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?