Archive for the ‘The 2010 Bike Trip’ Category

Colonia del Sacramento   4 comments

Apologies for the long delay in continuing our travel blog – but daily life has well and truly taken over after our return to Europe…

Now, as sort of a Christmas present, I have promised Johannes to try and finish our report by the end of this year and thus here is the next instalment – the result of our efforts to include Uruguay in our South American journey.


 Monday 24th November 2014

Today we finally travel to Uruguay. The ferry doesn’t leave until 9 o’clock and so we can still enjoy our desayuno promoción (breakfast offer) at the confitería ‘My House’, where the waiter already greets us as regulars. Our heavy luggage we’ve left with our lovely hostess at the Hotel Maipú, and with our daypacks only we leisurely stroll to the port. Unfortunately, the weather forecast is not the best for our excursion – typical, the whole week looks fine apart from the day we have chosen for our mini-cruise…

One day, when we’re rich and famous, we’ll take a more classy boat…


… but for now, one of the Buquebus vessels will do


Bang on time and out of the puerto we sail


The impending rain doesn’t really bother us; we’ve been very lucky with the weather on this trip and won’t start complaining now.


Skyline Buenos Aires – click on the photo for the full-size panaroma

Ok, we won’t then…


For the outbound journey we have chosen the slow ferry that takes three hours to get a feeling of proper travel to a different country.


Finally – Uruguay, ho!


First impression – very nice!


All immigration and customs formalities have already been taken care of on the Argentinean side of the river, so we can walk straight into Uruguay.


¡Usted está aquí! – You are here.

The tourist information office is near the old train station


Mind you, we may have to wait a while for the connecting train…


The ferry is certainly a safer bet nowadays


Pretty quickly we find a nice B&B close to the Barrio histórico (historic district) that accepts credit cards, as we are still contemplating how much Uruguayan cash we actually need.


It’s raining on and off – as you can see in the photos…

On the Plaza de Armas


Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento


Uruguayan Magnolia Tree


On the Plaza Mayor


Portón de Campo – the old City Gate


Well fortified and defended…


… there was a lot to protect



El Faro – the fully functional old lighthouse


Here you get beer colder than the heart of your ‘ex’…


On Calle San Pedro



Paseo San Gabriel


We do like a good map!


Calle de las Flores





Vintage cars are quite a common sight in Colonia


Nicely recycled windmill


The Marina


Calle Rivadavia



All this sightseeing makes us hungry but we still haven’t obtained any local currency that we could spend. Uruguay values the Argentine peso much less than Argentina’s own government, since the official value is hugely inflated. So we would get only half of our money’s worth if we wanted to exchange Argentine pesos for Uruguayan ones – gives us a middle rate of UYU 2.80 per AR$ 1.00 instead of the UYU 1.40 you see below!


On the other hand, the locals appreciate the US$, and in one shop I get a new decal of Uruguay for my bike that is priced at UYU 30 for US$1! That’s not a bad exchange rate, and so we pay for water and snacks with the few US$ notes we have still left and even get some Uruguayan coins back.

After a long-ish survey of the local gastronomy we find that 1) you pay for the fact that Colonia is a very popular tourist destination, 2) you pay for the location (dependent on your distance to the river), and 3) not every business accepts credit cards. We are slightly reluctant to let anyone fleece us in the culinary prime spots, and so we settle for a sort of posh fast food restaurant…

And then, finally, after dinner the rain has stopped…

And we follow the recommendation of the South America Handbook to enjoy the sunset over the Río de la Plata…

Buenas Noches, everyone…

Posted 22 December 2015 by Pumpy in Argentina, The 2014 Rucksack Trip, Uruguay

Río Grande to Río Gallegos   Leave a comment

Tuesday 11th November 2014

My little sister and I are notorious for giving our loved ones more or less exotic nicknames, but when Johannes and I are coming around a corner in Río Grande we spot the following sign:

It’s official!


Soon after leaving the town we are alone with the sheep again…

The way Chile and Argentina have divided Tierra del Fuego between themselves means that we have to go through Chile and lengthy border formalities again – leaving Argentina: immigration form, exit stamp in passport, unloading board luggage and x-raying of board and hand luggage; entering Chile: immigration form, entry stamp, import declaration, x-raying of hand luggage, sniffer dogs checking the board luggage, which can stay in the hold this time. Similar efforts are taken when we re-enter Argentina after crossing the Magellan Straits.

Why they don’t seal the bus, put a big sign ‘Transit’ on and just wave us through is beyond me – what a waste of time, paperwork and labour! We enter ‘3 horas‘ in the field for ‘estimated stay’ to make a small point of what we think of this swollen bureaucracy.


And sheep…

Occasional hills

Storm clouds over Cerro Sombrero

Fortunately the sun is still shining when we reach the Estrecho de Magallanes


This time we are confined to the ferry’s belly, from where the waves look really impressive. What must the conditions around Cape Horne be like when the navigators prefer the Strait of Magellan?

Quite depressing when we think of all the rubbish we’ve seen littering the countryside…

Back on the main land

For the last time we see construction works that unite the Chileans


After another border crossing and two more stamps in our passports we are in Argentina again.

We meet the iconic Ruta 40 again that ends further east at the Atlantic near Cabo Virgenes

After ten hours we arrive at our destination


The last time I stayed in Río Gallegos I didn’t really like it – the weather was horrible, the people were not very friendly and I didn’t see anything remarkable in town. This time it is different: the sun is shining, the wind is strong but warm, we meet smiling locals, find a nice room in the excellent Hotel Croacia and get a good deal.


After walking out of some rather exclusive restaurants again when we see the prices on their menu, we find a great place to have dinner – Pizza Express in the Avenida San Martín 650.


A bit more sight-seeing and off to bed.

Parroquia Catedral Nuestra Señora de Luján


Wednesday 12th November 2014

For this evening we have planned a long distance-trip to Trelew, 1,167 kilometres further up north on the Ruta 3. The bus leaves at 20.00 hours and we have still some time to explore Río Gallegos.

The coal mined in Río Turbio gets shipped from here

Gigantic equipment

Coat of arms of Río Gallegos

It’s green to amber when we pass – of course, we have sun lotion with us…

Upland Goose

Fence-eating bush

Oficina de Turismo

Eye to eye with the condor

Cathedral by day

… and from behind


We visit the Museum of the Pioneers


In the 19th century the Argentine government wanted to establish settlements in Patagonia and offered land and sheep to the people willing to move south. But the Argentinians didn’t take the offer. Living conditions were harsh and dangerous, the weather is cold and windy, there was nothing attractive here. So word was sent to Europe and immigrants came from the British Isles, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Croacia and also Chile and they started a new life here – facing the elements in this part of the country, living of the river in the beginning, building farms, breeding sheep, growing fruit and vegetables. These pioneers showed truly amazing spirit, determination and persistence.


There was nearly nothing here apart from freshwater and guanacos – furniture, clothes, food and even coal had to be shipped over from Europe.

People had to be resourceful

We are very impressed


Then it’s time to return to the hotel, write another post and collect our belongings before heading for the bus terminal.

Even as a backpacker, Johannes takes great care of his appearance

The coach leaves Río Gallegos at 20.00 hrs


… and will drop us 15 hours later in the Welsh colony of Trelew – the town of Lewis – in the Chubut province.


Posted 18 November 2014 by Pumpy in Argentina, Chile, The 2014 Rucksack Trip

Punta Arenas   Leave a comment

Wednesday 5th November 2014

Busses to Punta Arenas leave Puerto Natales every hour and so we have a bit of a lie-in after our early start the previous day. The Ruta 9 is paved and we enjoy a comfortable journey looking out for huemules, ñandúes and sheep, hundreds of thousands of sheep.

Puerto Natales looks like freshly laundered in the morning

Local press

Along the Ruta 9

First glance of the Estrecho de Magallanes – the Strait of Magellan – and Tierra del Fuego

What we didn’t know is that there is a big endocrinology congress taking place in Punta Arenas, hotels are fully booked, and so we spend several hours searching for accommodation. Finally, the helpful señora in the tourist information office finds us a room in a small B&B a bit further away from the centre up a steep hill.

On the way to the hostal I am interviewed for a school project

The views make up for the relative remoteness of our accommodation (click on the photo for full panorama size)

Down into town

The southernmost English-speaking school in the world, founded in 1896 and serving an area larger than that of Great Britain

Palacio Sara Braun, where Shackleton was received by the British Club in July 1916 and where he raised funds to rescue the rest of the Endurance crew still stranded on Elephant Island

Monument of the schooner Ancud, sent by the Chilean government in 1843 to claim sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan

Imperial Cormorants – or long-necked penguins, as Johannes claims…

And at long last, Johannes spots an Huemul (South Andean deer)

Not everyone can be as lucky as I was in 2010…

Still, we celebrate the occasion with two of our Chilean favourites: Raspberry juice and Churrasco Italiano (thinly cut steak in a bread roll with avocado, mayonnaise and tomato)

La Catedral – Punta Arenas is the southernmost city in the world (the towns of Ushuaia (Argentina) and Puerto Williams (Chile) lie further south though)


Thursday 6th November 2014

We have a rest day in Punta Arenas – I really like the place and there is still a lot to see. Johannes enjoys sitting on the Plaza Muñoz Gamero watching the world go by…

Statue of Magellan with a mermaid and two indigenous Fuegians at his feet

Local legend has it that touching the Fuegian’s toes will bring you back to Punta Arenas one day…

In the meantime I visit the Museo Regional de Magallanes in the Palacio Braun Menéndez

Office of Mauricio Braun, brother of Sara, another member of the wealthy pioneer family

El Comedor

First charting of the Strait of Magellan in the 16th century

Writing utensils of José Nogueira, Sara Braun’s husband, successful sheep breeder and merchant in Sandy Point (Punta Arenosa in Spanish)

Early examples of the excellent Chilean wine

Reunited Johannes and I explore more of the city

Long-necked penguins and Tierra del Fuego in the background

Of course, I have to touch the sea

Captain Johannes at the wheel

We also visit the city’s fascinating cemetery

How people like you and I are buried in this part of the world

This reminds us that life is short and should be lived to the full

In the evening we find a little gem of a restaurant

Is it the shaky hand of our lovely host that makes us look blurred?

Or all the alcohol?

We drag each other home – buenas noches, Punta Arenas!


Tomorrow we will continue our journey to Tierra del Fuego and cross the Strait of Magellan.

Posted 10 November 2014 by Pumpy in Chile, The 2014 Rucksack Trip

La Paz   Leave a comment

Saturday 20 September 2014

Pretty much all buses from Sucre to La Paz leave in the evening, and although we try to avoid night-journeys because we want to see the countryside, we don’t have much choice this time.

In case we were wondering why warm blankets have been provided for each passenger, we soon learn that the bus doesn’t have any heating facilities – and as we are travelling on the Altiplano at an altitude between 3,800 and 4,100 metres (12,400 to 13,500 feet) above sea level, it gets quite chilly during the night.

… and that’s despite several layers of merino, fleeces and down jackets…

Rarely has a sunrise been so welcome…

A smile can brighten the day as well

Before we reach La Paz we cross El Alto, the second-largest city in Bolivia after Santa Cruz – La Paz comes only third.

The traffic is horrendous at a quarter to eight in the morning (and at any other time, as we learn later)

And then, after the toll boot on the Ruta 3, Nuestra Señora de La Paz opens in front of you – it is a breath-taking sight, although today the sky is overcast and the views are not as impressive as I would have wished for my dad.

We are so cold that we need some breakfast straight away in the bus terminal.

There is no shortage of accommodation in La Paz, but I’d like to stay at the Hotel Milton, which I liked a lot in 2010. It’s just under two kilometres from the bus terminal and we decide to walk.

Our road, the Avenida Illampu, is closed for market

As a returning customer I get a good deal and a room on the fifth floor with great views of the street market.

The hotel also has a roof terrace

Downtown La Paz

Iglesia de San Francisco

… and from the inside

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Murillo

Palacio Legislativo de Bolivia – fitted with a ‘Bavarian style’ clock

La Catedral Metropolitana de La Paz

In true German style we have some coffee and cake in the afternoon – and write postcards!

Towering over La Paz is Mount Illimani, at 6,462 metres / 21,200 feet

In the afternoon the sky has cleared and we take the brand-new Linea Roja, the red line cable car that connects La Paz and El Alto and helps to reduce the enormous volume of traffic between the cities.

Cementerio General from above

Sophisticated corner solution

You could be forgiven to think that the centre of La Paz is a huge street market…

There are whole sections for every article you could possibly need

Although we are still tired from the previous night, we can’t miss a visit at the restaurant ‘100% Natural’ in the Calle Sagárnaga, where I’ve eaten one of the best tenderloin of the whole journey four years ago.

We are not disappointed

… and for the ones who are concerned about our calorie-intake, I would like to point out that we share one portion between us

A last visit to our fabulous roof terrace – Avenida Illampu by night

Buenas noches, La Paz…


Posted 24 September 2014 by Pumpy in Bolivia, The 2014 Rucksack Trip

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Travelling broadens the mind…   1 comment

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.

¡Buenas noches!

Posted 26 September 2013 by Pumpy in Bolivia, The 2010 Bike Trip

Climbing the Altiplano   1 comment

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!

Posted 28 May 2012 by Pumpy in Bolivia, The 2010 Bike Trip

The City of Smiles   1 comment

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…

Posted 12 October 2011 by Pumpy in Bolivia, The 2010 Bike Trip