I am very sorry that I still haven’t finished my report of the 2010 Bike Trip. With editing the photos, gathering all the scattered details from my journal, receipts and other notes and doing the necessary research, a post usually takes 3 to 4 days to write, and fitting this time into a busy life has proven to be really difficult. Most importantly, you need to be in a writer’s mind and mood to sit down and produce entertaining and informative prose – and this isn’t easy to achieve either. I admire all the authors who actually complete their ride reports or even write books about their travels! Respect.
The reason for this apology is that I’m off to South America again! This time not on a bike but with a rucksack and my dad. Using public transport, we will be roughly following the previous route with a few more sights and delights thrown in which I missed on the last trip, such as the Brazilian side of the Iguazú Falls, the Lago de Todos los Santos in Chile and Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.
For this 20,000-odd-kilometre (12,500 miles) loop of the continent we have ‘only’ three months this time. I love my job and the company I’m now working for and didn’t really want to hand my notice in. Fortunately my employer understands that life is short and you have to make the most of it, and so I was generously given unpaid leave until December.
Today is my last day at work and on Sunday my dad and I will take off from London Heathrow to Buenos Aires.
I hope you will enjoy following us on our journey!
In the small hours of the night I wake up again because it’s so freezing cold in my room. Lesson number one: if you make the effort to carry a warm sleeping bag on your bike, you are actually allowed to use it even if you are staying in a hotel room. At the very least have the silk inner liner to hand before you go to bed…
I stare into the darkness and wait for symptoms of altitude sickness to manifest themselves. After all, Villazón sits at 3,400m / 11,155ft above sea level. Maybe I am a bit paranoid about this but one of the problems with travelling on your own is that no one tells you when you start to behave weirdly…
Breakfast is served at 7.00 downstairs at smallish tables among a lot of big guys who seem to be mainly truck drivers – we are in a busy border town after all. Despite the sceptical glances from every side, I enjoy my frugal meal consisting of a bread roll with butter and jam and black tea while trying to translate the Arabic proverb on the wall.
I think it goes like this:
Don’t say everything you know,
don’t do everything you can.
Don’t believe everything you hear,
don’t spend everything you have.
He who says everything he knows,
He who does everything he can,
He who believes everything he hears,
He who spends everything he has,
Says what he shouldn’t say,
does what he shouldn’t do,
judges what he doesn’t see,
spends what he cannot afford.
I’m sure there are a number of lessons that can be learnt from these pearls of Arabic wisdom.
After packing my stuff, I head for the gated courtyard where my baby has spent the night, and arrive at 9.00 on the dot as agreed the evening before. A young man opens the gate but there is a big 4×4 blocking the entrance. No worries, the owner will also collect his vehicle at 9.00 hrs.
9:20 hrs and nothing has happened. I return to the hotel. What is this guy thinking? I ask for his whereabouts at the reception: Se ha salido – he’s gone out. Great. Maybe I’ve missed him on the way, so I go back the two blocks to the parking site. The gate is now open but the 4×4 is still sitting there. I try not to get worked up about the delay, ask the young man if he has some old rags and start to clean my bike – mumbling all the Spanish swearwords I can remember under my breath…
10.00 hrs and no driver in sight… Once more I return to the Hostal Plaza, try to make use of the time by writing my diary but at some point I am so annoyed that I ask the receptionist if he knows of a locksmith who can help me open the car so that I can drive it out of the way. Silly, I know, and wasn’t one of the objectives of this trip to practice a bit of stoicism and not getting stressed so easily?
It’s no big deal, really, it’s only 100 km / 59 miles to my next destination Tupiza, and there is nothing the receptionist or the young man at the parking place can do (well, the latter shouldn’t have let the guy park in a way that was blocking everybody else’s exit route, inconsiderate hijo de p*ta). And breathe…
Finally the receptionist reaches the driver on his mobile: the car should be gone by the time the fuming gringa has made her way to the parking site for the third time. I relax immediately and feel quite embarrassed now that I have let my anger take the better of me – and thus made everyone around me pretty uncomfortable. That’s a lesson that will still take some learning, I suppose…
With the obstacle out of the way, my mind is open again for the sights and delights of Villazón – the slightly moralistic street art
… and the urban wildlife…
The young man from the parking courtyard meets me halfway down the road to tell me the good news, we’re both relieved and laugh; I collect my baby and thank him very much for all his help. Quickly I lube my chain, load the bike and set off.
After a nice chat with the female attendant of the filling station on the outskirts of town, I reach the border control-cum-tollbooth again, explain that I was just staying overnight in Villazón but had no intention of leaving lovely Bolivia already, pay my 3 Bolivianos (under 30p) and enjoy the new smooth asfalto. Gliding through the beautiful panorama of the Altiplano, it slowly dawns on me that my water bladder is almost empty. How stupid! Haven’t I learnt the lesson yet to check my water supply every morning and stock up while I’m still within a human settlement?
Oh well, only 65 kilometres / 40 miles to Tupiza left – I will probably survive. Shortly afterwards I pass yesterday’s junction where the road branches off to Tarija in the east and the Ruta 14 carries on to Tupiza in the northwest. Again, all directions are clearly sign-posted and I’m a bit puzzled how anyone could miss these obvious crossroads unless seriously intoxicated… The tarmac has disappeared by now but the Ruta 14 consists of nicely hard-packed, fast dirt.
Blue sky, glorious sunshine, clean and fresh air, the absorbing solitude of a vast and seemingly empty landscape – I feel the morning’s tension dissolve into the thin air and admire the mountain tops in the distance. Big mistake. All of a sudden the handlebars are out of control, the bike leans left, right, left, right and down in a matter of split seconds and I find myself in a heap of deep gravel, getting a final kick in the back from my own steed… God, I’m shaken – never take your eyes off the road, as the surface can change in an instant, is the fifth lesson today.
Fuel is dripping out of the tank, the GPS has a deep scar, there may be more things broken but I am fine, I think. Phew, sit down at the roadside, helmet and gloves off, take a photo, calm down, drink some water – damn, I really have nothing left, and if there is serious damage to the bike, I’m pretty scr*wed. That’s the difference between important and vital lessons, dear reader…
A bus approaches from the north; I wave him down and a group of young men descends. They ask what happened and if I hurt, they help me lifting the bike, and one of them starts talking to me in English. That’s not necessary, really, but somehow I feel strangely comforted by hearing the language of my adopted home country: Thank you for speaking English, Señor.
After my saviours have left I still rest a bit longer and assess the damage: mirror, GPS cradle and screen have scratches, the handlebar units are slightly twisted, the straps of my soft panniers are torn off – but I am ok, thank God and the Hi-Art Halvarssons suit for that! It may make my bum look big – but far more important, it just saved it! If that’s not worth another lesson…
Cautiously I continue the journey – staying in the harder ruts made by previous vehicles and slowing right down at every dip and bump. From time to time I find a stretch of tarmac where the roadwork is already completed but soon enough there’s a sign again: Fin de pavimento
… and it’s back onto the dirt track again
At least there is now some vegetation, so I can go into the bushes…
Impressive heights the cacti reach here!
As I come over the mountains towards Tupiza, the land gets a bit more fertile and agricultural
There is more water…
… I pass through little villages
… and cross small streams that must be raging torrents in the rainy season (and not all of them can be crossed via bridges…)
Tupiza lies at the river of the same name which has created some gorgeous gorges in the area
It’s just after 3pm when I arrive in town, most of the inhabitants are still holding their siesta, but after the obligatory sightseeing tour I finally find the Hotel Mitru, warmly recommended in the South America Handbook
Yes, they have a single room, con baño privado, secure parking, breakfast buffet – and all that for 70 Bolivianos, which is about £6.30… The room is delightful, airy, and spacious
There is a little desk, the bathroom has its own window – what more can the battered and bruised traveller ask for?
After a quick shower I explore the hotel’s facilities – garden, pool and roof terrace…
… from where you have a great view over the city…
… and the dramatic red rock formations the region is famous for
Is there a cobbler nearby who can repair my soft luggage? Just one block down the road, advises the receptionist. The zapatero understands straight away what needs to be done to make my panniers usable again. Give me until 7pm, señora. There is no rush, sir, I will stay another night in your lovely town – mañana is early enough.
I like Tupiza; the climate is pleasant – we are down to 2,800 metres / 9,200 ft again, the people are friendly and helpful, and I hugely enjoy strolling aimlessly through the city, absorbing the ambience, watching the locals watching football…
… and admiring the somewhat fancy architecture
The mercado is colourful and picturesque but I don’t feel comfortable taking photos; I’m not in a zoo here and it feels disrespectful towards the market-people to point the camera into their faces while they are pursuing their day-to-day tasks. There are still enough inanimate objects worth photographing around
I call Possu, assure him that I am still alive and make light of the accident; then I walk back to the bridge and the railway crossing over which I have entered the town earlier – both look like they have seen better days…
Tupiza has surprisingly many Pizzerias – and a nice sense of humour: ‘Your Pizza’
… and they all promote their vegetarian menu. I feel spoilt for choice. – “Are you decisive, Ela?” “Mmm, let me think about that…” – I’ve been known for almost starving while passing one café after the other on my trips, because there could be a better one around the next corner… In the Pizzeria I finally settle for, I meet Ylon from Israel who has been travelling through South America for six months and is now in his last three weeks. We exchange recommendations: he must go and see the Iguazú Falls, I should not miss Northern Peru and Ecuador – which I probably will, as I have only 3 1/2 months to spare…
After dinner I’m looking for an internet café, there are plenty about but they are all full – I try in at least eight places to get a free space but to no avail. It certainly doesn’t help that the whole of Tupiza relies on one dial-up connection, or so it seems to me, after I have finally managed to upload one photo on the hotel computer – in 15 minutes…
What an eventful day, lots to think about and digest into lessons learnt and others that will still need recapping for a while… Suddenly I feel very tired – and what prevents me from going to bed before 9pm if I feel like it? I’m on holiday, it’s a free country and tomorrow will be another great day, I’m sure.
From Tarija (1,854m / 6,083ft ) to Villazón (3,400m / 11,155ft).
The sun shines through the light funnel into my room and wakes me up at 6.30am. While still thinking about turning onto the other side for another five minutes, I suddenly hear music from a marching band outside – of course, there is a week-long fiesta going on in Tarija! Out of bed and onto the roof terrace for breakfast – there is still a lot to see in this city before I head for the solitude of the Altiplano.
Salón Bellavista they call their breakfast room…
… which is a pretty accurate name.
The morning sky is deep blue and crisp again
While I scribble a few notes into my journal, the guy from the other table comes over and introduces himself: he’s Uli from Münster in Germany, civil hydraulics engineer, who has been living in South America since 1986. He just bought some land and plans to build a new home for him and his Bolivian partner. Uli gives me loads of valuable information about the area: Tupiza would be doable in one day (well, we’d see about that…); and from there I would easily find the road to Uyuni and its famous Salar. On the Altiplano the people would become more reserved, accommodation would be scarce and the temperatures could drop to minus 15 degrees Celsius at night.
Uli also has a deeper insight in the country’s elementary problems, for instance that La Paz is depending entirely on the surrounding glaciers for its drinking water supply, and while the ice diminishes rapidly, the government hasn’t made the necessary provisions yet. Even more fundamental, the majority of the Bolivians live in the barren region of the high plateau, often at poverty level, while the fertile lowlands are rather scarcely populated. Still, if your family, language and culture have been rooted in the same place for centuries it’s certainly difficult to leave your traditional life behind and move away – even if staying doesn’t offer a great perspective and involves considerable hardships. There would be many situations in the coming days where I would wonder how people could survive in the remote villages I was passing through – with no visible agricultural production, very few animals and no obvious trade.
Uli hands me his card in case I would get into trouble and needed help – how very kind. On the way to fetch my bike…
… I pass the Casa Dorada, the Golden House again
Should I take the time to explore Tarija’s sights and delights a bit longer?
I feel seriously tempted when I pop into the nearby tourist office where a lovely señorita tells me everything about the city, the surrounding villages, the valley with its vineyards and rolling hills, before she showers me with enticing brochures of the region. Still having this ludicrous idea in my head that I would reach Chile in time for its bicentenary independence celebrations, I decide against another day in the Bolivian Andalucía and collect my DRZ from its secure parking space. Back at the hotel, there is Uli loading his 4×4 and still happy to share his wealth of local knowledge with me. Now I am in a position to return the favour and hand him half of my brochures about many places he hadn’t heard of before.
After making photocopies of all my new Bolivian documents, I load the bike and leave the City of Smiles. A last look at the beautiful Plaza de Armas – I’ll be back one day, that’s for sure.
On the outskirts of Tarija I eventually find a shop where I can buy water – a task seemingly impossible in the town centre where there are rows of the finest shops, restaurants and historical buildings with no one catering for the bare necessities. The road heading to San Lorenzo is beautifully paved – but this indulgence is cut short when the Ruta 1 to Potosí branches off to the west after two miles. Rough dirt, gravel and corrugations are on the menu. At a police check point I have to explain my wherefrom and whereto, show my passport and documents, pay the stately sum of 3 Bolivianos (£ 0.46), get a stamp and am free to continue my journey.
The road climbs up the hills forming the valley of Taraxaand soon I have a great view of Tarija
… and some not so nice views of littering and fly-tipping.
Like in the UK, where this is a common problem as well, I want to shout at these people: “Don’t you love your own country? Are you not proud of its beauty and don’t you want your children to grow up in a healthy environment? Think, for heaven’s sake!”
And breathe… There are more than enough reasons to make you fret the whole day long – but, thank God, it’s not mandatory…
A bit higher up I’m granted a last look at the City of Smiles and the Río Gualdaquivir meandering through the Taraxa Valley.
At the summit the GPS shows an elevation of about 4,000 metres (13,120 ft) – this must be higher than I’ve ever been before. In Iscayachi the Ruta 1 turns north towards Potosí. Although this town with its legendary silver mine is on my list of places to see, I will head for Tupiza and the Salar de Uyuni first. As the map doesn’t show a lot of villages along the Ruta 301, I’d rather buy some more water. The owners of the first two shops seem to be having their siesta, the third one doesn’t sell water, only sweet fizzy drinks and booze, but fortunately there is no shortage of suppliers and in the fourth establishment I finally get what I need.
Iscayachi lies only 50 kilometres to the west of Tarija but about 1,600 metres (5,250ft) higher at 3,427m (11,243ft), and I notice the difference already: the people are rather taciturn, just as Uli mentioned, and a single woman on a motorbike gets some funny looks. I’m becoming even more self-conscious when I can’t see any facilities to answer the call of nature: there are just too many people, lots of houses built to a surprisingly high standard, big schools and community buildings, miles of cultivated land – but not a single bush!
When I reach the Cordillera de Sama, a biological reserve at 3,800 metres (12,467ft) the human settlements recede…
… and the only living things I see for a while are these natives
Why did the Llama cross the road?
… because it is a rather gregarious animal…
Passing one of the lagoons in the nature reserve
… a popular meeting point for the local cattle
Otherwise the area is pretty deserted
Leaving the high plateau, the road gets narrower – and as so often, the abyss is on the wrong side…
Ok, the route may not be as famous or as high as the Camino de la Muerte…
… but if you go over the edge, I would imagine that the result is pretty much the same
View back up the mountain
There may be a lack of safety barriers on Bolivian roads but some times they grant you a lay-by to recover from permanently holding your breath…
Although the vastness of the landscape elevates your mind, it can feel quite lonely on the Altiplano. You may meet only seven vehicles the whole day long but you never know in which bend this will happen. After another close encounter with a coach, I feel the constant strain taking its toll and start to count the kilometres to Tupiza down.
There lies a village in the valley below, pretty big and with well-built houses, but no road-sign provides the passing tourist with further information. Only when the settlement is behind me a name appears in the corner of my GPS – it was Yunchara. Phew, another 54 kilometres / 34 miles since Iscayachi.
The road still heads downhill and I reach a fertile river valley, lots of green and trees but I don’t stop any more, it’s getting late.
The Bolivians are constantly improving their road network and I come across many construction sites. The workers greet me friendly and some even cheer when I pass them – I think that’s because they are female, too.
An oncoming truck flags me down and the three young guys inside ask if I knew where the road was leading. Yunchara, great – that’s the place they want to reach today. Good luck, boys! Then the carretera raises again but this time it is a bit wider and I can finally stop by the side of the road, using the DRZ as a screen from other vehicles – even if you haven’t seen another human being for over an hour, you can bet that someone will pass just after you have pulled down your trousers…
Over some water and a biscuit I consider my options: progress is very slow, it’s already gone 16.00 hrs and Tupiza is still 75 kilometres (47 miles) away. The next town is Villazón, a mere 32 kilometres (20 miles) to go, so I may vote for the sensible option and call it a day there. The junction shouldn’t be far and right, after the next corner I can see a narrow track winding down into a deep valley – oh dear, this looks quite adventurous… Fortunately two elderly señores are sitting at the crossroads who I approach for advice.
Oh, that one, that’s just a camino a un pueblito, a path to a small village; the proper junction to Villazón is a bit further up on the Altiplano. One of the gentleman even draws a little map in the dirt. There should be a road-sign but many drivers miss it and carry on to Tupiza. Muchas gracias, señores, this was most helpful.
I reach the Altiplano and the road broadens; it’s corrugated but fast. The junction is clearly marked with obvious signs and after a while there is even tarmac! Still, the pista] is not finished yet and the traffic has to divert to the dirt road again occasionally but the last seven kilometres are beautiful smooth asfalto. Fantastic, I had almost forgotten what a paved surface feels like!
As Villazón lies on the border with Argentina near La Quiaca, where the famous Ruta 40 commences, there is the obligatory police checkpoint before you enter the town. After a little chat the officer waves me on and I can embark on my usual sight-seeing tour. Villazón is chaotic, buzzing with life, people and business, lots of traffic and noise. The sun is low and blinding, and I almost enter a one-way street in the wrong direction – sorry…
The South American Handbook recommends the Hotel Center but unfortunately they don’t have any vacancies – that’s a first on my journey. Hostal Plaza on the other side of the main square should be good as well, says the young man at reception. Ok, but they have run out of single rooms at 70 Bolivianos (£6.50) and can only offer a matrimonio, a double for 110 Bs including breakfast – just over £10.00. It’s already 18.00 hrs, it’s getting cold and dark and I’m absolutely knackered – go on then, let’s splash out!
The receptionist helps me carrying the luggage upstairs, then he leads me to the secure parking a few streets away. Gracias. After a hot shower I feel a lot better. Relaxing on the bed I read the chapter about altitude sickness in Jim Duff’s Pocket First Aid and Wilderness Medicine again: shall I take precautions or not? Villazón lies at 3,470m (11,155ft), Tupiza at 2,990m (9,810ft) and Uyuni at 4,400m (14,436ft). I have brought some acetazolamide with me but the drug has to be taken 24 hours before ascending to altitude and it can make you feel dizzy – not exactly what you want when conducting a motorcycle over the Andes. I will think about it one more day and possibly start the prophylaxis the next evening in Tupiza.
Conveniently, the Hostal Plaza has a restaurant in the basement and although it is completely empty, the waiters busy themselves to make me feel welcome and comfortable. Sopa fideo, noodle soup, and Milanesa, a paper-thin breaded meat fillet, are on the menu. After dinner I head to the next internet café where I find out that the whole of Villazón must depend on one single dial-up connection – it takes forever to upload six photos (out of the 29 shot today…) and after one hour I give up and leave the crowded, noisy place.
The neon display on the Plaza Mayor shows the current temperature: 4 degrees Celsius… Off to bed, and quickly!
When the Spaniards came to the valley of Taraxa in the 16th century they were delighted to find an almost Mediterranean climate in the area. By the banks of a stream, which they named Nuevo Gualdaquivir after the river in their far away homeland, they founded the city of Villa de San Bernado de la Frontera de Tarija in 1574. The region was perfectly suited for grape and wine production and soon commonly regarded as the Bolivian Andalucía.
Tarija is alternatively known as la Cidudad de las flores (the City of Flowers) or la Ciudad de la Sonrisa (the City of Smiles) and has grown massively during the last three decades due to the natural gas development in the department, from 38,000 inhabitants in 1976 to over 214,000 today.
To me Tarija seemed to be the perfect stop before climbing up to the harsh Altiplano. But before leaving the friendly town of Entre Ríos where I had spent the night, I still had some business to attend to. The ladies in the hotel did look a bit surprised when I asked for breakfast but then started to prepare some hot chocolate, bread rolls and jam for me. Maybe the normal guests just head for a café on the plaza? Well, I prefer to eat something before I face the outside world, but the next time in Entre Ríos I will do some research on the local breakfast habits.
Checkout time in Bolivian hotels is quite generous and as there were only 70ish miles / 112 kilometres between Entre Ríos and Tarija, I was in a position to spend some more time in this friendly place. First I headed for the market area and the watchmaker’s stall again. And right, the lovely Señor had brought all his spare pins from home and within five minutes he had attached the wristband to my watch again. All he wanted for his efforts was one Boliviano – that’s not even 10p… I thanked him profusely, once again humbled by the helpfulness of the Bolivians and the income that people survive on in this part of the world.
I really liked Entre Ríos and found it hard to leave – a phenomenon which I would experience rather often in Bolivia. But I wanted to be in Chile for the 18th September to join the bicentenary celebrations of its independence – a rather ambitious if not completely unrealistic schedule as it should turn out… Anyway, I managed to pack my stuff eventually, vacate my excellent room in the Plaza Hotel and hit the road.
Straight after the Zona Urbana the Ruta 11 became quite spectacular – it was leading me through wonderful wooded hills…
… over mountain ridges…
… and along gorgeous gorges
There was a lot of roadwork going on, occasionally the carretera was even paved – but after two kilometres it was back to dirt, gravel and stones. And sometimes you had to pull your belly in…
Rush hour in the village of Caraletas
The weather was just fantastic, the temperatures were ideal for riding a bike, and I felt happy to be alive and travelling through such a beautiful country.
Some people had not been so lucky – as this shrine reminds the passing motorist.
It wasn’t always easy to find an opportunity for a wee…
No, still not suitable…
Ok, these old stable ruins will do
Approaching “Andalucía” – you would probably have guessed even without me mentioning it at the start of the post, wouldn’t you?
The Taraxa Valley
Welcome to Tarija!
On the outskirts of the city I fuelled up and then started my usual orienteering run around the city – buzzing streets, broad boulevards, flowering trees, market stalls, and impressive architecture. The South American Handbook had recommended the Hostal Carmen and I even found it relatively quickly in the Calle Ingavi. The building looked quite welcoming but not so the young receptionist who didn’t seem particularly interested in my business; the price was considerably higher than stated in the travel guide and did not include aparcamiento seguro, the all important safe parking. Well, there is no shortage of accommodation in Tarija and so I carried on.
Negotiating the usual one-right, one-left pattern of the urban road system, I passed the Hostal Cristal. It looked slightly out of my price range but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The young lady at reception was exceptionally nice, they had a good single room, at a cheaper rate than the Hostal Carmen, secure parking included, free internet, and when the deal was agreed, she even picked up my dusty luggage to carry it upstairs before I had the chance to stop her.
Like many of the higher buildings in South American cities, the hotel had a multiple-use roof terrace…
… which offered great views over the city
Arty shot with DRZ
The church of San Roque in the distance
Obviously, there was plenty to explore in Tarija and my first destination was the Catedral San Bernado
Then on to the heart of the city: the Plaza de Armas
Within the first hundred yards I had already noticed something very special: despite its size, Tarija still had this friendly intimacy of a small village – everyone looked me in the eyes, we all greeted each other and there were open faces all around. The City of Smiles indeed.
Just one street away from the Plaza, in the Calle Ingavi, is the Casa Dorada, Tarija’s House of Culture. The Art Nouveau mansion was built in 1887 by Moisés Navajas Ichazo, a talented descendant of Sephardics Jew from Spain (Navajas) who converted to Catholicism, emigrated to Bolivia, and married a Tarijeña, Esperanza Morales Serrano. Both were very successful business people and, as they didn’t have children, commissioned a couple of impressive buildings which they would be remembered for.
The Calle General Trigo then leads to the Iglesia San Roque – the church of the city’s patron. By pure chance I had managed to arrive in Tarija right at the beginning of a whole week of festivities in honour of Saint Roque. The biggest fiesta in the region starts every year on the first Sunday in September, and the streets were teeming with people.
Inside the church
Looking down the Calle General Trigo
At that point of my journey I was still hesitant to eat from street stalls to minimise the risk of food poisoning, so I left the fiesta and looked for a restaurant to have dinner. Fancying a nice steak but finding most of the excellent dining places out of my price range, I settled for the Bolivian fast food chain Pollo Crocan, where a lomito in a bread roll garnished with ham, egg, salad, chips, condiments and a large Fanta, cost me 20 Bolivianos, about £1.90. Who was I to complain?
Back at the hotel, the lovely receptionist reminded me that I still had a bike to park for the night. Oops. And now I must confess that I broke another one of my principles – people who have known me for a while will be appalled, so please skip the next sentence: without fetching helmet and proper gear from my room, I set straight off for the designated garage.
After I had circled the main square a couple of times, I stopped in front of a posh restaurant, La Taberna Gattopardo, in whose vicinity the car park was allegedly located. One of the waiters had already spotted the obviously lost tourist and came immediately outside and to my aid, pointing me in the right direction.
The big courtyard that served as car (and bike) park was attended by two slightly handicapped young men who promised to look after my baby so that I could sleep easy. On my travels through Europe and South America I have often seen disabled people fully integrated in their communities, doing jobs they are capable of and thereby playing an equally important role, whereas in Germany or in the UK we tend to segregate them and keep everyone who does not conform to ‘normality’ in closed institutions. More food for thought…
The walk back to the hotel led me over the Plaza de Armas again
… where a plaque commemorates the founder of the city
Lying in my comfortable bed I realized that I had fallen in love with this beautiful city, the Ciudad de la Sonrisa. The prospect of leaving the next day didn’t seem overly appealing – but that was also down to the fact that I was quite apprehensive of climbing the Altiplano and up to an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level. Also, my next destination was Tupiza, 290 kilometres / 180 miles away, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what the road conditions were like…
Oh, by the way and talking of distances, do you remember the 1,000 km detour calculation for the route between Villamontes and Tarija at the start of the last episode? It’s down to lazy map drawing as it turned out:
The missing link…
Before I set off on my big trip, I went to see my parents in Berlin. Together we sat in front of the computer and hovered over my planned route in Google Earth, admiring the features of the application, the landscape in the different countries I was going to visit and the pictures people had added to the various places. After entering Bolivia near Villamontes we got stuck. From there I wanted to go to Tarija but the suggested directions took me back south into Argentina and then onto a massive detour of 913 kilometres (567 miles)!
This was a journey that should only be 270 kilometres (160 miles) on the more direct road through El Angosto, a gorge shaped by the Río Pilcomayo.
Some of the photos of this gorge were subtitled Ruta de la muerte (route of death) and I was hoping my parents wouldn’t notice the resemblance to the Camino de la muerte (the road of death) north-east of La Paz, which I had just promised not to ride under any circumstances…
So when I was packing my stuff in Villamontes the next morning, I was a bit apprehensive, to say the least. At breakfast Jeidi told me that her cousin Yessime was planning to come round and see me during the day but the two nights in El Rancho had already cost me £60 (including two three-course meals for dinner, drinks and laundry) and I couldn’t afford to stay any longer, sorry. By the way, did she know the road to Tarija? Oh yes, un camino muy feo – another very ugly (= bad) road… But was it doable? I really didn’t fancy the detour through Argentina, especially as I had been told some horror stories about several Gringos who had been robbed down to their underwear on the way to the border recently.
Con mucho cuidado, with great caution I would have to ride, was the unanimous answer to my enquiry about the route to Tarija, regardless how many locals I asked… Wouldn’t I want to visit Santa Cruz instead? The city in north-east of Boliva is the fastest growing in the country, the one with the healthiest economy and providing the highest living standard for its inhabitants. Mmm, maybe another time, unfortunately Santa Cruz didn’t lie exactly on my route.
Right, courage, let’s see what El Angosto will throw at us! I said goodbye to the people at the hotel, bought some water for the journey while a nice young security guard in front of the bank looked after my bike, and then said it was adiós to Villamontes.
Smooth tarmac led out of the town; then a checkpoint: where to? Tarija. ¡Mucha suerte!, good luck, said the officer and waved me through. A tidy gravel road took me along the river Pilcomayo.
Gradually the carretera was rising higher
… until you couldn’t see the water at the bottom of the valley anymore. At this point a one-way traffic regulation had been introduced to cut down on the casualties that the most dangerous bits of the Ruta de la muerte had claimed in previous years.
There were still plenty of stretches where I had to pull in my belly when passing a truck but when the road led out of the gorge things got a bit more relaxed and I could even find some bushes…
Rather randomly there was even tarmac in between – albeit not entirely gravel-free…
Higher and higher the road climbed into the hills
Opening great views of the countryside
… and promising pure exploring pleasure
… if I had only given it some welly when pulling out off the lay-by… But no, the bike started to tumble in the sand and then, lacking the necessary momentum, assumed a horizontal position.
Well, while this was another situation where I was glad that I hadn’t taken the GS to South America, there was still no way that I could lift the DRZ with all the luggage on. I hadn’t seen any vehicle for the last hour and the chances of a pair of helping hands coming along were slim. So I started to unload the bike quickly, as the fall had ripped off the valve cap of my tank lid and fuel was spilling out in considerable quantities. I fixed this issue temporarily by corking the breather with a small pebble but still, the solution was far from perfect and the stuff in my tank panniers smelt of petrol for days after…
I was just about to remove said tank panniers when I heard a car approaching. The friendly driver stopped immediately when he saw me waving and helped me lifting the poor DRZ off the ground. He was even going to wait until I was ready to go again to see if bike and rider were ok! I thanked him very much but it would take me a while to reload the luggage. Just when he had disappeared around the corner, another vehicle came along and I made a mental note that the next time I fell over I would just wait a little longer before unpacking…
Anyway, there were still a few kilometres to ride until Tarija and I’d better got going. But when I pressed the starter button nothing happened… The prospect of a bump-start down this twisty gravel road and the subsequent U-turn didn’t seem overly appealing. Please, baby, don’t let me down! Fuel tap on, choke out, throttle on stand-by, starter – after what felt like ages the engine finally sprang to life – and died immediately again. On. Off. On – and gasss! Yippee, off we went!
Progress was slow though, as the road was narrow with lots of blind bends, washed-out switch-backs and the abyss on the wrong side most of the time…
Not more than 20 to 30 km/h (15 to 19 miles) were the riding average. On one corner I suddenly heard a loud horn and the next second a bus came round – at a speed three times more than would have been appropriate for the road conditions! The driver saw me at the last moment, braked hard and his rear-end swung onto my side – leaving little more than a metre between him and the steep drop to my right! Luckily I had already come to a standstill and the driver got his vehicle back on track just before touching the DRZ and sending us both down the mountain – phew!
After crossing another ridge the drop was on the other side of the road for a change; I could relax a bit and admire the beautiful countryside.
The road is actually in quite a good condition due to the country’s natural gas reserves of which 85% are found in the province of Tarija.
Around three in the afternoon I arrived in the village of Supitum which instantly seemed very appealing to me…
I chatted a while to the lady who owns the restaurant in the photo and made friends with her piglets.
Living far away from the bigger settlements, the locals are largely self-sufficient in terms of agricultural produce.
From a distance the landscape is stunningly beautiful but if you have a closer look you will see that fly-tipping is a problem here as well…
At four o’clock I was still 100 kilometres (60 miles) away from Tarija, following a sluggish truck through the bends without any chance of overtaking, and approaching the only town en-route: Entre Ríos. As I was pretty knackered by then it would have been pointless to carry on, so I was hoping that I could find accommodation here. I asked a young couple by the side of the road and they pointed me into the centre, where I found the Plaza Hotel on the main square (not really surprising… ).
The place was fantastic; the interior nicely decorated, cool and clean.
I could park the bike safely in one of the many courtyards…
… and I got a lovely en-suite room with a view for less than half the price of the ‘El Rancho’ in Villamontes
The only nuisance was the man who you can just see on the bandstand in the middle of the square: for hours he proclaimed his faith and that the end of the world was nigh – until even the patient Bolivians told him unambiguously that enough was enough and that he’d better shut up now. I really don’t get it, what do these self-appointed preachers think they can achieve by shouting out their conviction for hours on end – apart from getting on everybody else’s nerves?
Anyway, showered and shaved I went for a sight-seeing stroll through this pleasant little town. Entre Ríos has a pretty market area with colourful stalls and evenly colourful vendors selling all kinds of products. There were no other foreigners around, I tried to blend in and avoid the “zoo-effect” as much as possible – so no pictures here, sorry, but taking photographs felt too intrusive to me at the time.
Although I passed an internet café first, I acted sensibly that evening and carried on until I found a restaurant. A lovely young woman explained the menu to me. Mmm, I don’t fancy a three-course-meal tonight; could I just have some soup? No problem, with fideo? Sorry, this term is missing from my vocabulary, so the señorita went into the kitchen and came back with a handful of pasta – perfect, and great customer service, too! A few minutes later she brought me a big bottle of Fanta (600 ml), some maize salad and a huge bowl of soup with vegetables, potatoes, meat and fideo; basic, rich and flavoursome. The bill was then written by another waitress and showed the stately sum of 13 Bolivianos, around £1.20. No, no, said the girl who had looked after me originally, the señora had only soup and a soft drink, so it’s just 8 Bolivianos – £0.74.
It makes you think – about the value of goods, of services, of a smile, about the cost and the standard of living in the places you are and the country you live your normal life in; it makes you question a whole lot of assumptions, your perceptions and priorities. What a humbling experience and still, this is what travelling is all about for me.
Back in the market area, I found a stall selling watches and, having lost a small metal pin on my wrist band, I asked the elderly gentleman if he had a spare by any chance. He rummaged through little plastic containers for quite a while and then told me I should come back in the morning, he would have a look at home and return at 8 am the following day. I thanked him very much and wished him a good night: buenas noches y hasta mañana.
Coming out of the internet café, which had a surprisingly speedy connection, I went back to the town square – only to see that I had missed a fiesta! The musicians and dancers were just packing up their instruments and utensils; what a shame! I was spending far too much time online trying to keep my photos, route-log and blog up-to-date instead of enjoying myself with the locals – something else I had to think about.
How do other travellers deal with this problem? I have been reading amazingly elaborate ride reports written almost in real time but how do people manage to do this? You ride at least 8 hours, often longer, then you have to find accommodation and food, look after your bike, laundry, personal hygiene; you want to meet people and talk to them, you are tired, and then there are the loved ones at home who are waiting for a sign of life from you – how do you fit this all into one day?
After a good night’s sleep I enjoyed a varied breakfast buffet in the El Rancho’s comedor. Jeidi, a cousin of Yessime, Juan-Carlos’s wife from the Paraguayan border post, who happened to work in the hotel’s kitchen, showed me what was on offer, how the Maté dispenser worked and just very kindly looked after me during my stay. The hotel owners sat down at the next table, asked if I felt better this morning (oh, yes!) and allowed me to wash the bike in their immaculately kept garden. The gardener was called to give me a hand and somehow the lovely man took over and cleaned the DRZ all by himself; I was hardly permitted to get near my baby. As a small gesture of my appreciation I let him ride the bike around the building to the front entrance. When he didn’t turn up at after five minutes, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten to turn the fuel tap on. Quickly I limped round the corner and found José checking the bike over for possible faults. Sorry…
Then some serious maintenance was called for: after the hardships of the last days I tightened all the nuts and bolts, adjusted and lubed the chain, shortened the luggage straps that had become loose, replaced the lost O-rings on my GPS cradle and fixed other little things – all under the benevolent eyes of the hotel owners who were happy to let me work in the beautiful courtyard of the El Rancho.
Does anybody know what flowers these are?
There is no immigration office in Villamontes; I could either go on tarmac to Yacuiba on the border with Argentina further south or return to Ibibobo, which I had missed the previous day. Well, with my passport showing the Bolivian customs’ entry at Infante Rivarola from 1st September and the Paraguayan exit stamp from Mariscal on the 2nd, it seemed a safer bet to go back to Ibibobo – I would have some explaining to do how I could suddenly turn up near the Argentinean border – especially as there are only minor dirt tracks and, more importantly, no bridge over the Río Pilcomayo from that direction… And also, I wanted to find out where this elusive Bolivian border post was and where I had gone wrong during the night.
With the bike looked after, I then went into town for a cash-point, as I still didn’t have any local currency in my wallet yet. Banco Bisa has reliable ATM’s that don’t charge you an extra fee and give you a maximum of 1,000 Bolivianos, about £93 at the time, which last you a long time in Bolivia. I refilled bike and fuel canister and made my way back to the Bolivian border post, hoping that I had just missed the turning to the tarmac in the dark.
But no, look at the sign on the junction where I had emerged onto the paved road the previous night!
Obligatory route to Ibibobo – so it was exactly the same dirt track I had to take…
… a bit quicker though now due to daylight and carrying no luggage apart from the tank panniers with all my tools and spares. There were even road signs along the track – 13 km to Ibibobo, then 8 km, 3km…
Interesting vegetation -
And a shrine – for the solace of the soldiers and something probably more serious than the shape of the bottle tree suggests…
To my great surprise, the dirt track joined the tarmac again and I stood at the very same military check point as the previous evening. I limped down the hill for a second time and showed the officer the entry with my name in the book. When I asked for the actual border post, he pointed to the east – just 500 m further down the road towards Paraguay. ¿Qué?
Can you imagine, I had passed the building the day before in daylight without recognising it as such! Ibibobo was only 50 kilometres from the border and not 70, as the Paraguayans had told me (or maybe I had understood…). I should really have asked the soldiers at the military control post – but in my hurry to reach my destination before nightfall I had missed the most obvious course of action…
The Bolivian immigration office was just an adobe hut with goats, piglets and children running around.
Have I ever mentioned my fondness of piglets?
Anyway, the official was apparently having his siesta and harshly asked from the next room “what do you want?”. I did not explain anything, he had not seen from which direction I had arrived, and so I just said that I was coming from Mariscal and would like to enter Bolivia. He did not question the dates in my passport, just stamped everything and tried to persuade me to change some money with him. The ATM in Villamontes would not be working (yeah, right…), it was Friday afternoon and the banks were closed at the weekend and if I had any Paraguayan Guaranís or Dolares? No, I said, using an old travellers’ trick divulged to me by John, only my credit card. And off I went.
At the military control they knew me in the meantime, even smiled and we started chatting. So I asked if it was possible to use the closed tarmac road (because it was still under construction), as I had already done the 70 kilometres of dirt track twice and was getting a bit fed up with it. Claro, there were some obstacles but they shouldn’t be a problem on a motorbike; the sergeant was using the road on his commute from Villamontes everyday. Gracias, señores, have a nice day!
Happily I carried on, enjoying the smooth surface, but soon ran into the first trouble: I took the wrong side along the construction site and ended up in lots of deep, soft soil, where I could only push the bike downhill but not back up onto the road again.
Probably not a big deal for many of you, dear readers, but I’m a bit of a chicken and with no one around for miles to help me out should my attempts of climbing back onto the road go wrong, it was reverting to the track. By now the official Ruta 11 didn’t bother me anymore, it seemed like a well-known trail and I started to enjoy the ride, testing different techniques through the sand and trying to identify the spot where I had taken my luggage rail apart the previous night.
However, when I got stuck behind a slow-ish truck I took one of the service tracks which are used by the heavy plants to get to and back from the new road. And soon I was on the tarmac again. The next obstacles seemed a piece of cake, as I was in good spirits and full of confidence in my riding skills…
I even got off the bike to check for an escape route before riding to a potential point of no return…
A few horses, cattle, sheep, goats and the occasional truck was all I encountered, no one stopped and questioned me what I was thinking riding on a closed road under construction; the workers even waved to me. Just visualise the same situation in the UK.
I was wondering how the road works would be barred at the other end but suddenly I arrived at the junction with the “obligatory route to Ibibobo” sign and there had been nothing advising the public on a construction site at all!
In a fraction of the time I was back in Villamontes.
What an adventure!
In future, I will read the travel guide properly, keep an eye out for buildings that could potentially host an immigration office within a 250-kilometre radius from any border and try to avoid night rides at all costs…
It was really interesting that the majority of people who replied to my question “what would you have done?” would have gone for the bribe.
Personally, I find bribery wrong on so many accounts: corruption has been and still is destroying countries and societies, especially in the developing parts of the world; it undermines the law by exempting the rich from following the rules and it degrades travellers to cash cows who are only appraised for their milking potential. So I had taken a vow before the trip that I would not pay anyone for anything that should be free – such as crossing from one country to another, for instance.
Also, I don’t like putting myself into a position where I am at someone’s mercy. The knowledge that my bike, my luggage and all my documents were in order contributed a great deal to my confidence and demeanour when talking to officials at borders, customs or police checks on the road.
And even if I had considered bribing the Bolivian border official – he might have asked for more money than I would be willing to pay or sent me back anyway (because he could…); then I would have had to ride the 70 kilometres of horrible dirt track three times plus the 460-kilometre roundtrip to Mariscal and back on top, meaning that I would also lose another day in the process. That was not a risk I wanted to take.
So during the night I decided to return to Mariscal to get the required exit stamp. I had enough fuel, could leave the luggage at the border post and, when I started as soon as Juan Carlos began his shift at 6.30am, I would also have enough time after getting back to Mayor Infante Rivarola to carry on to Villamontes, the nearest town in Bolivia.
The morning did not start well though: we overslept and were only woken up by Gilberto, Juan Carlos’s replacement from the capital Asunción (the border officials work 15-day shifts at this outpost before they return home to their families). I had a few biscuits and water for breakfast, filled the content of my fuel bladder into my tank and set off just before 9am – two and a half hours later than planned…
However, I made good progress, saw the French cyclists again (I wondered where they had slept during the night…) and arrived in Mariscal at a quarter to twelve. Finding the Oficina de Migraciones was not a problem; the official didn’t ask any questions, he only wanted to see my passport and added the desired exit-stamp; done. Stepping out of the building, I ran into a group of small Guaraní kids who were waiting for foreigners to beg for money – an embarrassing and at the same time heartbreaking scene.
I stocked up on fuel, water and chocolate and made it back to Infante Rivarola by 4pm. The soldiers at the military post already knew me by now and just waved me through. At the border, I quickly packed my luggage, said goodbye to Juan Carlos, Gilberto and the other boys, thanked them very much for their hospitality, gave them the rest of my Paraguayan cash and set off. It was still 120 kilometres to Villamontes and there were only two hours of daylight left. It was getting dark at 6.20pm at that time but a few minutes of riding in the night would not do any harm, I thought. Famous last words…
Immediately after crossing the border with Bolivia, the tarmac ended and the road changed to a sandy, stony, corrugated dirt track.
Big trucks were coming the other way, driving without lights, creating lots of powder clouds, leaving me blind for a few moments so that I had to stop frequently to let the dust settle. Then I reached a Bolivian military control post where I had to show my passport and bike registration and explain where I was coming from, where I was going to and if I had anything to declare. A few soldiers proudly demonstrated their English skills and tried to engage me into a longer conversation – but the clock was ticking and I had to crack on.
After 50 kilometres of struggling with ruts, corrugations and trucks, I reached tarmac and ran into another military post. Two hours to Villamontes, they said – what, for 70 kilometres?! I understood what they meant when, after only 500 meters of asphalt, the road diverted me on to the dirt track again. By now it was getting dark but I was still doing 45 km/h. Then suddenly I hit sand! Screaming but still upright I passed the patch. Through the next dodgy bits I tried different riding techniques and then disaster struck – I lost the front end and laid the bike on its left-hand side.
There was no way that I could lift the DRZ without removing all the luggage. But the bike was lying in the middle of the road and I was fearing and hoping at the same time that another truck would come along. After five minutes I heard an engine roaring, so I switched the lights back on and flashed SOS. The truck stopped – but nothing happened. The driver stayed in his cabin and I had to walk towards him and ask if he could help me. He did – without speaking a word though. Only later did it dawn on me that he might have been wary of a trap and equally scared as me.
After that incident I took it very easy, even paddling through the sand patches, as I could not afford to drop the bike again – the traffic had died down completely. It was pitch-black by now but I was approaching 70 kilometres and expected the Bolivian border post to appear around the next corner. Nada – nothing. I heard a few dogs barking, hoped again, but still – nothing. From every light reflection in the trees I drew hope but it was only my own headlight illuminating the leaves. Then the engine died. I had switched to reserve only a few miles back but for some strange reason the tank was already empty.
In the dark I had to get the tools out and undo all the bolts from my luggage rack to remove the reserve fuel canister. Everything was dusty and caked and hence the can was a very tight fit – maybe also due to the fall earlier. I almost dropped the bike off its side stand during the effort of pulling the container out. Then – where was the funnel? Ah, in the tool tube, its lid also very sandy. After 20 minutes I finally had everything re-assembled (including myself after a short excursion into the bushes) and the trusty DRZ started straight away. During all this time I had not heard a single thing apart from some strange animal sounds.
Well, I was down to between 15-20 km/h because I couldn’t see much and there was a lot of sand on the track. But I thought, ok, at some point I will arrive somewhere, so I just keep going. 50 kilometres to Villamontes equals 2.5 to 3.5 hours at that speed and it was 7.45pm. Camping in the wilderness was just not an option with the Río Pilcomayo nearby, alligators and all the other animals around that the border guys had told me about. Slowly, slowly I made progress, after every corner I expected the border post, with every road sign I was hopeful I would be nearing civilisation – but still nothing… At least the GPS showed that I was on the Ruta 11, the main road between the border and Villamontes…
Finally, after ages I spotted a pick-up truck with two men outside by the side of the road. They may be smugglers but more importantly they were humans, thanks God for that! Is it still far to Villamontes? No, just 20 kilometres and there is tarmac around the corner. Phew!
I turned round the mentioned corner and yes, there it was – glorious asphalt! After a while, the road was even equipped with cat-eyes and I could accelerate to 45 km/h, as there were still the cattle crossing the road without looking to be wary about. At 9.05pm I rolled into Villamontes, the Promised Land. It was bigger than I had thought but I could not find the hotel I had planned to stay in. So I stopped in front of a restaurant and asked if they could point me to any means of accommodation. I must have looked really knackered and confused, because in the end, a nice young man jumped into his car and guided me to ‘El Rancho’, the best hotel in town – but I thought I had deserved it.
The welcome was great – everyone at the hotel was truly concerned and did everything to make me comfortable, helped me unloading the bike, carried my luggage, said I should not worry that I was so dirty and didn’t have any local currency yet, and they even kept some dinner for me so that I could have a shower first. And the room was just heaven – spacious, clean, good quality furniture, big bathroom with all the trimmings, fantastic. I was so relieved and so shattered that I thought I would treat myself to two nights (even at US$32.00) to relax thoroughly. I also had to maintain the bike after this ride, get some local currency and sort my official entry into Bolivia out.
Hopefully there was an immigration office in town and with any luck they wouldn’t ask too many questions…