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.

Colombia Two

Colombia Part One here

Today we visited the Las Lajas Sanctuary near the town of Ipiales which is situated right on the border with Ecuador. The sanctuary is impressive to see more so for its location than anything else. The story goes that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared in the cliff faceto some people when they were sheltering from a thunder storm about 300 years ago. The area was worshiped as a shrine for years until the sanctuary was finally erected over the space of about 30 years ending in 1949 or there abouts, so although it looks old it’s not really old at all but still impressive and worth the visit as it’s so close to Ipiales and most people travelling south go through Ipiales anyway to cross into Ecuador.

After Bogota we headed west towards the region known for coffee growing. The GPS said six hours but we have learned not to trust it so we were prepared to stay somewhere along the way if going was slow. As it turned out it was an extremely scenic drive through valleys and over mountain passes the road frequently reached 3000m and… the GPS ended up being right for once. We arrived in Armenia and searched for accommodation, we never book accommodation beforehand we have learned to begin searching after we arrive at our destination and always find something reasonable definitely more reasonable than the prices online. But this time it was taking longer, everything seemed to be full or oddly overpriced. It then dawned on us that Semana Santa was just beginning. Semana Santa is the long Easter weekend and a big holiday in Colombia. We were now competing with the whole population of Colombia which had mobilised to get away from the big cities to spend the long weekend with family. Eventually with some help from locals we found a cheap place with a car park for the bike. Our crash course in Semana Santa started the next day when we noticed a lot of shops were not opening or had limited hours plus the streets seemed to have 50% less people on them than usual. Our plan was to visit Salento next which is a small town in the mountains about 20 minutes from Armenia so we packed up and set off. We reached Salento pretty quickly but were disappointed to find out that it was completely swamped by long weekend travelers attending Salento’s Easter weekend festival which is one of the biggest events of the year in Salento as we found out. We were unable to find accommodation, the only offer came from a local woman offering a corner in her house to sleep for 70,000 Colombian Paseos a night, aside from the screaming children running laps around her we declined mainly due to the price. Up to now we have always found a pretty decent hotel room for 30,000 Paseos so she was chancing her arm a bit. We elected to ride out of town and stay somewhere else for a couple of days until the Easter madness had calmed down and then return to Salento. The town is a dead end there is one main road leading in and the same one must be used to leave. It winds down around some steep hills and when we were riding down it there was a good 5km of traffic standing still on the road trying to get up to Salento for the festival.

We rode north and onwards to Pereira and Manizales, one night in Pereira and two in Manizales. In Pereira we witnessed some of the Easter processions through the streets where people carried statues of Jesus and other Biblical characters. They were accompanied by a military band which played Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence over and over again.

In Manizales we stayed at a small hotel situated on the side of a mountain with great views over the valley below. Franziska couldn’t believe her luck with the amount of different types of birds that frequently stopped by. When Sunday finally arrived we made our way back to Salento where things had died down a lot. We cruised into town and found accommodation immediately, most of the stalls and attractions were still up for the festival so we got to see some of it after all. The main reason for visiting Salento was to take a day trip into the Cocora Valley national park a huge picturesque natural area high in the mountains only 10 minutes from Salento. The next day we hooked up with the Belgians Matthijis and Gerlinde again and hiked for 10 kilometres through the park. It was tough because of the altitude but worth it. We were already at 2000m at the beginning of the trail which raised up to 2800m by the end so we felt the strain on the lungs at times. Great scenery and well worth it, we spent another couple of days in Salento then made our way south towards Cali which we had always heard is a cool place so we were looking forward to it.

There is a huge military presence on the roads in Colombia, every 50km or so and in some areas much more frequently we would ride past a unit of armed soldiers standing on each side of the road facing the traffic. When you ride by they give you a thumbs up and I usually do it back. I’ve learned that this is a campaign running in the country to show the people that the military are friendly and on their side. Now and then you see posters on walls with a picture of a soldier giving the thumbs up and in Spanish is written something along the lines of “show your support”. A couple of days ago I saw another giant poster of a scene with soldiers in uniform helping a woman deliver a baby but I didn’t catch the text of that one. Anyway the reason the military came to mind was because as we headed south we saw more and more of them. I found it interesting today when we were riding up to the Las Layas Sanctuary we stopped at a red light and next to us was a military barracks which had a giant poster of mug shots of the FARC and ELN commanders still at large with some of the mug shots crossed out with a red line and the word captured beneath them. Back in San Gil when I was talking to the two policemen I took the opportunity to ask them if it is safe to drive everywhere, they told me it is now and not to worry that the only dangerous areas are far off in the mountains to the east and south east. They also recommended that we don’t drive on mountain passes late at night which we never planned to do anyway.

Back to Cali, even though it has an elevation of 1000m it was scorching hot the day we arrived. We had a little trouble finding a hostel at first, we checked a few but they didn’t have suitable parking. We were all sitting on the curb thinking (the Belgians were there too) when a guy walked up to us and asked us if we needed a hostel. It transpired that he was out promoting a new hostel handing out flyers at the bus station but the Police stopped him from doing it, put him in the back of their car and drove him away from the bus station. Lucky for us they dropped him off at the end of the road where we were sitting so he walked right by us. He led us to this brand new hostel which isn’t even online yet with its own car park and brand new modern facilities. We began to explore Cali the next day and tried to find out why people think it is so cool. Eventually we found out, it boils down to alcohol and salsa dancing. Cali considers itself the salsa capital of Colombia so you can either take lessons, watch a salsa show or just go to a salsa bar and enjoy the atmosphere. So if you don’t like dancing or going out drinking the coolness of Cali may go over your head.

Our next stop was Popayan, which presently surprised us, it is much smaller than Cali and has a definitive centre around a square. It is also a university town with most of the buildings in the old town painted white and looking colonial. On our second day there we were interviewed by two students as we exited the tourist information centre. They are studying tourism and wanted to ask us some questions about our visit to Popayan. It was in Spanish so it moved along in a jerky fashion until they came to the question why did we choose to visit Popayan? For some reason I’m not sure why, I blurted out PARTY! and made a drinking a beer motion with my arm over and over again while smiling at them. Of course we were not there to PARTY we just dropped in by chance but I think I just thought at that moment that they are sure to understand the word party and then all of a sudden I had over done it. The two students looked a little disappointed I think they were hoping for an answer relating to the culture of Popayan. Without the appropriate Spanish skills to undo my mistake I walked away from that interview feeling pretty guilty.

After a few days in Popayan we rode into the mountains to visit a native village which also had some hot springs. We had a hilarious experience at the hot springs but I’ll use my better judgement and not go into detail about it here. I’ll keep that one for the pub some time.

Onwards towards Ecuador we passed through Pasto where we stayed one night and now we’re in Ipiales. Colombia has been a great experience, I liked the scenery, the small towns and the people’s openness the most and I liked the smog the least. Although everyone seems to have a mobile phone and modern shopping malls selling stylish clothes are everywhere nobody seems to have done anything in regards to emissions standards. There are a lot of old vehicles on the road blurting out black smoke as they accelerate and you don’t want to get stuck behind one on a curvy mountain roan where you don’t have a chance to pass for a while. Any day we have made a journey at the end of the day when I wash and put a towel up to my face to dry it the white towel turns black from the exhaust particles which collected on me. Aside from that everyone should visit Colombia its so diverse. We actually clocked up 2500km since arriving in Cartagena, that’s like riding from Guatemala City through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama to Panama City. Colombia is deceptively large.

Tomorrow, Ecuador.

On the road

On the road again