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South America » Bolivia » La Paz Department » La Paz
February 12th 2013
Published: March 7th 2013
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Friday 01/02/13 – Another day with a border crossing meant another day with an early start. We rode out of Puno and followed the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. Often we passed women or boys wearing thongs while herding goats or llamas along the lakes edge where the small snow drifts and ice still clung to clumps of grass and bushes. We approached the Desaguadero border and were pulled over at a police checkpoint where the cops got all excited by my secret storage tube which they must have imagined was stacked with drugs. I was relieved while they were disappointed when we all discovered that electrical tape and string was not contraband in either Peru or Bolivia…

In a word this border was dynamic (in more words: chaotic, dirty, frustrating, confused, hectic…). The border between the countries was a river that meant you had to cross a bridge to cross borders. In my experience (and today was no different) bridge borders are always a pain in the ass. There were hundreds of locals crossing the bridge at any one time, most carrying huge bundles on their backs or on bicycles with their trailers stacked high with packages. The officials here were surprisingly efficient; it was just the sheer number of people here that was causing the problems. We met two other guys on bikes; one was an ex-German Venezuelan whom had just paid a bribe to the police for riding in Peru without insurance. He was furious. His mate was an American who had to pay US$135 for a Bolivian visa (Australians are free). And he was also furious.

Once we cleared the chaos, we rode into Bolivia, across some vast high plains and finally down into La Paz – the largest Bolivian city. Finding the hotel required some sneaky manoeuvring, U-turning and crazy riding amongst some crazy traffic and eagle-eyed policemen. After scanning our hotel’s motorcycle carrying capacity and being content it was large enough for more, we emailed the tip to our friends on bikes that there was room for them here. In turn they told their friends, who then told their friends, and within a couple of days there were seven motorbikes in the hotel courtyard (3 KLRs, 1 KTM, 2 BMW, and one local’s bike).

At the hotel there were flyers for a nearby English pub so with the promise of recognisable and familiar food we made a beeline for it. I got a great beef and Guinness pie (one of my old favourites), whilst Kenz got bangers and mash with chips.

Saturday 02/02/13 – Yesterday we had organised a walking tour for today around La Paz and its sister city El Alto. We met our guide Luz Maria in the Plaza San Pedro which is next to the San Pedro Prison. This infamous prison is more like a community than a prison as inmates have jobs and their families can stay inside with them. They have elected prisoners who act as leaders who enforce laws. There are also a few cocaine labs inside where the drug is produced and either sold inside or smuggled out and sold to the public. Some people even pretend that they know someone inside and are allowed to enter the prison and wander around as tourists – actually tourism is the inmate’s main source of income besides cocaine production. I know it sounds like a movie, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction in these countries.

The city of El Alto is located on a mountain above La Paz, although the cities have since spread and merged into one giant spread of humanity. We caught a cab up the very steep mountainside and to El Alto. We walked through the most affluent suburb of El Alto (the rest of the city is too dangerous for gringos apparently) which was still quite rundown and dirty. It had the feeling of a suburb which had sprung up in just a couple of weeks and was slowly deteriorating. There was an intriguing private museum here which was housed in a converted 5 storey water tower. It contained many interesting pieces and here we found out about the mischievous patron saint called Ekeko. Every year on the 24th of January, the local people give miniature offerings of items or blessings that they want in their future to Ekeko, then sprinkle it with alcohol and get a shaman to bless it. For example if they want to become wealthy in the following year or if they want to travel or buy a new car, then they will offer Ekeko miniature fake money notes, miniature passports or airplanes, or a miniature car. The museum also had an interesting piece of pottery depicting the devils head with miners crawling out of his mouth. In Bolivia the devil is not evil, rather he is the mischievous patron of miners. Miners always leave offerings of cigarettes at his shrine before going down into the mines.

From the lofty heights of El Alto we walked down incredibly steep streets and steps to the city of La Paz. The residents here are generally mistrustful of the police (I wonder why?) and instead exact their own justice on the burglars and thieves that they catch. It was common to see human sized dolls being hung from lampposts in simulations of human hangings as a warning to would-be thieves of their punishment if caught.

We walked past many gnarly stray dogs on our way down the mountain, a few of which were manically territorial and nipped at our heels as we passed their turf trying to maintain our composure. We came down to the chaotic commercial market region of La Paz where we got to see a fully gowned catholic priest wielding holy water and flowers blessing cars on the street (it is common for new cars to be blessed by the church here). We then caught a tiny local bus along these market streets. The bus was regular size, but the seats were crammed in so close - the local people here are much shorter than Kenz or I. Our knees were crammed up against the seat in front so our knees were mid-chest high. This position is commonly the way you go to the toilet in Central and South America as the toilet is always hard up against a wall. This meant we had to spend the next 20 minutes trying to convince our bodies that we didn’t actually want to go to the toilet. We were only just successful.

When we got off at the centre of the market, we realised that you could by almost anything and everything here. In a surprising sign of organisation, the market was separated into many different sections such as clothing, electronics, food, hardware, camping, housewares, witches market, tourist market, musical instrument section, etc… As Carnaval is only a few days away, we decided to visit the section of the market which had hundreds of the most amazing costumes I have ever seen. We then visited a few other sections including the witches market which was covered in llama foetuses. Before any construction is commenced over here the builders (and usually the residents) insist that a llama foetus (amongst other equally strange items) be blessed and buried on the property to bring good luck and prosperity, and to ward off evil spirits. It was interesting to see the llama foetuses in different stages of development. It reminded me of the Maputo Natural History Museum in Mozambique where they have 22 real elephant foetuses on display showing an elephant’s development over its 22 month gestation period. For some reason the llama foetuses with fur seemed more disturbing than the ones without (and the fur was so beautiful to touch).

Our tour came to an end outside the cathedral in the San Francisco Plaza. After thanking Luz Maria we poked our heads inside the cathedral and as we walked out we were almost stampeded by enthusiastic religious nuts carrying statues of Mary (one was so large it required 4 men to carry) burning incense and singing. It was the annual 400th-and –something Candeleria Day.

For dinner tonight I got a llama tikka masala at a local Indian restaurant and Kenz got a disappointing vegetable korma (of course it was disappointing – there was no meat in it).

Sunday 03/02/13 – We spent the day relaxing in preparation for tonight’s activities – the Cholitas wrestling. Cholitas are traditional El Alto ladies who dress traditionally in their seven skirts. This means that despite most of the women being just 5 feet tall, they are usually also about 5 feet wide at the hips! Every Sunday night they have a local wrestling competition (think Hulk Hogan style wrestling) where a few of the cholitas get involved. We had been to an amazingly professional wrestling event in Mexico, but the Bolivian event was much more low key and far less outrageous. It was still a great night where the wrestlers would fight dirty, the referees were all corrupt, and the fighters would often throw their opponents into the crowd and beat them up. The most entertaining wrestler was dressed as a skeleton and once when he was losing, he jumped into the crowd, pushed someone out of their chair and sat down and ate their popcorn. He then went around and kissed some of the girls in the crowd whilst they tried to squirm away. It was hilarious when he ‘accidently’ kissed a white guy with really long red hair – skeleton man was so stunned at kissing a man that he lost his concentration and was easily pinned when his opponent got him back in the ring. The crowd was then chanting ‘BESO’ (kiss in Spanish) and the red haired man (I think he was a bit drunk?) climbed over the fence and into the ring wanting another kiss from the wrestler. Later some cholitas wrestled and one of the events was a woman fighting a man. But it got strange when the ref was a baddie and joined in with the male wrestler and beat up the woman. It was a little disturbing to watch two men beating up a woman (even if it was mostly staged) and the crowd was booing, hissing and throwing things into the ring. Finally the woman found a fluorescent lighting tube under the ring and smashed it over the man’s head, sending shards of glass all over the ring and into the crowd. She then also found an empty drum of olive oil from somewhere and started beating up the ref with it. She eventually won by doing a backflip off the top rope onto the man who was lying outside the ring – it was great fun! On the way out of the arena we had to watch out for all the young kids imitating their favourite wrestlers by beating the crap out of each other. I watched one young kid jump off the seating about 1.5m high and onto of his unsuspecting mate!

Monday 04/02/13 – Today we joined a troop of mountain bike riders, and rode down the ‘world’s most dangerous road’. This road used to be the main thoroughfare between La Paz to Coroico. It got its dubious nickname due to the number of people who lost their lives trying to navigate along the high and narrow roads. One study suggests that on average 200-300 people died on the road each year, and we did notice many small crosses marking the sites were vehicles often fell off the cliffs. Recently a new road was built making this one obsolete as a main route, except as an amazing bike ride.

We started at the top on the new road which was paved and wound down through thick fog for 21 freezing kilometres! We rode this stretch to make sure everyone was comfortable with their bikes and the conditions. We then rode on a bus for a few uphill kilometres to the start of Death Road. We then rode 42km of downhill gravel from an altitude of 4500m to 1500m down some amazing (and scary) twisting road which often clung to cliff faces and passed beneath misty waterfalls or large overhanging rocks. After about 4 hours of downhill fun we arrived at a small restaurant in a deep valley at the bottom of the mountain whose only current patron was a wild black gibbon. When we entered he opened the fridge and grabbed a Fanta before the owner shooed him out the door.

We had a nice lunch here where I met Andrew, my doppelganger. He was a Marine Biologist from the UK studying the abalone fishery in Chile and had a few hairy tales about his experiences with the passionate but unlawful Chilean fisherman. After lunch no one was keen to ride the 63km back up the steep Death Road so we caught the bus back to La Paz. The driver gave us the option of riding back up Death Road, or taking the newer, safer road. Everyone was keen to take the Death Road again which turned out to be far more terrifying on a bus than on a bike. I can’t believe people used to drive this road regularly!

Back in La Paz we met up with our English buddies, Byron and Isabel, for dinner and were joined by an Alaskan couple also riding their KLR from Alaska to Chile.

Tuesday 05/02/13 – With Carnaval looming just a few days away we decided it was too good an opportunity to miss, so today we booked a few cheap tours to keep us entertained till Saturday. The rest of the day was spent wondering around the (in)famous Bolivian markets where we acquired many necessary items including two 5L jerry cans (for the longer stretches across Chile and Argentina) and a snazzy pair of shoes which were only $22! I donated my old smelly shoes to the hostel’s charity box, although I’m not sure anyone will want them….

Wednesday 06/02/13 – Today we enjoyed the first of our cheap time-wasting tours – a tour to Tiwanaku. The bus pulled up to our hotel and was totally full except for two spots along the back seat. We squished in next to a young guy with a guitar whose breath had the fragrance of rotting seaweed. He kept turning to look past me and out the window, and would breathe all over me. We finally arrived at Tiwanaku and I climbed of the bus with a pale face and queasy stomach. Tiwanaku is a historically significant ruin as it is considered to be the cradle of the South American people - the ruins are pre-Inca and date back to around 2000 BC. It is believed that this settlement near the shores of Lake Titicaca was the start of South American civilisation and contains a number of temples and statues. There is currently a 20 tonne statue of a pre-Incan South American man standing 8m high in the on-site museum; it was found in the nearby pit of faces. Amazingly the man’s skirt contains the engraved images of 365 individual suns, symbolising an ancient calendar – not bad for 2000BC! There were a number of smaller statues scattered amongst the still standing ruins, as well as the incredible sun gate which was used as the city’s main gate and was carved from a single piece of stone. There was also a pit or sunken square where unique carved faces are sticking out from the walls. Unfortunately I wore my new shoes today – by lunch time they were covered in mud and already looked 2 years old.

After eating some more llama for lunch (I seem to be eating my way through quite a few of these llamas!), we visited another local museum which contained a number of intriguing artefacts. Again there was plenty of amazing pottery that often contained images of human faces or animals. They also had a mummy on display which had been found buried in the sitting position in a woven sack with arms and legs tied up against its body. It had a horrible look on its shrivelled face like it endured a terribly painful death – although I have never seen a mummy without a face that looked like that. There were also a few items here that were found beneath the waters of Lake Titicaca suggesting that there are actually ruins of ancient settlements beneath the surface.

Thursday 07/02/13 – Today was the designated ‘fix-it’ day. I broke the fly on my trousers and required a new zipper – these are my favourite pair of pants. I bought them about 6 years ago and they have lasted through Africa, some trips in Australia, and now North, Central and South America! They are still looking good although now with a new $3 zipper repair job, a melted right ankle (from numerous burnt ankles on the motorbike) and a large battery acid spill down the left leg (from a frantic battery change in Mexico). I hope to get at least another 6 years out of them. Kenz also got her shoe patched for $1 and 3 of our bike boots soles glued and/or stitched for $10.

Friday 08/02/13 – Today we did a tour up Mt Chacaltaya. We jumped on a bus which took us part of the way up the mountain along an incredibly dangerous and narrow zigzagging road, it was actually worse than the Bolivian Death Road and I couldn’t look out the window for most of it. We rode the bus up to a building near the pinnacle of the mountain. The building was the old ski lodge for the extensive ski slopes that used to be here. The 18,000 y/o Chacaltaya Glacier was previously the highest ski resort on earth; however it started melting just 20 years ago and totally disappeared in 2009. Now it’s just an empty building near a mountain pinnacle in the middle of nowhere with 2 rusty cables running to the mountain top – signifying the memory of something that was lost… We had the option of either sitting in the abandoned ski lodge watching the snow fall, or brave the snow, wind and altitude by climbing to the pinnacle. Evidently we decided to try to reach the pinnacle, a task which was far further than we thought, required far more determination than we thought, and took a lot longer than we thought. The trick was to climb VERY slowly and not rush, we would take about 20 steps and then sit down for a few minutes; it’s really a humbling experience to climb at such high altitudes as there is almost no oxygen to breathe. We eventually reached the pinnacle of 5430m - the highest that we have ever been and probably will ever be. After our own timid climb we both have much more respect for real mountain climbers!

The trip back down to the ski lodge was far easier, although the snow had started falling quite thickly and Kenz stumbled and slid on patches of snow and ice a few times. We enjoyed a hot coca tea at the lodge before riding the bus back down the mountain to La Paz. A few times on the road down I peeked out the window from between my hands at the beautifully coloured lakes (but toxic with iron and other metals) on the mountain side. Nearby there were also a few ruins of the huts that the miners used to live in – it’s hard to imagine a living a life in these cold, dead mountains. Part way down the mountain we also noticed a large cross erected on the mountains side with many small prayer cairns (piles of rocks erected by native travellers) scattered around it.

Just before we reached La Paz we made a quick stop at the Valley of the Moon – a totally amazing and unique place where erosion has worn away most of a mountain and left huge clay spires, valleys and deep pits remaining. It’s considered to resemble the erratic geo-formations of the moon – however with high mineral contents giving many spires a red tinge, I prefer to think of it as the Valley of Mars. We got to walk amongst the spires being careful where we stepped as the recent afternoon storm had left the clay incredibly slippery, especially around the edges of narrow pits that fell many metres underground.

After the long day we needed a hearty meal before Carnaval morning, so once we had returned to La Paz we had dinner at the nearby English Pub. I took note of their extensive book exchange and found a fantastic looking book explaining the (then) history of Science Fiction writing and influences. Realising I didn’t have a book to exchange, but also noticing that it was written in 1952 and dangerous close to reaching the 70 year maximum of copyright protection where it is then considered part of the public domain – I nicked it. I figured that was fair as it was written over 60 years ago, was no longer relevant and we had bought 3 nights of meals and drinks at this fine establishment.

Saturday 09/02/13 – The traditional Bolivian Carnaval parade is held every year in the nearby city of Oruro. We woke up very early and sat outside waiting for the 3:30am bus to Oruro which turned up at about 4:15am – not bad for South America. There were no seats left on this bus so we had to stand while it took us just 4 city blocks before dropping us on a dark and deserted city corner. Two minutes later another bus pulled up so we jumped on, sat down and went straight to sleep. At daybreak we stopped at a small village and had a quick breakfast before continuing onto Oruro. About 5 ½ hours after leaving La Paz we arrived at Oruro where we all climbed off the bus and promptly got lost amongst the chaos of Carnaval. Our tour guide couldn’t organise a bun-fight and immediately lost everyone. Whilst we walked around we recognised a small group of people from our bus, joined them and spent the day fending for ourselves. We went to the main road of the city where the parade was being held and very steep and dangerous seating had been erected. The only way to get a seat was to climb up an 8 metre high ladder carrying all your bags of streamers, booze, silly-string, water, costumes, whistles, cameras, and other paraphernalia. There were thousands (actually hundreds of thousands!) of people there and we struggled to find somewhere to sit. We were eventually pinned in a small area with postures similar to the Tiwanaku mummies buried in their woven sacks – with arms and legs strapped to our bodies. However the parade was such an amazing experience that we didn’t really notice our aching backs and legs for the first few hours. It turns out that we picked the most reckless area of the crowd which was constantly experiencing an epic battle of silly string, water pistols and crazy foam with everyone and anyone who happened to walk past. We found it fun for about 20 minutes; every around us seemed to find it fun for about 8 hours. After an hour or two of chaos many people left the area to find somewhere a little less rowdy meaning we were able to stretch out and enjoy the parade for the afternoon. Over the next 8 hours we saw a continuous parade of the most amazing costumes, marching bands and fireworks. There must have been many thousands of participants all with unique and hand sewn costumes. Each group of dancers (sometimes a group consisted of many hundreds of people and took about 30 mins to march past) was affiliated or aligned into groups – we got to see 30 of the 48 groups attending the parade but we had to leave at sunset as the parade gets extremely rowdy and apparently a little dangerous. It’s really hard to explain the whole Carnaval parade (I won’t even try); it’s something that can’t really be explained but just experienced. Perhaps a brief history and the included photos might give some insight into the experience (we have included many extra Carnaval photos at the end of the blog if you want to check them out).

The Carnaval was originally a pre-Columbian dance festival, however it was banned by the Catholic Spanish, and only allowed if it was transformed into a catholic festival to be held 40 days before Easter. Prior to this time, Oruro was the significant religious site of the Andes where thousands would undergo a pilgrimage to dance the forms of the animal-deities such as condors, spiders, snakes and bears. After it was transformed to a catholic celebration, the Virgin, the Devil and angels were forcefully integrated into the celebration. The modern day dancers have to continuously dance (in pagan-religious type frenzy) for the entire 4km route to the cathedral which can sometimes take hours. Each costume is unique, hand sewn and many cost over US$1000. There are usually over 28,000 dancers and over 10,000 musicians, all split into 28 groups, who do one of around 20 different specialty dances. There were so many amazing costumes, however our favourite were the bears. There was even a man in a full bear costume on a unicycle.

After 8 hours of amazement, the sun went down and it was time to return to the bus. We left just as a huge storm rolled in with forks of lightning and claps of thunder beginning to give the parade an incredible electric feeling. I would have liked to stay till the end, but huge sheets of rain started pounding the ground and the seating around us. This transformed our exit into an incredibly dangerous ladder slide and then a scramble amongst the mud and rubbish. The dancers barely seemed to notice, however many observers did and we were immediately joined by about 200,000 people trying to leave (Carnaval de Oruro is usually attended by over 400,000 people). It turned out that the bus was no longer parked in the same place that it was this morning – like I said the tour guide was next to useless. After a half-hour search in the raining pitch-black darkness and jostling crowd punctuated only by the incredible lightning strikes nearby, we eventually found the bus which held just a handful of other passengers. It took at least an hour for the rest of the incredibly wet (and often incredibly drunk) passengers to stumble across the right bus. We left Carnaval and arrived back in La Paz at about 2am. Of course the tour guide was meant to serve us a small dinner on the way home but she forgot and left the meals on another bus…

Sunday 10/02/13 – We woke up late this morning as our faint Carnaval de Oruro hangover began to fade, and the La Paz Carnaval preparations were just beginning. For some reason they celebrate Carnaval in La Paz on Sunday. I was quite sick this morning and spent a great deal of it in the bathroom – I think the cold rice and chicken I had for lunch yesterday had been cold for too long.

To our delight (and horror) the La Paz parade was being set up just outside our hostel which meant we would have a great view from our room’s window. As it was being set up we quickly ran out to buy some lunch before it got too crazy out there – there was already hordes of masked youths roaming the streets with water pistols and silly foam. Unfortunately pack-mentality tends to escalate discriminatory actions against those who look different to everyone else (i.e. our white skin clearly marked us as different to everyone else meaning we got a many face-fulls of foam from the itinerant bands of junior water pistol wielding terrorists during our short fast-food run!). Once we had returned and cleaned up we watched the parade from our window. The La Paz Carnaval experience was very different to our previous day’s parade. Here there were mostly huge packs of masked people partying down the street spraying everyone with water and foam. I did spot a few people traditionally dancing; otherwise it was mostly just maniacs doing maniacal things. As the day wore on it started to get pretty rowdy – at one stage a car tried to cross the street and about 500 people gathered around jumping and climbing all over it (at one stage I thought they were going to flip the car over, but they eventually thought the driver was punished enough and let him drive across the street). After a while people on our hostel roof (4 storeys high) started throwing buckets of beer down onto the people below. Most of the people laughed in good fun when they got a bucketful thrown on them, but one group of guys wasn’t happy and shouted for the ‘cowards’ to come down and fight them. As night fell we noticed a few of the revellers had swapped their water pistols and cans of silly-foam for wooden poles and batons, so we decided to remain in the hostel for the night (the La Paz parade definitely had a different feeling to the Oruro parade!). Luckily the hostel had organised a BBQ on the roof so we enjoyed some great BBQ beef for dinner.

Monday 11/02/2013 – Are you thinking about doing a similar trip? I’ll go into detail of the events of the next 2 days so you can judge if you’re ready to tackle it…

The time had come for us to leave La Paz and Bolivia. Until today we had enjoyed our stay here, the people, food and festival were great – but our experience today left a bad taste in our mouths. The most disappointing thing about this country was the amount and type of gringos here. I think because it is so cheap it attracts the young budget crowd – the type who wear terrible knitted jumpers and sit across from you in a restaurant swearing at the top of their voices and constantly smoking cigarettes and blowing smoke across the tables at you while you’re trying to eat– really nice people!

This morning my bike wouldn’t start. It had been sitting in the hotel courtyard for 9 days, plus my bike struggles a little in the cold weather and even more so at altitude. I changed the spark plug and eventually got it going but needed to warm it up for about 5 min at 3000rpm before it stopped stalling. I figured it wasn’t a problem as our bikes are really quiet. Apparently this isn’t kosher at 9:30am (however drinking with your dickhead mates in the hostel bar just above our room every night till 2 am and then having loud conversations whilst smoking on the stairs outside our room after the pub has closed IS!), and some French guy came down and started screaming at Kenz in French. He was really scary and abusive; however I was already in a crappy mood so I started yelling at him as loud and crazy as possible to divert his attention from Kenz. I must have sounded angry because the security guard came running over and stood between us till the French guy stormed out. I explained to the security guard that I had to warm my bike up and that I didn’t want my bike to stall and not start once we were out in the crazy La Paz traffic. He seemed to think this was reasonable and was more interested in checking out the bikes and hearing about our trip than getting us to turn them off. Still it was a bad start to the day.

We finally rode out, darted across 3 lanes of traffic and did a U-turn so we could get fuel at the fuel station across the street. We pulled up to a bowser that read B$6.90 per litre, however the lady said as we were foreigners we had to pay B$9.60 per litre (equivalent to about $1.40); we expected this as its common practice to charge foreigners more for fuel here – they just have to fill out ‘special’ paperwork. We agreed but then she changed her mind and refused to pump (I think she couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork). We had a pretty huge argument and I went all French-man on her - but she wouldn’t budge. We refused to move our bikes till she filled them but that didn’t work, we started calling the cops over who were only half a block away but she didn’t seem to care. After about 5 minutes of arguing where Kenz went ballistic, we decided to visit the petrol station on the opposite street corner – our friends had filled their bike there the previous day with no problems. We darted across 3 more lanes of traffic and did another U-turn (where I almost ran over the toes of the cop on the corner) and rode into the fuel station. The guy filled the bikes on the sly at the foreigner’s price without paper work whilst nervously glancing at the cop with the almost-damaged toes. We also got him to fill up our 5L jerry cans as we thought we may need it this afternoon. He shooed us out quickly before the cop noticed the lack of paperwork, and we took off keen to get out of the city.

About 15kms later we came to a huge traffic jam which consisted of a single lane of traffic going each way with a steep drop-off on one side and ankle deep mud on the other which separated the road from a huge market. The market stretched on for about a kilometre, but the traffic jam continued for about 6km and was barely moving. We did some sneaky weaving but it still took us over half an hour to travel the 6km – and just to make it even more painful the weather was constantly changing between rain and hail.

Like most traffic jams, we spent 30mins not moving and then all of a sudden there was nothing but open road in front of us. We left La Paz behind and headed out to the great nothing. As we left the city we passed through a police checkpoint where the friendly (or maybe sneaky?) policeman told us not to travel over 80kph as it is the maximum speed on this highway. We took off and remained travelling at 80 for the next 20mins, and then got pulled over for speeding. Apparently the limit on this section of road was just 50kph despite not being signed. After over 30mins of playing dumb, then refusing to pay, then negotiating, we handed over US$25 (which went straight in his pocket) before he let us go on our way. He was the hardest cop-nut I’ve ever attempted to crack, but we did get away with paying half of what he originally wanted - but it still put us in a very shit mood. It’s a shame because Bolivia has been great until today!

By this stage we just wanted to get out of Bolivia, luckily the next 250kms was beautiful desert and snow-capped volcanoes until we approached the border with Chile. This is was easily the highest (4600m) and most beautiful border I have ever seen. Whilst waiting for the paperwork to be processed at this almost deserted border, I could turn around and view an amazing snow-capped volcano which rose out of a glassy lake that had wild flamingos feeding in it. Amazing! The people at the border were very friendly and efficient, half of the Chileans spoke English and I think they wanted to practice it on us. After some paper work and a bike inspection they let us through, unfortunately the lady who changes Boliviano dollars for Chilean pesos wasn’t at the border today, which meant we had no local currency. One of the border cops did try to bribe me but because I had no money he eventually stamped my paperwork after staring at me for a while. At this stage we topped up our fuel tanks using the jerry cans and rode the final 80km to the Chilean town of Putre.

With great expectations we rode into Putre for some fuel. It looked like a fairly small, rural and slightly rundown village. However this didn’t upset us as we have stayed in plenty of places like this, and the locals are usually friendly enough. As we had nothing but a fistful of useless Bolivian dollars, and half-a-fistful of slightly more useful US dollars (our emergency stash), our first task was to visit the bank to change or withdraw some local currency. To our surprise and annoyance the one and only bank in town had closed for the day, and the only ATM in town was not functioning – great. We had enough fuel for another 50kms, however we had no money and the nearest bank was over 140kms away. So we stayed here the night.

We crisscrossed the town trying to find reasonable accommodation. After visiting 8 other places, we found a dingy place for $US35 whose owner allowed us to stay on the promise of paying tomorrow when the bank opened. Whilst searching for a hotel, I was standing next to my bike gazing up the street and it tipped over when I was looking the other way. It slammed into my knee which pushed me back into a brick wall that I ungracefully bounced off. The bike weighs over 250kgs and it felt like I was hit by a truck. Also it broke my mirror and hurt my knee– damn it.

With no money we dug around in our luggage and found our emergency stash of food – some suspiciously mouldy smelling instant pasta we had bought in Canada. The pasta tasted strange, but as we hadn’t drunk anything all day and had only eaten a single pancake for breakfast, it hit the spot pretty well. Our room was freezing and we had to get in our sleeping bags and under the blankets to warm up. Just before I went to bed, I brushed my teeth and stood at the window watching a kitten playing with a scrap of tarpaulin on the concrete outside our room. I watched for about 10 minutes as the night sky became filled with dark mist which blackened out the stars – it was a strange end to a hard day.

Tuesday 12/02/2013 – Our first job today was to sleep-in because the bank wouldn’t open till 9am. After we completed this task, we walked down to the bank at 9am and got US$80 changed to Pesos. The man refused to change one of the $20 notes as it had the tiniest abrasion on one of the corners. Despite this we felt much better with useable currency in our pockets. Our hearts sunk when we visited the 2 ‘fuel stations’ in town – neither had fuel and wouldn’t be getting any till Sunday (in 5 days!). At this stage Kenz started to cry, however being an Australian male I would rather rub dirt in my eyes and stab them out than cry (so I cried when she wasn’t looking). We then went on a mission sweeping the town for fuel. After visiting four different people who we were told may have some, we eventually found a man who had a 20L can in his backyard. The catch was he wanted US$50 for it. Being caught between a rock and an asshole, we went with the asshole and he poured 10L into each of our bikes. This was basically our only option as no one else had any fuel in town – the only other option was to visit the small military complex on the edge of town and ask if we could buy some of their fuel. However after dealing with the military in various Central and South American countries, I decided to deal with a single asshole rather than a collective of alpha-assholes.

With our money quickly dwindling we paid for the hostel and then bought some bread rolls and orange juice for breakfast which left us with just a handful of pesos. At midday we finally rode out of Putre, but with little money or fuel left and 140kms till the next town we had to stay under 70kph to conserve fuel. It didn’t help the fuel situation when we took a wrong turn out of town which led us down a thin gravel road that ended at a deep muddy puddle. After backtracking we rode the 140km to the port city of Arica without incident. The scenery was absolutely stunning with huge desert mountains and deep canyons following us as we rode down from over 4000m to sea level in just over an hour.

We arrived in Arica where we changed our Bolivian money and lost US$10 on the exchange – but what can you do when you’re at the first city 200kms from the border? We found a reasonable hotel near the centre of town where we unpacked and parked the bikes. We walked to the tourist information centre in town where the lady really tried to be helpful but wasn’t. We then walked to the office of an auto insurance agent in town, but his office was closed for today. There was no insurance office at the border that we crossed yesterday, a risk you take when crossing small rural borders.

We ate dinner at a small burger and salad place in town. When we sat down it seemed OK, but as our food came out so did a swarm of flies that crawled over our food and drinks 3 or 4 at a time. Every time we shooed one from our burgers, his mate would land on our drink or salad. I can’t really remember much about the meal because I was trying to eat it fast so the flies wouldn’t land on it. All I remember is that it tasted awful. It is meals like this where you need to tell yourself ‘it’s all about assimilating nutrients and energy into your body, it’s not about taste, presentation or atmosphere’! As we were eating one of the employees came out with one of those electrified tennis-racket-like fly swatters and was wildly swinging it around. Whenever he hit one it would stick in the grid whilst hissing and popping for 10 seconds til he managed to flick it out and it would fall to the table or ground smoking and steaming. It was a really classy place.

We returned to the hotel and had showers. I then had to use the toilet (we got the US$25 room which didn’t have a toilet) and for some reason the toilet floor was covered in a big-toe-deep puddle of water with a greasy looking oily slick on top. My mood didn’t lift when I noticed the garbage can in the corner overflowing with toilet paper which had spilt onto the floor and into the water (remember the people here don’t flush toilet paper, instead they put it in the garbage bin in the corner). Totally miserable I returned to our room and went to sleep.

So you still want to do a trip like this? It will be a good lesson in anger management, frustration, depression and sometimes loneliness. But despite this (or perhaps because of this) it may be one of the best things you ever do.

Additional photos below
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7th March 2013

What a great blog, location and photos! Looking forward to the next one.
12th March 2013

Bring on the adversity.... it boosts the already awesone arid wit ...

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