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Old 01-15-2008, 03:30 PM   #9
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Joined: Jun 2005
Location: Aptos, California
Oddometer: 250

Today we rode 410 miles from Potosí (in the southern altiplano) to Sorata (in the lush green mountains north of La Paz). Our original itinerary had us traveling a huge loop around Bolivia, and accessing the Amazon jungle area through the city of Trinidad. However, the violence and protests in the southeast, combined with the heavy rains that transformed Trinidad into an island (with no passable roads in or out), caused Maurice to reconfigure our route into a large figure 8, with La Paz being the center point. For the first half of our trip, we did a long loop through the southern altiplano. Now we were ready to head north, past La Paz, and make a loop through the jungle areas.

Since we had so many miles to cover, we did not stop for photos—we were just going, going, going. It rained and hailed on and off all day, and I was bundled up in multiple layers. Yesterday, during one of our brief stops, I had been eyeing Olivier’s head stocking with envy (a warm covering with a cutout for your eyes); I was thinking that I needed one of those to protect the icy hail and rain from cutting into my face. I had mentioned my wish to Ben yesterday evening, and he said, “We have two of those!” And he dug out two head stockings from his stash—he had bought them for our trip and forgotten about them. So today I felt like I was in totally luxury, giggling with joy inside my stocking, when the icy rain and hail would pour down on us.

The roads today were all paved until we reached the Lake Titicaca area. The first hour out of Potosí was pure fun, with twisty and fast mountain roads and fabulous vistas. Then the roads became straighter as we entered the flat high plains. We passed through Oruro quickly, and I regret not stopping to take a photo of the exquisite mining hat sculpture in the middle of a traffic circle. Here is a photo that I found on Google images:

We stopped for lunch in Caracollo, a tiny town, at a roadside café that catered to buses traveling to and from La Paz. As I was finishing my lunch, I noticed two young women who looked American sitting down at a nearby table. We hadn’t seen any other Americans in Bolivia, so I went over and met Rachel from North Carolina and her friend from Massachusetts; they were in Bolivia for 8 days, traveling by bus from Santa Cruz to La Paz, and then to the Lake Titicaca area—very nice people.

The 2-lane highway to La Paz had very long straight sections. We passed many herds of sheep and llamas, grazing within inches of the busy road. The rain had caused very short and sparse green grass to sprout right next to the road, and the animals were busy consuming these tasty treats. The herders were also standing right next to the street, presumably to redirect a sheep or llama if one wandered out into the road. We were going at such high speeds, the closeness of the animals was a bit freaky at first. Occasionally, we would come across an entire herd crossing the road; the traffic would just stop and wait.

We finally reached El Alto, the city above La Paz. Here I am with Marc and William (stretching his legs) on the main street through El Alto:

The traffic in El Alto was so fascinating to me. The main road was divided with a barrier with the width of a 3-lane road on each side; however, there were no lines to designate lanes. The traffic just flowed along, with cars and trucks going every which way, giving friendly little “toots” of the horn (no long angry blasts ever) if another vehicle threatened to get in the way. And the few stop signs seemed to be ignored, as if they were optional. People did appear to stop for red lights, at least briefly before moving on if they could go forward. And yet, everything appeared to be very sane—no one was rushing to cut off another driver, and no one was angrily yelling out the window or flipping anyone off. In fact, one time a van came over all the way into my lane and would have run me into the barrier if I hadn’t slammed on my brakes and done some quick maneuvering; I gave a loud toot on my bike horn, and the van actually moved back into the other lane!

From El Alto, we continued northwest to the shore of Lake Titicaca. You can see the Lake in the background of this photo:

As we started down the road, the sunlight was filtering through the dark rain clouds in hundreds of visible, individual beams down to the earth. I know that pictures rarely capture the actual beauty of something, and a verbal description falls even further short, but the sight of those sunrays filled me with such awe that time was suspended and everything else seemed to melt away.

We eventually turned east, away from the Lake, up into the mountains again. As we rode along, people would run to the side of the road, waving and clapping. Several people along the way asked if we were part of an enduro. Enduros are very big in this area and are popular spectator events. Hugo, our mechanic, has participated in many enduros; he said that enduro routes generally go from one village to the next, and each village prepares a feast and celebration for the riders.

As we got closer to Sorata, the road was very tight as it crossed over the mountains. After being in the barren altiplano for so many days, seeing green vegetation all around me was rather shocking. (The clouds are directly on top of us in this photo.)

We continued our climb into the clouds had to slow down considerably because we couldn’t see very far in front of us. We finally reached the last mountain pass and started the descent into the Sorata valley.

Here is our first view of Sorata, across the valley.

The contrast in landscape between this fertile area and the dry altiplano was so great that I almost felt like we had entered an entirely different country. With all of the greenery, Sorata looked like Shangri-La to us!

The road down the mountain was narrow but newly paved in the upper sections, with switchback after switchback. Since the road was so twisty, we had to constantly be on the alert for a car, bus or truck to come blasting around the corner at us. They travel fast, especially the taxis! The drop off on the side of the road was often severe. Since this is the only road into Sorata from La Paz, I was marveling at the skill of bus drivers who had safely maneuvered their large vehicles through the numerous tight and steep switchbacks.

It was dark when we finally reached Sorata, which seemed like a tiny maze, with tangled narrow streets woven along the hillside. A taxi driver in the plaza guided us to our beautiful and comfortable hostel, located about a quarter of a mile or so from the town center. (We were glad that we were not any closer because we could still hear, on a fainter level, the booming disco music from somewhere in town, which continued until about 11 p.m. and started up again around 7 a.m.)

Within 10 minutes of our arrival, the rain poured down in sheets. Our chase truck, which couldn’t make it down the steep narrow street leading to the hostel, had to be unloaded a distance away, and the luggage transported by a small taxi. Everyone’s luggage was thoroughly drenched. Thank goodness Ben and I had packed almost everything we had brought into sealed plastic bags. (Given the moist and rainy condition in this northern area, the items that were not protected took about 3 days to dry—we would unpack them each night and drape them over something to continue the drying process.)

Our hostel was run by Petra, a charming and warm German woman, who spoke excellent Spanish and English, and who helped prepare and serve a delicious dinner of quinoa soup and pizza. After dinner, Hugo and David stayed up all night in order to give each of us fresh rubber on our bikes and to make sure each bike was running properly.

"You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm!"
Around the World, One Journey at a Time
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