New Country!!! I’m very excited to enter Bolivia. It’s been high on my list since I started thinking about this trip. Unfortunately, the day I crossed the border it was freezing rain. Most of Bolivia that I’ll be traveling through will be in the altiplano (high plains) around 3500 – 5000 meters (11,375 – 16,250 feet) and it’s cold up here! The border crossing via Yunguyo, Peru was simple. Although the cold rain wasn’t too enjoyable.
The only hitch upon entering Bolivia for US citizens is the $135 USD visa fee. Their government does this because the USA charges Bolivians a similar rate to apply for a US visa. Imagine the situation for most Bolivians though. They pay their $135 USD visa fee, wait a month for an interview that’s in a far away city, get declined without good reason (usually because they don’t have the finances and can’t prove they aren’t just going to find work), and there is no refund on their visa fee. I guess it isn’t so bad to pay my $135 at the border and pass without questions asked.
The map shows a road that crosses over the isthmus of Lake Titicaca. I assume there’s a bridge. Nope, instead there’s a “ferry” service. Here I am with my sweet Colombian rain jacket riding across the choppy lake in the pouring rain.
I usually stop for gas well before I need it because gas stations aren’t always easy to find in remote areas. I was too lazy to stop before leaving Peru (it was raining, I was cold, I just wanted to push through to some drier weather). It wasn’t until the 6th gas station from the border that I was able to find one that actually had gasoline. I asked the guy why they were all out of gas. He said something but I didn’t understand. I had been running on reserve for 15 miles and was getting nervous that I’d run out of gas, in the high plains, in the rain, and have to start waving down every combi that drove by to try and buy some gas. I spent the night in La Paz. It rained all night as well as the next morning. Who goes to Bolivia during the rainy season anyways!?!? I really wanted to ride the Yungas “The most dangerous road in the world” with a dirt road less than 3 meters wide and at times has a vertical cliff drop of over 200 meters. Each year there are over 100 fatalities on the road. I was really excited to ride this road but I decided it would be best to skip the road in the extremely muddy conditions.
I left La Paz in the rain and took the straight shot down to Oruro. My rear tire is getting bald from all the high speed flat roads and the pavement will soon end in Bolivia. I stopped by a llanteria (tire changer). He charged me $7 Bolivianos ($0.88 USD). That’s not a typo, it was less than 1 dollar and changed the tire right there on the sidewalk.
Oh yeah! Dirt ready!
Bolivia is cheap. A tire change for less than a dollar. A hamburger for 38 cents. A freshly squeezed glass of orange juice for a quarter. Gas for 2 dollars/gallon. A nice hotel room for 7 bucks. I could get used to this…
The next day was further south to Potosi. It was all paved and just as the rain started I went around a corner, caught an oil slick, lost control, and went off the road. Luckily I stayed upright and the run off was clear. Just as this happened, another motorcyclist was coming the other way. I didn’t catch his name, but he shipped his Honda Goldwing from Europe to Argentina and is riding north to Alaska.
I continued through the altiplano. Everyone who comes to Bolivia is looking for a photo of the llamas. I think I got the bread winner here…
Leaving Potosi was a challenge. The city was under gridlock. All roads entering/leaving the city were blocked by busses and trucks. I asked what was going on but all I could understand was that they were protesting the government. Fortunately, they were all friendly and though they wouldn’t move their vehicles for me, I was able to squeeze through by riding on the sidewalks, in deep mud on the side of the road, and weaving in and out of the blockades where a car would not be able to fit. On the more complicated blockades with dozens of vehicles I felt as though I was doing a “get the mouse to the cheese” maze. I’d get off the bike, follow a path until it deadened, then back track to a fork, follow that path until it deadened, and so on until I found the only path that would get me across the blockade.
All the donkeys up here have the gnarliest coats I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes it’s easiest to build the road under the water than to build a bridge over the water. Wherever there is water crossing the road you’ll be sure to find cars/trucks parked and getting a thorough washing. As I crossed this section, it was a little deep in the middle and I splashed the truck diver pretty good. He wasn’t too happy. Oooppps.
Another muddy water crossing.
Keep on keepin on.
The riding was fun. There were a few instances when I tried crossing the “centerline” and got caught in some deep gravel. I thought I was going down but somehow I stayed upright. Here’s some details on the road from Potosi to Uyuni for those other ADVriders out there:
- 130 miles (first 20 is paved).
- Mix of gravel/sand/dirt but not terribly technical.
- Time = 5 hours (bus time is 6).
In Uyuni, I took my first day off from riding since Quito, Ecuador (over 2 weeks ago). The famous Salaar (Salt Flats) are underwater this time of year and I didn’t want to subject my bike to that sort of torture so I joined a group tour. First we checked out the Train Cemetery.
C’est la vie!
Next it was off to the salt flats. A ride on the roof of the Landcruiser gave great views… of other people on top of their Landcruisers.
These pictures don’t do the area justice but it was beautiful. The thin layer of water gives a near mirror image in calm sections. The horizon fades away as land becomes sky. From a distance it looks like people are walking on water. In the winter (ya, it’s summer down here in the southern hemisphere) the Salaar is completely dry, flat, and white and it’s possible to take some crazy photos on size perspective (see here). But with imperfections on the surface it’s not quite as magical. Nevertheless we tried a few.
Don’t eat me!
Hold me clos tiny dancer.
Heaps of dragons out here…
Cooking tiny people in the Jetboil.
And lastly the famous salt mounds.
Sadly I must admit that my time in Bolivia wasn’t thoroughly enjoyed. Ever since arriving in Lake Titicaca I’d been feeling the effects of altitude sickness. The loss of breath wasn’t a big deal but the constant migraine headache, nausea, insomnia, and lack of appetite all lead to a lack of energy. I tried to tough it out the first few days. When that wasn’t working I switched to the local remedy, matte de coca (tea made with coca leaves. These same leaves are used to make cocaine but are not toxic without processing). Eventually I gave way to prescription altitude sickness pills and ibuprofen. Unfortunately, nothing worked. Each day I was running on less and less food, sleep, and energy all while my head was throbbing non-stop. Each day after riding I laid in bed until forcing myself to eat dinner and then laid in bed again. Desperately, I went to the pharmacy in Uyuni and asked for help. The “pharmacist” was missing every other tooth and wearing a Hello Kitty sweatshirt. She tried to sell me altitude sickness pills (the same I already had from the States)… I asked if she had oxygen. Nope. I asked if there was a doctor in town. Nope.
I decided to make a run for Chile the next day to get to lower altitude with desperate hopes of improving my health. Unfortunately, it was one of those “it’s only going to get worse before it gets better” type deals as the road was long and arduous as it first climbed to over 4100 meters before it descended. I wished I could have jumped into an ambulance or crawled to a hospital or even just walked down a mountain slope to get some help. But those options weren’t available in this rugged altiplano. Instead, the shortest way to safety was an 11 hour ride covering some 280 miles through wet mud, dry mud, washboard/ripio, shallow sand, pot holes, deep sand, large gravel, and small gravel. Each requires a different technique to drive through and would constantly change just when I got comfortable. By some will of God I never fell and made it to my destination just as the sunset.I arrived dehydrated, undernourished, and physically and mentally exhausted. But I arrived! Here at the ever low altitude of 2600 meters (8,500 feet) I’m starting to feel better.
Here’s a few photos from the day’s journey. I filled up two 2L water bottles with extra gas (surprisingly I didn’t need to use them). Notice the difference in color – purchased from different gas stations. In many countries you have a choice between 2 to 4 different octane levels of gas. In Bolivia you have just one, gas. And it’s crap. After the gas settled in these bottles, I shook it up and saw large particles swimming around – bad for the bike…
My auxiliary fuel tank storage.
This polish couple purchased a KLR 5 months ago in Colombia and are working their way south to Tierra Del Fuego. – 2up! They told me they also have another bag and spare tires that they sent ahead with a jeep. And I thought I was loaded down… Ride on!
Stopped for a water break by some village in the middle of nowhere.
Rock climbers unite! On the way to Ollague (the border with Chile) there is a 5 mile stretch with millions of giant boulder formations. They go on for a miles on either side of the road as well. Imagine it like a Castle Hill, New Zealand but at 4000 meters (13,000 feet) and having the nearest town over 5 hours away. Come claim some first ascents in southwestern Bolivia.
CHILE!!! There ain’t not no one at this border crossing. The customs lady was a bitch but the guy who was in charge of checking my luggage for contraband was friendly and wanted to practice English. There’s not much going on up here… Chile is the first country to search my luggage. Not unlike US customs, they were looking for food and drugs. I decided to show him my small food stash and he said it was all OK. It was a quick and easy check and I was on my way.
Forcing myself to eat a late afternoon snack in the middle of the Atacama desert. Need that energy.
Bolivia has a beautiful isolated southwest that I wanted to explore but I decided against do to my health. I feel ashamed that I couldn’t experience more of Bolivia. The journey must go on…
Important note on nature: the dominant lama has a beard.
you’re a wildman ben. this was my favorite post so far. llamas were hilarious and the photos on the salt flats were awesome
Good call on skipping the Yungas Road, which the Wikipedia link mentions is also called “El Camino de la Muerte”. Awesome llama photo, of course.
The altiplano reminds me of Utah near where we grew up. It’s a different kind of beauty from the high green valleys in your Peru photos. The Salaar looks so amazing, and I love the tiny people photos!
I’m so glad you were able to descend safely and that you’re feeling better. Altitude sickness is serious business, and though it sucks to leave Bolivia prematurely it was definitely the right call. Hopefully you’ll return someday.
Hope Chile treats you well!
Finally, we found your blog! 🙂 We are the Polish couple you met at the petrol station in San Cristobal. Your photo is the only one that exists that include both of us on the bike!!!
You can still go to our picasa pictures (via our blog) and see how the bike looked like when fully loaded. By the way, because we managed to go to Buenos on the blown rear shock!! But we only went as far south as to Bariloche.
We finished our trip in Buenos Aires and will go back home soon. We sold our bike in Buenos, so it will go back to Colombia one more time 🙂
We are looking forward to meeting you somewhere else on the planet, of course on the motorbike :))
Michal and Magda