Bolivia

Amazing rides in Bolivia


In the morning we jumped on the bikes, happy to leave the crazy traffic in La Paz. The ride to Oruros was pretty fast, despite the thick traffic heading that way for the carnival. Bikes can always squeeze by faster, so we got there in 2 hours or so.

From Oruros we took the shortest way to Uyuni, which was about 100 km paved and about 220 km dirt road.

Here we made a short stop for lunch in a small town, where we eat again some delicious cheese with bread and tomatoes.

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And off we went again.

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Right past that town, the road was washed out and covered by a river now, as it was the rainy season.

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There were only the train tracks going over, so Vasile went to see if he could pass the bikes over on the rail tracks.

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But that was mission impossible, so we had to find another solution. A local kid told us there was a bridge a little bit further down, so we headed that way. We found the bridge, which turned out to be covered in water too, but at least it was paved and here we are on the other side, continuing our journey.

Overall the road was not too bad, it was packed dirt in some places but very washboardy, with lots of mud sections (the rain left its tracks) and towards the end lots of sand. But the view was magnificent.

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We saw some llamas again on our way.

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And the beautiful pink flamingos.

IMG_5693A few river crossings.

IMG_5725 IMG_5731It was starting to get dark but we decided to continue until we got to Uyuni. Initially we were planning to camp, but there were not too many safe spots to camp, as there were washouts everywhere, so you could never tell when the water was going to flood again, especially that it was still rainy season. And to top it off, the storm was coming, we could see the lightnings in the distance.

IMG_5734Towards the end of the day we were starting to feel tired. It was peach dark, the road was all deep washboards and with a lot of sand on top, my arms were hurting from the shaking. When the road got to Uyuni, it was a challenge to find the main road towards the center of the city. It was just mud and dirt everywhere. We finally made it. The whole city was celebrating the same carnival, so everyone was in the streets singing, dancing, spraying people with water and foam. We hardly made our way through the crowds, just to realize that all the hotels were full, not one room left. We were about to head out (this was around 10:30 pm) and find a place to camp outside the city when Vasile finally managed to find a room in a hotel. They did not have water (apparently in the whole town), but at that point it did not matter anymore, I could go to sleep, and that was all I cared about.

The next day we went to see the famous salt flats. We were told they were covered in water this time of the year and we were not allowed to ride across them. Apparently some riders got stuck and lost on the salt flats some time ago and due to the fact that in the water you cannot see the tracks, they were found 5 days later. Since then it’s prohibited to ride on the flats when they are flooded, for safety reasons. We rode a bit on the side of the flats but we almost got stuck so we had to turn around. But we did ride around the train cemetery.

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Even the unpaved roads in town were very muddy, with huge puddles.

IMG_5758 IMG_5759 IMG_5762 IMG_5764We decided to leave Uyuni and head South again, towards Tupiza. But we needed gas. And the lineup at the gas station looked like this.

IMG_5766While I was waiting on the line Vasile went and washed the bikes, so we did not waste time. Almost ready to leave, just one more thing. My front brake was gone almost completely, so Vasile had to replace it.

Before

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and after

IMG_5770All set we hit the dirt roads again, another 212 km from Uyuni to Tupiza. Same type of roads for a while, washboards, dirt and mud with washouts and water crossings. According to Vasile, very similar to the Dampster in Alaska, just a lot worse.

IMG_5778 IMG_5787 IMG_5790 IMG_5791The road goes up to 4000 m altitude and surprisingly there are still villages up there.

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The landscape is getting better and better as the road goes up in the mountains, all the way up to 4500 m altitude.

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And here is our lunch stop. We made some noodle soup, had some cheese and apples as appetizers and chocolate was the desert.

IMG_5819 IMG_5820 IMG_5822 IMG_5825With our stomachs happy, we could jump on the bikes again.

IMG_5826 IMG_5829 IMG_5835 IMG_5838And it got dark again, and just for diversity it started raining. But we finally made it to Tupiza, and finding a hotel turned out to be quite a challenge. As I am pretty blind at night, I was just following the light of Vasile’s bike. So if the bike danced, I would be like “so that was mud”, if I felt a hoop I’d realize that was a deep pothole and if I felt water splashing I would know that was a puddle. Otherwise I couldn’t see anything in advance. So when we found a hotel, we just stopped there, we did not drive around more to find a better deal. There weren’t many options anyway. The hotel we found was pretty expensive for our budget, but it was really nice. It even had a pool, too bad we did not have the time to use it.

The next day, all fresh and rested, we were on the road again, this time heading for the border. The road from Tupiza to the border was paved, so we could go faster. But we needed gas first. In Bolivia there is a little bit of a problem with the gas for tourists. What happens is, for locals the gas is extremely cheap, as the government subsidizes it. Which made a lot of people from the neighboring countries to come and by gas in Bolivia and sell it in their country. So in order to discourage this, the government imposed a higher price for tourists, which is 2.5 times higher than the price for locals. And for the government to track that and to recover that difference, gas stations must issue an invoice to tourists each time they sell the gas. They are not allowed to sell it without issuing invoice. There are cameras in each gas station to make sure that happens. And gas station employees are sometimes too lazy and don’t want to fill out the invoice or some of them can’t read or write so they cannot fill out the invoice, therefore they refuse to sell you gas under the excuse “we don’t have invoices now”. This is the problem we encountered a few times throughout Bolivia and once again in Tupiza. At this gas station the girl told us she doesn’t know how to fill out the invoice, therefore she cannot sell us gas. We told her we don’t care about the invoice, we don’t need it. She said “ok, I can sell you without invoice, but the price for you is 9.5 b” (which is 2.5 time the local price). So here she got me confused. “Well, since you don’t give me invoice, than why do you charge me the full tourist price? That’s the price for when you cut invoice. Where does that money go?” So basically what she wanted was to sell us at the tourist price, without invoice, and put the difference in her pocket. As we were already quite frustrated, as she ignored us for a good while and kept serving other customers (locals) we did not want to support this kind of dishonest ways of doing business, so we told her that we were willing to pay that price as long as she gave us invoice, but without invoice we were only going to pay the regular price. So then she said she wouldn’t sell to us, since the owner told her not to sell to foreigners anyway – which is totally illegal; they cannot refuse to sell gas to tourists, as the government is losing money this way. A long line up formed behind us, as we refused to move the bikes until she would sell us gas. I could not believe that most people were actually mad and did not understand why we didn’t just want to pay the tourist price without invoice, knowing very well that this way the money was going straight into the girl’s pocket. No one saw anything wrong with that. There was only one lady there, that seemed to be way more educated and well spoken, and she was on our side trying to explain to people our reasoning, but without much success. Now our options were: to call police (as Foreign Affairs Canada recommends to do if they refuse to sell you gas) or to go find another gas station and hope we won’t have the same problem over there. We considered the first option for a while, out of principle, but then we realized that we would waste way too much time and we needed to get to the border, plus Bolivia is a more than corrupt country, so we had no guarantee that that policeman was going to actually do his job right. Therefore we decided to go find another gas station. And we did, they had invoice, they sold us the gas, but there was only a very old man who knew how to fill out the invoice, and he was blind. So between him and the girl at the pump, after a sustained effort and team work, they managed to fill out our invoice, that went straight in the garbage. This tells me how many invoices they actually fill out, and I am sure there are lots of tourists passing by.

Glad to finally have the tank full, the last one we needed in Bolivia, we headed to the border. Despite the beautiful landscapes and rides, at this point I was so ready to leave Bolivia.

Categories: Bolivia | Leave a comment

El Camino de la Muerte – The Death Road


In Bolivia I kind of entered with my left foot. At some point on the left lane there were some big commercial trucks stopped, so all the traffic was deviated onto our lane. And even though they saw us coming, they wouldn’t wait for us to go first, they would keep coming onto our lane, to the point where we were stuck. No one could go any further. And guess what: they started honking at us, to get out of their way. On our lane! There was no shoulder, so we could not go by them, so then Vasile started going in zig-zag, squeezing through the cars. I tried to do the same, but unfortunately my panniers are much wider than his, so I touched with one of them the wheel of the truck on the left, which made me lose the balance and drop the bike on the other side. The right mirror, which had been broken when I had my crash a few months ago and that Vasile had jb-welded came off. I was so pissed off and so frustrated with these drivers, when the truck that was coming on MY LANE blew the horn at me. The guy had lost the patience as Vasile came to help me pick up the bike and we were checking to see if everything else was ok. I guess that was his was off saying “Oh I am sorry you fell because of me, since I am driving on YOUR lane and did not leave any room or options for you; are you ok?” I could not believe the cheek of him! Both Vasile and I started yelling at him at the same time “What, you don’t have patience? Continue on your lane then!” It was for the first time in the whole trip when we yelled at someone in traffic. But as we could see later, it became something absolutely common for Bolivia.

As the mirror was not a fix that could be done on the side of the road, I had to continue riding without it. On the highway it’s not too bad, but as we got to La Paz, it became very sketchy. Remember this is a country where passing is done on whatever side you feel like, there is no personal space, green light doesn’t mean anything (everyone is running red lights), rules are bent in whatever direction you may please and riding without a mirror felt quite unsafe. We passed through La Paz and went straight to Achumani to find the KTM dealership, as Vasile wanted to do some major maintenance on his bike here, hoping to find a hotel in the area as well. We found the dealership pretty fast. Achumani is a beautiful little town by La Paz where I am assuming only rich people leave. Some sort of West Vancouver of the Lower Mainland. Unfortunately no hotels at all in the area. So after Vasile talked to the guys at KTM, we had to turn around to La Paz and try to find a hotel.

Our friends Chris and Stephanie (which we split from in Cuzco, as they had to take care of some more stuff) had arrived in La Paz the same they. Apparently we passed right by them on the way to Achumani. Chris jumped on the road to wave at us almost being hit by a car. But I guess he wasn’t flashy enough, or we were too frustrated with the traffic (we both almost got squished by cars every five minutes, so we had to have all the attention on the road) and we didn’t see him. In the meantime he had sent us a message where they were, so we were heading back to find them. The ride back was even more horrific. Thick heavy traffic barely moving at all on steep, narrow streets, cars moving onto our lane as if we were not even there, honking, yelling. Again, for the first time in this trip we started using our middle finger for other purposes than just throttle and clutch. At some point I told Vasile to just stop at the first hotel on the way, and we could find our friends later. “Look, there is one right here, why don’t we just stop here” “Oh, actually this is the hostel Chris was telling us about” Perfect timing. So we stopped and we met there Alison, another fellow rider that we had heard about but haven’t met before and soon after Debbie showed up, the girl on a BMW 650 that we met in Medellin. We chatted for a few minutes and then we decided to go and check in a hostel one block up. I was feeling so tired and exhausted  as I could not eat anything for almost three days and I was completely dehydrated too plus the crazy traffic and all I wanted was to eat (NOW!), have a shower and have a good sleep. I could not even get back on the bike and  ride one more block, so Chris took my bike to the hostel and he showed me where the restaurant was, so I can go straight there and eat, hoping that this time my body would actually keep the food in.

The next day Vasile and Chris went shopping for bike parts as Chris needed to fix a few things on his bike.

In the evening we met another fellow rider, Dwight, riding on a KLR. A really nice guy from New Brunswick, Canada, with a lot of interesting and funny stories to tell. Dwight has met Chris earlier in this trip and they met again here in La Paz. What a small world! Turned out it was his birthday, so we ended up having a great party with beer, wine and tequila shots.

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The next day Vasile went and did the maintenance on his bike. He went to the KTM dealership and they let him do all the work there and made available to him all the tools that he needed. Fernando, the KTM owner/ distributor for Bolivia was super helpful. He brought all the parts that Vasile needed and he drove around town for hours to look for oil and coolant for Vasile’s bike, while Vasile was working on the bike.

Turns out that Fernando also has a Tour Agency that organizes mountain bike tours. He offered us a great deal on a tour on the famous most dangerous road in the world, the Death Road (El Camino de la Muerte). This was something that I wanted to do from the first day we got to La Paz. So when Vasile got to the hostel and asked me if I wanted to do the tour I was jumping up and down with excitement.

We had to wake up at 6 am in the morning and get ready as they were supposed to pick us up at 6:30. Even though I am not a big morning person, I was up before the alarm rang. It was raining, but that didn’t cool down my excitement at all.

This ride was one of the most fun things I’ve done in this trip. I loved it! Even though throughout the ride we had fog, hale, rain and wind it was still a lot of fun on one of the most spectacular and scary roads in the world. Here are some snapshots.

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The guide and the driver were a lot of fun too (the name of the agency is Madness). At the end we stopped for a refreshment and guess what: we meet again Nela and Minerva, two Romanian girls living in Chicago that we had met on Machu Picchu. We were climbing the Waynapicchu and we heard “Wow, Romanians”. I was wondering who was able to recognize the Romanian language there and then they told us they were Romanian too. They are great, fun girls, we had a good chat as if we’ve known each other forever. And here we are bumping into each other again! They have done the same tour, just with another agency. This time we managed to exchange email addresses so we can keep in touch.

We got back to our hotel all soaked and cold but so happy to have done this.

Now the next plan was to go to Oruro, the folklore capital of Bolivia, about 2-3 hours south of La Paz, for the famous carnival that dates back more than 2000 years. Looking online for lodging we realized it was all booked and the prices were about 5 times higher than regular. Now plan B was to ride there, find a place to leave the bikes, go see the carnival, and then go out of Oruro somewhere and camp. But everyone advised us against it, as it would be crazy busy and it would not be a good idea to take the bikes there. So we decided for plan C, to take a bus from La Paz, go see the carnival and come back to La Paz. Unfortunately this morning when we went to the bus station, there was a humongous line-up, we waited in line for a couple of hours and when we got close to the kiosk we were told that we needed IDs in order to buy tickets and we didn’t have them with us. But it was quite late anyway, they were selling tickets for the 11 o’clock bus now, and with 3 hours drive there we would’ve gotten there pretty late, so we were not too upset.

Tomorrow we will be heading south towards the salt flats and then soon towards the warm Argentina. The cold got too deep into my bones, my lizard body needs a sun break:)

Categories: Bolivia | 2 Comments

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