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March 26th, 2012 | Bolivia

The Ride to La Paz…

My plan was to ride out of Chile and into Peru, and then try and get as close to La Paz as possible today… With a bit of luck, even make it all the way into the capital of Bolivia itself…

The Hostal Colonial in Arica... Doesn't look like much, but behind that large rusted gate, the Big Fella rested in complete safety, on a tiled floor...!!

I was packed and ready by 7.00 am, had a quick breakfast and then hit the road…

When I reached the border with Peru, a mere 18 km away, there was a long line of trucks, buses and cars already waiting there… About 3 km long….!! I cruised slowly past all of them, ignoring the scowls of people lounging about outside their vehicles… Clearly this line of vehicles had not moved for some time…

I stopped at the head of the queue, and was immediately confronted by three soldiers in uniform, who explained to me that the border was closed due to “manifestacions” by “los Peruvian minas”….

Turns out that striking miners had blockaded the road with burning tyres and other obstacles, and were not letting any traffic through the border…!!

The soldiers thought that the border might re-open in four or five hours… They were waiting for the Peruvian police and army to bring things under control…

Peru has long been beset by industrial action of one kind or another, and many travelers had mentioned this to me over the past few months… It was not uncommon to be kept waiting for hours while police unblocked roads leading into major towns, or escorted vehicles through towns and encouraged them to just keep moving…!!

The sign I remembered seeing on my way to the Peruvian border....

I was not prepared to wait out in the hot sun in full kit for a few hours, and remembered that I had seen a sigh pointing to Bolivia, a few kilometres back down the road to the border, which I had just ridden up…

This sign had my companions confused.... "I thought our motto was "ever forwards, never backwards..." they grumbled... But I had a plan.....!!

After consulting my map which was sadly out of date, I saw a dotted line that traced its way directly to the Bolivian border… My GPS knew very little about this track, but I turned down it anyway, and found it to be a tarred road in very good condition…!!

It meandered along the banks of the Rio Lluta which originated high up on the Altiplano…

The road followed what seemed to be a disused railway line, with weeds growing in between the tracks, and small stations lying boarded up, abandoned and forlorn…

The little village of Poconchile, was the first and last I would see along this road for the next 100 km...

I was amazed at the lush green farmland on the banks of the river, which contrasted sharply with the desert landscape on either side of it… Maize grew straight and tall, large areas were planted with a variety of vegetables, and a few large scale chicken farms were also in evidence…

Where the road began to climb, farming operations stooped abruptly.... The evening mist had all but been blown away by the effects of wind and sun, revealing the brooding desert on either side of the Rio Lluta...

The road began climbing steeply up into the mountains, the altitude read-out ticking up sharply with every kilometre we covered…

I passed twenty six of these field guns, all being towed by trucks that belched diesel fumes into the air... Was there a war on...??

I began passing a convoy of military trucks, all towing small field guns… There were that many of them, that I wondered if Chile had declared war on Bolivia since I last glimpsed a television set…!!

I snapped a few pics, not caring if the soldiers in the back saw me doing so or not…!! Most of them were fast asleep anyway…!! Those that were awake, waved back at me and some snapped photos of me with their mobile phones…

Apart from all the overtaking we were doing, there was very little traffic coming the other way… I could see the road curving far ahead of me, and used all of it to make a fast run up onto the Altiplano…

Instead of the dry and desolate desert conditions that I had expected to prevail, I was surprised to find low grasses and shrubs growing in this region…

Large cacti also grew on the slopes and shoulders of the mountains… Only the very upper parts of the higher mountains were devoid of vegetation… Apart from the various shades of green, the only other colour on these plants were bright yellow flowers, and the occasional purple petals of a low bush that seemed to only grow on the edges of the road…

At 3 200 m, I came across a dwelling on the left hand side of the road… A small hand painted sign said “Informacion Turistica”… Another pointed in the direction of the mountains behind the collection of haphazard buildings, and said, “camping”…

I stopped to take a photo of this place which was literally in the middle of nowhere… I am not sure what made me want to stop and check it out, but that’s what I did… I parked the bike and walked up to what looked like the entrance, and knocked on the half open door…

Part of the home was made up of an old railway carriage...!! Various "add-ons" had been attached to it, reminding me of squatter camps I had seen in other parts of the world... Except that this one had an air of mystery about it...!!

The door was opened by a young girl in a pixie cap, eyes bright as a button…

“Er… Cafe, por favor…??” I asked with a smile, realising as I looked over her shoulder, that I had knocked at the front door to what was obviously a home…of sorts…!!

“Si…!!” she said, and indicated I should go and sit under the canvas awning that covered a makeshift garden…

I could see that the entire place was made up of items that had been salvaged from their surroundings, as well as further afield… Large pieces of driftwood had been piled together artistically, and cacti planted amongst them… Small hardy looking flowers had been planted in old truck rims, and surrounded with other rusting engine parts…

Tables made from the flanges of cable drums stood under the canvas shading, and logs and planks acted as seating…

This is where I sat down to drink my coffee, and spent much longer than I intended in the company of a very interesting man...

“What in the world are these people doing here…??” I thought to myself…

A middle aged European woman came from somewhere out back, nodded to me and smiled, and then went into one of the many entrances to what was their home…

A short while later, two of the daughters came out carrying a tray on which was a battered mug of coffee…

I sat down, lit a cigarette and sipped at the luke warm coffee, all the while taking in my surroundings…

A small ginger kitten toyed with a piece of string, and a few chickens scratched hopefully in the dirt near my “table”…

The semblance of a garden... I looked at the pink flowers, and then past them to the desert beyond.... My resoect for whoever lived here, grew....

An elderly man in a maroon shirt walked out from behind a screened off area, and came to sit opposite me…

He nodded and said “Senhor….”, and then looked at me in as direct a manner as you can ever imagine…!! His eyes never left my face…

His focus went from my left eye to my right and back again, almost as if he was searching for something there…??

I sat calmly looking back at him, taking in his weather-beaten face and hands; his long gray beard; his large hooked nose; and his piercing brown eyes…

Then he proceeded to tell me a bit about himself… He was born in Italy, studied architecture in Milan and London, where he met his wife, a medical doctor… Twenty two years ago, they gave up everything and turned their back on the bright lights… They loved the desert and moved to this very spot and started building a house…

They had their three children in the main bedroom, with nobody to assist them… They home-schooled their children, and took them into Arica once a month to “see the world”….

El Mystico.... Within a few minutes of meeting me, he was taking my pulse to see how the altitude was affecting me...!!

He was a “mystico” and lived as close to nature as was possible… Everything in the house was either solar or wind powered… They shunned TV, and used a radio keep in touch with world events…

Then he went into the house and came out with a pulse monitoring device, which I plugged my finger into… The monitor read 97, which I thought was very high, but he said was “good”…!!

“People who have pulse rates of lover than 85 at this altitude (3 200 m) have trouble breathing… Much nausea, much headaches…!!” he said…

“Let us breath together…!!” he then said, beginning a series of alternate nostril breathing, using the thumb and forefinger of one hand to block and unblock his nostrils one at a time, while conducting our breathing with his other hand, as if he was in front of an orchestra…!!

He then advised me that the border I was riding to was located at 4 600 m, and once there, I should move around “carefully…no rushing…!!”, and then pointing to my cigarette, he said, “And no smoking…!! Your head will feel like it wants to explode…!!” (Not wanting to see my brains scattered on the Bolivian Altiplano, I heeded his advice and refrained from smoking from that moment, until I reached La Paz, many hours later…!!)

As I got up to take my leave, he held his hand out to shake mine… Then he clasped his other hand over mine, and closed his eyes… I thought he may be saying a prayer of some sort for me, and held on his hand with mine, closing my eyes too…

We stood like this for fifteen seconds or so, and then opened our eyes simultaneously, as if they were connected to the same switch…

“You have much strength in you Senhor, and a very strong will… Soon the clouds above your heart will be blown away…”

I stood dumbstruck by this… It was not what I had expected… He went on to tell me things about myself that he certainly had not heard from me…!! We stood hands clasped together for another few minutes, while he administered advice and good wishes…

His final words before he walked over to the side of the road to wave at me as I passed, were, “Ride now my friend, and remember to breathe deeply…!!”

His face and words would remain with me for much of my ride to La Paz… I never did ask his name, but I wished that I could have spent more time with him…

The village of Pucre. a collection of mud-brick hovels and a military garrison...

I began passing the military convoy again, that had overtaken us while I sat and spoke to the old man of the desert…

The road climbed higher up into the mountains, and then dipped down to pass the village of Pucre, where I stopped to check if there was any fuel available… My spare fuel bottles were empty, and I knew I would be needing fuel long before I got to La Paz… I had only covered 160 km since refueling in Arica, and was told there was fuel at the Bolivian border, which was a further 70 km to the east…

I could not find a fuel station there, but did pass a military base where the convoy I had overtaken was no doubt heading for… Apparently, the soldiers are rotated on a weekly basis to get them acclimatized to the high altitude, perhaps in preparation for the day that the Bolivians invaded…!!

Kicking up dust on the ride to the border... The road was in good enough condition to maintain speeds of 80 to 90 km/h....!!

"I have a very impatient guy on a big bike here, who says he is not about to let a small thing like 30 trucks coming towards him and a narrow dirt road, prevent him from moving forward...!! Be on the look out for him, he's going like the clappers...!!"

I rode on, and soon the tar road ended and a hard packed dirt road began… For the next 60 odd kilometres, the road was being prepared for tarring…

There were a series of “stop and go’s” but i was not about to hang around behind a long line of trucks, while an equally long line of trucks wound its way towards me on a single lane dirt road…!!

I bumped my way to the front of every queue, nodded to the guy on duty, and made it clear that I was going on ahead and would keep an eye out for the oncoming convoy of vehicles…

For the next hour, I dodged oncoming trucks, diving off the road and onto the secondary lane that was being prepared… Some of these diversions were over ten kilometres long… I would have lost hours if I had sat quietly by and obeyed instructions…!!

The scenery in this remote area of the Altiplano was spectacular…

Volcano’s thrust their way up off the flat plains and judging from the altitude I was already at, some of them had to be over 6 000 m high…!! I also passed a series of lakes, where birds like ducks and cormorants sat sunning themselves on the rocky shores…

Volcano surrounded by heavy cloud.... The weather up ahead did not look too promising...!!

At a mere 6 342 m.a.s.l., Mount Parinacota dominates the landscape close to the Bolivian border with Chile... We stopped to take it all in, and breath the crisp clean air....

GiGi confirms that we have left sea level behind us...by a long chalk...!! 4 638 metres ago to be precise...!!

Lago Chungara in the foreground and Mount Perinacota in the background... A more spectacular setting for a border post, you will be hard pressed to find...!!

I reached the Chilean border post a few minutes later… A long line of trucks stood waiting to be processed through customs… Just before that, it had begun to snow… Flakes drifted down and settled on my jacket sleeves, and then just as quickly melted…

I looked up at the sky and saw that they were coming from one large isolated cloud that was moving on to the south… I sighed with relief, as I was once again rather lightly attired for this weather, having expected to be riding up the coastline of Peru at that very moment…!!

I parked the bike and went in to the long brick building that housed both Chjilean and Bolivian customs and immigration… I had my passport stamped to exit Chile, and my Chilean bike registration papers withdrawn in a jiffy…

The Chilean / Bolivian border post at Chungara... At 4 360 m, one of the highest anywhere...!!

The Bolivian Immigration officer looked shifty… I handed my passport over, and he took about 10 minutes scrutinizing every stamp on every page… This was supposed to make me uneasy, you see…!! I had crossed a border or two in the last few years, and recognised the signs…!!

Then he asked me where I was from… I casually reached through the gap in the glass, closed the passport and pointed to “Portugal” in large gold letters on the cover… He grunted and then got up to look at a long printed list on the wall behind him, running his finger down the list and mouthing the names of the countries on it…

The sign indicating that we were in Bolivia spoke volumes for the fact that we were heading back in time...

He then rattled off something in Spanish and asked for 50  Bolivianos… I told him that I did not understand a word he was saying…. He invited me into the office behind the glass window… This was very unusual, as officials do not like the public to be on the inside of the glass with them…!! I walked around and sat sown in the chair he indicated….

Again some machine-gun Spanish but this time the sentence ended with 50 “Dollars”…!!

“I have to pay to enter Bolivia…??” I asked in surprise… “What for…??”

“Visa….!!” came the reply, eyes darting everywhere…

“That’s pure and utter bullshit, my fine friend…!!” I said, getting up and walking over to the document pasted on the wall… I ran my finger down the list to where it said Portugal, and then traced it across to where it said, “90 deis – no visa”…

“See….!! You’ve just made a simple error, haven’t you…??” I said smiling thinly at him… I opened my passport to the next empty spot, pointed to the stamp on his table, and indicated that he should get his arm working…!!

With the stamp securely in my passport, I pointed to my gray beard and told him that I was not born yesterday, and wished him an unpleasant day further…!!

It took much longer to get the bike sorted than I had hoped… There were photocopies to be made at a store 200 metres away… Then a number had to be obtained from a computer at another little office, then I had to trudge back to the border gate to have another form filled in, which was then entered onto a computer…

Away from the border town of Paso Pasto Quemado, and into Bolivia on a wing and a prayer...!!

Walking around in the thin air certainly got my heart rate up… I found myself sweating, even though it could not have been more than 5 or 6 degrees Celsius…!!

I passed large herds of grazing Llamas, most of them giving the road a wide berth...

Finally I was done, and I headed to where I could see a petrol station… As I pulled up at the shiny new pumps, a young woman dashed out to indicate that there was no fuel, even though I had seen a car pulling away from the pumps as I rode down to the service station…!!

I assumed that they had run out of fuel, and this had me worried…!! I figured I had about 150 km in the tank, and the next service station was 190 km away…!! And no spare fuel in my four bottles…!!

I set off at 90 km/h, certain that I would run out of fuel before the town I was heading towards but confident that somebody, somewhere would help me…!!

Apart from a few scattered homesteads, there was little evidence of human occupation over the next 50 kms… The scenery kept my mind off the cold that seemed to be a permanent feature up here at 4 000 m…

Riding at 90 km/h was at least not as cold as when I was doing 120 km/h and more…!!

I could easily identify areas where the earth had been thrust skywards by volcanic action from long ago...

There were many small shallow lakes on either side of he road, and wide but mostly dry river beds that must only be swollen with water when the snow melted in springtime…

I stopped at a little trucker restaurant on the side of the road, and asked the only two people that I could see, if there was “gasolina aqui”… The shook their heads that there was not and mentioned the name of the two I was riding towards…

When my range indicator read “0” I looked up and saw the town I was heading for in the distance… I estimated that it was about 10 to 12 kms away and throttled back to 80km/h… I made it into Patacamaya by the skin of my teeth, 412 km from when I has last filled up…!! Perfect judgement, I say…!!

Overtaking here becomes a game of chance... If you misjudge one of these ruts in the road, you are thrown off balance and the rest as they say is "road rash"...!!

I stopped at the pumps and was told to go speak to the guy sitting in a little kiosk before I could get fuel… He asked me how much fuel I wanted, and I replied that about 22 litres would do nicely…!! He then tapped numbers into a calculator and showed me that it would cost 200 Bolivianos…

I had just seen a guy put 20 litres into his car and pay 70 Bolivianos…!! I asked why the difference and he told me that foreigners have to pay more…!! That simple…!!

I only had 100 Bolivianos with me, so he was only prepared to sell me 11 litres of fuel…!!

I had heard all about this from other travelers… Although Bolivia was cheap by many standards, tourists were fleeced more often than not, and had to pay at least twice as much for everything than locals did…!! Nice way to encourage  tourism…!!

I rode hard for La Paz, hoping to get there before rush hour, but that was a forlorn hope… Rush hour in La Paz usually lasts from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm… It is always rush hour in La Paz…!!

On the way I passed the El Alto International Airport, formerly known as the J.F. Kennedy Internacional Aeroporto, and wondered how this airport had got it’s former name…!! More importantly, I wondered if Jet Blue flew direct to Provodenciales from here too…!!

The city centre of La Paz lies in a deep bowl, the side of this “bowl” are covered in buildings, perched on the steepest hillsides imaginable…!! Above the city lies the industrial area, and a sprawling market-place cum taxi rank that curls around the upper edge of the “bowl”…

La Paz is sprawled up and down the sides of a steep valley... This is just a small part of it...!!

I got stuck in a sea of mini-bus taxis that made anything Soweto could come up with look like a Sunday afternoon picnic…!! We crawled along, taking an hour to cover just 600 metres…!! The Big Fella quickly overheated, despite the cold temperatures… The red warning light flashed on and off several times before the traffic finally thinned out…

Few of the taxis were actually going down into the city itself, but were turning off into other clogged side streets…

Most of the churches in the city are old, but this rather modern one stood out, as I cruised around looking for a place to stay...

Once clear of the chaos, the ride down the side of the mountain and into the city was reasonably trouble free…

I would have liked to stop and take a photo from the edge of the road leading down to it, but the speed with which I had to ride to stay ahead of cars intent on getting to the bottom before me, made that impossible…

La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, and at an elevation of between 3700m and 4 000 m, the highest capital city in the world…!!

The city was founded in 1548 by the Spanish conquistadors…

I had no idea where I was heading, and chose to stay on the busy main road and see where it led… I passed through an area filled with restaurants and shopping areas, and then turned out of this road and into a quieter area, if that was possible…

At every intersection, despite working traffic lights, gangs of policemen directed traffic, pedestrians and themselves… They blew their whistles at everybody and nobody in particular, gesticulating wildly for traffic to move, and then just as suddenly stop…

I heard that without these policemen, traffic grinds to a halt, because every driver jumps the lights and then blocks the road for other crossing traffic…!!

Some of the back streets are made from cobble-stones which are slick with spilled diesel and the oil from leaking taxis and buses…

I found my way to a large open park, and pulled over with my wheels in the gutter, to prevent my panniers from being knocked off…!!

Standing next to me on the pavement, was a little fast food stand, and when I smelled the frying sausages and thin steaks, I realised that I had not eaten all day…!! I bought a hot dog with all the trimmings and thought about what I should do…

Directly over the road was a small hostal, with almost the same name as the one I had stayed in the previous night in Arica… This one was the Casa Colonial, but as far as I could see, had no parking attached to it… I asked the hot dog guy to keep an eye on my bike, and then ducked across the three lanes of traffic to check the Colonial out…

The Casa Colonial would serve as my base in La Paz...!!

I liked everything about it… The receptionist spoke English, (I nearly fainted…!!), they had a reasonable WiFi signal, the room was okay, and shower had hot water…!! But there was no parking for the bike…!! I went back to the bike and began lugging my stuff across the very busy road and inside the the lobby…

The traffic was that bad across the three lanes, that it took two hours before I could move the bike around the block, mount the pavement and park it up against the wall of the hotel, almost completely blocking the pavement…

I hurriedly got the cover over the Big Fella and went to my room to continue unpacking… A few minutes later there was a knock at my door and an apologetic receptionist advised me that the police were outside and wanted the bike moved…!!

I went out and told them I would move it later or early the next morning, but I was too tired to move it right then… They hummed and hawed for a few minutes and then walked off shaking their fingers back at me…!!

My route today from Arica to La Paz....

Back in my room, I lay down to ease my aching back… The flu I had picked up in Brazil had been with me for almost two weeks now, and all the coughing had now affected my lower back muscles…!! Blowing my nose so often had also resulted in a few nose bleeds which may or may not have been as a result of the altitude…!!

But on the whole I was happy that I had made it all the way to La Paz in one day, and had a cut about 100 km off the route which I would have taken through Peru…!! Viva striking miners…!! At least they can be good for something…!!

©GBWT 2012

 

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