Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Casual Wanderings in Bolivia

Spitting out sawdust and choking on paint fumes, I once wondered if this trip was ever going to happen. A year before I left Seattle, I was still knee deep into a house remodel. And, while I was preparing the house for the market, the market was preparing for its crash. It was a stressful time. I remember now how daydreaming about Bolivia helped me get through it all, always wondering what it was going to be like once I was finally there. For me, the country represented the true essence of the trip, or at least the trip I envisioned.

Bolivia seemed rugged and unforgiving, while its’ people remained deep-rooted in cultural backgrounds and practices. The area had a rich and colorful history, and if that wasn’t enough, the area offered a wonderland of terrains for anyone traveling on a motorcycle.

Some of the country’s natural highlights:

  • The western portion of the country is made up of the Andes Mountains and the Altiplano (a high plateau averaging 12,300 ft).

  • The world’s largest salt flats are located in the southwest corner of the country.

  • Volcanoes tower over algae rich lakes where flamingoes feed by the hundreds.

  • The Atacama Desert is one of the most unique and driest places on the planet.

  • In contrast, the eastern border of the country is made up of Amazon Rainforest.

  • Less than 10% of the country’s roads are paved.

  • And the notorious ”World’s Most Dangerous Road” lies north of La Paz.

Some historical highlights include:

  • The country was part of the Incan empire with Lake Titicaca being the birthplace of the original Incan emperor, according to legend.

  • The city of Potosi is home to the famous Cerro Rico mines, which helped fund much of Europe’s expansion and development in the industrial period, and where many forced laborers lost their lives.

  • Che Guevara, the man on every-other t-shirt in South America, was hunted down and assassinated in Bolivia.

For me, the country would be divided into two parts:

North – which has paved roads, and the

South – which does not.

I entered Bolivia through the peninsular border at Copacabana on July 10, 2009. Even though the Peruvian agents could not find any record of my bike in their Maxwell Smart era computer system, I was still able to make it to traffic clogged city of La Paz in time for an early dinner. The city is home to around a million people and listed as the highest capital in the world at 12,000ft. For me, it was another large city to navigate.

After four days I left and headed north to have “a go” at the notorious World’s Most Dangerous Road. The 50-mile stretch of highway is much tamer now, but when it was the only road available for transport to the northeast area of the country, between 200-300 people died each year. In one year alone 25 vehicles plunged off the edge. This single lane dirt road was carved into the mountainside in the1930s mostly by Paraguayan prisoners of war. Back in the day, whole busloads of people would go over the edge, with no hope of surviving (forget about any sort of rescue attempt). Since the construction of a modern highway paralleling the route, the deadly road is now primarily used for mountain bike tour companies that bus groups to the top and let them ride down. Even now, the road still claims the life of a mountain biker every year or so. Since my bike is “pedal-less”, I drove to the end of the road and took an uneventful, but beautiful ride up the mountain, pulling over for the occasional group of “Woo-Hooing” bicyclists coming down. Though I never felt in danger, I couldn’t stop imaging how a full size bus and a tanker truck might manage themselves when coming head-to-head back in the “glory days”.

Time to head south. An hour or two south of La Paz I took a detour towards a natural hot springs that I had heard about. I saw the sign and took a left. The road was void any life, completely desolate as it cut into the mountains. The spa was to be at the end of the road, an hour or so in. About 30-minutes into the drive I came across two young boys standing next to an upended bicycle, the first people I had seen since taking the turnoff. According to the unwritten unspoken Biker’s Creed - you never pass a brother in need. They had a flat, and were trying to remedy the situation by simply tying a knot in the inner tube. This is great for making sausages, but not an airtight solution for tire repair. They were reluctant at first, but warmed up to me after they saw how much work it was for me to empty out my pannier to retrieve my tire repair kit. We patched a hole, then another, then six! The tube was a mess. During the process a group a girls showed up, from God knows where. We all had fun, but shadows were growing long on the ground, and I still wasn’t entirely confident about this spa “at the end of the road”.

The next morning exiting on the same road (the spa was great), I again came across my fellow cyclist. We shook hands as he proudly showed me his Write Around the World decal mounted on his bike.

Back on the paved highway, another beautiful sunny day, I passed yet another bicyclist, this time on a fully functional red touring bike. I found a place to pull over and wait, while I hydrated. It was Graham from London. Graham and I had had dinner together back in Peru and he said, “If you ever see a red bike, it will probably be me”. It was. Graham had started in Central America and was on his way to Buenos Aires. I have immense respect for people doing this trip on bicycles.

By 2:00 the pavement had ended. I was now in “southern” Bolivia. My goal of making it to Sucre originally looked like a six-hour ride from the spa, but in reality it took almost two full days. The dirt road was slow going, passing through canyons and by working mines and their tailings. The sun disappeared behind the canyon’s wall well before I could make it to the next village. I thought about pitching the tent, but I didn’t have any food, and hadn’t eaten since the morning (I don’t eat much on riding days).

I pulled into the small pueblo of Pocoata in the dark. It was just large enough to have the requisite Spanish plaza in the center of town. This town was not in any guidebooks, and by their reactions to my arrival, did not get a lot of tourists showing interest in their town. It was Saturday night and there was a bit of a buzz in the streets with food vendors and commuter buses stopping, unloading bushels and sacks of goods. After asking around, the “green house” on the square was only place to stay. For $3 I could store my bike in the submerged room next to the small tienda and sleep on a straw mattress in the room with the door that almost closed. It was perfect. Once again, the people proved very friendly once I “proved yourself” by making first contact. Within an hour, the old women loitering in the adjacent storeroom, who wouldn’t make eye contact with me when I first showed up, were now giggling whenever they called out to me as the “Grande Gringo” – or when I would beat my chest and proudly proclaim the same. I couldn’t help it.

I call these the “parts in between” and they are what I cherish the most. The “getting there part”, the roadside tire repair, the unanticipated adventures that await you at day’s end – they are what I enjoy the most. They are genuine moments that occur without the direction of guidebooks or behind the guise of local attractions. Traveling by motorcycle has proven to be an excellent way of running into these parts in between.

I eventually made it to Sucre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and instantly fell in love with the place. The pristine colonial architecture and near perfect weather make it an inviting place to be outside, creating a vibrant livable city. During my week there, I relaxed, fattened up a bit at my new favorite restaurant La Taverne, and visited a couple charities focus around helping the local children in need. It was hard to leave, but I am determined to return after finishing my trip south. I will be back.

The short two-hour ride from Sucre to Potosi was paved, surprisingly, and took me through a most bizarre hailstorm. Potosi, another World Heritage Site, was home to the famous Cerro Rico mines. The mountain is still being mined today for various minerals, but beginning in the mid-1500s Spanish conquistadors began, filling ships bound for Europe with it’s silver. European development and expansion was significantly funded the by the silver (and some gold) taken from this mountain. In fact, the saying “It’s a Potosi” is still present in the Spanish lexicon and used when someone comes across a windfall or surprisingly profitable transaction, or so I am told. The silver was eventually tapped out and the city was abandoned, as poor as ever. The only thing that had profited locally was the cemetery. It’s numbers increase dramatically.

From Potosi I rode the long lonely dirt road to Uyuni, home of train graveyards and the Salar. Driving on the salt flats proved to be an absolutely surreal driving experience. From Uyuni, it would be another six-hour day on the dirt roads to get to the town of Tupiza, then another four to the border of Argentina.

I finished the remodel, the house sold, and Bolivia did indeed prove to be rugged. The massive scale of everything is extremely humbling. I thought that I had felt vulnerable before, but not like in Bolivia. I learned a lot about controlling my thoughts. How, it left alone they would take off to dark places, the “what if” places. By reeling in the out of control thoughts, the perceived dangers would go away. The country requires immense respect, but it also requires trust. Trust in yourself, but also in that the idea that the world is not out to get you…. Unless you screw up, then it’s going to swallow you whole.

Watch My Video:

Casual Wanderings in Bolivia



  1. Fabulous! Fabulous! Mike, both the writing and the voice-over of the You Tube are perfect. Thank you for sharing this adventure. What amazing places! Keep going.