Bolivia

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Bolivia immediately seemed far more relaxed than Peru, we felt it straight away after crossing the border near Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Once we stamped out of Peru we rode about 100m to the Bolivian border where we had to wait for around an hour because the customs official was on a liberal lunch break. On the door of the customs building it said closed between 12:00 and 13:00, it was around 14:00 when we arrived. Once he showed up it only took ten minutes for the import formalities, he didn’t even bother coming out to check the VIN number on the bike.

It was a short ride into Copacabana which is a small town on the shoreline of Titicaca, we found a hotel easily, checked in and went out to explore. Copacabana is small enough to walk around within an hour. There is one main street where most of the restaurants and cafes are based which slopes downhill towards the lake. The population is mostly native with a fair amount of backpackers hanging around. At one point we strolled through a local market and thought that something didn’t feel right, then we realised what it was. None of the vendors were approaching us or trying to sell us anything you could stop and look at something without being harassed. Completely different to our Cusco market experience and it again portrayed this relaxed vibe we were both feeling from the place. We enjoyed Copacabana but it is very small and we found it hard to spend more than a few days there. However what ultimately caused us to hit the road was that Franziska chipped one of her teeth while eating and we thought it best to go to La Paz where there are plenty of dentists to choose from.

Bolivia seemed less densely populated than Peru which made the roads feel much more quiet and calm to ride on. There were still some nutcase don’t give a damn drivers but far less than we had been accustomed to up to that point. If the road was a paved road it was generally in good condition and if it was unpaved it was general in very bad condition, only about 35% of the roads in Bolivia are paved. After La Paz we encountered some of Bolivia’s new highways, it was strange to ride down them because you could ride for 100km and only encounter one other vehicle.

La Paz itself is a little chaotic but what do you expect from the largest city in the country. Less than 24 hours after chipping her tooth Franziska was sitting in the dentist’s chair in La Paz, the dentist fixed the tooth with a composite filling – cost 80USD. In La Paz and Bolivia in general it is hard to find a large supermarket or well known brand shops. The trading is more individual with people setting up stalls and selling odds and ends, major commercialism hasn’t hit Bolivia yet. The food is almost standardised, you arrive on a street which looks like it has five to ten restaurants but when you enter each one you find that they only serve chicken and rice. In La Paz there were a number of good restaurants that made more of an effort which was a nice change. Usually these restaurants are owned by foreigners.

I knew beforehand that buying fuel in Bolivia would be an issue as it is government subsidised and foreigners are supposed to pay around 2.5 times what the locals pay plus they want all of your details like passport number and vehicle registration when you’re filling up. The day after Franziska’s tooth was fixed we set off north to reach the town of Corioco where we intended to spend the night and we would have to buy our first tank of fuel on the way. It was actually a little difficult to find a petrol station they are not as numerous as they are in other countries. I eventually chose one which had a long queue of cars outside it hoping that the attendant filling the cars would feel under pressure when I got to the pump and skip the normal formalities with the passport and so on. Luckily it worked when it was our turn he saw that we were on a foreign bike, thought about it for a minute looked at the line behind us and just got on with it so we got our first tank of Bolivian low grade petrol for the local price. I say low grade because I’m assuming it is, there is no choice at the pumps it is either diesel or petrol with no numbers beside it I never saw any petrol stations selling super or anything like it. With a full tank we set off north. The intention was to Staying Coroico and then ride the “Death Road” back to La Paz. The death road isn’t really dangerous it just acquired that name because of a few incidents where vehicles went off the edge more due to bad drivers than the road itself. Anyway the normal road to Coroico is also very interesting to ride. It rises up to around 4500m where you experience extremely cold temperatures and if you’re lucky some snow. Then it descends to 1300m and you find yourself in the warm tropical Amazon. We were stopped about three quarters of the way there by a lady with a two way radio she motioned us to take a road leading off the main road into the bush. Later I found out that the normal road had suffered a landslide and this was the detour around it. The detour was pretty unsafe, it was very steep and the ground was loose gravel sometimes with sharp turns. We popped out the other end and continued towards Coroico. Roughly ten minutes later we arrived at the turn off for the town which is situated on top of a hill that we were at the bottom of. Unfortunately this road was also closed because of a landslide and the workers directed us to continue on around the corner away from the road we wanted to take. At this point the road was mud but a very slippery type of mud it was like it had a layer of slime sprayed across the top of it. I could feel it and I rode slowly through a couple of muddy puddles but as I exited the second puddle the bike started to slip sideways. We were travelling at a very low speed at this point, I probably even had my feet on the ground for stability. I had no choice I had to let it go and we both plonked down on one knee. A half a second later we were standing again watching the bike bizarrely slide forward away from us while rotating 180 degrees. It was like watching a bad shot at the bowling alley when the ball slides slowly down the lane and into the gutter. It must have been the slimy surface on the mud that caused it. So we watched it and waited for it to stop. It didn’t slide fast just methodically slow eventually it came to a halt by slotting itself into a gutter at the side of the road in an upright position. All I could think was how am I going to get it out of there. Less than a minute later a small truck came around the corner and the two guys in it helped me lift the bike out. There was no damage at all. In addition we found out from these guys that the road we wanted to take back to La Paz was impassible, again due to a landslide. So with our planned destination for that night inaccessible and the old road back to La Paz blocked we had no choice but to go back the way we came. When we reached the part where we had earlier taken the diversion we were directed to continue on the normal road as the landslide had now been cleared but it actually wasn’t. We arrived at a blocked road and traffic mayhem a few kilometers later where a very annoyed excavator driver was trying to make it to the blockage past all of the vehicles which had been let through the barrier prematurely. Eventually he cleared the blockage and we were on our way again. After a long cold ride back to La Paz I decided to refuel at the same place and the guy gave us the local price again. We spent the next hour in La Paz rush hour traffic inching along towards our hostel. When we were about 1km away it began to rain which is a bad thing for motorbikes in La Paz, reason being some of the streets are sloped at very steep angles and they are made of cobble stones, very slippery in the rain and our hostel was on one of these streets. When we approached the hostel Franziska got off the bike to open the carpark gate, immediately after she got off I found it very difficult to stop the bike from sliding. There was a bus in front of me and cars behind and even with both front and back brakes applied I was sliding forward downhill on the wet cobbles. Eventually I had to let the bike go over on its side it was either that or slide forward at speed into the bus. Some tourists came over immediately and helped to pick it up and nurse it over to the hostel carpark. Inside the carpark I was on tarmac again so there were no more problems. Or at least that’s what I thought. When unloading the bike I smelled petrol, at first I thought it was leaking out of the overflow pipe because it had full tanks and was on its side a couple of minutes ago. But it wasn’t the overflow pipe the petrol was splurting from a small 2mm hole on the left hand tank that I had never noticed before. I looked at the right hand tank and it also has a hole in the same place but it wasn’t ejecting fuel. I looked again at the leaking side and thought there must be a lot of pressure behind that hole to make it squirt and splurt like that so I decided to open the tank cap incase the tank was pressurised. The second I opened it fuel shot out bubbling upwards into the air about 20-30cm like a fountain and ran all down the side of the bike. I must have lost a quarter of the fuel in the tank due to than action. I have no idea where all that pressurised gas came from, the right hand tank was also full but it was fine no pressure build up. It was the perfect end to a long day, I was really looking forward to bed that night.

Salar de Uyuni are the largest salt flats on Earth and they are situated about 730km south of La Paz. On our way there we stopped in Oruro for one night and because I didn’t really trust Googlemaps or the Internet fully when it comes to roads in Bolivia I decided to ask locals what the road between Oruro and Uyuni is like. I even downloaded pictures of a paved motorway and a dirt road and used them in the conversation flicking between each one and pointing to the road on a map just to be extra sure. I asked three different people and they all said it was paved so we set off early the next morning in the freezing cold planning for a five hour ride. The first half of the journey was brand new motorway but then much to our dismay it suddenly stopped and became road works which transitioned into no road. It took us five hours to ride the remaining 180km to Uyuni. It was all off road the surface changed between compacted sand, deep sand, mud, deep mud, gravel, washboard effect compacted dirt and more plus two river crossings. What were those people thinking who told me that the road is paved? Oddly now and then we would find a 2 or 3km stretch of perfectly laid tarmac motorway section in the middle of nowhere which was nice to climb up onto to have a break from the sand for a while. It wasn’t easy to stay on the road either, there is a long term plan to build a motorway over the existing dirt road so the area is criss crossed with diversion signs where the original road has been excavated and you are sent off into the wilderness desperately looking for the next diversion sign to point you back in the right direction. A number of times we had to stop and wait for a vehicle to drive by to ask them if we were on the right road. The adventure side was enjoyable but it was also exhausting. We rolled into Uyuni just before dark.

Uyuni as a town has real out in the middle of nowhere wilderness outpost feel to it. We met up with Greg again just for one night before he hit the road again towards Brazil. His plan was to cross the flats and enter Chile but he had to turn back as the mountain passes were closed due to snowfall. We visited the salt flats the next day, it really is a unique experience. They were dry when we visited but during the rainy season there can be an inch or two of water on them which probably makes for better pictures but must be worse for the bike. We spent a couple of hours out there just hanging around and taking pictures.

The road between Uyuni and Potosi our next destination was brand new and we had it almost to ourselves for the entire three and a half hours. The only danger was the Vicugnas which look like a cross between a deer and a lama. Every now and then they would dart out onto the road either alone or in herds. In Potosi we found comfortable accommodation but could not find a half decent place to eat. In the end we settled for one of the chicken and rice places which backfired on us when Franziska spent the night in the bathroom because of it. We had to prolong our stay in Potosi until she felt better, after two days of cramps, fever and the other usual stuff we headed south for the town of Vilazon which is situated right on the border with Argentina.

Travelling at high altitude and in cold weather is no fun at all when you’re feeling under the weather so we were anxious to start our decent out of the Andes inside Argentina. We just used Vilazon as an overnight stop before crossing the border the next day. There really isn’t much I can say about it other than our hotel room had a giant poster of Barbie hanging on the wall which was pretty inexplicable. Riding the five minutes to the border the next day I felt completely relaxed and happy that later we would start to descend from 3800m to a place where the air is rich with oxygen again. There was a long queue to stamp out of Bolivia then it was straight to Argentinian immigration which only took a couple of minutes. After that we hit a hurdle, the Argentinians would not allow me to import the bike without having valid insurance for Argentina. At first I thought fine where is the office and I’ll buy some because every other country we had entered where insurance is required had an insurance office at the border. That is until now. They explained we would have to go into town and buy it there then return to the border and carry on with the process. During this time the bike would have to remain at the border post. We had no choice so off we set.

 

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This is where the bike had to stay all day as we looked for insurance.

It was roughly a 2km walk to the insurance office where the lady told us she wouldn’t insure a foreign vehicle and sent us to another insurance agency. The lady in the second one said no motorbikes! We eventually found a third one and that lady initially said no but a younger guy working there intervened and said he can issue it. We were relieved because that was the last insurance agency in town. The only drawback was that it would not be ready until five o’clock in the evening! I gave him all of the details and we walked back to the border to let them know what was going on. In the end we had to check into a hotel and leave the bike at the border all day while we waited on the insurance. We finally received it at six in the evening and returned to the border to import the bike. We would have to wait until the next day to start our long awaited decent out of the Andes.

At the moment we are in Buenos Aires, the plan wasn’t to come here so soon but during the ride across Argentina the rear sprocket on the bike went from ok to rubbish in the space of a couple of days. It was completely worn out and Buenos Aires was the logical choice to find a replacement. In hindsight I should have changed it in Lima but I overlooked it.

Once we get this sorted we are looking forward to heading north into a warmer climate for a change.

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