, lets go! I hadn’t got meters in before I realised that the surface was very uneven, rocky, muddy and it was seconds before I got stuck. This video explains the rest:-
I picked the bike up I walked it through to the other side. I stalled it a lot on the uneven ground, which was a bastard cos the bike wouldn’t start on the button when it was in gear, an electrical problem It had had for a while but I hadn’t got around to fixing (dodgy wire from the clutch switch to the CDI). The rest of the river was nowhere near as bad but I was soaked and tired when I got to the other side. I wanted to just put my tent up there by the river but I was advised by the bridge workers to continue up to the nearby village of Carasí. I didn’t really want to go but I was too tired to argue. The villagers received me well. As per usual, they had loads of questions about my bike and trip but also about the road because none of them had been that way before. They told me I could just put my tent up in the village square but one guy, Alejandro, made me a bed in his flour mill. His wife cooked me a meal and I learned some more useful Quechua phrases for the road ahead. I had breakfast with them in the morning before continuing to Torotoro. The road was more of the same stunning mountain passes with crazy switchbacks for another 90 km or so until I reached Torotoro. The locals there were very impressed that I had arrived from this road, saying that I was the first foreigner they had seen come that way and the people at the tourist office even wanted to copy my photos of the route. It usually takes them two days to get to Sucre and they were very surprised to hear that I had done it in about a day. Bolivia is very much a country that is still developing and I guess its a good example of the development to see the locals happy that their journeys will be reduced in half by a new road.
To be honest, I hadn’t planned on doing much in Torotoro. I’d mainly headed that way just to take the road less traveled. Loads of people had told me that they had taken the tours of the various caves and rock formations but it didn’t really interest me cos I’d done similar things elsewhere, but still I was there and while I was drying out my equipment I might as well do something. The problem is that in the national park you need to hire a guide to do most of the cool things. I hired one and we went for a 4-5 hour wander around a canyon which was fun, but didn’t really require a guide if they would put up some sign posts. I’d had much more fun in Brazil wandering free with Steve and Nadia in similar scenery in Igatu. That evening I met a French couple and we managed to get a group together so we could split the cost of taking a guide for the main tours, the Cuidad de Itas and the caves. I have to admit that the caves were loads of fun. We descended pretty far into them, only illuminated by head torches and the group was pretty free to wander about and explore in a manner that health and safety in other places wouldn’t allow (certainly not in UK).
After Torotoro I was to continue on to Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city where I had a place to stay through quite a random contact. My Swedish friend Isabelle had recently done military training with a Swedish-Bolivian girl and I got invited me to go and stay with her family in Cochabamba. Without knowing her mother from Adam, I rocked into town and said hello and was invited in with fantastic hospitality. Maria had lived in Sweden for many years and told me to truly treat her place as my own. The house always has loads of people around. It doubles up as the headquarters for her cleaning business and along with her employees, every day other family members would come to have lunch there too. I had only intended to stay the weekend but when I came to refuel before leaving, the bike stopped in the street around the corner and wouldn’t start again. I wasn’t far from the house and was able to push it back to the house where I found that there wasn’t any spark. After a lot of messing about (days) I got it started again. Even once I’d fixed the sparking issue it was a bastard to start. All the messing about with the carburation to adjust for altitude had now made it run weird at lower altitudes (Cochabamba is at 2500 m). I stripped and cleaned the carb and reset everything to standard. I also decided that I’d had enough of electrical faults and I completely removed the harness and inspected, soldered and waterproofed until I was happy it wouldn’t give me any more hassle. I was unhappy about the delays, especially as the weather was turning bad (the road to La Paz was blocked with snow), but I was cheered up by Bolivian friendliness when I went to get the things I needed to fix the bike. A biker I asked for directions kindly offered to drive me around to look for parts and the proprietors of hardware stores give me things for free. I even got given a free soldering iron!
It had snowed more by the time I was finally ready to leave. The road to La Paz was open, but I had intended to take the dirt roads through the mountains to the Yungas, a route that had been recommended to me by the two Swiss lads I met in Uyuni. The previous week, the BBC news online had said that the village of Inquisivi was completely blocked with snow and I would be passing that way. I decided to try anyway as I could always turn back if it was too bad and I really didn’t want to take the autopista straight to La Paz. Boring and with corrupt police. Leaving Cochabamba was entertaining as it was the first time I got to see the protests blocking the road that I’d heard many other travelers complain about. In Bolivia it is very common for the people to go and block major routes into cities when they are pissed off about something. Buses can’t pass, and backpackers have had to cross the protests on foot. However is wasn’t that difficult to ride straight through the middle as the cars weren’t parked close enough to stop me. They had even placed rocks across the road but with a little timing and speed, these too could be easy bypassed. I was worried that the protesters would be angry with me crossing their lines but they were just the usual friendly Bolivians I saw everywhere else, although still unable to give any useful directions either!
Ascending the twisty dirt roads I passed a camioneta (flat back car) who stopped and asked about the blockade. The driver had just driven from Villa de Independencia and told me there was no snow on the roads. This was good news but as I climbed further into the mountains the weather looked like it could turn bad. All the villages I’d passed were minuscule and I really didn’t want to be stuck in a snow storm. The road descended again and it looked like all the bad weather would stay behind the mountains. Like the road to Torotoro, this one too had unmarked junctions but it was way more populated and I was loving being able to communicate in Quechua, albeit only the three phrases; “how are you?”(im-mai-nai-a-ka-shanky), “where is the road to X?” (mai tan nyan X man) and “see you later” (oodi cama). I arrived in the pretty town of Villa de Independencia, refuelled and slept at a tourist hostel that has apparently hosted the Bolivian president Evo Morales a few times.
The road continued to Inquisivi, which wasn’t covered in snow as the BBC had me believe, but did involve another river crossing that I pulled off much better this time. It had deep parts, but I walked through to check for rocks and found a local guy to guide me through to the shallow bits. He never asked for anything but was made up when I gave some money for beers. It turned out that the road I needed didn’t actually pass though Inquisivi but I stopped there anyway to rest and refuel. There wasn’t any fuel and my rest was made a little amusing by the presence of a bible group outside my bedroom window singing hymms. At least they offered me some blood of Christ to drink, although it wasn’t the alcoholic variety I’m used to.
Fuel was becoming an issue and I asked around in several shops in the next towns until I was sold 2 litres in one place and then 5 litres more in another town. In these out-of-the-way places fuel is much more expensive as it is all brought in by enterprising locals on camionetas. The first proper petrol station I saw wasn’t until Irupana and the start of the Yungas. The Yungas is a mountainous province of Bolivia that is wedged between the high, flat altiplano and the lowland jungle. It is known as having a large Afro-Bolivian population descended from slaves who where brought over by the Spanish to work the mines. Its also famous as one of the major areas for coca production (Chapare being the biggest) and most of the villages I passed had big tarps covered in coca leaves drying in the sun. The lower altitude gives a more tropical climate and I was getting pretty hot as I rode into Chulumani. I found an alojamiento to stay in that was also a dentists and it was quite funny seeing the bike parked in the waiting area (the dentist himself even helped me get the bike in there, while still dressed in scrubs and face mask!). Most of the towns in the Yungas seem to have been built at the top of valleys and I could see their lights in the distance at nighttime, making the place seem more populated than I had thought.
The next day I headed for Coroico, where I would ride up the death rode to La Paz. Google maps showed two ways to get there and I ended up following neither! Still the random route I took was full of more fantastic Yungas views and took me through some of the smaller towns and villages. Corioco had the first foreigners I’d seen since Cochabamba and there are even quite a few foreign-run restaurants and bars catering to tourists that pass through on their way to jungle tours in Rurrenabaque. Coroico has a reputation for parties as its a popular weekend retreat for people from La Paz, but I had an early night to take on the death road the next day. I’d already been down the Death Road (the world’s supposedly most dangerous road) on my previous trip to La Paz, where me, Cillan and Kylie took the popular tour down the road on mountain bikes. The initial views of the road and the sheer drop off the edge definitely took my breath away when I first saw them but this time around I wasn’t fazed at all. The roads of the last few weeks had all been much worse in my opinion, certainly narrower, and I smashed up the Death Road in about half and hour or so. I’d forgotten how much the road climbs after the death road, rising to about 4700m at La Cumbre before descending into La Paz. The tropical vegetation slowly disappears off the mountains until they are just lichen covered rock. Previously, I could just snap photos out of our tour bus window as we returned to La Paz but this time I made the most of enjoying the scenery, although it started snowing just after La Cumbre and I was freezing as I started to descend into La Paz.
La Paz is an impressive place to see, a city set in a valley with little brown buildings lining the steep valley sides and snow capped mountains in the back ground for good measure. One of these mountains, Huayna Potosi, is considered the easiest 6000m mountain to climb in the world and there are tons of companies offering to take tourists to the summit in 2 or 3 day tours. I had planned to do this with Cillian when I was previously in town but we had got waylaid with St Patrick’s day drinking and never got around to doing it. To be honest, the main reason I’d come back to La Paz was to climb this mountain, but I wasn’t so sure I could do it as I hadn’t been handling the altitude too well so far. After a weekend of taking in the city sites (and bars) again I set off on a trial run to climb another mountain. UK rider Nick had told me about Chacaltaya, a 5300m mountain nearby that used to be a ski resort, as well as the highest astronomical observatory in the world and has a road that almost goes to the top. I climbed this to give me some confidence that I wouldn’t just start throwing up everywhere once I got over 5000m. I was completely fine, not even a headache, although the bike almost didn’t make it to the top of the road, reminding me to adjust the carburetor for high altitude again. I went and paid for the climb and the next day met up with the guys who would be climbing with me, 3 Chileans, a Cuban-American and another Brit. I’d been told that we were all beginners but the Chileans all had loads of experience, and their own equipment and we bombarded them with more questions about the climb than we asked the Bolivian guides. Base camp was at 4750m, where we had a half day messing around with ice climbing and crampons before chilling by the fire for dinner. The next day we climbed up to the high camp which is at around 5500m. High camp was nowhere near as cosy as base camp. It certainly didn’t have a log fire or indoor toilet and the weather had been miserable all the way up with rain and sleet. The previous day only 4 out of 18 people who had tried to climb made it to the top cos of strong winds and temperatures of -20 degrees. We were going to start the final ascent at 2am, apparently the conditions are better at his time, the snow is firmer and the summit can be reached for daybreak. Everyone went to sleep at about 6-7pm, but there was no way I was going to sleep. I was just too excited, and a combination of coca tea, altitude and tablets for the altitude containing amongst other things, a shit load of caffeine, had me pissing like a sprinkler all day. I got up in the darkness of the refugio and went outside for what could be the best ever night toilet trip I’ve ever had. It was a relief to empty my bladder, but nothing like the relief to see the sky had cleared and I was looking down onto the top of moon lit clouds. I still couldn’t sleep when I went back to bed but I was happy that we would have good conditions for the climb. 1 am came and we started to get ready. I didn’t want to eat but forced some bread and tea down me before getting all my kit together. Outside while we were fitting our crampons and harnesses we could see other groups had already started their ascents. Head torches in groups of three up on the slopes. I’d been teamed with Ian, the other Brit in the group, but after about 30 minutes I got teamed with Victor, one of the Chileans as his partner, Geraldo had been sick and had to return to the camp. It goes to show that you can’t predict how altitude will effect people. Me and Victor were being guided by Celestino, our Bolivian guide, who had been teaching me to speak Aymara earlier the day before. He had taught me how to ask ‘how much further?’ but I’d decided that it would be better for morale not to ask this and stuck to asking ‘cami seki?’ (how are you?) and ‘wai lee kee’ (fine/good). Celestino set a good pace, and I had no problems keeping up for the majority of it, but walking at this kind of altitude is difficult and all anyone can do is concentrate on keeping a rhythm of breathing and walking. Breathing in and out for each step, but also remembering to sip water from my camelback every so often to stop it from freezing, and of course to stay hydrated. Oh, and by the way, Snickers bars are like bricks in sub zero temperatures, absolute bastards to chew, something like a twix would be much better. At one point I thought we were going to change partners again but Victor was happy with the pace so we carried on. We neared the summit at sunrise, where the last 88 m would involve some ice climbing and then shimmying across a ledge only wide enough for one foot at a time. I would have been really scared if I had not been so tired and I just ploughed on encouraged by Celestino until we made the summit. I was so happy to have made it, but unhappy to find out that 3 from the group had turned back to camp. I hadn’t noticed anything on the way up, but I guess that was due to the trance like concentration on walking I was giving. We were only at the summit for 5 minutes. Its not the kind of place to hang around, cold, windy and not much space. You can hear me gasping for breath in this video at the summit:-
Going back to camp was easy though, although my camelback had finally frozen and I had to rely on Victor’s generosity with his drink to not dehydrate. In less than 30 minutes of daybreak the snow becomes more softer, like powder, and it was great fun bounding back down the slopes. The surroundings that I could only just make out under the moonlight were now brightly lit alpine vistas and we had time to take it all in on the way back to camp.
I was completely done-in by the time we were in the car heading back to La Paz. We had eaten at base camp with the next group of people to attempt to go up, but I’d started to get a headache on the way down and I really just wanted to sleep. I had nothing else planned to do in La Paz except enjoy the weekend and get ready to leave (after 14 or so months in South America I’d finally managed to buy an alpaca jumper without llama designs all over it!), but I needed to change the oil on the bike before hitting the road. It was getting late and the only moto shops I had seen were in El Alto, the city right next door to La Paz at the top of the valley. I shot out with Ian on the back of my bike to buy some oil and to also see the city-scape at night and buy some large fireworks. The hostel had a roof top bar and we were allowed to set them off from the terrace. It was nice to be leaving Bolivia with a bang, although not as destructive as the ones I had when I arrived!
After the weekend and a quick oil change I rocked out of La Paz, through El Alto and on to Copacabana on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. El Alto and Copacabana are both around 4000m, but the bike was handling it fine. After the trip to Chacaltaya, I’d adjusted the carbs to their leanest settings possible without changing the jets and now there was no spluttering. I only stayed the one night in Copacabana. Most people go there to go to Las Ilsas del Sol y la Luna (Sun and Moon Islands) that are very important in Inca history, but I was eager to hit the border and the next day I crossed into Peru with no problems.
So there it is, my action-packed 3 months in Bolivia and I’ve loved every minute of it. I was a little apprehensive at first as I’d heard lots of negative stories from other riders (not from backpackers, they love Bolivia!). Tales of corrupt police, roadside robbery, awful roads, unfriendly locals and unavailability of fuel but I hadn’t seen any of it myself. I’m not saying the stories are false. I’m sure the police are corrupt, and enough Bolivians told me that the roads are dangerous at night, and the roads are shit but that is the adventure! As for Bolivians being unfriendly, I find this hard to believe, but if you can’t communicate with them, then the situation will always be more difficult. I’m really pleased that my Spanish has improved as much as it has, especially when I consider how I spoke when I was in La Paz those years ago and now I’m reaping the benefits of getting to know the people and cultures better and making the most of my time here. I’m writing this in a hotel room in Peru. I’ve been in Peru for over 2 weeks already, but I’m still missing Bolivia. I’ll be coming back for sure to hang out with my Bolivian friends and have more adventures. There is loads more exploring to be done!